Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Classical Elements, Alignment, and World-Building


The Four Symbols for the Elements are shown below the Alchemical Figures above, from Johann Daniel Mylius’ Philosophia reformata (1622).
The classical systems of elements popular in the great civilizations are usually known to gamers in quaternity: fire, air, water, and earth.  These four are also popular in the contemporary imagination thanks to the Avatar cartoons.  Adopting conceptions of these has seemed a natural (haha!) move for cosmological mythopoesis.  If you are working on the big picture for a game setting, you can immediately start thinking of these in terms of alignment.  I like doing so using the axis of Chaotic to Lawful.  Keep in mind that I am not being absolutist here and saying that all comprised of these elements are Chaotic or Lawful, but that the preponderance of an element seems to tend in a particular direction.  Asking myself what would be the archetypal nature of each element in terms of alignment, I find myself with the table below:

Four ElementsAlignment
FIREChaotic
AIRChaotic
WATERChaotic
EARTHLawful

This is telling for me in two ways: first, the physical world is more aligned with Chaos than it is with Law.  Moreover, the element closest to humanity (humus-human or earth-men) is Law.  Hence, humans, (and for that matter, dwarves) are usually tied more closely to Law in RPG materials because they are tied to, and perhaps even primarily composed of, earth.  "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Genesis 2:7).  If they are primarily of the element which stands in contrast to the rest of the elements alignment-wise, this is a source of conflict.  There is a problem, however, when it comes to these four elements being enough to comprise the cosmos.  Air-atmosphere is one thing, but what about those heavenly or spiritual substances that are not material or physical?  Those that are literally no-thing?  If the atmosphere and its winds are chaotic, are not the heavenly orderly?  Don't the heavenly bodies provide the regular movements by which we may measure the terrestrial bodies below?  Is not the King of Heaven a deity of Law, the Law-giver himself?

These considerations bring us to face-to-face with the fact that many, if not most, many versions of the classical elements total five rather than four.  Consider the refinement below, which will use the letter Q to stand for the fifth, derived from Aristotle's quintessence.  


Five-Element System
Q Lawful
FIRE Chaotic
AIRChaotic
WATERChaotic
EARTHLawful

This schema might seem like just a Western variant, or perhaps even too Christian, but comparison to Indian, Japanese, and Tibetan systems reveal that it is not uniquely Aristotlean or Judeo-Christian.  (NB. I find the sections on Buddhism and China most inadequate and even confused/confusing and advise you to look further afield rather than make too many assumptions based on that portion of the Wikipedia entry.)  The system of five elements is dealing with questions and problems of thought that the fourfold system was insufficient to deal with.  Air needed to be split up to account for the kinds of questions above and beliefs about the realm above the dome of the sky.  You may call Q as best fits with your mythopoesis, but note the terms used for it in the past: Void, Heaven, Space, Aether, Spirit.  As we have moved from ancient Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, we found a need to distinguish what was once a single word: wind/breath/spirit.  While the winds of the air blow where they will, the heavenly spirits proceed in the stately movement of their spheres -- precise and predictable. And note that, even in the world of Avatar, the story can't leave well enough (supposedly, four) alone.  The avatar (incarnate in a particular element-bender) can achieve an Avatar-state, and in addition to the standard four there is energy bending.
Image Source
A five-element cosmology still provides for plenty of conflict (three-fifths of the categories of all things are fundamentally against us?!) and for the idea that there is some connection between a transcendent Law and its reflection on earth.  For those who do not divide the elements into five but retained the four-element system, I would recognize the "split" within Air by saying that the element is Neutral.

Next time: Using this general conception of world building with gaming particulars.

1 comment:

  1. 3 elements in older systems like iraq- no fire
    void/shadow/spirit a fith element in india

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