The Five Elements: East and West


While the ideas about the Five elements are apparently known by everyone, the truth is that it is rarely delved into beyond looking at the predominant elements of nature; which is not bad, considering that more than likely, this was how the first men began to study the environment and the philosophical and scientific concepts of existence. These thoughts differ in the East and the West, the two great blocks, so to speak, of esoteric thought in this regard. And perhaps the Five Elements is where you can best appreciate the difference in esoteric and occult use in the two cultures.

The philosophy about the five elements in the West begins at the dawn of Greek philosophy, and practically the majority of studies were based on it, even up to the 18th century. The philosopher Empedocles spoke of the Four Elements (Fire, Earth, Water and Air) and said of their relationships that they could not arise from nothing, and neither did they disappear, so nothing ceased to exist either, something that later earned him the title title of mystic, removed from religious meaning. Where was the fifth element? Empedocles named the elements with divine names: Zeus, the celestial fire, Hera, the air, Hades, the god of the underworld, the earth, and finally,

<< Nestis (renown of Persephone), who makes the fountains of mortals flow with her tears.>>

So that two divine couples, from above and from the ground, define the elements, so that fifth "necessary" element is the divine, the superior energy, although he never manifested it in this way. In fact, for him the movement was an opposition of two forces, which he called Love and Discord, that is, Attraction and Repulsion. All the changes of fusion and separation are dominated by Sphairos, the divinity of Empedocles, who produces said changes by Ananke, the cosmic Necessity.

Aristotle ratified this theory of four primordial elements, associating them with four characteristics: hot, cold, dry and humid.

But there is another elementary cosmology in with a powerful entry into the West, despite its origin in a more oriental thought. In the Jewish Kabbalah and the Sefer Yetzirah, the primordial elements, initially considered Water, Fire and Air. These later included the Earth, on which the changes take place, and God as the fifth element, substance of all the others in his creative role. The elements were also associated with Hesed, Gevurah, Netsah, Hod, and Yesod, the Five Spheres.

Little by little, at least the four elements, present in other beliefs of a natural nature, remained in both popular and scientific thought. Many of his things were maintained through alchemical thoughts, and in the esoteric environment the four elements were maintained in astrology, and consequently, in all the divinatory arts that are linked to it, such as the Tarot. It is precisely in these fields of application that the change from esoteric to occult thought occurs in the West, when the elements are no longer a reality that must be appreciated and understood, but can be manipulated. This began shortly before the Renaissance, and this promoted, with the rise of occultism and neopaganism in the last two centuries of our era, the recovery of its influence and the figure of the pentagram and the pentacle for magical works, as well as the fifth element, ether or spirit, became popular at a higher level. (To see the differences about the inverted pentagram, you can take a quick look at this other article on the figure of the five-pointed star)

The Chinese philosophy of Wǔxíng (五行) is known as the Theory of the Five Elements, but it would be more correct to translate it as Theory of the Five Changes, referring to movements and interrelationships that make up, in turn, the two elemental cycles, generation and the creation (shēng and kè; 生 and 克). This philosophy also arises from the observation of nature, and is deeply linked to the knowledge and manipulation of the body, that is, to traditional Chinese medicine, as well as meditative and martial arts. Also in this case, esotericism finds its place through the relationship between the universe and the human being. The five elements differ from the western ones (Earth, water, fire, air and ether), being Wood (mù 木), Fire (huǒ, 火), Earth (tǔ, 土) Metal (jīn, 金) and Water (shǔi,水).

Contrary to the Western vision, the universal energy (Qi, 氣) is outside of this cycle. It is the force that starts, maintains and even destroys, but it is not part of this cycle, since they divide the universal functions in another way, without focusing only on the natural part. Qi would be divided into Heaven, Earth and Man, but in turn there would be two opposing forces, Ying and Yang, probably born from the observation of opposites, which are not in vain also responsible for cyclical changes, as occurs with the night and the day or with the annual seasons. They oppose and need each other, and this causes four movements: opposition, necessity, growth and transformation. These three forces are not dispensable, but they are inherent and superior to the elemental cycle to be included.

The traditions around the Wǔxíng were diverse, since they were associated with seasonal changes (Wu Xing-Yun, a total of five seasons, instead of the usual four, related to the planets, as will be seen later) or Five Virtues ( Wǔ Dé).

But it is not the only vision of the elements in Asia. Godain (五大) is the term used to refer to the Five elements in Japan and Zen philosophy, and they are distributed in Earth (Chi, or Tsuchi 地), Water (Sui or Mizu 水), Fire (Ka or Hi 火), Air (Fu o Kaze 風) and Void (Ku o Sora 空). The latter is understood as pure energy, and everything that escapes from our daily life, creation and the reason for being. They are closely related to Buddhism, but above all they were known for their relationship with the Five Rings or associations of samurai sword techniques with the elements.

