The Ancient Greek Esoteric Doctrine of the Elements:


Extended Version

© 1999, John Opsopaus

The Essence of Fire

Each of the Elements is characterized by a dominant and a secondary Power or Quality: Earth is Dry and Cool, Water is Cool and Moist, Air is Moist and Warm, Fire is Warm and Dry. Since the Warm and Dry powers have been discussed in detail already (Warmth in
"Air," Dryness in "Earth"), a summary will do here. As explained by Aristotle, Warmth is the power of separation and Coolness the power of union; they are the more active powers. Dryness is the power to determine its own form, and Moistness the power to flexibly adapt to the forms of other things. Therefore, since Fire is Warm and Dry, it is the agent that actively creates distinctions and imposes forms. We may think of the fiery arts of the smithy, the kitchen and the alchemical laboratory.

Indeed, in alchemy Fire is considered the primary agent of change (more on this later), and Empedocles, the 5th century BCE magician-philosopher credited with the Doctrine of the Four Elements (Tetrasomia), distinguishes Fire as the Agent of Action (Kinêtikê) among the Elements. Hence the Elements have the typical 3+1 structure in which, as explained by Jung, the Fourth is the principle of determination for the Three. In physics, Fire corresponds to energy, whereas the other three Elements correspond to states of matter (although we must keep in mind that these are just physical manifestations of the Four Elements, which are spiritual archetypes).

Fire in the Microcosm

I will begin by outlining briefly some of the manifestations of Fire in human psychology. First, Warmth is the power of discrimination, and therefore decision, but in Fire the decision is inflexible because of the Dry power. Therefore Fire is most closely connected to Will, which sees its purpose and cannot be swayed from it. Further, we may say that Fire brings a decision, distinction or conclusion that is self-determining, not conditioned by external circumstances; therefore it corresponds to the bright flash of intuition, the "bolt from the blue." Finally, as already mentioned, Fire strives to actively impose a determinate form on things, and therefore represents the creative impulse in all its varieties. Will, inspiration and creativity together associate Fire with the Tarot suit of Wands.

In the discussion of Air I explained how the Elements correspond to the Vehicles of the Soul described in Neoplatonic lore and Chaldean Theurgy: Earth and Water correspond to the gross body, Air to the spirit body and Fire to the radiant body. The radiant body (augoeides), also known as the astral body (astroeides) or aitherial body, is the vehicle of the Higher Soul, which is responsible for the intellect, including discursive reason, but also for the Rational Will. Thus it is the efficient cause of mental activity (corresponding to the Kinêtikê, or Agent of Action, of Empedocles). The higher soul and its vehicle mediate between the Gnostic Soul, which is the highest form of the soul (associated with the Quintessence or Fifth Element), and the lower vehicles of the soul (the spirit body and gross body). (I explained in "Air" how the Breath Spirit joins the Fiery Higher Soul to the Primal Mud (Earth + Water) of the body; see "Water" on the Primal Mud.)

As has been mentioned in "Water" and "Air," there is a myth that Prometheus created humans by mixing Earth and Water to create the gross body; Athena breathed Air into it, imbuing it with a Spirit-Soul. Prometheus added the Higher Soul, which is the Fire that He took from the Wheel of the Sun and brought to humanity in a Narthêx (giant fennel) stalk. (The Narthêx corresponds to Shushumna, the esoteric spinal column of yoga philosophy, which contains the Fiery Kundalini power.) Recall also that the Thursos, the sacred Bacchic wand, is made from the Narthêx and holds Promethean Fire.

As implied in the myth of our Promethean origins, the Fire in our souls is akin to the Celestial Fire ("As above, so below"). Hippocrates says that the soul is an Immortal Warmth (Athanatos Thermon), which sees, hears and knows everything; most of this Warmth is pushed to the outermost sphere, where it is called Aithêr, and forms a kind of Fiery World Soul. (This is different from the Airy World Soul described in "Air." Also, as explained in "Air," Aithêr may refer to the luminous upper Air, to Fire, or to the celestial Quintessence.) Our souls are akin to this Periekhon (Surrounding Thing), the Divine Aithêr that embraces and supports the Cosmos. Plato (Cratylus 412de) calls it a penetrating power that permeates the whole world. It is also called the Sun (Helios), Warmth (Thermon), Justice (Dikaion) and Mind (Nous). Heraclitus also says that the soul is composed of a Fire that is related to the World Fire , and calls the soul a "spark of the essential substance of the stars" (scintilla stellaris essentiae). Thus the Divine Warmth (Thermon), as the Power of the Soul (Psukhês Dunamis), is analogous to the essence of the stars. This has implications for the destiny of the soul after death, which will be discussed later.

