Controlling the Elements

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Controlling the Elements

If this isn't the biggest cliché known to fiction, I don't know what is, but do you know what?  Who cares!  If you want to write about a character that can control the elements, go ahead and write it.  Controlling elements, or at least the idea of a set of elements, have been around for over two thousand years, so if you're worried about being a plagiarist, don't, because it's definitely available for all writers.  Even if there was a copyright policy back then, there is no company or legal document or anything that can last over two thousand years.  

First, before I get to explaining why this shouldn't be complained about (or at least not as much), let's get to the history lesson, much of which will be copied and pasted from my essay "The Elements: A Basic Overview."

The elements didn't start with Wicca, witches, alchemists or even shamanists.  Yes, each culture had its own set, but the first person who actually attached names and recorded it, was the Persian prophet, Zarathustra between 600-583 BC.  Zarathustra's set were the four sacred elements: fire, earth, water, and air, and they were considered very sacred, for they were needed for humans to survive—fire cooked the food, the earth grew plants, air was needed to breath, and water to drink; however there were more spiritual beliefs incorporated into the four elements.  For example, because they wanted to keep the earth, air, water, and fire "clean", they didn't bury or cremate the dead, nor throw corpses into the water.  Instead, they had a place called the "Tower of Silence" where they would lay their dead in the center, and let the vultures eat them.  Eventually, all there would be left were bones, which didn't contaminate the dirt.

Zarathustra's name was corrupted by Greek writers, to what we now know it as Zoroaster, a monotheistic religion based on the moral concept of "good reflection, good words, and good deeds."  In around 440 BC, the Greek philosopher, Empedocles, had written about the same four elements, which is why he was mistaken to have been the originator.  

Between 384-322 BC, Greek philosopher and alchemist, Aristotle, expanded on the concept of earth, water, air and fire, to include certain qualities.  They were qualities that all four of the elements had in order to be.  Like the four elements themselves, they were a pair of opposites: hot-cold, and dry-wet.  If we were to draw how this would look, imagine a diamond, with a square inside the diamond.  Starting from the top corner of the diamond, and continuing clockwise including the corners of the square, there would be Fire, Dry, Earth, Cold, Water, Wet, Air, and Hot.  This would mean that Fire and Earth would be considered dry, Earth and Water would be considered cold, Water and Air would be considered wet or moist, just as Air and Fire would be considered Hot; however, according to Aristotle, one quality would be stronger in a certain element.  That would mean that Earth is mostly dry, water is mostly cold, air had more fluidity, and fire is certainly hot.

Plato, using a mixture of Pythagoras (a mathematician), Democritus (an atomist), and Empedocles' ideas of the four elements, had thought that each element in their physical form consisted of atoms.  He also thought of the fifth element, quintessence (I'll get to that later), to initiate changes.  With Plato's theory, he could better explain the cycles between one of the elements to another; however several components of his theories (some that he didn't have knowledge in the area of study) just didn't add up.  

In around 400 BC, Hippocrates, a Greek medical practitioner, combined the nature of the four elements with humors, used to describe a person's temperament.  This is where the phrases "in good humor", "in their element" or being "temperamental" came from.  Fire would be Yellow Bile and Choleric, Air would be Blood and Sanguine, Water would be Phlegm and Phlegmatic, and Earth would be Black Bile and Melancholy.

If you notice the symbol for the planet Earth, it's a circle with a cross, or a positive sign, in the circle.  Four symbolizes as a foundation, something which houses a goal, or, in this case, life.  "Nature" means "that which is born", and everything that is born, has its opposite.  Fire has water, just as earth has air, but there's also polarity to consider.  Just as you drop a stone, or a glass of water, they will always fall, so they are considered negative, hence why Taurus, Cancer, Virgo, Scorpio, Capricorn, and Pisces are considered negative, or feminine; however fire and air, tend to flow up, giving Aries, Gemini, Leo, Libra, Sagittarius, and Aquarius a positive, or masculine, polarity.

