Since water is effected by gravity, its nature is to flow down from above. In fact the visual symbol for water is a downward pointing triangle. Water from an above place flowing down is active until it arrives in the below place. Water in downward movement is active and has more aspects of the masculine Yang in it. Water moving down finds symbolism in rivers which represent the linear flow of time. The most extreme form of water in downward movement is in waterfalls offering the most extreme symbolism of uncontained downward moving water. Water at its most passive is symbolized by lakes and ponds and other small bodies of water. This type of water reflects because of its smooth surface and it is not surprising that this type of water draws people close to it to engage in the act of refection. It is significant here that the myth of Narcissus centers around the hypnotic power a reflective surface of water possesses. It was this state of water that served as the first mirror for mankind.
The oceans and other large bodies of water in the world is a type of middle ground between the activity of rivers and the passiveness and reflection of lakes. The symbol of agitated "troubled waters" has traditionally related to the phantom flux of the material things of life and relates to the illusions and vanities of life. Agitated waters are more subject to climatic conditions involving wind than to geographic terrain. Deep waters such as seas, lakes and wells have a symbolism related to the dead and the supernatural.
Water plays a major part in various weather phenomena. Rain storms and snow storms involve the free-fall of water from above to below. Floods occur when containment of water fails. Tidal waves involve the movement of water by the element of earth while hurricanes and tornedos involve water movement through the element of air. Clouds, fog, humidity and mist symbolize in-between states where water is mixed with air and becomes something like earth-bound clouds with certain elements of clouds. Like a time of twilight between night and day, water in this "twilight" state is represented by fog and mist.
Among the four basic elements fire has been called is the "ultra-living element." One of the most brilliant analysis of fire symbolism ever undertaken is Gaston Bachelard's Psychoanalysis of Fire. In the book, Bachelard makes this point about this unique "lifeness" of fire:
"It is intimate and it is universal. It lives in our heart. It lives in the sky. It rises from the depths of the substance and offers itself with the warmth of love. Or it can go back down into the substance and hide there, latent and pent-up, like hate and vengeance."
The conception of a hidden interior world of fire, Bachelard notes, is the basis of Dante's Inferno.
Traditionally, fire has represented the active and masculine or the Yang of Chinese symbolism. Its major symbolism is related to the sun and the powers of transformation and purification. Its basic movement is upward rather than downward like water. Traditionally, the basic symbol for fire is an upward pointing triangle or pyramid. Colors of fire are the advancing colors of red and orange and the aspects of fire are flames and rays. Whereas water has different states related to movement or rest fire is always moving and consuming.
The place of fire in natural systems is represented by deserts and mountains. The deserts symbolize the quality dryness and heat associated with fire and the mountains symbolize the upward pyramid shape of fire. Similar to the element of fire which they represent, deserts have tradionally been associated with purification. Elements of place symbolism associated with fire is day time and specifically noon when the sun's light and heat is the greatest. The association with the sun makes fire an above space phenomena rather than a below or within space phenomena. A natural phenomena which represents fire is lightning, and the phenomenom of fire out of control is symbolized by the forest fire.
There is an interesting relationship of fire with the symbolic place of Paradise. In An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J.C. Cooper discusses the origin of the expression "baptism by fire." The term is associated with an experience which restores primordial purity by burning away the dross of life by passing through fire to regain Paradise. Since Paradise was lost it has been surrounded by fire or protected by guardians with swords of flame. These guards and their fire symbolize understanding barring the way to the ignorant or the unenlighteded.
To Gaston Bachelard, fire holds a central place in the experience of mankind. In Psychoanalysis of Fire he notes that "fire has been an occasion for unforgettable memories" and that there is a "...slightly hypnotized condition, that is surprisingly constant in all fire watchers." This hypnotized condition is related to a state of "reverie":
"...the reverie in front of the fire, the gentle reverie that is conscious of its well-being, is the most naturally centered reverie. It may be counted among those which best hold fast to their object or, if one prefers, to their pretext."
To Bachelard, fire is the prime element of reverie. "If fire," he says, "was taken to be a constituent element of the Universe, is it not because it is an element of human thought, the prime element of reverie?" It is almost certain, Bachelard says, that "fire is precisely the first object, the first phenomenon, on which the human mind reflected." Interestingly enough, a number of modern observers have compared television to fire calling it the "electronic fireplace."
Fire and heat have been used to symbolize human emotions and particularly emotions associated with sexual power. This association can be seen in popular cliches such as "they warmed up to each other" or "she gave him a cold shoulder" or in "the heat of passion." Bachelard makes some interesting and unusual observations about the relationship between fire and sex observing that the "love act is the first scientific hypothosis about the objective reproduction of fire" and that "...the conquest of fire was originally a sexual conquest."
