Symbolism – The Elements

Elements 2.jpgI had written this article prior to the last competition, the elements.  I had hoped that it might spark some investigation of the symbolism of the ancient  elements.  You know, Earth, water, fire and air.  I guess I am late and this article should be considered a missed opportunity.


Of course you cannot overlook the contribution of the Black American soul, funk and R&B band, Earth Wind and Fire.  It was the drummer Maurice White who borrowed the symbols of ancient Egypt to give the band a link to the inner world and of mysticism.

Let me start by asking you which of the elements is connected to depression?  Do you know the answer?  I will come back to answer that later.  First lets start at the beginning.

The theory of atoms derives from the ancient Greeks.  The argument goes something like this.  If you cut a piece of cheese in half, and then half again and kept going, what would happen?  Would you eventually reach a small indivisible particle that could no longer be divided?  An atom.  Or would you go on dividing the cheese forever?  Leucippus and his pupil Democritus proposed that all matter was composed of small indivisible particles called atoms, that existed in a void.   Aristotle on the other hand asserted that the elements of fire, air, earth, and water were not made of atoms, but were continuous.

Now the concept of the elements is not unique to the Greeks.  It can be found in ancient Hindu and Buddhist texts.  Even the christian bible uses these symbols.  For instance Gods breath breathed into Adam gave him life, and the holy spirit at Pentecost was descending like a flame.  The Chinese believed in 5 elements, Fire, Earth, Metal (literally gold), Water and Wood.  Aristotle also added a fifth element, aether,  the quintessence, or the stuff that the stars and the heavens were made of.  

Aristotle’s assertion has predominated in western thinking for centuries.  It is the basis of alchemy and the search for the transmutation of lesser metals to gold. In alchemy, the earth that burns = sulphur, the earth that disolves = salt, the earth that flows = mercury and the earth that endures = gold.

It is the basis of ancient medicine that saw the body filled with 4 humors, phlegm, blood and two kinds of bile, yellow and black.  These correspond to the elements water (phlegm) air (blood) fire (yellow bile or vomitus) and earth (black bile or faeces).  Illness was categorized by excesses of the humors that needed to be drained from the body in order to restore balance.

The humors are also used to explain personality and character.  The terms Phlegmatic, Sanguine, Choleric and Melancholic all derive from this theory.  A phlegmatic person is filled with phlegm that makes them calm.  A sanguine person is full of blood that makes them optimistic.  A choleric person is full of yellow bile making them irritable and a Melancholic person is full of black bile making them depressed.  Bile seems to be bad stuff.  So to answer my previous question, the element associated with depression is earth.

Of course modern science believes in both atoms and elements.   In 1869, Dmitri Mendeleev made sense of the 56 elements known at the time, showing how they related to each other in a distinct pattern. His periodic table let elements fall into “periods” according to atomic mass and valence (the power that determines how they combine).


Google doodle celebrating the 182nd birthday of Dmitri Mendeleev.


Although rejected by modern science, Aristotle’s 4 element theory continues to be important in popular culture.  There are many references to the four elements.  I have done some brain storming of ideas.



Often used to denote our planet, the environment.  Predominant colour brown or green.  “Save the earth”  Common expressions include, “salt of the earth” or “The meek shall inherit the earth”  Jesus spoke of the parable of the  fertile vs barren soil and building a house on stable ground.   Like Adam, a golem was made of clay and animated with magical words written on a scroll and inserted into the mouth.  The earth represents solidity.  The earth is also created through compost and the degradation of organic matter.   In a previous era, the night cart would travel down the lane ways to collect the night soil


WaterImages of water may be a splash or a ripple.  Predominant colour blue.  Water may show calm.  However water is also the force in a storm.  In a flood, or after a storm you may suffer water damage.  Common expressions include “beyond your depth” or you find yourself in “deep water”  Be careful not to throw out the “baby with the bath water”  It has been said that  “blood is thicker than water”.  You need to water crops for them to grow.  And you can take to something “like a cat takes to water”.


AirImages of wind may denote a windmill or a wind farm.  Predominant colour blue or white.  One may “throw caution to the wind”  Scarlet O’Hara’s tragic tale was called “Gone with the wind” and the tale of Toad , Rat and Mole, “Wind in the willows”.  Bob Dylan asked “how many roads must a man walk down?”  The answer apparently was “blowing in the wind”.  In fact when things are uncertain, they are said to be “up in the air”.  If someone were to have a cardiac arrest, you could offer them “the breath of life”.  A whole section of the orchestra is denoted to “wind instruments”.  That does not include instruments played by the wind, like wind chimes.


fireImages of fire often include flames.  However you may also have a fire engine or the  fire brigade.  Predominant colour red.  The amount of chili pepper in a dish is symbolized by a flame symbol.   Fire is often a metaphor for  passion or romance.  In the movie, “like water for chocolate” the chili was used in cooking to evoke passion in the diners.  A woman may be hot, especially if she is wearing a red dress.  Fire is also used as a metaphor for temper or fury.  She’s got a ‘fiery temper” often said of people with red hair.  In fact read heads is a brand of matches.  You can be tested with fire, particularly if you lack experience of the real world.  Ores are purified to metals in a blast furnace.  The catholic church uses fire as a metaphor for purity.  The departed souls in purgatory are being cleansed by fire.  You can burn in the fires of hell.  In church the ladies fan away the fires of hell as the minister delivers a fiery sermon.  You will fire a gun, or you can be executed by a firing squad.  

Well there you have it.  I think the task of photographing the elements is a conceptual one.  You should be able to make an image more evocative by adding from some of these rich symbols from our culture.  Tell me what you think?  Would an attractive woman holding a chilli pepper represent fire?  None of the elements are aflame.  However the symbols are strong and would probably fit the category, especially if you used a red background.

I hope this discussion is helpful.