In this Module we’ll learn about the square and the world of matter. The Classic four elements appear frequently in alchemy. These represent the constructs of the material world. This Aristotolean outlook is important if you want to explore the alchemical world through plant experiments for example. For the spiritual alchemist concerned with the prima materia, this module may be of less importance. Basil Valentine explains:
“You need not look for our metallic seed among the elements. It need not be sought so far back. If you can only rectify the Mercury, Sulphur, and Salt (understand, those of the Sages) until the metallic spirit and body are inseparably joined together by means of the metallic soul, you thereby firmly rivet the chain of love, and prepare the palace for the coronation.” – The Twelve Keys of Basil Valentine
The square is our playing field. It doesn’t matter how good a player you are, if you never get off the bench. When the universe is broken down into four it is most often a bisection of the concepts presented in duality and represent the material world .
The Four Elements – Our square represents the four elements. These “elements” are sometimes compared to the modern concepts of “states of matter” (Solid, Liquid, Gas, and Plasma). They do not equate to modern atoms except in that they both took their turns being imagined as the smallest component parts of the matter on offer.
Around 450 B.C.E. when Empedocles and others circulated opinions on the basic building blocks of the material world. The idea of the four elements likely date back much further than the Greeks.
Humourism – Not long after Empedocles, Hippocrates threw a medical spin on this. If the material world is made of these four types of matter, so too are we humans. The fluids blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm were assigned to the elements. Sanguine, Melancholic, Choleric and Phlegmatic personalities were later coined by the physicians based on this same idea.
Elemental Qualities – For each corner of the square Aristotle discussed a corresponding side, blending the attributes of its neighbouring corners. These are hot, cold, dry (perhaps properly called “hard”) and wet (perhaps properly called “soft”).
Fifth Element / Quintessence / Aether – Plato in Epinomis gives us the concept of the fifth element. Some schools of thought plot this quintessence as a spiritual fifth element using the pentagram. This is problematic as it portrays aether along side the other elements as its equal – one fifth of the equation. There is a place for the fifth element in our square, but it rightly belongs in the middle, and is more heavily emphasized from
an alchemical standpoint. If you are a fan of pentagrams, you may wish to take a look at some of the concepts presented in the Circle and Triangle sections of this page to get a better idea of how “spirit” is incorporated into the philosophers stone geometric model.
The four elements (or some variation of them) is an idea common to countless cultures. Where nature was easily divided in half, it was bisected once more into our square. Modern westerners often see the elements portrayed as the domain of pagans and witches. After all, this is the stuff you’ll find littered through Harry Potter and Tarot cards. But the four elements, although reflecting nature, are not solely owned by nature religions or natural magic.The four elements are foundational and main-stream. Take a look at the Kink’s Lola vs. The Powerman album cover, or Pink Floyd’s Wish you Were Here. Look at the Windows logo on your computer.
Christianity also enveloped the elements, embracing the cross (instead of a Tau cross or pole) in its imagery and later recognizing the correspondence in symbols like the Rosy Cross. Irenaeus even rubber stamps the canonical gospels based on elemental thinking:
“But it is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the church has been scattered throughout the world, and since the ‘pillar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life, it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing incorruption on every side, and vivifying human afresh. From this fact, it is evident that the Logos, the fashioner demiourgos of all, he that sits on the cherubim and holds all things together, when he was manifested to humanity, gave us the gospel under four forms but bound together by one spirit. As also David says, when entreating His manifestation, “Thou that sittest between the cherubim, shine forth.” For the cherubim, too, were four-faced, and their faces were images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For, [as the Scripture] says, “The first living creature was like a lion,” symbolizing His effectual working, His leadership, and royal power; the second [living creature] was like a calf, signifying [His] sacrificial and sacerdotal order; but “the third had, as it were, the face as of a man,” — an evident description of His advent as a human being; “the fourth was like a flying eagle,” pointing out the gift of the Spirit hovering with His wings over the Church.