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Author Topic: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?  (Read 775 times)

Altair

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If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« on: October 13, 2019, 08:53:11 pm »
This question is aimed squarely at those pagans like myself who acknowledge the four elements of the classical Western tradition: earth, air, fire, and water.

What symbols do you use for them?

I can't explain why, but using the right symbols for something is very important to me. Somehow the right graphic symbol bypasses all the clutter of words and sums up the essence of something.

The images here might be a good starting point for discussion.

I favor the symbols from alchemy (first image, triangles of the bottom row), because--
--They are of old esoteric provenance
--It's tidy: a set of 4 shapes that echo and oppose each other, suggesting a coherent system of things that relate to one another
--(For those of us comfortable with gender polarity) The up-pointing triangles for fire and air tag them as "masculine" elements, while the down-pointing triangles for water and earth indicate their "feminine" nature

BUT they're somewhat arbitrary; there's little that inherently links any one symbol to that particular element.

In search of another set of symbols--one in which each symbol has a visual connection to the element it represents--I really like the line drawings of the top line of the first image:
--A simple pictorial reduced to the absolute minimum
--As with the alchemical symbols, a set of 4 shapes that echo and oppose each other, suggesting a coherent system of things that relate to one another
--The lines of fire are the only ones that are oriented vertically, appropriate for an element that stands apart from the others as a transitional state

BUT I'm indifferent to the symbol for air; it's the least intuitively connected to its element. It makes sense in the context of the others, but when I think of air visually, I think more of spirals with long tails (like in those old-time drawings of wind: the swirling lines coming from the pursed lips of blowing clouds). But that would destroy the conceptual symmetry of the line images.

Does anyone know where those line symbols come from? (At first I thought they might be poached from pop culture--the movie The Fifth Element--but I looked those up, and while similar, they're not nearly as clearly delineated, one element from the other.) Are there other symbols that you use for the elements?
The first song sets the wheel in motion / The second is a song of love / The third song tells of Her devotion / The fourth cries joy from the sky above
The fifth song binds our fate to silence / and bids us live each moment well / The sixth unleashes rage and violence / The seventh song has truth to tell
The last song echoes through the ages / to ask its question all night long / And close the circle on these pages / These, the metamythos songs

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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #1 on: October 14, 2019, 01:27:11 pm »
This question is aimed squarely at those pagans like myself who acknowledge the four elements of the classical Western tradition: earth, air, fire, and water.

What symbols do you use for them?

My practice is fairly lax about which exact symbols I may use, although it has certainly persistently suggested to me that these elements matter.

Fire is usually a small flame; water a droplet, wave, or set of wavy river-like lines; earth is usually a set of triangles suggesting mountains; and air is variously a lightning bolt or a cloud.

I have not felt the need for more esoteric symbols for the elements yet.
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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #2 on: October 14, 2019, 05:07:16 pm »
This question is aimed squarely at those pagans like myself who acknowledge the four elements of the classical Western tradition: earth, air, fire, and water.

What symbols do you use for them?

I can't explain why, but using the right symbols for something is very important to me. Somehow the right graphic symbol bypasses all the clutter of words and sums up the essence of something.

The images here might be a good starting point for discussion.

I favor the symbols from alchemy (first image, triangles of the bottom row), because--
--They are of old esoteric provenance
--It's tidy: a set of 4 shapes that echo and oppose each other, suggesting a coherent system of things that relate to one another
--(For those of us comfortable with gender polarity) The up-pointing triangles for fire and air tag them as "masculine" elements, while the down-pointing triangles for water and earth indicate their "feminine" nature

BUT they're somewhat arbitrary; there's little that inherently links any one symbol to that particular element.

In search of another set of symbols--one in which each symbol has a visual connection to the element it represents--I really like the line drawings of the top line of the first image:
--A simple pictorial reduced to the absolute minimum
--As with the alchemical symbols, a set of 4 shapes that echo and oppose each other, suggesting a coherent system of things that relate to one another
--The lines of fire are the only ones that are oriented vertically, appropriate for an element that stands apart from the others as a transitional state

BUT I'm indifferent to the symbol for air; it's the least intuitively connected to its element. It makes sense in the context of the others, but when I think of air visually, I think more of spirals with long tails (like in those old-time drawings of wind: the swirling lines coming from the pursed lips of blowing clouds). But that would destroy the conceptual symmetry of the line images.

Does anyone know where those line symbols come from? (At first I thought they might be poached from pop culture--the movie The Fifth Element--but I looked those up, and while similar, they're not nearly as clearly delineated, one element from the other.) Are there other symbols that you use for the elements?

I love symbols for the elements, and I often use different sets depending on what I am doing. 

I did a study a while back, on the alchemical symbols (it's not my main area of study, so I remember only bits and pieces of it), and I know there was a method to the symbols (or at least modern peoples had assigned value to the cross-bar).  I vaguely remember it having to do with density, but I can't find my notes for this, so I don't have any references.  Someone much stronger in Ceremonial stuff or Alchemy might know.

