Monday, 28 January 2008

Four elements vs Three realms

The term “elements” has some different meaning according to the frame of reference we are talking about.

In science, when we refer to elements, we refer to the atomic chart of elements that conform the human known universe. From Hydrogen to Ununseptium, the 117 elements are for use in chemistry and physics.

As for realms, science considers to be five main living realms animalia (animals or metazoans), plantae (vegetables), fungi (superior fungus), protista (protozoan, eukaryotic alga & inferior fungus) and monera (bacteria and prokaryote alga).

These definitions are in constant change, with the new discovers that science make everyday.

I said that to avoid any confusion for the topic I’m going to talk about. As many spiritual definitions, we are not talking about science words, but metaphors.

In western tradition is very common to refer to the four elements for everything is created, or related, four main forces that conform the spirit of the things.
This concept came from pre-platonic Greeks, the elements, as you probably know are:

Γαια, gaia earth
ύδωρ, hydor, water
άήρ, aer, air
έιλή, heile, heat (fire)

They represent in Greek philosophy, science, and medicine the realms of the cosmos wherein all things exist and whereof all things consist.

Pythagoras added a fifth element, Aether αιθήρ, also called quintessence (from the Latin quinta essentia, "fifth element") representing the space above the earth, but also representing the spirit, soul and ideas. A non-matter element.

There’s a beautiful song by Cielo y Tierra, a Mexican quartet that says “Tierra mi cuerpo, agua mi sangre, aire mi aliento y fuego mi espíritu” (earth my body, water my blood, air my breath and fire my spirit).

This concept is also found in one of the most ancient pagan religions, Hinduism.

Prithvi / Bhumi — Earth
Ap / Jala — Water
Vayu / Pavan — Air / Wind
Agni / Tejas — Fire
Akasha — Aether

How ever, this concept is far of being a universal one, as an example, Chinese tradition speaks of five “earthly” elements: metal, wood, water, fire, earth.
Some has used the scientific idea of the four states of matter, to validate the greek concept (solid, liquid, gas and plasma) but is an inaccurate one, since plasma is not fire as we know fire, moreover fire (or heat) is used to change a matter from one state to another (and not all matter can be changed from state, for example, living things, I mean the Carbon based life, can’t pass to gas or plasma state, since carbon is reduced to ashes.

That leads me to the Celtic point of view about the cosmos and how is it form.

As state shortly in a post below, three was a sacred number to the celts. They see even numbers as unbalanced ones, there’s a need of something between that bring balance to that; so was with elements.

This elements were called Talam (earth) , Muir (sea) and Nem (sky). This elements are not total abstractions, we can see them surrounding us, we can feel them as we walk in our lifes. Celtic rituals don’t invoke these elements, nor dismiss them, since they’re always present in our lives. “Invoking” the elements makes no sense, since they are within us and around us.

How ever, the spiritual meaning for each is not only their physical description. It’s important to take into account that the meanings are not to be associated with the dualistic paradigm. They are not Good/Bad, Female/Male, Light/Dark elements, we can encounter these attributes within them, but not limited to. As told before, the dualistic approach of the western culture, including the mainstream monotheist religions and most of the pagan ones, is not applicable to the celtic point of view.

Talam, is the land, and the centre, where we walk, where we live, it’s the midworld. It means solidity, and stability. We can manifest it as a rock, or a tree. It’s our body.

Muir, is the ocean, the water that sorround us far or close, it’s emotionally and spirit oriented, transformative, chaotic, liminal, it’s our sensorial and intuitive being. We can manifest it as a water, from a river, from a well, from the sea. Well are often used as passages to the Underworld, were we can encounter our ancestors, It’s our blood.

Nem is the sky, it’s mind and wisdom oriented, illuminating, ecstatic, is the source of life and consciousness, a life force. Ancient Celts believe that the soul was in our heats, as part of our mind. It’s manifest in the world as the sky, and if we travel beyond we can encounter with the stars. It’s our breath.

There’s also a denomination for these in welsh celtic tradition, as Calas, Gwyar & Nwyfre

That is applicable to all human experiences, and inter-relations, I read an example that makes it clear.

Let’s take our food, the Talam are the elements of the dinner: meat, vegetables, grains, etc. Muir is the cooking process, the transformation, the flow from raw to cook. Finally, Nem is the mental dimension, how we select the ingredients, the recipes, the skills and personal seasoning of the cook. This is a easier example, but you can think in several more.
Irish has a name for the colour of the three realms, Glas, this word means green/grey/blue, colours associated with the Other World, the Tir nan nÓg. Green for the earth, grey for the sea, blue for the sky. Meaning a state where the three realms join and pure wisdom and illumination is reached.

Returning to the initial thought, about the states of matter, solid, liquid and gas could be far easy associated to the realms, and plasma could be interpret as a travel beyond the sky, when we reach the stars… an Aislingthe (let’s remember that plasma is a very new concept, not known by the Celts, or even by our fathers when they went to school)

Meditations about these realms are far and beyond the uses of this blog, but I hope to get the spirit and explanation of why a Celtic ritual and worship, shouldn’t include the four greek elements.

. . . muir mas, nem nglas, talam cé . . .

`the beautiful sea, the blue heaven, the present earth . . .'


onis said...

wow, aprendo más contigo que con los libros :p

me gustó mucho el punto de vista de los celtas, deberías de escribir un libro sobre ellos


Kproefrock said...

Nicely put, Aelfarh! Very concise and, in my opinion from the things that I have read, an accurate summation of the Celtic perspective. It gets harder when we start talking about "why not use the Greek model of the four elements", because that seems to be the dominant ritual form in the Neo-Pagan movement at the present time (It certainly was my ritual structure for the first twenty years of my practice). I take a very polytheistic approach to my spiritual practice and I find that those Deities that I am communing with in the process seem more receptive to the three element model of the world. I realize that that is a very nebulous thing to say, but, nonetheless, it is true. I somehow sense a smoother flow and a more congruent connection. I am curious about your perspective, I have gathered that you take more of a monotheistic approach (perhaps I am assuming too much?) Do you get a similar sense of immediate congruency from ritual based in a three element versus a four element foundation? It makes me wonder if, besides being more historically sound, if it is a practically more suitable approach for other people.
Thank you for a very intriguing and thought provoking post, I am glad that I found your blog!
Happy Imbolc!

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