Part of the journey of a Mason is to familiarize yourself with the concepts presented in lodge, and to discover their meaning for oneself. While there are, of course, interpretations shared and passed down through the generations between masons, part of what makes Masonry so unique among teachings and spiritual practices of the world is that the kernel of what is preserved is fundamentally symbolic, and ultimately each brother’s understanding of the symbols are his or her own. There is no explicit, concrete orthodox doctrine regarding the meaning of any particular symbols, and thus the craft is free to evolve and learn as a collective, while also preserving something ancient and unspoken, but embodied and felt.
Among the symbols of the lodge and masonic rituals are the elements, being the four classical elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire. Various Orders, Jurisdictions, and Lodges place more or less emphasis on the elements and discuss them in different ways. Without revealing any aspects of the rituals themselves, we can say that in spite of not being universally emphasized throughout all of Freemasonry, the elements are nevertheless important to any thorough study of esotericism and the mysteries. In fact, the more esoteric a particular branch of Freemasonry is, the more emphasis it is likely to place on them, which can perhaps explain why in Universal Co-Masonry, they are significant from the very beginning of one’s masonic journey. So, how can we view the elements with a Masonic eye, and understand their significance for our lives and our Craft?
While the literal or scientific aspects of elements are a part of the puzzle, alone they are insufficient to understand why the elements are so important to Freemasonry. The significance of the elements in masonry are as symbols, and symbolism is a language of its own. This is also the language with which we interpret dreams or literature, it is the language of direct experience, the forms of experience, and how they represent to the unfolding of consciousness.
What is the purpose of looking at the elements symbolically? The first clue we may find here is that the elements are, by definition, what make up the World, and also us. This is traditionally why the elements are regarded as significant, in the first place. Therefore, we can look at the elements as essential components of the World, and since World and Self are ultimately one, essential components of the human experience, as well. Just as we can also think of the elements as corresponding to different states of matter, in chemistry/physics the states of solid (Earth), liquid (Water), gas (Air), and energy (Fire), we can also think of them as representing states of experience, mind, or consciousness.
The element Earth is the most solid and stable of the four, with the least dynamic or changeable qualities. Rather than being a source of energy, or particularly subject to energetic changes, it tends to absorb energy, and diffuse it without much actual change to the element itself. A great example is the grounding of a lightning rod; although an enormous amount of energy is going into the Earth, the energy is quickly diffused, without much change to the Earth itself. Fire is another example, because while water is often the most effective method of extinguishing a fire, due to its other qualities which make it easy to blast from a hose, technically pouring Earth on Fire would always be the most effective method of extinguishing the Fire’s dynamic energetic consumption. Unlike the water, the Earth is also not evaporated by the Fire.
In terms of form and change, Earth has the highest degree of inertia, it is the least susceptible or slowest to change. It also has the greatest structural integrity, as buildings constructed from stones, a type of Earth, can last for centuries or even millenia. It also literally forms the ground upon which we stand, and upon which all structures are built, so in that sense Earth is also the archetypal essence of basis, foundation, stability. As such, we may see the corresponding aspects of consciousness, mind, and experience to be those which share these qualities: survival, stability, being grounded in physical reality, in bodily experience; also any state of mind which involves a high degree of inertia, whether that is viewed as a positive, as in mental and emotional stability, or a negative, as in stubbornness.
The element Water is a bit less solid and stable than Earth, but still less dynamic and changing than Air or Fire. Unlike Air, it is more obviously bound by gravity, and unlike Fire, it does not emit energy. Water is an element which flows, always finds the path of least resistance, and takes on the form of whatever container or environment it comes into. Because it is more susceptible to the changing influence of energy than Earth, it is able to be evaporated, from the lowest and warmest places, and then to be placed down again, especially in the highest or coolest places. Because of this dynamic, as we all know, it creates a cycle which flows over and nourishes the Earth, and makes Life possible. If Water were a bit more inert, it would simply stay in the ocean and be a giant pool; if it were a bit less inert, it would stay above the Earth in the form of clouds, and never come back down. As such, water holds a special place among the elements, as it touches and travels between all of them, as is in alignment with its essential quality of flow.
In terms of symbolism, we typically view Water as representing emotion, but why? Again, as with Earth, its mostly because of the experiential similarity of water’s essential qualities to those of our emotions. Like Water, our emotions simply flow through us, based on whatever occurs in our experience, in relation to the relative energetic dynamism of change. For instance, an excess of Fire or energetic change in our lives will heat our Water, which we usually experience as anger or passion. In such cases, we may say that things are getting “steamy,” or we were “piping hot” with anger. On the other hand, if there is a relative lack of dynamic, energetic change, our emotions may become totally solid, like ice, and people in such a state we refer to as cold, or frigid, because their emotion/Water has stopped flowing, has become like Earth. When our emotions are in their normal liquid state of flow, we experience them as simply coming of their own accord, not particularly within our control, and they “wash over” us, or hit us “like waves.” Hence, Water generally represents emotion.
As we examine the first two elements, it becomes obvious that they represent different points along a spectrum. What is the nature of that spectrum, what is the primary variable? The spectrum seems to range from the most inert elements, which is also to say those most bound by the force of gravity or inertia, and least susceptible to the force of energetic change and motion, or perhaps freedom of motion. In astrology, these would correspond to the qualities of being mutable or fixed. Just as we view the elements as representing aspects of one’s self, they are also seen to be parts or states of mind and experience which are more or less susceptible to inertia and change, stillness and dynamism, and perhaps, Order and Chaos.
Within these two elements alone, we can see this spectrum begin to emerge, as Earth is most bound and least susceptible to energetic change, and Water a bit less so, with its ability to change, become like solid Earth or gaseous Air temporarily, while its most essential quality is to flow between them. Herein lie many clues to the mystery of the elements, and as we continue our journey in the next post, we will see even more meaning, and gain a greater understanding of what the elements are within ourselves.