I actually really like the symbols from Avatar (the Last Airbender), and I personally don't have a problem using pop-culture symbols.  To me, these are more decorative, not always great for a quick notation.

While I do like the alchemical symbols, and I can remember which way the triangles point, I always get trippped up on the line, so I tend to use the basic circle symbols if I need a quick notation (empty circle for fire, circle with a dot in the center for air, circle with a single line through it for water, circle with a cross in it for earth).  I actually think they both follow the same density/weight concept, with the idea being that we can feel the pressure of air, so it has more substance than fire (which is only heat/light but has no push).  I don't know why my brain holds the circles better than the triangles..but it does.

I also have in my books a basic I-Ching four element system of bigrams (each is two lines, each line is either whole or broken, just like for trigrams but only two lines), where earth is two broken lines, air is a whole on top of a broken, fire is two hole and water is a broken on top of a whole.  I find this one tricky because orientation matters (and I never remember it if I don't have my notebook in front of me).

Finally, I have a set where earth is a square, air is a circle, fire is a triangle (point down...dunno if it matters actually) and water is a crescent moon (points up).  I do like this one for each element having a separate and thematic symbol.  They are simple, so easy to inscribe in things.

But, most of the time, if I am marking the symbol of an element down, I just flip to my chart of the alchemical triangles and use those.
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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #3 on: October 14, 2019, 05:47:12 pm »
Does anyone know where those line symbols come from? (At first I thought they might be poached from pop culture--the movie The Fifth Element--but I looked those up, and while similar, they're not nearly as clearly delineated, one element from the other.) Are there other symbols that you use for the elements?

They may well be something put together by a modern designer - a cursory search turned up no hints about their origins.

I kind of like the circle symbols, but like the trianges, they seem arbitrary to me. I don't do much with four-element symbolism personally, but my first intuitive response to the question was to arrange symbols in inward-pointing right angles. What the symbols themselves would be, I'm not sure yet. I'll try to sketch and upload something to show what I mean.

Altair

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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #4 on: October 15, 2019, 12:10:42 am »
While I do like the alchemical symbols, and I can remember which way the triangles point, I always get trippped up on the line

Before I became "fluent" in the alchemical triangles, I used this trick to remember them: A is for air (up-point with a bar). From that I knew that its opposite, earth, was the flipped version. That just left the open triangles, and water flows down (down-point), and fire shoots up (up-point).

Quote
, so I tend to use the basic circle symbols if I need a quick notation (empty circle for fire, circle with a dot in the center for air, circle with a single line through it for water, circle with a cross in it for earth).  I actually think they both follow the same density/weight concept, with the idea being that we can feel the pressure of air, so it has more substance than fire (which is only heat/light but has no push).  I don't know why my brain holds the circles better than the triangles..but it does.

I also have in my books a basic I-Ching four element system of bigrams (each is two lines, each line is either whole or broken, just like for trigrams but only two lines), where earth is two broken lines, air is a whole on top of a broken, fire is two hole and water is a broken on top of a whole.  I find this one tricky because orientation matters (and I never remember it if I don't have my notebook in front of me).

Finally, I have a set where earth is a square, air is a circle, fire is a triangle (point down...dunno if it matters actually) and water is a crescent moon (points up).  I do like this one for each element having a separate and thematic symbol.  They are simple, so easy to inscribe in things.

But, most of the time, if I am marking the symbol of an element down, I just flip to my chart of the alchemical triangles and use those.

I think all these systems are great, offering different strengths; it really depends on the circumstance and what works for you. For me, the problem with the circles is that I already have strong and dedicated symbolic associations for the circle (spirit / the Great Goddess), the circle with a dot (the astronomical symbol for the sun...which totally botches any air [rather than fire] association for me), and the crossed circle (all four elements at their four compass points = the astronomical symbol for the planet Earth and, for me, the earth-mother goddess). Some symbols can serve double duty, but these are too strongly connected in my mind to what I've just described.
The first song sets the wheel in motion / The second is a song of love / The third song tells of Her devotion / The fourth cries joy from the sky above
The fifth song binds our fate to silence / and bids us live each moment well / The sixth unleashes rage and violence / The seventh song has truth to tell
The last song echoes through the ages / to ask its question all night long / And close the circle on these pages / These, the metamythos songs

Altair

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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #5 on: October 15, 2019, 12:17:34 am »
I'll try to sketch and upload something to show what I mean.

Please do!

Quote
[The line symbols] may well be something put together by a modern designer - a cursory search turned up no hints about their origins.