In India, the elements are more similar to those presented in the Godain and the Western world - not surprisingly, because of Buddhism in Asia and because of the relationships that India has always had through Eastern Europe, called Panchamahabhuta : Vayu, the water; Agni, the fire; Pull, the water; Prithvi, the earth; and Akash, the Ether. It is also closely linked to medicine, in this case to Ayurveda.

The Western and Eastern elements are also differentiated from the point of view of their relationships. In Western esotericism, with few exceptions, they are closely associated with the layout of the pentagram, or rather, the pentacle, since the circle that surrounds the five-pointed star symbolizes the eternal cycle, while the lines of the star are the network of interrelationships between them. As will be seen later, this layout of the staff has its practical use. In oriental esotericism, it is not so much about interrelationships as about movements and evolutions.

In the five western elements, for example, Fire is what converts the solid-earth into the liquid-water and then into the gaseous-air. The Spirit is the energy that allows this, closing the cycle; In the same way, Water dilutes and unifies Earth, kills Fire, blends with Air, and gives life, thanks to the Spirit. Air "liberates" insofar as it separates and unties Earth, and yet it can merge with Water in storms, and without Air, without oxygen, Fire cannot be born; its movement arises from the Spirit. As for the Earth, it is the necessary element for Fire, Air or Water to exercise their energies, the Earth is more immutable than the rest, the necessary firmness for continuity, within the balance sustained by the Ether. As it can be seen, it is not so much a cycle from beginning to end, as a continuous transmutation and exchange of needs and goals.

If we move to Kabbalah and Jewish metaphysical thought, as in an intermediate level, we find that the Sephardic philosopher Maimonides told us the following:

<<A bit of land, close to water, changes, disintegrates and becomes water. Likewise, a part of the water, close to the wind, is modified, evaporates and becomes wind. And also, a part of the wind, close to the fire, is modified, transformed and becomes fire. And a part of fire, close to the wind, is modified, condensed and becomes wind. And a part of the wind, close to the water, changes, condenses and becomes water. And a part of the water, close to the earth, is modified, condenses and becomes earth. These changes occur little by little over the years. The totality of an element is not completely modified, so that all the water becomes wind or all the wind becomes fire, because it is impossible for any of the four elements to disappear >>

So it's not about a complete change, but about its transformation through mixing, without letting go of its "pure" existence, so to speak. However, due to its more religious and philosophical connection, the elements of Kabbalah, understood as such, have been isolated from magical practices, at least within the focus of Jewish thought, and have been addressed to positive-negative issues in a different way. in a more exclusive way in their environment, and linked to the personality of the individuals, as will be seen later. However, their interrelationship, as in the rest of the examples, remains a creational principle.

In the Eastern world, these relationships are defined as cycles, there being mainly two: the cycle of generation or creation, and the cycle of domination or destruction. This idea of cycles manifests a concrete order in elemental interactions, not loose needs or associations. In the cycle of generation, Wood feeds Fire, which produces ashes, creating Earth, inside which Metal is found, in the minerals that form Water, which in turn nourishes the trees, that is, Wood. . Closed cycle. This cycle is totally offering, that is, all the elements "give" something of themselves for the creation of the next one.

In the cycle of domination, the elements devour each other: Wood feeds on Earth, which in turn feeds on Water, which in turn is capable of putting out Fire, whose destruction includes even Metal, melting it, and finally, Metal is capable of destroying Wood, cutting it. Another closed loop.

In the image of a pentagram or pentacle, the cycle of generation would be represented by the outer circumference, while the cycle of destruction would be represented by the order of the star's path.

The five elements assume different functions and associations, sometimes coincident, sometimes not, between both systems. For example, the traditional planets of the western elements have the added problem that the Sun and the Moon are considered astrological "planets", making a total of 7, while in the Wǔxíng there were only the other 5 main ones: Mercury, Venus , Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Thus, in the Wǔxíng the planets are strongly associated with the elements: Mercury is linked to Water, perhaps because of its speed; Venus, to Metal; Mars, to fire; Jupiter, to the wood, perhaps due to the power of the growth of the trees, and Saturn, to the Earth, the stable and permanent.

But, as has been said on other occasions, the planets are, in turn, associated with situations, personalities and parts of the body; Consequently, the elements will govern all of this, partly coinciding with astrology, partly redefining their own fields of action, and the elements in Western esotericism are usually more associated with the zodiacal signs than with the planets themselves: Fire, Aries, Leo and Sagittarius; to Earth, Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn; to Air, Gemini, Libra and Aquarius; and to Water, Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces.

Within Eastern esoteric practices, the elemental symbols are the same as those used to name them. In Godain, due to its relationship with Buddhism, there is the figure of Gorintō (五輪塔), or tower of five rings, where, according to mikkyō or Buddhist esotericism, linked in turn to Indian esotericism, the cube, the sphere, the triangle, the semi-sphere and the jewel are each identified both with an element and with the personality, circumstances and levels associated with them. (The cube is Earth, the sphere is Water, the pyramid is Fire, the semi-sphere is Air and the jewel is Energy. The gorintō is also found in the Indian world, they are the stupas that contain relics of saints .

