Theory of the Elements

The Greek classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Aether. These were considered the building blocks of all matter. It’s also the bases of much of medieval understanding of how matter works and interacts. Add onto that hot, dry, wet, and cold. Aristotle put it like this:

  • Air is primarily wet and secondarily hot.
  • Fire is primarily hot and secondarily dry.
  • Earth is primarily dry and secondarily cold.
  • Water is primarily cold and secondarily wet.

Aristotle added Aether to the four classics, since the stars don’t change, and the four classics do. Now (because we’re into alchemy) we’ll add Geber’sulphur, salt, and mercury (also Paracelsus’tria prima) on top of the original 4. Now we have 7 items in our list, which is significant. In the time frame we look at, they thought there were 7 heavenly bodies besides the stars. They associated those 7 heavenly bodies with 7 metals (see astrology).. and now we have the bases for their understanding of matter, how it interacts and how we can transmutate it into something else.

The Four Humors

The theory of the 4 (or 5) elements directly ties in with the theory of the 3 humors (or three essentials). All matter was considered a mixture of the 4 elements. Likewise Hippocrates considered a correlation with 4 bodily fluids (humors)

  • Fire was associated with the Choleric humor of yellow bile. Choleric people are sort-of hyperactive. Aristotle considered them hot and dry
  • Water was associated with phlegm. Cold and wet. Moody and quiet folk.
  • Air – blood changeable and flighty people, but also have integrity. Hot and wet.
  • Earth – black bile (what else?). Apathetic and passive, stubborn and sluggish. Cool and dry.

Before Paracelsus (thought not to give him too much credit) it was mainly believed that illness was caused by an imbalance of the 4 humors, and therefore the cure was to drain the excess one(s). That’s where we get leaches, etc. from as medicine. Alchemists (both European and Muslim) played an important role is switching this thinking to one where outside forces can be to blame, and therefore outside substances (medicine, tonics, elixirs, etc.) can be the cure. The balance of humors went beyond physical illness though. It was also thought to impact mental health and personality types.


Newton, Pythagoras and Paracelsus (among many others) had theories on exactly what it was. It could be the neoplatonic idea of the world soul, of which a part is in everything and all of us. It could be a light outside of the visible spectrum, or the stuff stars are made of. This is important in alchemy because it’s this quintessence that they were often after when distilling stuff down for the philosopher’s stone.

Una Res

According Paracelsus this “una res” is a similar idea as quntessence—a sort of universal spiritual “indestructible essence”. This was first passed to Adam, and it’s what enabled Moses to build the golden vessels in the Ark, and gave King Solomon his riches (through the “wisdom”).

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