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What are the Greek Classical Elements?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Greeks, along with many other cultures, used an elemental system to explain the nature of life, attributing life events to various fluctuations in “elemental” forces like wind or fire. Many people refer to the elements in Greek tradition as the “classical elements,” to differentiate them from the elements on the periodic table. The Greek classical elements date back thousands of years, to a time well before famous philosophers like Plato, and the concept endured until the Renaissance, when people began to develop a deeper understanding of the natural world.

A version of the classical elements shows up in many human societies, and, in some sense, elemental systems also live on in modern culture. Tarot and astrology, for example, both integrate the elements, and traditional Chinese medicine also places a lot of importance onto the elements. Pagan religions such as Wicca also integrate a version of the Greek classical elements into their framework.

According to the Greeks, there were four major elements, earth, air, water, and fire, accompanied by a fifth element, aether. The first four Greek classical elements were very temporal in nature, while aether was less connected to the Earth, and was viewed as more spiritual in nature. The stars, for example, were believed to be composed of aether, since the Greeks believed that aether did not change or fluctuate with time, unlike the other elements.

Each element was associated with specific traits, such as cold and wet for water and hot and dry for fire. The system of Greek classical elements linked in with the four humors idea of health, with each “humor” being assigned to a specific element. The four humors were integrated into medical practice well into the 19th century, and, like the Greek classical elements, they live on in modern society. Words like “bilious” and “phlegmatic,” for example, are used to describe people with specific temperaments, in reference to bile and phlegm, two of the four humors.

Using the Greek classical elements, people tried to explain the nature of the world around them. Many people believed that the elements worked in a way which promoted balance, and that disturbances in this balance were the root cause of things like earthquakes and health problems. Correcting an imbalance of elements was considered critical for well-being, and the elements were so intertwined with everything from the seasons to fortunetelling that many people were very familiar with the elements and their traits.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a CulturalWorld.org researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By goldensky — On Jun 25, 2011

@bfree - Astrology has been around since the dawn of time. Humans have always looked to the stars for direction. I think science and religion have been at war over the power of the constellations for years. One believes without seeing but the other must have some physical proof that it exists.

The movement of the planets and our moon and sun have a profound effect on our lives. We are each born under a certain sign of the zodiac which are represented by a great planet.

Each planet possesses it's own source of energy which is what I think gives each of us our own unique characteristics. Of course no two people are the same, but if you study people born under the same element such as fire, earth, air or water you will see that they do tend to have the same temperaments.

By aviva — On Jun 22, 2011

@bfree - Just as Earth, water, fire and air existed long before Greek Mythology, so too did the Zodiac. The ancients from many cultures, not just Greek, used the constellations to navigate their lives.

I think the ancient Romans developed myths or stories behind each movement to help them understand and remember them. In my opinion, most all ancient cultures used religion as a back-drop for anything they couldn't explain.

I personally do not believe there's more than one God ruling over our Universe nor do I believe the future can be predicted through astrology. I do believe in the movement of the constellations though and how it effects our Earth, wind, fire and water.

By bfree — On Jun 20, 2011

I would like to know what your thoughts and opinions are on astrology. I specifically want to know if you think the twelve signs of the zodiac comes from Greek mythology.

Do you believe there is truth behind the myth that there are many Gods ruling over the elements of nature and our Universe? If these Gods do exist, do they really have the power to influence our lives through the movement of the planets, the moon and the sun?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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