The Elements: What Are Their Significance for Freemasonry? [Part 2]

The Elements: What Are Their Significance for Freemasonry? [Part 2]

In our previous discussion in Part 1, we began an examination of the elements as symbols, and we will continue with that here.

We covered the first two elements, Earth and Water, and discussed their essential qualities, and symbolic correlates in mind or consciousness. As we continue with Air and Fire, the reader will do well to recall the importance of structure and fluidity, as well as inertia and change. 


 

Air

The element Air is a step up in dynamic quality from Water, yet not quite like Fire. In many ways, Air is different and yet not so different from Water. Like Water, it rises when heated, and falls when cooled. Like Water, it flows around the globe, in the form of wind. Yet, unlike Water it has a quality of expansiveness, there is more outward pressure, and less downward pressure, as it doesn’t fall or flow in a liquid form. One critical aspect of Air in our own experience is that it is the most immediately necessary element to our biology, we can go much longer without food (Earth) or drink (Water), than we can without Air. Air is an essential ingredient of Fire, and without it, Fire will immediatelyelement air die. Air has a spacious quality to it, it offers very little resistance to movement, and anything light enough can actually float or fly, which is essentially like swimming in the ocean of Air.

So, what is Air within us? As with the previous elements, clues lay in our direct experience of it. When we are in the Air, we can see clearly the furthest, like the eagle flying high above, yet able to see the smallest mouse. We refer to the most intellectual human endeavors as the “Ivory Tower,” which is of course high above and far removed from the rest of human life, able to see it all through the Air. The same could be said of mountains, which are also where saints and great teachers are often said to be found, those who are wise and “see” the true perspective of life. Air also resonates with the concept of freedom, precisely because of the lack of obstruction, and freedom is often embodied symbolically as flying – like a bird. Therefore, Air is freer and less inert than the previous three elements, and corresponds to aspects of our mind and experience which are most free and clear. Part of what Air represents is pure mind, or intellect, it is the mental space within which clear images, thoughts, and conceptual models can be formed. 

Fire

In many ways, the element Fire seems to be separate from the other three elements. Rather than being a something, a substance, fire is more of a process, a change. Fire transforms one thing into another, and also separates one thing from another. The simplest example is the separation of the gases trapped within a log from the inert earth that is left over in the form of ashes, after the burning of that log. Additionally, it involves radiation, the freeing of not just gas, but also energy which was latent within the element firesubstance that burned, giving off both light and heat. Thus, in a way it can be viewed as a transformation of that which is bound into that which is free, of matter into energy.

We can say that the essential qualities of fire are dynamism, change, transformation, and purification. In a sense, although it appears separate, fire is also the source of all other elements, for it is only by the fire of the sun that all things have motion and existence. Without Fire, all would be motionless darkness.

For these reasons, it can also be difficult to pin down the exact symbolic meaning of Fire within us, although it clearly seems significant. Certainly, Fire dwells within us, in the form of energy produced by the slow chemical “fire” of the gut, and without the Fires of our various biochemical processes, including neural Firing, we would die even more quickly than we would without Air. In terms of our consciousness, represented by light, since Fire emits light, perhaps Fire represents that which creates or liberates consciousness from matter?

In myth, Fire is featured as the gift which Prometheus stole from the Gods to give to man, which allowed humanity to have knowledge and civilization. Certainly, the discovery of Fire and how to use it is often regarded as the beginning of true Human existence, and also technology. Even those Human cultures which we regard as most primitive still possess and utilize Fire. In terms of the gradient from inertia to dynamism, certainly Fire is at the farthest dynamic end of the spectrum; representing a release of energy, it is even more “free” than Air. Fire, in a way, represents pure change, pure dynamism.

The Elements in Perspective

What is this universe? One way to answer is to say that it consists of these elements, but what does that really tell us? Another compatible perspective is the one given in the perennial philosophy, the philosophy of the Vedas and the Idealists, that this reality is most fundamentally consciousness, or mind. This is a concept being re-visited by many modern philosophers as panpsychism, due to various shortcomings in our attempts to explain the universe purely in materialistic terms. This is also the perspective generallypanpsychism four elements accepted within the occult traditions, and in fact the wisdom traditions of most cultures, if you dig deeply enough. That all is ultimately mind is also described in the Principle of Mentalism, from the Kybalion.

If all of the universe contains elements of mind or consciousness, then perhaps the dichotomy between viewing the elements symbolically vs. literally is unnecessary. If all is mind, which is tantamount to saying that all is a dream, perhaps these are simply different iterations of the same essential dynamic or pattern, at different levels of the dream; as above, so below; as within, so without. If the different elements are different forms of the same fundamental mind-stuff, whatever that fundamental substance might be. It seems to me that these elements represent a process which begins being bound by inertia, of which Earth would be the extreme, being gradually subjected to change, until it eventually becomes more and more free, of which Fire is the extreme.

This whole process could be viewed as a transmutation from matter into energy or light, just as the Fire is matter being transformed, to light the darkness. Of course, as without, so within, and some version of this same process is going on within all of us. The most matter-bound aspects of us are gradually being acted upon and transformed by the forces of change, whether from within, or from without. Every experience is to some greater or lesser degree a catalyst within this process, and causes “movement upon the waters of the deep”. Eventually, this process culminates in the ignition of Fire within us, of the inner Light.

alchemy four elementsOur pains and our pleasures, our highs and our lows ultimately give birth to the dawn of true Awareness, what some might call Gnosis. Why? Because just as the light which is emitted by Fire was previously trapped within the matter of the fuel, that Divine Spark has always been latent within us, watching, waiting for its moment to arise. 

Now, we come full circle to Freemasonry, and the significance of the elements symbolically to the Craft. What are we doing as masons, if not kindling, stoking, and maintaining a light in the darkness – a Fire in the denseness and confusion of material existence? Every element plays its part, and exists within all of us; the culmination of the interplay of those elements, when utilized skillfully, is the igniting of that Promethean Light, within the self and within the world. What nobler endeavor could one set oneself to, than that of bringing light to the darkness within oneself, and within all of humanity?

The Four Elements: What Do They Mean in Freemasonry? [Part 1]

The Four Elements: What Do They Mean in Freemasonry? [Part 1]

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?

Elements as Symbols

four elements symbolsWhile 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.

Earth

four elements earthThe 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.

Water

four elements waterThe 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.

The Inert Half of the Elemental Spectrum

elements earth and water

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.

To Be Continued…