However, in the case of Western esotericism, triangles have been used to represent it, apparently following an Aristotelian model, widespread in the Middle Ages. At present, these symbols have been associated more with alchemical language and hermeticism, in the form of a six-pointed star or an hourglass, symbolizing the hermetic principle of << as above, so below>>. Fire and water are represented with a normal triangle and an inverted triangle, while air and earth are represented in the same way as the previous ones, respectively, but with a line crossing the upper and lower points of the triangles. The fifth element, ether or spirit, is represented by two triangles or by a circle.

The elements have very specific uses within esotericism, and perhaps the main one is not only their knowledge for understanding the world, but also their application to the body and spirit, and in this way, to the control of energies, its internal and external manipulation in magical practice. In the Wǔxíng, its application is much more focused on medicine and the interdependence of the organs (Zang) and the entrails (Fu), and its Yin Yang, where Yin are the organs that store substances considered "pure and vital", and the Yang, those that transform some elements into others, - which would require, for its correct explanation, a complete class of traditional medicine - and secondly, in the emotional characteristics of individuals. Within these characteristics, there is also a "Yin-Yang", where each element has a virtue and a defect: fire is hatred and resolution; the earth, anxiety and joy; metal is loss and value; water, fear and kindness; and wood, fury and consideration for others. Within mental qualities, fire controls passion, earth honesty, metal thought, whether intuitive or rational; water, knowledge, and wood, curiosity. In Godain, Water symbolizes adaptability, Fire motivation, Air evasion, Earth persistence and Ku or emptiness, spontaneity. In the Panchamahabhuta, Air is strength, Fire is sharpness, Water is satisfaction, Earth is firmness, and lastly, Ether is illumination.

This association was transferred to the Western world, or at least, its astrological particularities, which makes the associations very, very similar: Water is adaptability, fluidity; Fire, passion and energy; the Air the liberation, the changes; Earth is stability, firmness; and the Spirit, energy and creation. In Kabbalah, especially among heterodox practitioners, Water represents the emotional; Air, abstraction; the Earth, the material; and the Fire, the will. The games of opposite entities mentioned can be established, in terms of Air and Earth, and Water and Fire. Furthermore, Fire and Earth are focused on the individual, while Air and Earth are focused on the external world.

The difference is that while the elementary use of energies in the East is more oriented towards controlling them to achieve a balance or a specific use of them within a particular situation, or in the Kabbalah, in a universal understanding or spiritual, in the magic of the West the elements are "invoked", depending on the culture, as beings or as pure energies, whose purpose is, above all, the potentiation of the same for purposes, generally more personal or physical purposes. Its invocation, moreover, is usually carried out through somewhat complex rituals that require magic circles for its distribution: the four cardinal points mark each of the four elements (Fire-North, Air-East, Earth-South, Water-West), or a color (Fire-Red, Air-Yellow, Earth-Green, Water-Blue). In the Kabbalah, in the few parallels found, thanks to its alchemical application, Fire is the North, Water is the South, Air is the East, and Earth is the West.

And also the seasons (Fire-Summer, Earth-Autumn, Water-Winter and Air-Spring), as well as a long series of elements and minerals linked to the elements, which can be distributed around this magic circle for its attraction, projection and effectiveness. In the East, however, the elements and seasons are counted in five (Wood-Spring, Fire-Early Summer, Earth-Late Summer, Metal-Autumn and Water-Winter. The cycles of the West evoke the elements, that is , are linked to them by their temperature (Fire for the heat of summer, Earth for the Autumn harvests, Water for the rains and snow of winter, and Wind for the clouds that recede in Spring), while in Asia they continue to be reminiscent of the cycles of creation and destruction, recalling the Sacred and cyclical Time of the ages, death and resurrection, in a more drastic way than in the esoteric conception, really more occult because of its practical magical use, of the western world. .

The good thing about both interpretations, far from the deepest esotericism, and its more complex occult practice, is its simplicity at the popular level: it is about a culturally extended idea and knowledge, and simple to deal with with a quick vision of nature and its changes, which has been tirelessly exposed in the literary and audiovisual world, normally in environments other than those mentioned, but with great reminiscences of them.

Pietro Viktor Carracedo Ahumada -


Rodríguez Santidrián, P. Diccionario de las religiones. Alianza editorial, 2004.

Aihe Wang. Cosmology and political culture in Early China. Cambridge University Press, NY 2000.

Scholem, G. Alchemy and Kabbalah. Michigan University, 2009.

Related posts:
- Mudras. Introduction. Jñana Mudra and Libera Mudra.
- Pentagram, pentacles and pantacles
Licencia de Creative Commons
Este obra está bajo una licencia de Creative Commons Reconocimiento-NoComercial-CompartirIgual 4.0 Internacional.