In the Kabala, there are the Four Worlds, whose correspondence also has to do with the four elements.  The entire Kabala describes how nothing creates a manifestation of something which takes place in four worlds, or stages: Atziluth, when God works directly through the archetypes, representing the Tarot suit of Wands, and is considered Fire; Briah, when a creation starts to take place, representing the Tarot suit of Swords, and is considered Air; Yetzirah, when formation occurs, representing the Tarot suit of Cups, and is considered Water; and Assiah, when the formation becomes a material through all four elements, representing the Tarot suit of Pentacles, and is considered Earth.  Also through Tarot, the four animals, salamander, butterfly, fish, and bull represent fire, air, water and earth.  

The four letters of Jehovah, or Yahweh, (IHVH) also represent the elements in that order.  

LaVeyan Satanists have the Four Crown Princes of Hell: Satan (fire), Lucifer (air), Belial (earth), and Leviathan (water).

There are also the four directions, North-earth, East-air, South-fire, and West-water, but some cultures switch the directions and the elements to fit their beliefs.

Because of this idea of the number four and oppositions, Jung came up with a system of how the mind processes information and behavior, described through the acts of thinking-feeling and sensation-intuition.  He believed that if one's "element" was well developed consciously, the opposite would be an unconscious doing, dominating the individual's life.  For example, you know you have strong feelings for someone, but end up unconsciously over-thinking it and miss your chance.  Or sometimes, you know you can be one thing, but your peers see you completely differently.  The unconscious aspects of ourselves are shadows or habits, we don't notice it ourselves, but everyone can see it.

Similarly, Ken Wilber, a contemporary writer, and integrative psychologist-philosopher, made a model of how "truths" can be seen and interpreted.  Picture the diagram: Fire and Earth on one row, with Water and Air below them.  Then above the four elements, are Subjective and Objective, and, finally, to the left is the word Individual above the word Collective.  That way, it would read as Fire being "Individual-Subjective", Earth as "Individual-Objective", Water as "Collective-Subjective", and Air as "Collective-Objective".  These would be considered the four truths, and all four are important in order to see the whole picture.  Wilber said that if even one aspect is ignored, then that aspect reappears to become a contradiction, like how some claim religion, science, government, and the individual to be separate altogether, however they are four different truths.

The ancient Greeks also proposed a fifth element that holds all of the elements together discretely called quintessence.  It was a separate life force whose only role was to keep the cycle going.  When an animal died, the body would go back to the earth or the rest of the elements, and quintessence would go back to the eternal source, whether it was considered space, time, the soul or something else.

Cultures with the five elements theory had different versions of the fifth element.  Hindus believed in earth, water, fire, air, and ether.  Indian Buddhism started with fire, water, earth, and later added air and sky.  Wicca has the four typical elements plus the soul, or life force.  Some consider the fifth element to be dark matter, space, and time, the chemical ether, or some other physical element.

Since before the tenth century BC, China has had five main elements: fire, earth, water, wood and metal.  These elements were important for recognizing types of energy (Chi), Feng Shui (an important aspect of achieving balance within several aspects of an individual's life), and so on.  There are three cycles used when achieving such a balance, whether in Feng Shui or in a purely mental way.  The first is the creative cycle where the elements enhance each other: water gives trees its life, tree is fuel to fire, fire makes ashes therefore gives nutrients to the soil (earth), earth compresses to make metal, and cold metal condensates creating water.  This forms a circular cycle rotating clockwise.

When one element begins to overpower the balance, some use either the destructive cycle, or the controlling cycle.  In the destruction cycle, water puts out the fire, fire melts metal, metal cuts wood, trees take nutrients from the soil, and earth muddies the water.  If you notice, when you draw this in the same order as the creative cycle, if you draw a line between the elements, the lines form a star.

