The Greeks, along with many other cultures, used an elemental system to explain the nature of life, attributing life events to various fluctuations in “elemental” forces like wind or fire. Many people refer to the elements in Greek tradition as the “classical elements,” to differentiate them from the elements on the periodic table. The Greek classical elements date back thousands of years, to a time well before famous philosophers like Plato, and the concept endured until the Renaissance, when people began to develop a deeper understanding of the natural world.
A version of the classical elements shows up in many human societies, and, in some sense, elemental systems also live on in modern culture. Tarot and astrology, for example, both integrate the elements, and traditional Chinese medicine also places a lot of importance onto the elements. Pagan religions such as Wicca also integrate a version of the Greek classical elements into their framework.
According to the Greeks, there were four major elements, earth, air, water, and fire, accompanied by a fifth element, aether. The first four Greek classical elements were very temporal in nature, while aether was less connected to the Earth, and was viewed as more spiritual in nature. The stars, for example, were believed to be composed of aether, since the Greeks believed that aether did not change or fluctuate with time, unlike the other elements.
Each element was associated with specific traits, such as cold and wet for water and hot and dry for fire. The system of Greek classical elements linked in with the four humors idea of health, with each “humor” being assigned to a specific element. The four humors were integrated into medical practice well into the 19th century, and, like the Greek classical elements, they live on in modern society. Words like “bilious” and “phlegmatic,” for example, are used to describe people with specific temperaments, in reference to bile and phlegm, two of the four humors.
Using the Greek classical elements, people tried to explain the nature of the world around them. Many people believed that the elements worked in a way which promoted balance, and that disturbances in this balance were the root cause of things like earthquakes and health problems. Correcting an imbalance of elements was considered critical for well-being, and the elements were so intertwined with everything from the seasons to fortunetelling that many people were very familiar with the elements and their traits.