The Central Fire

Having considered Fire in the microcosm, we now turn to the macrocosm. According to the Pythagoreans, the Enveloping Fire is balanced by a Central Fire. Indeed, Empedocles says that many fires burn beneath the Earth, that the Solar Fire was born in the bowels of the Earth, and that Volcanic Fire shoots to the Heavens and licks the stars. Thus Fire is the highest and the lowest Element; it is as though the Elemental Square has been unfolded into a line (see figure). This results in a series of cosmic spheres: Celestial Fire, Air, Water, Earth, and Central Fire; the Celestial Fire mirrors the Central Fire as though in a higher octave.

One might suppose that the "Fires of Hades" is a Christian notion, but it actually has its roots in ancient Greek esoteric doctrine. As explained in the "Introduction" and in "Earth," "Water" and "Air," Empedocles' "Enigma" associates Earth with Hera, Water with Persephone, Air with Zeus, and Fire with Hades. However, there are many additional signposts to the Central Fire, for Empedocles teaches that the ultimate source of all Fire is Hades, and that the Central Fire is the source of all life, creation and destruction (see "Hephaistos and Alchemy," below).

More precisely, the Central Fire is Tartaros, Zeus's Guard Tower (Zanòs Púrgos, Phulakê Diós, etc.), which is below Hades. According to myth, after the Sun sets, it shines in Tartaros. Therefore the Central Fire is known as the Dark Sun, the Black Sun, the Invisible Sun, the Subterranean Sun and the Volcanic Sun, and there is a paradoxical unity between the Sun and the Underworld. This is why Parmenides was led by the Daughters of the Sun into the House of Night; it is also the path followed by the dead.

The astrological symbol for the Sun represents the Fire at the center; it was also an ancient alchemical symbol for Sulphur, the Fiery Principle (on which, see below). The doctrine of the Central Fire is the original, mystical Heliocentric theory, which Copernicus borrowed, but has become debased into no more than astronomy. (Copernicus himself called it the "Pythagorean Theory.")

Light-bearing Hekate

As an Underworld Goddess, Hekate has many connections with Fire. Therefore She is called Purphoros (Fire-bearing), Daidoukhos (Torch-bearer), Phôsphoros (Light-bearer, also Lucifera), Puripnon (Fire-breather) and Melainê (Black); She is worshipped in caves and Her image is honored with torches.

As a Lunar Goddess Hekate has a complementary relationship to the Sun. At the New Moon She carries blazing torches (called selas and connected with Selene, the Moon), and on the 30th of month, when the Moon is overtaken by the Sun and both rise together, we offer Her the Amphiphôn (Shining-All-Around), a flat cake with a circle of candles on it. Both Hekate Enodia (On the Road) and Apollo Aguieus (Street Guardian) are Gods of the Journey, who illuminate the Way: Apollo by His Sun during the day, Hekate by Her Torch at night. Apollo was also called Hekatos (Distant One), the masculine form of Hekatê (also an epithet of Artemis). Similarly Helios and Hekate often appear together in magical texts, and They were the only witnesses to the abduction of Persephone. They are the Sun and Moon, the Lamps of Day and Night, the Light Sun and the Dark Sun, Celestial and Chthonic Fire. In Sophocles' Root-cutters we read,

"O Lord Helios and Holy Fire, the spear of Hekate Enodia, which She bears frequenting Olympos and dwelling in the Three Ways of the Holy Land."
According to the Chaldean Oracles and Neoplatonic philosophers, Hers is the Womb of Nature, which is fertilized by the lightning and thunderbolts of Father Zeus, and by which She gives birth to the natural world (cf.
Semele and Koronis, below). For the lightning bolts correspond to the Platonic Ideas or Forms, which can be embodied only by the mediation of Hekate's Womb, the Coils (Koilômata) of the Cosmos. In the Oracles the Goddess Herself says, "These are the Thoughts of the Father, after which is My enwrapping Fire" (fr. 38). This Fire, which envelops the world, was called the Membrane (Hymên), and, according to the Oracles, Her Membrane separates the First Fire of the Celestial Father from the Second Fire, which is the Demiurge (Craftsman), Hephaistos. Both are intellectual Fires, one celestial, the other chthonic and proceeding from the first. Hekate nurtures the Ideas so that the Demiurge may use them to organize the Elements into our world.

