In traditional cultures, air
is often seen as a universal power or pure substance. Its fundamental importance to life can be seen in words such as spirit, inspire, expire, and aspire, all derived from the Latin spirare
Greek and Roman Tradition
is one of the four classical elements
in ancient Greek philosophy
and science. According to Plato
, it is associated with the octahedron
is considered to be both hot and wet. The ancient Greeks used two words for air
meant the dim lower atmosphere, and aether
meant the bright upper atmosphere above the clouds. Plato
, for instance writes that "So it is with air
: there is the brightest variety which we call aether
, the muddiest which we call mist and darkness, and other kinds for which we have no name.... Among the early Greek Pre-Socratic
(mid-6th century BCE) named air
as the arche
(first principle of the world). As it grows warm and rarefied, air
becomes fire; as it cools and condenses it becomes water, then earth and rock. A similar belief was attributed by some ancient sources to Diogenes Apolloniates
(late 5th century BCE), who also linked air
with intelligence and soul (psyche
), but other sources claim that his arche
was a substance between air and fire. Aristophanes
parodied such teachings in his play The Clouds
by putting a prayer to air
in the mouth of Socrates
Air was one of many archai proposed by the Pre-socratics, most of whom tried to reduce all things to a single substance. However, Empedocles of Acragas (c. 495-c. 435 BCE) selected four archai for his four roots: air, fire, water, and earth. Ancient and modern opinions differ as to whether he identified air by the divine name Hera, Aidoneus, or even Zeus. Empedocles’ roots became the four classical elements of Greek philosophy. Plato (427-347 BCE) took over the four elements of Empedocles. In the Timaeus, his major cosmological dialogue, the Platonic solid associated with air is the octahedron which is formed from eight equilateral triangles. This places air between fire (four triangular sides) and water (twenty triangular sides), which Plato regarded as appropriate because it is intermediate in its mobility, sharpness, and ability to penetrate. He also said of air that its minuscule components are so smooth that one can barely feel them.
Plato’s student Aristotle (384-322 BCE) developed a different explanation for the elements based on pairs of qualities. The four elements were arranged concentrically around the center of the universe to form the sublunary sphere. According to Aristotle, air is both hot and wet, and occupies a place between fire and water among the elemental spheres. Aristotle definitively separated air from aether. For him, aether was an unchanging, almost divine substance that was found only in the heavens, where it formed celestial spheres.
In ancient Greek medicine, each of the four humours became associated with an element. Blood was the humor identified with air, since both were hot and wet. Other things associated with air and blood in ancient and medieval medicine included the season of spring, since it increased the qualities of heat and moisture; the sanguine temperament (of a person dominated by the blood humour); hermaphrodite (combining the masculine quality of heat with the feminine quality of moisture); and the northern point of the compass.
The alchemical symbol for air is an upward-pointing triangle, bisected by a horizontal line.
वायु ), also known as Vāta
पवन (meaning the Purifier) , or Prāna,
is a primary deity, who is the father of Bhima
and the spiritual father of Lord Hanuman
. As the words for air
(Vāyu) or wind (Pavana) it is one of the Panchamahābhuta
the "five great elements" in Hinduism. The Sanskrit
word 'Vāta' literally means "blown
", 'Vāyu' "blower
", and 'Prāna' "breathing
" (viz. the breath of life, cf. the *an- in 'animate
In Indian tradition the element Air is also linked to Shani or Saturn and the north-west direction.
is not one of the traditional five Chinese classical elements
. Nevertheless, the ancient Chinese concept of Qi
is believed to be close to that of air. Qi
(spelled in Mandarin Pinyin romanization
), pronounced tɕʰi, also ch'i
romanization) or ki
(in Japanese romanization
), is a fundamental concept of traditional Chinese
culture. Qi is believed to be part of every living thing that exists, as a kind of "life force
" or "spiritual energy
". It is frequently translated as "energy flow", or literally as "air" or "breath". (For example, "tiānqì", literally "sky breath", is the ordinary Chinese word for "weather
"). In Mandarin Chinese it is pronounced something like "chee" in English, but the tongue position is different. (See .) The concept of qi is often reified
, however no scientific evidence supports its existence.
The element air also appears as a concept in the Buddhist religion, which has an ancient history in China.
Some modern occultists equate the Chinese classical element of wood with air.
