This post originally appeared at The Oak Wheel on August 28th, 2014.
I’ll come right and say it: I’m tired of elemental systems that shamelessly rip from the Greeks, Chinese, or Japanese, especially when they do so without really understanding what these people were getting at. Like, if you’re going to go with Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, would it kill you to read a little Empedocles, and maybe Aristotle or Proclus or something? Just doing that would give your system a blast of fresh air to differentiate it from the rest of the crowd.
But all of this has been done already. Like I want to say to every fantasy author who refuses to move beyond Tolkien, can we do something else now? I’m sure that somebody can play the old hat and make it look like new, but Sturgeon’s Law applies doubly-well when it comes to beating dead horses: most of it is sheer, undiluted crap.
The second half of this article will discuss some lesser-used elemental systems but first I want to discuss, you know, making your own. Discard your assumptions and everything you know or think you know about the universe. Get into the mindset of the culture that this system is embedded in, whether it’s magical or purely philosophical, and ask yourself “What would make sense to these people?”
Not everyone used the same elements. That’s why we have different systems to begin with. And— this cannot be emphasized enough— question all your assumptions. “Would they really think that this thing was fundamental or important, or is that just an idea that I’m bringing to the table?”
Limyaael gives a few examples of this philosophy in action: “Perhaps your own imaginary culture is very heaven-oriented, and chooses as the elements sun, stars, moons, and cloud. Perhaps the sky, earth, and sea are considered elements, and nothing else is, because nothing else is a place that humans can travel through. Perhaps snow and ice are important to northern cultures, but not to southern ones.”
But remember: “If you’re trying for a serious tone, the twee addition to elemental magic ruins it, especially when it has nothing in common with the other elements. Restrain yourself.”
Limyaael, incidentally, was (I think) referencing the Babylonian system in that second example of hers: it also included “wind,” for a total of four elements, and “sky” was analogous to the aether in the Greek system. It was non-terrestrial stuff (in one of my projects, where elementals seem to be partly influenced by cultural perceptions of their element, Sky elementals kind of resemble astronaut zombie things whose suits may only be “suits”).
There are three systems that I’ve dabbled notably with in a notable way. The first is based on the Chinese Bagua or trigrams: Heaven, Wind, Water, Metal, Earth, Thunder, Fire, and Wood. The second was written for an entry in my Culture Column series: Absence, (three-dimensional) Space, Sky, Fire, Earth, Water, and Flesh. As the article explains, each one was thought to lead to the next, and the thought process manages to be both logical for the culture and pretty unlike anything else that I’ve seen before.
The third, which doesn't have a good presence anywhere on the web, was very biocentric and based on bone (inanimate substance), blood (animating force), flesh (animate substance), fear (the compulsion away from things), and desire (the compulsion toward things). The latter two come into play because, in a possibly materialistic twist on the concept, the mind was considered to be just as much a part of the world as anything else, and it was decided that everything could ultimately be understood as either “wanting to get something” or “wanting to avoid something.”
Flesh, or animate substance, could exist without an animating substance, as demonstrated by the existence of things like earthworms and jellyfish, which apparently didn’t have any blood to speak of. On the other hand, things that did have blood could be counted on to become inanimate if they lost too much, so obviously there were some beings that needed an animating substance and some that were solely Flesh.
(I’ve said it before, but feel free to take any of the ideas that I drop in public)
If you’d like some homework then here’s a project for you: Figure out a system used by a people who reasoned that if the universe was born from chaos or void, then the real fundamental elements were absences, not presences. Before fire there was cold. Before light, darkness.
What else would there be in this system?
IRL elemental systems
The classic (and Classical) elemental system is Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. Aether was added by Aristotle, who reasoned that because the first four elements were corruptible but no change had ever been observed in the Heavens, the universe beyond must be made of another, incorruptible “quintessence.”
Aristotle assigned as well special qualities to the basic four: Air and Fire were hot, Air and Water were wet, Earth and Fire were dry, and Earth and Water were cold. Proclus thought that the elements had special qualities but gave his own system: Fire was sharp, subtle, and mobile and Earth was blunt, dense, and immobile. These could be considered “more fundamental” than the other two because they were fully opposed and shared no qualities. Air and Water were almost transitional: Air was mostly like Fire but lost sharpness in exchange for bluntness and Water went one step further, losing subtlety to denseness.
Jābir ibn Hayyān left out Aether and added “the stone which burns,” sulphur (representing combustibility) and mercury (metallic properties). Paracelsus built upon Hayyān’s additions and discarded the original system entirely in favor of sulphur (flammability), mercury (volatility), and salt (solidity). In burning wood, mercury/cohesion left in the form of smoke, the fire was the manifestation of flammability (which acted upon the mercury/volatility in the wood), and what remained in the form of ash was the salt, or solidity, of the wood.
In some astrological systems, the opposing forces were Air/Water and Earth/Fire. The Tibetan system was like the Classical but the fifth element was (three-dimensional) Space.
The Japanese Godai, which were broader and more symbolic than the Classical: Earth was solid things, Water was all liquid, Fire was that which destroyed, Air was moving things, and Void was things that were outside of normal experience.
The Chinese Wu Xing were also symbolic, more steps in a process than ever-distinct substances, and they are often translated as “movements” or “phases.” Wood fed Fire, which created Earth, which held Metal, which was used to hold Water, which nourished Wood. On the other side, Wood (roots) divided the Earth, which absorbed Water, which quenched Fire, which melted Metal, which chopped Wood.
If you base your system off of either of these then see what you create when you keep in mind that they’re not just the Classical Greek system with an element or two added on or switched out.
What else could you draw on? Howabout:
- The four (or five) humors: Sanguine/Blood, Melancholic/Black Bile, Phlegmatic/Phlegm, and Choleric/Yellow Bile (with the optional “Leukine,” associated with white blood cells). If you’re going for some kind of magic system, emotional powers based on the humors haven’t been overdone yet.
- The four (or five) cardinal directions: North, East, South, and West (with the optional “Center”). This may seem weird but if you’re inspired by the Tibetan emphasis on Space then you can be assured of having fresh territory to trod if you figure out how to base the elements entirely on spatial relationships.
- The seven chakras: Time/Space, Dark/Death, Aether/Light/Life/Lightning, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth.
“My grandmother used to tell me stories about the old days, a time of peace when the Avatar kept balance. But that all changed when the Nitrogen Republic attacked…”
Your turn: What’s another elemental system that you’ve found or made yourself?