(Hekate is primarily associated with Fire, but as Cosmic Womb She also has connections with Water. Indeed, She unites the opposites, Heaven and the Underworld. Under the name Iphimedeia (= Iphigeneia), She is also a consort to Poseidon. When Hekate is called "Queen" She is being identified with Persephone, Queen of the Underworld, and some call Persephone the lower manifestation of Hekate.)

Hephaistos and Alchemy

The ancient Greeks distinguished the Destructive (Aidêlon) Fire, associated with Hades (Aidês), from the Creative Fire, associated with Hephaistos, the Divine Smith or Craftsman. In Orphic cosmologies, as in many others, a Divine Craftsman is born from the Cosmic Egg or is responsible for opening it (see
"Air"). Similarly, in Indian tradition the Craftsman Kâla is the Sun, the Golden Embryo (Fire), who upholds Earth, Sea and Sky (Earth, Water, Air). Naturally Hephaistos, the Divine Smith, is closely connected with Creative Fire, and His name is often used as a synonym for Fire. Plato (Cratylus 407c) explains that Hephaistos' name comes from Phaistos, Lord of Light (Phaeos Histora); like Fire, He is active and form imposing (Warm and Dry).

Eliade (Forge & Crucible) argues that alchemy had its origin in the ancient Craft of the Smith, which combined religion, magic and metallurgy. For example, in the Greek tradition, the Daktuloi (Dactyls), Telkhines (Telchines) and Kabeiroi (Cabiri) are magic-working divine smiths; all come from underground to assist the Great Mother Rhea (associated with Fire; see "Water"). Of the Daktuloi ("Fingers") it is said that the Right-hand ones are smiths and the Left-hand are magicians (goêtes). The Telkhines are also sorcerer-smiths, born of Tartaros. The Kabeiroi of Samothrace, who are skilled in meteoric alchemy and instructed Orpheus in Their Mysteries, are called Hephaistoi because They are smiths and are descended from Kabeiros and Kabeiria, that is, Hephaistos and Hekate. Two of them were said to stand on a fire-sprouting rock on Lemnos (Hephaistos' island), brandishing lightning bolts and with sparks streaming from Their eyes.

According to alchemy, metals are incubated by Fire in the Womb of the Earth; alchemists only accelerate their development. Since Hekate is the Fiery Womb who inspires matter with spiritual energy, She is also called Nature (Phusis). Alchemists connect the Earth and Sun, because the Fire that comes from the center of the Earth is the key to the alchemical transformation, the Innate Heat of the Womb of Nature. Whereas, as we will see below, Hades governs rebirth through the Mysteries by means of Death, Hephaistos governs rebirth through Alchemy via the Womb (Fiery initiation).

Hestia and the Harmonization of the Center

To the Destroying Fire of Hades and the Creating Fire of Hephaistos we may add the Preserving Fire of Hestia, for "Hestia" is both the word for Hearth and the name of the Hearth Goddess. (Likewise "Hades" is the Land of the Dead as well as its Lord, and "Hephaistos" is the Fire of the Forge as well as its Master.) The Hearth is sacred in Greek tradition, and the house, temple and city each had a Sacred Hearth at its center. She was the only one of the Old Gods not to yield Her place on Olympos when Zeus came to power, and She was honored as the first among the Twelve Olympians. Later, when Dionysos ascended to Olympos, She gave Her place among the Twelve to Him, but retained Her station of honor in the Center of the Heavens. Even the Olympian Gods honor Her before all others.

Naturally, the Central Fire was compared to the Hearth in the center of the house, and as early as the 5th century BCE the Earth was called the Cosmic Hearth (tou Kosmou hê Hestia). The central role of Hestia is recognized by Plato (Crat. 401cd), who explains "Hestia" as meaning the Essence (Essia = Ousia) of things. Also, the Neoplatonist Philolaus says, "The first thing to be harmonized - the One - in the middle of the sphere is called Hestia," and Anatolius says, "around the middle of the four Elements lies a unitary fiery Cube." Philolaus also identifies the Hearth in the center with the One and the Cube with geometric Harmonia, which suggests that the Central Fire may be thought of as a cube. (See below for more on Harmonia. Interestingly, garlanded cubes called Gulloi were carried in Hekate's honor in a procession at Didyma.)

