The Magic of the Four Elements
Much has been written and fantasized about the Elements. What was it actually all about?
“Whoever knows the properties and combinations of the Elements will accomplish marvelous and astonishing things without difficulty, and will be a master of natural magic.” Platon 400 B.C.
With these words, the old philosopher electrified countless generations of natural scientists and daring alchemists. He had designed a system of four cosmic forces that could generate life from nothing.
The Platonic theory of Elements was the culmination of an adventurous scientific project in antiquity, where several generations of Greek natural philosophers tried to find the secret of the creation of the world long before our era. The mysterious forces they pondered over they called Fire, Water, Air and Earth.
Secret No. 1
The Platonic Sequence
Plato had succeeded in arranging the elements in an intelligible sequence of gradual condensation, ranging from an unfathomably subtle ‘nothing’ to a tangible physical ‘something’. This is the way he understood it:
The first, completely shapeless Fire element, perceptible only through its effects, provides the energy that permeates and enlivens the entire cosmos. In its first condensation the fire energy condenses in the air element as ideas, which the next denser creative water element uses to stimulate the productive earth element to create the visible material form. Nothing becomes something. For two thousand years Platonic magic inspired natural research, often practiced in secret, and during the Renaissance it developed to become the key to the Tarot system.
The Platonic sequence recurs in the ranking of the four suits in the tarot cards:
The hierarchy of Elements:
In the Tarot as a popular card game of strategy, the wands as representatives of Fire beat all other suits, because Fire is the most powerful of the Four Elements.
This elementary rule of the game has not changed until today. Who would suspect it to be the gateway to a philosophical message? And yet the language of the Four Elements became the master key for initiates to penetrate the secrets of the visible and invisible world.
The reference to the Platonic sequence was discovered by Renaissance card makers on Arabic predecessors of the Tarot deck. And in fact it had been Arab scientists who preserved the antique theory of nature and the Elements in secret circles after it was to be dismissed by the Catholic Church as pagan nonsense and doomed to oblivion.
The Platonic teachings about four elementary forces behind the scenes of the visible world, were contemplated throughout the Middle Ages in some Christian monasteries, but mainly by Arab scientists. When the first Arabic playing cards were introduced to Europe in the 14th century, artists and scholars noticed the symbolism of the Four Elements on them.
The suit of sabers represented the whirling of the air, goblets stood for the water element, coins for Earth, and – typical of the enthusiastic equestrian Arabs – a set of polo mallets expressed the sudden explosive energy of the Fire Element.
Mamluk card with stylized sabers, model for the set of swords
Secret No. 2
The Magic Square Emerges
Subsequent generations of philosophers, physicians and alchemists continued to elaborate Plato's ideas and applied them in a variety of contexts. In the course of this development, a novel arrangement of the elements was devised, which was to revolutionize their application:
The Magic Square’s Historic Development
The Four Elements on an Italian card from around 1500
Collection Ecole de Beaux Arts, Paris
Close-up of the card’s center: The pictorial symbols of the Four Elements arranged in a magic square:
Four Elements - Colors & Properties
According to the antique philosophy of light, the Elements create the world from a shadowless cosmic radiation. Similar to the way a prism breaks down our white daylight into four colors, the Elements divide the aether of light, which is invisible to us, into four forces, from which nature creates life.
Warm and cold are opposites, nevertheless they are interconnected.
We refer to such pairs as complementary relationships.
Secret No. 3
Correspondence of Opposites
The language and the rules of the Four Elements originate from a way of thinking that was not yet dominated by the single-track machine world. Words like warm and cold were effortlessly connected with the idea of inside and outside.
This complementary positioning creates an invisible sphere inside, formed by our thoughts and feelings as opposed to the tangible outside world where our relationships and actions take place.
While the warm interior behaves dynamically, the cold outer area is calm and in a state of repose. In this juxtaposition we recognize the Hermetic law of symmetric mirroring.
Initiates, like Plato’s former pupil Aristotle, discovered this matching pair of opposites:
Domination (inside, warm, dynamic) versus Adaptation (outside, cold, depending on impulse).
Aristotle had noted that the two warm Elements, Air and Fire, which govern our thinking and feeling, are very hard to influence from the outside, while they themselves incessantly impose their volition on the cold reality outside. In such relationships, the Elements begin to explain and complement each other.
We observe complementary interplay most clearly in the cooperation of the two hemispheres of the brain, whose opposing functions and tasks must be constantly united in order for a living being to navigate its course in the world.
The complimentary positions of the Elements in the magic square invite us to make ever new discoveries, which we find likewise reflected in everyday life. Adopting the hermetic vision in this way often has an enlightening effect. Our view of the world is constantly sharpened and expanded, usually as an astonishingly vivid experience.
This was the goal of the original Tarot masters – and it was this attitude that made it advisable for them to remain anonymous in an era of unrelenting religious ideology.