In Modern Magic
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn
, founded in 1888, combined ideas from many different sources including Rosicrucianism
, the angelic system of 16th-century magician John Dee
and his assistant Edward Kelley
, Hermetic Qabalah
, and recent archaeological discoveries of Egyptian
magic and religion. Thus air
and the other Greek classical elements were incorporated into the Golden Dawn system despite being considered obsolete by modern science. Theoricus (2=9) is the elemental grade attributed to air
; this grade is also attributed to the Moon
and the Qabalistic sphere Yesod. The elemental weapon
is the dagger, which must be painted yellow with magical names and sigils written upon it in violet. Each of the elements has several associated spiritual beings. The archangel of air
, the angel is Chassan, the ruler is Aral, the king is Paralda, and the air elementals
) are called sylphs
is considered to be active; it is represented by the Man and the symbol for Aquarius
, and it is referred to the upper left point of the pentagram in the Supreme Invoking Ritual of the Pentagram. Many of these associations have since spread throughout the occult community.
In the Golden Dawn and many other magical systems, each element is associated with one of the cardinal points and is placed under the care of guardian Watchtowers. The Watchtowers derive from the Enochian system of magic founded by Dee. In the Golden Dawn, they are represented by the Enochian elemental tablets. Air is associated with the east, which is guarded by the First Watchtower.
is one of the four elements appears in many neopagan
in particular was influenced by the Golden Dawn system of magic, and Aleister Crowley
's mysticism, which was in turn inspired by the Golden Dawn. Common Wiccan attributions include:
- The cardinal direction of east.
- Yellow, or pastel colors. (Some associate air with green or even a light blue.)
- The wand or the athame.
- Woodwind instruments.
- The suit of Wands or Swords in the Minor Arcana of tarot. Swords are traditionally associated with Air, and still are in most Tarot decks, however, increasingly decks are being published with Wands associated with Air and Swords with Fire. This is still a matter of debate within the esoteric and Wiccan community.
- Mind, intellect, consciousness, study, communication.
- The alchemic notion of Azoth.
- Sunrise, childhood, spring, beginnings.
- Birds, insects, flying creatures.
- Masculine energy.
- Many gods and goddesses, including Aradia, Athena, Hermes, Mercury, Nuit, Shu, Thoth, and Zeus.
People born under the astrological signs of Libra, Gemini and Aquarius are thought to have dominant air personalities. Air personalities tend to be kind, intellectual, communicative, social, and helpful. They also have a dark side.
was the god of air
in ancient Sumer
was the ancient Egyptian
god of air
and the husband of Tefnut
, goddess of moisture. He became an emblem of strength by virtue of his role in separating Nut
(sky) from Geb
(earth). He played a primary role in the Coffin Texts
, which were spells intended to help the deceased reach the realm of the afterlife safely. On the way to the sky, the spirit had to travel through the air
, as one spell indicates: "I have gone up in Shu, I have climbed on the sunbeams.
In East Asia, "air" is seen as the equivalent of "spirit" or "chi," or wood (classical element) or metal (classical element) are sometimes seen as the equivalent of air which is represented by the Azure Dragon, known as 青龍 (Qīng Lóng) in Chinese, Seiryuu in Japanese and Cheong-ryong (청룡, Hanja:靑龍) in Korean. Air is represented in the Aztec religion by a snake; to the Scythians, a yoke; to the Hindus and Greeks, a sword; and in Christian iconography, as mankind.
References and Further Reading
- Barnes, Jonathan. Early Greek Philosophy. London: Penguin, 1987.
- Brier, Bob. Ancient Egyptian Magic. New York: Quill, 1980.
- Guthrie, W. K. C. A History of Greek Philosophy. 6 volumes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962-81.
- Cunningham, Scott. Earth, Air, Fire and Water: More Techniques of Natural Magic.
- Hutton, Ronald. Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 2001.
- Kraig, Donald Michael. Modern Magick: Eleven Lessons in the High Magickal Arts. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1994.
- Lloyd, G. E. R. Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968.
- Plato. Timaeus and Critias. Translated by Desmond Lee. Revised edition. London: Penguin, 1977.
- Regardie, Israel. The Golden Dawn. 6th edition. St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1990.
- Schiebinger, Londa. The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
- Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. 3rd edition. 1999.
- Valiente, Doreen. Witchcraft for Tomorrow. Custer, Wash.: Phoenix Publishing, 1978.
- Valiente, Doreen. The Rebirth of Witchcraft. Custer, Wash.: Phoenix Publishing, 1989.
- Vlastos, Gregory. Plato’s Universe. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1975.