An important alchemical text, the Turba Philosophorum (The Gathering of Philosophers), which preserves much ancient lore, compares the Earth to an Egg. The Shell corresponds to the Earth itself; the White corresponds to the Water Under the Earth (Abyssal Water), the Yolk to the Central Fire, and the Chick to the Point of the Sun (Punctus Solis) at the very center. (As mentioned, this is represented in the astrological and alchemical symbol for the Sun, which was also the original symbol for Sulphur, the alchemical Fiery principle.) Alchemical apparatus was often explicitly patterned after both the Egg and the Earth as Womb, and Pythagorean and Orphic ideas about the Cosmic Egg were later adopted by Egyptian and Islamic alchemists.

Sacred Unions of Fire and Water

Empedocles has Hades corresponding to Fire and Persephone to Water; Their sacred marriage makes Them the King and Queen of the Underworld, and Their union is the alchemical conjunction of the opposites, Fire and Water. Hades is Lord of the Central Fire and Persephone is Lady of Dissolution (see
"Water"). As Zeus and Hera are the Creators (responsible for fertility and birth), so Hades and Persephone are the Destroyers (governing death), who nevertheless bring about rebirth. Concerning Persephone, Plato (Crat. 404d) says, "Hades, who is wise, consorts with Her, because She is wise." He added that although the name "Hades" (Aidês) is normally derived from Unseen (Aeides), it actually refers to Knowledge (Eidenai) of All Noble Things.

The marriage of Hades and Persephone is paralleled by the union of Typhôn and Nephthys in Egyptian mythology, as explained by Plutarch. Typhôn is associated with the scorching Sun, destruction, chaos, difference (separation) and Heracles (see below). Hesiod tells us that Zeus defeated Typhôn and placed Him under volcanic Mount Etna (i.e. in Tartaros), which is why it burns and quakes. Typhôn is the husband of Nephthys, who corresponds to Water, as was explained in our discussion of that Element. Therefore Typhôn forms an Elemental Quaternity with Nephthys, Isis (Earth) and Osiris (Air). (See the articles "Earth," "Water" and "Air.") According to Plutarch, Typhôn, the destructive power, exercises special dominion over the outermost part of matter, for earth, sea, plants and animals all suffer dissolution, except what is preserved by Isis (which is the reason for Her Mysteries). Therefore Osiris is the Creator, Isis the Preserver, and Typhôn the Destroyer; Nephthys holds sway between death and rebirth (destruction and recreation).

The union of Fire and Water appears again with Hephaistos, for He is married to Aphrodite, born of sea foam (see "Water"). According to Empedocles, they are the principal creators of the world (see also "Love and Strife" below).

The Crater

The Underworld is a realm of paradox and inversion, where opposites may unite. It is a place of Darkness but also of Fire (Light); it is simultaneously a place of Dissolution (Water) and the Fiery Womb of rebirth; it is the source of the Destructive Fire of Hades and of the Creative Fire of Hephaistos. Here especially may be brought about the union of Fire and Water, the primary Elemental Opposition. Hence the alchemical arts, which seek to unite the opposites in the Great Work, are born in the Underworld.

Four rivers converge in the Underworld, each associated with an Element (see figure). The Pyriphelegethôn, the River of Fire, is directly opposite Côcytus, the River of Weeping, closely associated with Persephone and Water (as explained in "Water"). (Plato's Phaedo (108d-114d) contains an informative and colorful description of Underworld geography and of the progress of the soul.)

The volcanic crater is filled with rivers of fire, a hint of the union of Fire and Water in the depths. In general, any crater in the earth, whether holding Fire or Water, is considered a place of power and magic, for it is an entry to the Underworld. Therefore, incense is burned for Hephaistos (Vulcan) at the volcanic crater's lip and in caves.

The Greek word Cratêr refers to a mixing bowl, especially that in which wine is mixed with water for drinking, and hence to the bowl-shaped volcanic crater. Hellenes attach great symbolic importance to the proper mixture (krasis) of wine and water (Fire and Water); it is the central image of balance, proportion and harmony (Mêden agan - Nothing too much - as it said on the temple of Apollo at Delphi).

