The four elements are fundamental to Paganism and occult studies. However, just as the atoms of the chemical elements contain smaller particles (protons, neutrons, electrons), the metaphysical elements have components as well. These are the four qualities: hot, cold, wet (often called moist), and dry.*
The qualities may be seen as active and passive. The active qualities are hot and cold; the passive ones are wet and dry. “Active,” in this case, means capable of acting (on other qualities), while “passive” means susceptible to the influence of the active qualities. That sounds kind of circular; what it means in plainer English is that the hot quality can make something drier, while the cold quality can make it moister—but the dry quality can’t make something hotter and the wet quality can’t make it colder.
The elements are more than just literal fire, earth, air, and water, and the qualities are more than their literal counterparts as well. Hot and cold describe how energetic something (or someone) is, how much vitality it has. For example, as a conflict heats up, it’s more likely to become violent. But if you take a break from an argument to cool off, you’re trying to be less passionate about it and calm down. Or compare people who are “hot-blooded” with those described as “cold-hearted.”
Wet and dry describe how discrete, formed, and hard things are. Wet means without a fixed shape, amorphous, pliable. Things which are wet by nature are flexible, supple, changeable, and resilient…and fluctuating and unstable. Dry things, on the other hand, are formed, defined, distinct, and firm…and inelastic and brittle. Not having much in the way of boundaries, wet things join together, while dry things tend to stay neatly compartamentalized. A conspiracy theorist could be described as strongly wet, seeing links and connections between events that their opposite, the (dry) skeptic considers completely unrelated. All the qualities are on a spectrum, though, so while a rubber ball is drier than a cotton ball, it’s wetter than a marble
Elements consist of two qualities. Although you can make six pairs out of the four qualities, pairing the opposites (hot/cold, wet/dry) cancels them out. This leaves four combinations, and in each element, one quality is stronger than the other:
- air: hot and wet
- fire: hot and dry
- earth: cold and dry
- water: cold and wet
Pairing them this way means that each element is a combination of an active and a passive quality. Ancient writers often used these paired qualities to describe the seasons. Spring is hot and wet, the qualities associated with growth. Summer is hot and dry. Fall is cold and dry, the qualities associated with dormancy. Winter is cold and wet. As you can see, the seasons—and the elements, for that matter—change one quality at a time (this reminds me of those doublets word puzzles, the ones where you change one word into another by changing just one letter in each step).
As with many of these bits of esoteric knowledge I come across, I’m not sure if there’s an easy way to incorporate them into Pagan practice, or if there’s even any need to do so. The first thing that comes to mind is the quarters of the circle. Often in Wicca and Paganism, we associate air with spring and the east, fire with summer and the south, water with fall and the west, and earth with winter and the north, and these associations are reflected in our circles. Using this system with the qualities, air and fire have the same seasonal associations, but earth and water trade places. This would make a circle where opposite elements lie opposite to each other, yet the elements progress both clockwise and counter-clockwise. I appreciate the symbolism of the classic circle, but I must admit this other version appeals to my sense of order.
*The modes are also called qualities, but they were the subject of my M post.