Bachelard writes about the surprising dichotomies of fire. "Among all phenomena," he notes, "it is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil. It shines in Paradise. It burns in hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and it is apocalypse."
Fire is also related to the process of change. Bachelard notes that slow change is defined by the process of life and quick change is explained by the process of fire. As he notes "fire suggests the desire to change, to speed up the passage of time, to bring all life to its conclusion, to its hereafter." In this sense, all that changes slowly can be explained by life while all that changes quickly can be explained by fire." As Bachelard says, "through fire everything changes." Bachelard reminds us that when we want everything changed we call on fire.
Earth is symbolized by the image of the Earth Mother which is a universal symbol for fecundity, inexhaustible creativity and sustenance. The element earth represents the feminine and passive or the Yin of Chinese symbolism and is traditionally portrayed geometrically by a square or cube and visually with the colors brown, black or yellow. Its qualities are cold in opposition to the heat of fire and steady, solid and unmoving in opposition to fire's constant movement.
Place symbolism most closely related to the earth element are those places below or within the earth. Mountains rise above the earth and therefore find symbolism with fire and air. On the other hand, oceans, caves, hollows, canyons and valleys are within earth and relate to earth element symbolism. The most widely used earth symbolism is the valley which symbolizes fecundity and stands in opposition to mountains symbolizing a lack of vegetation and fecundity.
The traditional belief within symbology is that air is the primary element. Along with fire its general symbolism is related to the masculine archetype and the active Yang element. Fire and air are related in that fire is not possible without air and is created from the compression of air. The geometric shape which symbolizes air is an arc or a cirle and the symbolic colors associated with air are blue and gold. Aspects of air are dryness, lightness and mobility. One of the major philosophers to utilize air symbolism was Nietzsche who saw air as a kind of higher and more subtle matter, the very stuff of human freedom.
There are two major ideas related to the element of air. One is the idea of breathe and breathing and the other is the idea of wind. Breathing relates to air on a personal level while wind relates to air on more of a cosmic level. Breath symbolizes life and the power of the spirit and also the transient and insubstantial and the elusive. This connection between breath and spirit is pointed out by Jung in Symbols of Transformation where he observes that in Arabic and in Hebrew the word "ruh" signifies both "breath" and "spirit." The two movements of breathing - the intaking and outgoing of the breath - symbolize the alternating rhythm of life and death, of manifestation and reabsorption into the universe. In L'Air et les Songes, Bachelard notes that breathing is connected with circulation of the blood and with the important symbolic paths of involution and evolution. For this reason, difficulty in breathing may symbolize difficulty in assimilating the principles of the spirit and of the cosmos.
In this way, to breathe is to assimilate spiritual power. This is the reason that Yoga exercises place particular emphasis on breathing. As Cirlot notes in A Dictionary of Symbols, "It enables man to absorb not only air but also the light of the sun." This "light of the sun" had a particular significance for the alchemists who felt it to be a type of continuous emanation of solar corpuscles. Because of the movement of the sun and astral bodies these corpuscles were in a perpetual state of flux and change and filled all of the universe. The alchemists felt that we breathe this astral gold continuously. In Christian symbolism the breathing or blowing upon a person or thing signifies the influence of the Holy Spirit and the expelling of evil spirits.
Whereas breath involves air on a personal level wind involves air on a cosmic level symbolizing the spirit and the vital breath of the universe. Wind is essentially air in motion or air in its more active state. At the height of its activity it produces the hurricane which is a synthesis and conjunction of the four elements. In traditional symbolism hurricanes have been credited with the power of fecundation and regeneration.
As J.C. Cooper notes in An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, the power of the spirit in sustaining life and holding it together has given wind a symbolic association with cords, ropes and threads. The wind is the intangible, the intransient, the insubstantial and the elusive. Winds are thought to be messengers of the gods and therefore can indicate the presence of divinity. Cooper points out that this is especially true with whirlwinds which have been regarded as a manifestation of energy in nature rising from the center of power associated with gods and the supernatural forces and entities who travel on these winds or speak from them. In this sense, the whirlwind becomes a vehicle for both the divinity and the devil. For example, in the Bible the Lord answers Job out of a whirlwind while in witchcraft wizards, witches and evil spirits ride on whirlwinds.
The connection of air to the spirit and intransient gives it a correspondence to above spaces where spiritual matters exist. This is a reason that it is connected to masculine and active and upward symbols rather than those projecting downward such as earth and water. Places finding correspondence with this spatial verticality are mountains.