The English word "element" derives from a Greek term stoikheion meaning "step" or "component part," translated into Latin as "elementum." Ancient scholars and philosophers perceived four elements, later adding a fifth, as the irreducible components of the universe and all it contained. These were water, earth, fire, air, and ether (i.e. "space" or "void.")
'Aqua' from a Series of Circular Designs with the Four Elements by Crispijn de Passe the Elder, 1590–1612
Since almost the dawn of time, various civilizations and different cultures have perceived the natural world in similar terms to these building blocks. Nearly 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians worshipped four gods, each representing one of four cosmic elements: sea, earth, sky, and wind. Later, in Iron Age India, ancient sacred texts describe the pancha mahabhuta, or “five great elements" of space (or "ether"), air, fire, water and earth. In the Hindu tradition, these great elements were thought to have been divinely bestowed and fundamental to the cycle of creation and dissolution. Buddhism similarly recognized the cattāro mahābhūtāni, or Four Great Elements, of earth, water, fire, and air or wind, with some texts referencing a fifth element of space. The earliest Buddhist texts dating from the 5th century BCE explain that the four primary material elements are solidity, fluidity, temperature, and mobility, characterized as earth, water, fire, and air, respectively. In the 7th century BCE, the Persian philosopher Zoroaster wrote of the sacred nature of earth, water, air and fire. He noted these four elements were "essential for the survival of all living beings."
Empedocles four elements (fire, air, water and earth), woodcut from an edition of Lucretius De rerum natura, published in Brescia by Tommaso Ferrando (1472).
From pre-Socratic times the Ancient Greeks similarly recognized four basic elements: earth, water, air, and fire. These were first proposed by Empedocles, a philosopher from Sicily who lived around 450 BCE. The Greek philosopher and polymath Aristotle (384-322 BCE) perceived that, while earth, water, air, and fire were corruptible, the stars in the heavens seemed permanent and unchanging. He therefore added a fifth element, ether, reasoning that the perpetual stars must be made of some unchangeable heavenly matter. Aristotle's conception of these five classic elements was carried on by philosophers and scholars down the centuries, and dominated Western learning until the founding of modern chemistry during the Enlightenment in the 18th century.
In China, and later in Korea, the five basic elements also played an important role, though in a different way. In the 3rd century BCE, the Chinese sage and philosopher Zou Yan set forth a cosmological theory incorporating the five elements of earth, wood, metal, fire, and water. These came to be known as Wu Xing, often translated as the five elements, but more accurately the "five phases" or the "five changes." Thus, while the Greek conception of the five elements described separate compositional substances of all things, Wu Xing conceives of earth, wood, metal, fire, and water as basic energies succeeding one another in a cyclic pattern like the seasons of the year. Wu Xing philosophy influences other branches of learning and philosophy, including astrology, cosmology, feng shui, and traditional Chinese medicine.
Hand carved, rock crystal reliquary – Japan, c. 13th century. A Gorintō is a memorial or gravestone made up of five geometric shapes representing the five elements: earth, water, fire, wind, and space – one on top of the other, pointing towards the heavens.
Japanese traditions use a set of elements called the "godai," literally "five great." These five are earth, water, fire, wind/air, and void. These came from Indian Vastu shastra philosophy and Buddhist beliefs – in addition, the classical Chinese Wu Xing are also prominent in Japanese culture. Earth represented things that were solid. Water represented things that were liquid. Fire represented things that destroy. Wind represented things that moved. Void or Sky/Heaven represented things not of our everyday lives.
Our latest collection of limited edition perfumes seek to capture these simple, elegant foundations of life that humans have recognized since time immemorial. Rich, verdant Earthly, exotic and sensual Creation Fire, radiantly floral Pure Air, smoky and lush Immutable Space, and the divine Sacred Water, all natural essences in graceful and ethereally colored glass vanity flacons.
Header image: Abundance and the Four Elements, Brueghel The Elder, 1606