Yes, googling around didn't give me any background info, which suggested to me too that they were of modern designer origin. A very good modern designer, because their elegant simplicity has only grown on me, despite the shortcomings of the symbol for air, as I've turned it over in my head over the last 24 hours. They feel like they *should* have an ancient provenance--which is a sign to me that they're working on a deep level.
The first song sets the wheel in motion / The second is a song of love / The third song tells of Her devotion / The fourth cries joy from the sky above
The fifth song binds our fate to silence / and bids us live each moment well / The sixth unleashes rage and violence / The seventh song has truth to tell
The last song echoes through the ages / to ask its question all night long / And close the circle on these pages / These, the metamythos songs

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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #6 on: October 15, 2019, 02:02:45 pm »
Before I became "fluent" in the alchemical triangles, I used this trick to remember them: A is for air (up-point with a bar). From that I knew that its opposite, earth, was the flipped version. That just left the open triangles, and water flows down (down-point), and fire shoots up (up-point).

I think all these systems are great, offering different strengths; it really depends on the circumstance and what works for you. For me, the problem with the circles is that I already have strong and dedicated symbolic associations for the circle (spirit / the Great Goddess), the circle with a dot (the astronomical symbol for the sun...which totally botches any air [rather than fire] association for me), and the crossed circle (all four elements at their four compass points = the astronomical symbol for the planet Earth and, for me, the earth-mother goddess). Some symbols can serve double duty, but these are too strongly connected in my mind to what I've just described.

I never thought about "A for air" with the triangles, that is great!

I totally see your point about symbols being more strongly associated with another thing.  I find I look for context clues and it works for me, but definitely see how that wouldn't work for everyone.

I do think it's interesting that there aren't more, simple, options for symbols for the elements, given that many people like to inscribe candles or draw out symbols with herbs.
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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #7 on: October 15, 2019, 07:17:48 pm »
Please do!

Scribble attached. I was going for graphic simplicity akin to written characters; easy to tell apart from each other and recognize in various sizes. Plus, I kind of like them  ;)

Quote
their elegant simplicity has only grown on me, despite the shortcomings of the symbol for air, as I've turned it over in my head over the last 24 hours.

For me, the reverse has happened - in coming up with my own ones, it occurred to me that the four-line symbols could be hard to distinguish at a distance or at small sizes; and in the absence of color/orientation cues, 'fire' and 'water' would definitely get mixed up.

Not to mention that, in the course of 24 hours, I remembered them wrong: I thought Earth=straight lines, Water=angled lines (association with the Egyptian hieroglyph, probably) and Air=wavy lines. Good thing I pulled the image up again to check.

Altair

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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #8 on: October 15, 2019, 11:03:01 pm »
Scribble attached.

Upper left water seems clear; after that, I get hazy. Lower left fire, upper right air, lower right earth? Or did I mix it up?
The first song sets the wheel in motion / The second is a song of love / The third song tells of Her devotion / The fourth cries joy from the sky above
The fifth song binds our fate to silence / and bids us live each moment well / The sixth unleashes rage and violence / The seventh song has truth to tell
The last song echoes through the ages / to ask its question all night long / And close the circle on these pages / These, the metamythos songs

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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #9 on: October 16, 2019, 02:04:08 pm »
Upper left water seems clear; after that, I get hazy. Lower left fire, upper right air, lower right earth? Or did I mix it up?

That would be how I read them, with the point of the corner as 'down, the wave (top left) for water, the wind (top right) for air, the root (bottom right...it looks like a little seedling pushing up out of the ground) for earth, and the sun (bottom right) for fire.

Those are really cute, I like them!
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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #10 on: October 16, 2019, 06:36:02 pm »
Upper left water seems clear; after that, I get hazy. Lower left fire, upper right air, lower right earth? Or did I mix it up?

Almost - I meant lower left to be a hill with plants, and lower right a candle flame. Unambiguous symbols are hard, LOL.

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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #11 on: October 16, 2019, 06:37:18 pm »
Those are really cute, I like them!

Thank you  ;D

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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #12 on: October 17, 2019, 02:27:38 pm »
Almost - I meant lower left to be a hill with plants, and lower right a candle flame. Unambiguous symbols are hard, LOL.

now that you pointed it out, I can see that too!
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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #13 on: October 17, 2019, 03:32:51 pm »
now that you pointed it out, I can see that too!

As can I. And its simplicity, along with the 4 quarter arrangement, is esthetically pleasing
The first song sets the wheel in motion / The second is a song of love / The third song tells of Her devotion / The fourth cries joy from the sky above
The fifth song binds our fate to silence / and bids us live each moment well / The sixth unleashes rage and violence / The seventh song has truth to tell
The last song echoes through the ages / to ask its question all night long / And close the circle on these pages / These, the metamythos songs

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Re: If the 4 Elements, What Do Your Symbols Look Like?
« Reply #14 on: October 17, 2019, 05:23:58 pm »
Almost - I meant lower left to be a hill with plants, and lower right a candle flame. Unambiguous symbols are hard, LOL.

I nailed it (smug mode enabled)!
"Everything's made up of elements, right? Earth, Water, Air, Fire and... sunnink. Well-known fact. Everything's got 'em all mixed up just right."
Character Nobby Nobbs in the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett's Discworld novel The Truth

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