Monday, September 26, 2011

The Four Classical Powers

I made a brief mention of using the four classical powers in elemental work over at Robert's place a couple of weeks back. I have found that many magicians, even some who make fairly extensive use of the classical elements in their work, are often unfamiliar with how the powers fit into the elemental schema used in modern magick. Much of the material in this article is adapted from John Opsopaus' Ancient Greek Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements, which I highly recommend that all modern ceremonialists familiarize themselves with in order to better understand how the elements relate to each other.

The doctrine of the elements began with the ancient Greeks, notably Empedocles and Aristotle. Empedocles proposed that four basic powers or qualities could be found in the natural world. These powers are Warm, Cool, Moist, and Dry. Warm and Cool are complementary powers, as are Moist and Dry. Aristotle went on to explain the nature of these powers in greater detail. The Warm power separates things, while the Cool power unites them. The Warm power also represents expansion and the Cool power represents contraction. The Dry power gives objects form and rigidity, while the Moist power is receptive and adaptive to its surroundings. Warm and Cool are considered active powers, whereas Moist and Dry are considered passive powers.


Aristotle further hypothesized that the elements of nature are what scientists now refer to as the states of matter, and that they arise from the four powers. The combination of these powers gives us the four classical elements, in the following manner:
As Earth consists of the other three elements in addition to itself, in effect Fire, Air, and Water have dual attributions, to Netzach, Hod, and Yesod respectively and also to Malkuth. The powers, as basic qualities of the natural world, are attributed exclusively to Malkuth, though they may be represented on the Tree of Life along with the elements for the purposes of the pentagram rituals. In terms of the four Qabalistic worlds, the powers represent Assiah, the material world, and the elements represent the joining of Yetzirah, the formative world, with the material world. In terms of the parts of the soul, the powers represent the Nephesh or animal soul and the elements join the Nephesh with the Ruach, or intellect.

Aristotle explained several ways in which one element could be transformed into another. Elements that share a common property can be reversibly transformed into each other depending upon the quantities involved. For example, since Water and Air share the Moist property, Water can be transformed into Air by exposing it to a greater quantity of Air, but if the amount of Water is increased so that the quantity of Water becomes greater, the transformation can be reversed and the Air will be converted back into Water. Also, a mixture of opposed elements can be irreversibly transformed by exposure to a third element. For example, if a mixture of Fire and Water is exposed to Air, the result is that the Fire and Water will be transformed into Air, taking the Warm power from Fire and the Moist power from Water. Opposed elements cannot be directly transformed into each other, but must instead go through the intermediate stage of transformation into and adjacent element.

Understanding of the primary and secondary powers is the key to understanding the interactions of the elements, as explained by Raymon Lull, who extended Aristotle's system. When two opposed elements interact, either Water and Fire or Air and Earth, they neutralize each other, producing a result that is either one or the other depending upon the quantities involved. However, if the quantities of the opposed elements are precisely balanced, they unify instead of negating each other. This union of opposites leads to the accomplishment of the Great Work of alchemy. Most magical orders seek to trigger this process in their initiates using the solve et coagula process. The elements are first isolated and developed, which is the solve phase of the work. Once this is complete, the coagula phase consists of invoking all four elements, and thus the two opposed pairs, in a balanced configuration in order to elevate the consciousness of the initiate into the sphere of Tiphareth.

The interaction of unopposed elements yields a result depending on the primary and secondary powers. For example, the process of evaporation can be explained as the interaction of Water and Air. The Warm power of Air negates the Cool power of Water, leaving the Moist power, which the two elements have in common. The result is Air, because it is primarily moist. The process of dissolving a solid, such as a salt, into a liquid solvent can be explained in the same way. The Moist power of Water is negated by the Dry power of Earth, leaving the Cool power. The result is Water, because Water is primarily Cool. Earth extinguishes Fire because the warm power of Fire is negated by the Cool power of Earth, resulting in Earth because Earth is primarily cool. Finally, combustion may be explained as Fire interacting with Air, in which the Moist power of Air is negated by the Dry power of Fire, resulting in Fire because Fire is primarily warm. Lull referred to these relationships as the “cycle of triumphs,” in which Air triumphs over Water, Water triumphs over Earth, Earth triumphs over Fire, and Fire triumphs over Air

A second cycle attributed to the powers is the organic cycle, which describes the processes of nature as they occur throughout the year. The vernal equinox corresponds to the Moist power, as it is the season of rain and melting snow. The moist power then gives way to the Warm power, which corresponds to the summer solstice, when the Sun is at its highest point. The Warm power gives way to the Dry power, corresponding to the autumnal equinox as it is the season in which life goes dormant in preparation for winter. The Dry power then gives way to the Cool power, which corresponds to the winter solstice, when the Sun is at its lowest point. Finally, the Cool power gives way to the Moist power at the Vernal Equinox and the cycle starts all over again.

All of these cycles and relationships between the powers and the elements are shown in the figure above, based on a diagram which first appeared in John Opsopaus' The Ancient Greek Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements. The diagram also shows the standard symbols for the elements and powers. I have modified the color scheme presented by Opsopaus so that the four elemental symbols are shown in the Golden Dawn colors, and the four power symbols are attributed to colors using a scale that I have developed based on the attributions of Hermetic Qabalah.

The powers have the following associations.

Warm - Analyzing, discriminating, separating
Cool - Loving, creative, unifying
Moist - Receptive, changeable, flexible
Dry - Grounded, stubborn, inflexible

In order to integrate the powers into the Golden Dawn elemental system, I have developed a color scale that includes both the powers and the elements. According to the Golden Dawn system, the following colors are attributed to the four elements.

Fire - Red
Air - Yellow
Water - Blue
Earth - Green or Black

This leaves two more secondary colors in addition to black and white. These remaining colors actually fit the powers quite nicely, according to the attributions of Hermetic Qabalah. I have attributed them as follows.

Warm - Orange
Cool - White
Moist - Purple
Dry - Black

The Warm power, as the power of discrimination and analysis, has a clear affinity with Mercury, the planet representing intellect. The natural color for the sphere of Mercury, Hod, is orange. The Cool power, as the power of union and unification, has an affinity with Kether, the sphere corresponding to the number one and therefore the point on the Tree of Life where all things merge together into a single whole. The natural color for Kether is white. The Moist power, corresponding to changeability and adaptability, has an affinity with the Moon, which represents shifting emotions and feelings, and also the chaotic unconscious mind. The natural color of the sphere of the Moon, Yesod, is purple. Finally, the Dry power, which is the power of giving form, has an affinity with Saturn, the planet of structure and containment. The natural color of the sphere of Saturn, Binah, is black. These attributions allow the powers and elements to be represented without any duplication of colors.

The process of internal alchemy can be augmented significantly by an informed application of these powers. By invoking the powers individually it is possible to accomplish the transformation of the various elemental aspects of the personality with greater precision. In practice, many magicians work with the four elements as if they embodied their primary powers, but treating the elements in this manner can lead to confusion stemming from the natures of the secondary powers which will also be present when an element is invoked. If what you need in your life is attributed to one of the four powers, it is far better in invoke it directly.

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