The elements were believed by the ancients to be the essential energy forces that sustain the world. In the West they are four in number - fire, water, air and earth. The Chinese classified metal as a separate element, while in India and Tibet a spiritual element (the "ether") was thought to permeate and vivify the other four. The central importance of the elements as organizing principles in the universe is a constant in the symbology of all cultures. Practitioners of alchemy developed a shorthand form of representing the elements based on the geometry of the triangle (See below subtopics) for example, because fire always moves skyward, it is represented by an upward-pointing triangle. The elements were seen as vital components of the human body, and the maintenance of physical and psychological health was a matter of keeping a balance between them, just as a balance was needed in the outside world.
The Human Body
Composed of the four elemems plus the invisible spiritual dimension, the (male) budy was the universal symbol for life in all its forms, the link, between heaven and earth, and the personification of the energy of the gods.
Spirits of the air, the insubstantial sylphs were believed to be in communion with the divine.
In Western traditions, the salamander was believed to be the spirit and guardian of fire, and to live in a volcano.
The spirit of water, usually represented as a graceful young woman, is at once captivating and treacherous.
The mischievous spirit of the earth, associated by some with the underworld, needed to be appeased with offerings
The greatest of the Egyptian goddesses and possessed of immense magical powers, Isis is the divine mother and protecor. She is often depicted as a kite, a form that she assumed to search for the dismembered body of her brother Osiris. Later, after reassembling the body, she used her wings to revivify him with the breath of life.
Pegasus, the winged horse that sprang from the blood of Medusa after her beheading by Perseus, symbolizes mankind's desire to take to the air, as well as the capricious nature of the element. The taming of Pegasus by Bellerophon (aided by Athene's bridle) shows that, with the help of the gods, mankind can tame the elements.
The Sailing Ship
All the great seafaring civilizations had gods or saints (Aeolus in the Greek and Saint Nicholas in the Christian world) who controlled the winds, and to whom prayers were offered before a voyage.
Many Eastern philosophies hold that the body's vital energies are carried in the air. This elemental energy (symbolized by the central glyph above) is called Prana by the Indians, chi by the Chinese and ki by the Japanese. It circulates through the body along what we now called the acupuncture meridians, and can be controlled by means of yogic exercises in order to improve bodily health, gain psychic powers and transmute physical energy into spiritual.
Half eagle, half pheasant, the phoenix occurs in Central American,Eastern and European myth. It sets itself alight every hundred years,only to rise rejuvenated from the ashes after three days, symbolizing resurrection, immortality, and mankind's indestructible spirit.
An imporrant early Hindu god, Agni is usually shown riding a ram (A symbol of solar energy) and with seven tongues (the mystic number of creation). He was traditionally appeased with gifts of melted butter, which he was believed to lick up with his seven tongues.
In the East, incense is believed to offer protection against evil spirits. It is linked with purity and the ascent of the spirit death the heavens.
In native North American culture, smoke symbolizes peace and the path followed at death. It sometimes stands for ignorance (vision obscured).
The Ship Burial
In Scandinavia the bodies of Viking chiefs were cremated in long-ships,the rising smoke representing a return of the spirit to the sun,the giver of life.
The Greek Myth,Prometheus stole the fire (A symbol of the wisdom that differentiate divinity from mankind) from the Gods,concealed it in a hollow staff,and bought it to earth.He symbolizes the courage needed to challenge the decree of the Gods.
The shadows cast by an illuminated,decorated lantern were considered in the east to have an independent existence of their own.Lanterns were therefore used to project the auspicious symbols during celebrations.
In China,firecrackers are believed to bring luck and to frighten demons.They are set-off in groups of three to honour the Gods of health,wealth and longevity.
As the life-source and communication routes of ancient civilizations, rivers carry potent meanings. They represent the boundaries between countries or between life and death. In Hindu belief, rivers symbolize purification (the Ganges can wash away all shortcomings). They can also connote the passing of time.
Streams share some of the significance of rivers, but are closer to the creative source and therefore represent life and the "stream of consciousness" within which mankind lives. Four streams were said to flow from the foot of the Tree of Life in Paradise, carrying the life-force to the four corners of the world.
Water ascending as steam is the transformation of the material into the spiritual. Native North American tribes believed that steam possessed the combined purifying powers of fire and water, and used it in the Sweat Lodge ceremony, which represented the cleansing and revivifying of body, mind and spirit.
Water typically moves down toward the earth. Its emergence from the earth is usually taken to represent a sacred gift from the womb of the Earth-Mother herself. In the Islamic tradition, wells can stand for Paradise. Traditionally female, many are also credited with the power to heal or to grant wshes.
Boats and Rafts
The boat or raft symbolizes a safe passage across to the other shore. To the pure in heart, water presents no danger. Christ walked on the water, and many cultures have legends of holy men and women using the most unlikely craft with complete safety. Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is said to have used a stone raft, while Bodhidharma (above), who brought Zen Buddhism to China, crossed the Yangtze on a hollow reed.
Poseidon (Roman Neptune), the brother of Zeus, originally symbolized the cosmic power fertilizing the sea, and for this reason he is always shown with the trident (representing three, the number of creation). Later he came to stand for the power of the sea, and was credited with the ability to grant or withhold safe passage to mariners. He was a violent god, believed to be responsible for earthquakes.
Ice And Snow
Ice symbolizes sterility, coldness and rigidity, in humans and in nature. The melting of ice therefore heralds the return of life. Snow shares something of this symbolic meaning; however, being soft and beautiful, it also stands for latent truth and hidden wisdom.
Clouds And Mists
Clouds symbolize mystery and the sacred: in many cultures, the gods are shown enveloped in cloud. The Chinese believed that clouds were formed from the union of yin and yang, and therefore symbolized peace. For the Romans, the British Isles, shrouded in mist, symbolized the magical land at the end of the world.
As a life-giving blessing from heaven, rain has always symbolized divine favour and revelation, the descent of grace upon the earth. However, a deluge may be caused by the wrath of the gods or the desire to purge the earth of corruption. The innocent, of course, may perish with the guilty.
To those who live in their shadow, volcanoes are terrifying examples of the earth's destructive energy. The Persians associated them with Ahriman, the destructive force within the universe, who was shackled at the core of the earth to await the day of judgment. In Greek myth, volcanic activity was a sign that Hephaestos, the smith god, was busy in his workshop.
This protective, feminine symbol is associated with fertility, cultivation and water. In the Chinese and Christian traditions, the valley is linked with darkness and the unknown.
The meeting-places of heaven and earth, mountains symbolize masculinity, eternity, and ascent from animal to spiritual nature. Mountain tops are traditionally the home of the weather gods.
Probably a development of the Buddhist stupa (See Sacred Geometry) , the Japanese pagoda represents ascent to heaven, and traditionally has seven stories to mark the stages of this ascent. It also stands for Mount Meru, the world axis at the centre of the universe.
The cave is a feminine symbol, and carries a range of meanings. It can represent the heart of the world, the unconscious, the entrance to the underworld, initiation, or esoteric wisdom.
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