The Elements – building blocks of mythology
It might be said that there are two ways of looking at the the world, or of thinking about the world. One is mathematical and ultimately depends upon measurement. This way would say ‘Truth is what we can measure’. This way can be found since the earliest of times in Egypt and Mesopotamia. It is based upon understanding through logic. The other way of thinking is associative, symbolic and likes to correlate things with other things weaving a web of relationships and order from similarity. This mode too has been around since the beginning of civilisation, as the Babylonians building upon the Sumerians before them used this mode to interpret the data they so scientifically collected. “This star is rising: the king will fall dead” to loosely quote a Babylonian tablet. In Babylon, these two modes of thought lived happily together apparently without quarrel. Much of ancient science was built on solid logic and number, but much of it was not. It was built on solid association, intuitive symbolic thinking. Thinking that equates like with like. From logic’s stand point this magically creates cause and effect where there should be none. Symbolically this could be seen as the straight line mode and the curved mode. The square and the circle. The male and female. This is associative thinking. It is very important because without it you would not be able to read this text. This correlative way of thinking produced a huge edifice, an associative index of thought that was shared by almost all the major cultures. Historically we find that the same basic ingredients that have now mutated into various diverse schemes, were once a universal mythos from which modern scientific thought would emerge. This edifice brought together various ideas about the cosmos using an associative logic of like-equals-like. It is subjective, but logical. A bird is not an arrow but both can fly. They have something in common. The arrow then symbolises flight and movement and thus gives this symbol meaning. This is in essence magical thinking. Today, associative thinking has acquired a bad name being kicked out of the house of science and exiled to religion or the arts. But once they were entwined and celebrated as both relevant modes of understanding. Astrology and astronomy are divorced and not speaking. Alchemy, the mother of chemistry, has been rejected as childish nonsense. This is why you will find this knowledge in modern times hiding in both esoteric magical treatises, grimoires and religious texts but also in the history of science. It is the science that was, the poetic brother of modern exact logic, now hiding in the shadows of the occult.
These ideas, that compose the poetic logic, at their core are not complicated. Also culturally they are not so different from one another, as they shared, stole and copied from one another for thousands of years. The foundation of this world view or world picture, is astronomical as it is all about our place in the world and the origin of the cosmos. Ancient science was the first to propose a big bang, a cosmic explosion that created the universe. Modern science has worked out the details of an idea proposed by the first myths, the universal cosmic egg. From the seas of chaos, the uncreated, came the elements, created in their simplest form, from there ever to expand in a series of transformations into the world we know. This was the founding myth of ancient times, as it is today. Since the Greek Atomists first proposed that matter consists of sub elements or archetypes, indivisible units, from which all is made, scientific thought has been searching for them, naming them and defining them, confirming the theory in principle. They have now expanded the amount of separate elements, originally three or four, to 118 types of matter. In this way, much of modern science can be found to be the extrapolation of ancient themes, antiquated modes of thought that remain as fossils, unchanged in nature but defined into great detail. The four elements did not vanish though, as they now turn up as the four phases of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma. But even before the Greeks, poetic logic had organised the world according to the elements. It was the fundamental matrix upon which the edifice of ancient thought was built. It was never meant to be empirical or exact; it was a web of analogies, an index of affinities and therefore a form of poetry. Can this web can still be found? What did it look like, and how, if at all, did it work?
Traditionally the Elements were the fundamental parts from which everything was said to be made. Their place in the order of creation is the first division from the primordial unity. The first movement, the first steps of creation that created the two, the four, and sometimes more, elements. “There are four common elements,” wrote Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius (1566-1636), “and each has at its centre another deeper element [the archetype] which makes it what it is. These are the four pillars of the world. They were in the beginning evolved and moulded out of chaos by the hand of the Creator; and it is their contrary action which keeps up the harmony and equilibrium of the mundane machinery of the universe; it is they, which through the virtue of celestial influences, produce all things above and beneath the earth.” It is interesting to compare this to a modern interpretation: “during the formation of the universe in the so-called big bang, only the lightest elements were formed: hydrogen, helium, lithium, and beryllium. Hydrogen and helium dominated, lithium and beryllium were only made in trace quantities. The other 88 elements found in nature were created in nuclear reactions in the stars and in huge stellar explosions known as supernovas.” (source: https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/1727-how-elements-are-formed, abridged and edited by me).
Today, the elements are ordered according to their atomic number, which in a way, is according to the complexity of the atom. The lower the number the simpler the atom. This is related to its mass, which in essence is following the advice of Aristotle who ordered his elements according to density. This created the web of associations we know today as the periodic table, a wonder of associative thinking in itself. The periodic table gives us the four simplest elements as understood by modern science. It tells us that the substances with the least atoms are the simplest and therefore the lightest. This is in perfect accordance with Aristotle. Oddly these seem to be named after the Classical elements. The simplest element of all is called Hydrogen (‘Maker of water’). It is the chemical element with the atomic number 1 and the lightest element in the periodic table. Hydrogen is the most abundant chemical substance in the Universe. We might then assign this to the element water. Helium is the second lightest and second most abundant element in the observable universe. It has the atomic number 2. It is named after the Greek god of the sun Helios. As the sun is overwhelmingly hydrogen this seems a strange choice of name but we will assign this to the element fire anyway. Lithium with the atomic number 3 is a soft, silvery-white metal and the lightest solid element. It was named after the Greek- Lithos meaning stone, which would make it our element earth. Beryllium is the chemical element with the atomic number 4: a grey and hard, lightweight and brittle metal. It is the fourth most common element. I would have loved to assign this to air but it seems that here the poetry ends. In the cosmology usually attributed to Aristotle (ca. 400 BC), each of the elements had a weight. Earth was the heaviest, water less so, and air and fire the lightest. According to him, the lighter substances moved away from the centre of the universe and the heavier elements settled into the centre. Indeed this is the true order of phase change known to modern science and the true order as we find them physically on the planet. Today we use this mode of thought to define the elemental states of matter, as solid, liquid, gas and plasma. These two interpretations on the nature and creation of matter are so similar that we can either assume that science is recognising the same truths or simply seeing the world through the same lens.
We then see that what we call science is in fact a form of mythology, as even measurement is filtered through thought, interpreted through meaning. It is interpretation that distinguishes data from noise. We know through seeing but we see what we know. This insight is called the ‘philosophy of science’ and is an implicit admittance that all is built upon the foundation of myth.
P.S. want to be informed first when I post something new? Subscribe to my newsletter!
P.P.S. If you enjoy what I write here, and if you enjoy my art works, please consider making a donation on my page Buy Me A Coffee. I helps me do what I love best, inspiring people with my art. Thank you!