The controlling cycle, also known as the dissolving cycle, weakening cycle, or the reductive cycle, looks just like the creative cycle except the order is backwards.  This is used when an element begins to overpower the other elements, but you don't want to destroy the element altogether, as what would happen in the destructive cycle.  In this cycle, wood absorbs water, water corrodes metal, metal weakens the earth (like a hoe to weaken the hard, compact soil and to allow plants to grow), earth reduces fire, and fire burns wood.

With these five main elements, the Chinese expanded on them to create the eight trigrams.  "The eight Trigrams are symbols standing for changing transitional states; they are images that are constantly undergoing change.  Attention centers not on things in their state of being—as is chiefly the case in the Occident—but upon their movements in change.  The eight trigrams therefore are not representations of things as such but of their tendencies in movement" (Richard Wilhelm).  

The eight trigrams are Kan/K'an, the deep abyss (water), representing career; Ken/Gen, the mountain of contemplation (earth/mountain), representing knowledge; Chen/Zhen, thunder (wood), representing family and health; Sun/Xun, the penetrating wind (wood/wind), representing wealth; Li, the illuminating fire (fire), representing Fame; Kun, the earth (earth), representing marriage and relationships; Tui/Dui, the joyous marsh (metal), representing children; and Chien/Qian, the heaven (metal/heaven), representing helpful people.  Each of these represent some part of the individual, and with better understanding of them (and maybe Feng Shui) can help the individual achieve inner and outer balance.

Besides the eight trigrams, the Chinese also adopted the Buddhism's elements to create the seven elements: air, water, metal, aether, fire, wood and earth; although, I can't say anything more about it.

The elements have so many correspondences, that by getting rid of them, even in fiction, you're taking away so much more that's attached to them: survival, grounding, religion, medicine, psychology, truths, balance etc.  So maybe some writers can choose another set of elements, but it doesn't mean that the traditional earth, air, fire, water, and quintessence should be banned.  If it's important to their story, let them keep it.

Some books and other media that include someone controlling all of the elements, or the set of elements, include: The House of Night series by P.C. Cast with Zoey Redbird being chosen by the Goddess Nyx to possessing the elements.  There's also Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra, with Aang and Korra being the Avatars who can control most, if not all, the elements.  In the Avatar universe, there are other bending methods including blood-bending, metal bending, and others that the Avatar may be unable to learn due to genetics or unable to grasp the concept of bending that certain element.  Spyro, a dragon video game, also has a set of elements that the character can use.  Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead is another series of books which has characters able to control the elements; however with this series, it turns out that all of the Moroi, full-blooded vampires, are able to control four elements to an extent, but specialize in only one of those elements.  Some Moroi specialize in the fifth element known as Spirit, and tend to be advanced in the rest of the elements, but don't specialize in them.  I can guarantee there are a lot more books, videogames, cartoons and such that have elemental users, so don't worry about writing clichés or about those who are complaining about "another elemental user".  Just write what you want to the best of your ability.
If you haven't, please read my Mary-Sue: Who is She? Series first.


The Elements: A Basic Overview

:bulletblack: The Satanic Bible Anton Szandor LaVey
:bulletblack: The Complete Guide to Tarot by Eden Gray
:bulletblack: "Zoroaster and the Theory of Four Elements" by Fathi Habashi
:bulletblack: The Essence of Feng Shui
:bulletblack: The Four Elements
:bulletblack: Exact Philosophy
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B3GIN's avatar
Wow. You've really done your research, and you especially presented it well! This was a true pleasure to read. I'd like to hopefully start researching topics like this because I'm working on a book which centers around a few of these ideas, and I'd like to avoid representing these theories. Fantastic job, really. Reading the rest of your work tonight would be wonderful, but sadly it's nearly 3 in the morning and I should probably get to bed. Thank you so much for posting these and taking the time to research this so thoroughly! It's incredibly helpful! I wish I could thank you in a more fitting manner.