Three Elements, Not Four

I wonder how many modern pagans know they are using a system of elements drawn from Greek philosophy, not from their ethnic pagan spirituality? There are three elements, not four.

In today’s “Western Tradition”, there are conventionally four elements. Earth, air, fire, water. They are part of the foundation for everything from astrology to ceremonial magic to Jungian psychology. But they’re part of a self-consciously intellectual tradition.

The ancient Greek philosophers had a variety of systems to describe, explain, and categorize the elements. The system that survived was the system of Empedocles (5th century B.C.E.):

Hear first the four roots of all things: shining Zeus (commonly identified as fire) and life-bringing Hera (commonly identified as air) and Aidoneus (commonly identified as earth) and Nestis (commonly identified as water).” 

In the 4th century B.C.E. Aristotle added some additional spiff. His idea was the four elements arise from the interplay of the properties of hot and cold, and wet and dry. Earth is dry and cold. Its opposite is Air, which is wet and hot. Fire is dry and hot. Its opposite is Water, which is wet and cold. Aristotle’s imprimatur ensured the survival of the system. No one trumps Aristotle.

(Aristotle also added a fifth element—Aether—which is not changeable and corruptible like the others. That would be a fun subject for another day.)

This system of four elements is very elegant, but its success obscured an older Indo-European system.

My first glimmer that there is another system came from studying Georges Dumézil in college. There is extensive evidence that three was the sacred number of the ancient Indo-Europeans. Dumézil theorized they structured their society and religion around the number three. His theory, called the trifunctional hypothesis, was that the Indo-Europeans had three social classes (priests, warriors, and commoners) that reflected the three functions of the gods (sacral, martial, and economic). In medieval Europe, three estates: nobility, clergy, farmers. Easier than it sounds.

Dumézil had some trouble over his theory because of its political implications. It’s not clear whether he was a Nazi sympathizer but he seems to have been anti-democratic. He supported the traditional authoritarian order in Europe, with the Three Estates as part of an obviously natural order because they would be rooted in the ancient Indo-European forms he had discovered.

Reading Dumézil, it’s hard not to see a different tripartite order. The division of the world into sky, land, and sea is a common feature of Indo-European religions, which lends support to the idea of correlating it with three elements.

The Greek gods might be the most familiar example. The world is ruled by three brothers. Zeus rules the sky, Hades the underworld, and Poseidon the sea. Air, earth, water. Three elements.

In some variations of this system, the sea is thought to be beneath the earth, while in others the sea is in the middle. These three worlds correspond to the upper world, middle world, and lower world of shamanic cultures. They are amplified by the Norse into the Nine Worlds, a superlative of the Three. My guess is that each of the three levels would be divided into three sections.

If we accept this correlation between elements and worlds, we can look for places it would illuminate our understanding of the sources. For example, in Vafþrúðnismál 21 we learn Odin and his brothers killed the ancient giant Ymir. Afterwards:

For example, in Vafþrúðnismál 21 we learn Odin and his brothers killed the ancient giant Ymir. Afterwards:

“Out of Ymir’s flesh was fashioned the earth, And the mountains were made of his bones; The sky from the frost cold giant’s skull, And the ocean out of his blood.”

It’s not uncommon for translators to insert the goddess Jörð in this passage as the personification of “earth” Elsewhere, Odin says Earth was his daughter and his wife (Gylfaginning 9). That passage makes very little sense unless we understand that Odin is her father is the sense he created her. This would be the passage where he did that.

Armed with these clues we can push forward. The sky created from Ymir’s skull must be Tyr, the Indo-European cognate of Zeus, and original ruler of the Norse gods. Tyr likely lost his sovereignty when he lost his physical perfection by sacrificing his hand to Fenris.

And the ocean created from Ymir’s blood must be Njörð. Njörð of course married his sister Jörð. They were parents of Frey and Freyja, then later Jörð married Odin, and they were parents of Thor. Frey and Thor are therefore the “Hero Twins”, actually half-brothers through their mother. It’s possible Jörð was also married to her brother Tyr before Odin usurped his position. She might in fact be the one who brought Odin his sovereignty.

These three—Tyr, Njörð, and Jörð —can be said to be children of Odin who created them or children of Ymir from whose body they were made.

There’s still one more dimension here in our typology of three elements. The three parts of the human soul. In the ancient world, even the Bible, these are called the body, spirit, and soul. In the modern world we say body, mind, and spirit instead. Same thing. (Keep an eye on spirit. It switches meaning.)

Gylfaginning 9 says Odin and his brothers created the first humans. There are different versions in other works but in this one, “The first [god] gave them spirit and life; the second endowed them with reason and power of motion; and the third gave them form, speech, hearing and eyesight.”

It’s not a stretch to read these as soul, spirit, and body. Or in modern-speak as spirit, mind, and body. These would correspond to the three original elements of the Indo-Europeans—air, water, and earth, in that order.

There is probably a system where Odin and his two brothers also track to our tripartite division of the world but I haven’t tried to do it. And there could be others.

The Norns are likely to be an example of the sacred number three but they stand more or less for past, present, and future. It’s not obvious how they might correspond to earth, air, and water but there’s in intriguing alternative here.

Modern pagans find it very convenient to work with four elements, which they connect with four directions. A spatial mapping. It seems possible our pre-Christian ancestors connected the three elements with time, instead. A temporal mapping. We might be seeing a discontinuity between ancient and modern paganism.

Astrological symbolism might preserve the meeting of these systems. The 12 signs of the zodiac are grouped in four elements (fire, earth, air, water). Three times around the circle, in that order. But they are also grouped into three “modes”. Cardinal, fixed, mutable, four times around the circle, in that order. These modes can be understood, very loosely, as beginning, maturity, and decline.

I did my work on this subject probably 20 years ago, and again 12 years ago. The cycle is coming back around now. I expect to think and write more in the coming months, but for now I’m seeing three elements, not four.

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Revised Nov. 2, 2019 to add links.

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