To the classical reckoning, all matter was made up of either four or five elements (depending on which system your part of the world used), unlike our modern chemistry and physics have identified more than a hundred elements (based on upon the numbers of certain subatomic particles).
These four- or five- element systems show up repeatedly in magic, alchemy, mythology, shamanism and philosophy throughout history and many of the world's cultures. It was also an integral part of Humoral Medicine.
Four Elements of the Classical Western System
Aether is usually omitted from elemental reckonings as being ultramundane and thus irrelevant to terrestrial activity. Air is said to overcome water and be opposed by earth, water overcomes earth and is opposed by fire, earth overcomes fire and fire overcomes air.
In the classical reckoning, all earthly materia were thought to be composed of some mixture of the four elements, and all natural phenomena could be explained in this manner and their elemental composition was thought to have both spiritual and physical aspects. This was of particular significance in alchemy and medicine (in which each element had a corresponding humour relating to the health of the body) - not to mention astrology in which the affairs of the mundane world were displayed in the heavens.
The other notable characteristic of classical elements (at least in the Western tradition) was their ability to spawn elementals - living beings formed entirely of one element.
- In medieval cosmology, air lay between water and fire as the second highest element.
- In the western system, Air overcomes Water, and is opposed by Earth.
- Air has the qualities of being Hot and Wet.
- The elemental of air was known as the sylph.
- The alchemical work of the element of air is normally thought to be the Elixir Vitae, placing air at the pinnacle of the tree of alchemy.
- Associated with the humour of Blood. It symbolises courage and hope, as well as the way that these can drive a person to hubris and overconfidence when taken to excess.
- In western Astrology, Air governs the houses of Gemini, Libra and Aquarius.
- In the Hindu Chakra system, Air is associated with the Heart.
- In medieval cosmology, earth was the lowest ("least spiritual") of the elements.
- In the western system, Earth overcomes Fire, and is opposed by Air.
- Earth has the qualities of being Cold and Dry.
- The elemental of earth was known as the gnome.
- The alchemical work of the element of earth is, unsurprisingly, The Philosopher's Stone.
- In western Astrology, Earth governs the houses of Taurus, Virgo and Capricorn.
- Associated with the humour of Black Bile. It symbolises strength and resilience, as well as the tendency of these to stagnate when they are left to their own devices1.
- In the Chinese system, Earth generates Metal (see below) and overcomes Water.
- In the Hindu Chakra system, Earth is associated with the Root Chakra.
- Fire, in medieval cosmology, was the highest of the mundane elements, lying just below the aether.
- In the western system, Fire overcomes Air, and is opposed by Water.
- Fire has the qualities of being Hot and Dry.
- The elemental of fire was known as the salamander.
- The alchemical work of the element of fire is traditionally the isolation of phlogiston, although the alkahest is sometimes said to be the work of fire instead.
- Associated with the humour of Yellow Bile or Choler. It symbolises energy, drive and passion as well as the destructive influence of these when uncontrolled. It may also symbolise purification.
- In western Astrology, Fire governs the houses of Aries, Leo and Sagittarius.
- In the Chinese system, Fire generates Earth and overcomes Metal.
- In the Hindu Chakra system, Fire is associated with the Navel.
- Water, in medieval cosmology, was the second lowest of the mundane elements, lying above earth and below air.
- In the western system, Water overcomes Earth and is opposed by Fire.
- Water has the qualities of being Cold and Wet.
- The elemental of water was known as the undine.
- The alchemical work of the element of water is traditionally the Panacea or, where the panacea and the Elixir Vitae are one and the same, water governs the production of the alkahest.
- Associated with the humour of Phlegm. It symbolises adapability and reason, as well as the tendency of these to lead to indifference and cynicism when unchecked.
- In western Astrology, Water governs the houses of Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces.
- In the Chinese system, Water generates Wood and overcomes Fire.
- In the Hindu Chakra system, Water is associated with the Sacrum.
Five Elements of the Chinese System
Metal and Wood are part of the Chinese traditions, together with Earth, Fire and Water (about which, see above). To the Chinese system (a system known as Wu Xing), wood generates fire and overcomes earth, fire generates earth and overcomes metal, earth generates metal and overcomes water, metal generates water and overcomes wood and water generates wood and overcomes fire. There are no opposed elements in the Chinese reckoning, but plenty of scope for conflict with the other schemes of understanding.
- In the Chinese system, Metal generates Water and overcomes Wood.
- In the Chinese system, Wood generates Fire and overcomes Earth.
Other Elements and Elemental Systems
Aether / Quintessence / Void (in the Japanese tradition)
- An alarmingly weird element, having aspects of spirit, sound, distance and movement - generally assigned to things that don't really belong in the material world.
- As noted above, this element also exists in the Western tradition, but was generally not included in mundane reckonings.
- To the Greek understanding, Aether was regarded as the element of the stars, heavens and things similarly deemed distant and immutable.
- A "fifth element" usually confined to RPGs - often by designers with a need to insert a concretely "evil" element. Can also be the effective result of casting void as "the evil element" in an oriental setting.
- Traditionally darkness - as "the evil element" - will be opposed to all the others and/or a corrupt mirror of them, but is unlikely to be fully integrated into the grand scheme of things.
The Babylonian system identified five elements: Earth and Fire (as expected), plus Sea (instead of Water), as well as Sky and Wind (depending on how you interpret that, either Air is getting double-represented, or Sky is more like Aether).
As mentioned above, the four traditional elements are associated with the 7 Chakra points of the human body in various Eastern traditions (such as Hinduism and Buddhism). In addition, the 3 chakras above those are associated with concepts archetypical enough to be appropriated as for elemental systems in gaming.
- Time and Space are associated with the Crown Chakra.
- Light and Dark are associated with the Third Eye.
- Aether and Sound are associated with the Throat.
- Air is associated with the Heart.
- Fire is associated with the Navel.
- Water is associated with the Sacrum.
- Earth is associated with the Root Chakra.
- By definition modern ideas of elements (specifically, those on the periodic table) do not belong in this schema. However, it may happen, especially in weird or silly campaigns, that they take on some of the characteristics of a classical element (typically the spawning of elementals).
- More esoteric elements such as "time", "surprise", "electricity", "art" etc may also appear.
- In some D&D books there are para-elemental and quasi-elemental forces, which can be understood as the interaction of two elemental forces, or the interaction of an elemental force with the concept of good or evil (or positive and negative energy).
Game and Story Use
- The classical elements get used heavily in occult and magic systems. In fantasy games they can be embodied by elementals, or even whole worlds known as elemental planes, and invoked or conjured via elementalism, sympathetic magic, or alchemy.
- Your choice of which elemental system to use can help distinguish your setting, magic system or character. Mix it up to make the setting your own, and/or keep the players on their toes.
- Conflicting elemental systems might help define (or fuel an argument or hostility between) two nations, magical orders, species, philosophies, etc. For example, perhaps the Orcs feel the universe is made of Fire, Meat, Pain and Smoke, and that's why they have such a hard time getting along with the elves who value such silly things as Air, Water, Intellect and Trees.
- A sillier campaign might poke fun at the huge numbers of elemental creatures, planes, wall and attack spells, etc in D&D. Some fun could be had intentionally making up ridiculous elementals and spells to have a good laugh at the notion. Oh, no, he's opening a portal to the Para-Elemental Plane of Bad Hair Days!