The concept of the elements has existed since ancient times and has been used in countless works of fiction. It is an idea that attempts to explain the complex world in terms of simpler components.
In this post, first I will take a look at some element systems from real-life cultures, then I will look how to use elements in magic systems, then finally, I will show you the creative process with an example from my own worldbuilding.
The Four Elements (Plus Aether)
These are the ‘four elements’ that you are probably familiar with: earth, water, air and fire. The philosopher Empedocles was first to propose these elements in western culture. Various other philosophers added more details to these elements over time. Similar element systems exist in various other cultures including India, Tibet and Japan. However, details involving associations and properties may differ from culture to culture, so I will focus the western interpretation here.
Aristotle observed that four elements were constantly changing but very little change occurred in the heavens. This led him to the conclusion that the heavens must be made of a separate fifth element which he called aether.
Aristotle also assigned two properties to each of the four earthly elements:
- Fire is hot and dry.
- Air is hot and wet.
- Water is cold and wet.
- Earth is cold and dry.
Alternatively, the philosopher Proclus proposed that each of the four elements had three properties:
- Fire is sharp, subtle and mobile
- Air is blunt, subtle and mobile
- Water is blunt, dense and mobile
- Earth is blunt, dense and immobile
Note that unlike Aristotle’s properties, not every possible combination is used. Fire is the only sharp element and earth is the only immobile element.
Additional Elements from Medieval Alchemy
Medieval alchemists added additional elements to the five mentioned above. Paracelsus added three new elements called the tria prima:
- Sulphur – which represents combustibility, a way of justifying why some substances were more flammable than others
- Mercury – which represents cohesion, and keeps various substances intact
- Salt – which represents solidity
Paracelsus also proposed that each of the four original elements had a spirit that embodied that element:
- Salamanders embody fire
- Sylphs embody air
- Undine (which is a generic term for water spirits) embody water
- Gnomes embody earth
Wŭxíng: The Chinese Five Elements
The Chinese elements are rather different. They consist of: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The word Wŭxíng is sometimes translated into ‘five elements’ but this has a bit of western interpretation. A much more accurate translation would be ‘five phases’ or ‘five movements’. The point I’m trying to make here is that unlike the western elements they are more concepts rather than literal substances. However, like the western elements, they are used to explain a wide range of phenomena and therefore carry out a similar philosophical function.
What’s really interesting about this system is how they interact in cycles. The two main ones are the generating (shēng) and the overcoming (kè) cycles:
The Generating Cycle:
- Wood fuels fire
- Fire produces ash (earth)
- Earth contains metal
- A bucket (metal) contains water
- Water causes trees to grow (wood)
The Overcoming Cycle:
- Roots (wood) grow into the earth
- Earth absorbs water
- Water puts out a fire
- Fire melts metal
- An axe (metal) chops wood
These five elements are important parts of traditional medicine, astrology and martial arts, and so they have a lengthy list of associations. Some examples are listed below:
|Element||Season||Planet||Sense||Flavour||Yīn Organ||Yáng Organ|
Using Elements in Magic systems
Elements can provide a way for magic systems to be subdivided. This can help limit the abilities of a magic-user by having them specialise in a particular element.
With elemental powers, you should consider where required material is sourced from. The most obvious source is just to move around matter from the environment. This limits the magical abilities to the amount of material in the available in the surrounding area. In other words, water-based powers are not going to be very useful in the middle of a desert.
Alternatively, the material could be created. If so, then what is it created from? You could have a primordial element that creates the other elements, logically the use of elemental powers will be dependent on the availability of the primordial element. Or, you could have a deity for the creation of each element, so the ability to manipulate each element will depend on how much faith or dedication there is to that deity.
It’s also important to consider how the elements interact. If you want a balanced system then you could use a rock-paper-scissor style cycle, like the Wŭxíng. Alternatively, you could have a hierarchy where some elements are stronger than others. To balance this out, you would have to put some kind of limitation on the stronger elements; for example, the more powerful elements are rarer or harder to control.
Building an Element System: The Nìmpyèràn Elements
In this section, I’ll demonstrate the creative process by explaining an element system from my own worldbuilding project. This is an element system traditionally used by a species known as the nìmpyèràn.
The first step in creating an element system is to consider what concepts are most important to the culture and fit with the worldbuilding. The most common elements to have are water, fire and earth. Water is vital to life, so even a culture that lives in a desert would probably still consider it to be an element. Fire is important in the development of civilisations, but if a culture doesn’t have fire then maybe the sun or light would take its place. A species that lives on land would very likely consider the earth to be an element.
Elements are simplifications of materials in the surrounding world, so each element should represent some important concept. In the four elements system, for example, earth, water and air represent the three everyday states of matter (solid, liquid and gas respectively) while fire represents energy. Try thinking about the properties and nature of each element.
Below I’ve listed the five Nìmpyèràn elements along with the concepts they represent:
- Sle̤ – ‘fog’ which represents flow and unpredictable change
- Ha – ‘water’ (literally ‘freshwater’) which represents potential
- Tsa̤a – ‘life’ which represents growth and reproduction
- Gi̤ – ‘earth’ which is solid and resistant to change
- Adi̤ – ‘fire’ which is powerful and destructive
I admit it is basically the four elements plus ‘life’, but this is intentional as I want to keep it familiar and believable (ie. it sounding like a real-world culture would come up with it). I advise trying to avoid making it ‘too original’, as this would result in some weirdly specific things being elements. However, that sort of thing would work if you are aiming for a more humorous tone.
Also, note that I have been selective with my word choice when ‘translating’ these elements. There is a persistent fog in my world so I used the word ‘fog’ and not ‘air’, as the air is considered to be an absence of the fog. Also, I mention that ‘ha’ is literally freshwater, as that is considered to be the pure form of water.
For these elements I have created various associations including colour, subspecies of Nìmpyèràn, sacred animal and a platonic solid:
For more ideas, I recommend taking a look at TV trope’s ‘Elements of Nature’ page and the other related pages that it links to. Also, check out my Pinterest board that I’ve made to complement this blog post.