The Five Elements Across Cultures

I never cease to be amazed at how vastly different cultures throughout time and space can arrive at similar images, symbols, ways of thinking, and ways of looking at the world.  While I know that a certain amount of similarity can be attributed to the interaction of cultures and the resulting sharing of knowledge, I always wonder how much of our world view similarity is simply hard wired into our human brains.  Or how much of it simply IS how the universe works.

The widespread existence of element systems is an interesting example of this.  I am teaching a 5-day yoga intensive next week focused on the five elements and what their study has to offer us.  In doing research for this course, I started looking into all the different cultures that have had some kind of element system.

The oldest recorded use of a five element system is in ancient Babylon, in the 18th-16th centuries BCE.  Theirs was made up of earth, sea, fire, wind and sky.  Later, a similar system cropped up in the Ancient Greek tradition, as well as in China, Japan, Tibet, and India.  Now, there are differences between the systems – but I find the differences to be quite subtle.  As anyone who studies Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) will know, the Chinese system delineates earth, water, fire, wood, and metal. The Japanese system uses earth, water, fire, wind and what is often translated as “the void.”  The ancient Greek system, which most significantly affected European thought, delineated earth, water, fire, air, and ether.  This is similar to the element system that Arabic — and then Medieval European – scientists called “alchemists” used when attempting to transform base metals into gold.

The system we rely upon most frequently in yoga is the classical Hindu five elements system, or the “pancha mahabhutas” as they are called in Sanskrit.  The pancha mahabhutas are made up of akasha (ether), vayu (air), agni (fire), ap (water) and prithivi (earth) – not very different from any of the systems mentioned above.  Did these ancient Indians come in contact with the other cultures who had these systems?  Of course they did.  But did they wholesale adopt them from a traveling merchant?  Probably not.  I am tempted to think that they had already come up with some kind of element system, and that their interactions with travelers from other lands helped the to adapt and improve their system – and vice versa.

If that’s the case, and five element systems were more or less independently invented a number of times throughout history in a number of places, what does that mean for us?  To me, it suggests that they must have been onto something.  Thousands of years of multiple educated cultures around the world can’t be that far off.   Granted, when these systems began, earth, air, fire, and the like were thought to be the building blocks of nature.  Nowadays we have a much more detailed picture of the building blocks of nature; it is comprised of subatomic particles such as quarks, hadrons, and leptons.  The five elements to us seem more like “phases” of nature or of energy, now that we know a lot more about the structure of the physical world.  Regardless of what we call them, thought, they haven’t gone away.  Subatomic particles haven’t displaced the significance of the five elements in our world.

That for me is a good reason to study them.  For thousands of years people have looked at nature – and at themselves – through the lens of the five elements.  And this lens has offered them a tool to grow and shift and balance their habits and constitutions.


That’s what we’re going to do in our intensive next week.  We’ll investigate which elements are most present in our constitutions and personalities, and which we should open up to in order to be more balanced and graceful.

Hope you can join me!




~ by bridgetannlyons on March 2, 2012.

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