Similarly, in Hellenic rituals, a burning brand from the altar fire is plunged into the bowl of lustral water to consecrate it as Holy Water (Greek, Hudôr Theion) or Water Inflamed by the Sacred Fire (Latin, Aqua Igne Sacra Inflammata). (In ancient Greek, the same word Theion means "a sacred thing" and "brimstone," reminding us that alchemical Sulphur is the Fiery Principle.)

The Crater is also an important symbol in the Orphic Mysteries, and a lost Orphic Poem (by Zopyrus the Pythagorean) called The Cratêr dealt with Orpheus' descent through a Watery Crater into the Fiery Underworld (a common means of descent). In the Underworld, rivers of fire (Water + Fire) flow together in the Crater, and the Crater becomes a place of Ordeal, where truth and falsity are separated (by Fire). Also in Greek tradition, one may drink from the Crater or be immersed in it in order to be reborn (as Medea, granddaughter of the Sun, did in her magic of rejuvenation). It's not surprising that, according to Peter Kingsley (p. 135), the Crater influenced the Grail legends.

Love and Strife

The dominant Qualities of Fire and Water are Warmth and Coolness, which are the powers of separation and union. Therefore Empedocles taught that Love (Philotês) and Strife (Neikos) are the two primary forces in the cosmos, which bring about all transformation through their mixing and separation of the Roots (Elements). (Although Love and Strife are the conventional English translations, it would be more accurate to say Affinity, i.e. friendship, and Difference, i.e. disagreement.) Empedocles naturally identified these Powers with fiery Ares and sea-born Aphrodite.

Love is associated with the Mixture (Krasis) in the Crater, as Strife is with enmity or separation (Ekhthros). Indeed, Empedocles (fr. 35) describes the mixing of the immortal Roots by Love and Strife (Cool + Warm = Water + Fire = Water + Wine) in terms reminiscent of the Crater: as they mixed, "countless types of mortal things poured forth" (my emphasis), a process described as an "onrush" or "stream" (hormê) of Perfect Love. Love and Strife are each responsible in Their own way for a "coming to be" and a "passing away": Strife creates Plurality by dividing the One, and Love creates Unity from the Many. A proper balance of both is necessary in an ordered cosmos.

Love and Strife are also the fundamental governing principles of magic (where they are known as Sympathy and Antipathy). In the tradition of the Root-cutters, Empedocles and later Bolus of Mendes applied Sympathy and Antipathy especially to herbal magic. As Plotinus the Neo-Pythagorean explained:

And how are magical operations (goêteias) carried out? By Sympathy, and thanks to the fact that there is a natural Harmony between things that are alike and a natural Opposition between things that are unlike… For many things are "drawn" to each other and enchanted without any third party deliberately working to bring the effect about. And the real magic in everything is the Love in it, along with the Strife. This is the primary magician and enchanter; it was when men observed its magic that they started using charms and spells on each other.

Zoroastrian Dualism

Although Pythagoras is supposed to have met Zoroaster, this is unlikely (Zoroaster probably lived a millennium earlier), but Pythagoras did study with a Chaldean magus. Therefore it will be worthwhile to consider some Chaldean doctrines.

Zoroaster taught there are two primary principles, which are Daimones - Divine Beings or Powers: One is Celestial (Ouranion), and associated with the Father, Fire, Light (Phôs), Warmth, Dryness, Lightness (as opposed to Heaviness) and Swiftness. The other is Terrestrial (Chthonion), and associated with the Mother, Water, Darkness (Skotos), Coolness, Moisture, Heaviness and Slowness. Their powers are primarily Warm and Cold (the dominant powers of Fire and Water).

Pythagoras similarly taught that the Cosmos and its Harmonia result from the union of the Male and the Female, the Light and the Dark, for both are necessary; we don't have one good the other evil (as in Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism and some other traditions). This is a more alchemical perspective: spirit needs to be embodied; alchemy recognizes that both Light and Dark are divine and deserving of our respect.

According to Zoroastrians, the cycle of Light and Dark takes place within Time or Space, associated with the God Zurvan; we may compare Him to Kronos (= Khronos = Time). This transcendent Unity differentiates into Light and Dark, which then alternate within It, creating Harmonia and Cosmos.

The Luminous Agent and Primary Matter

In a similar way alchemy distinguishes between the Innate Fire and the Moist Radical in all things. The Innate Fire is the Form of things, for Fire is Dry and Warm (= form-imposing), and the Moist Radical, which represents cohesion and flexibility (Cool, Moist), is their Matter; it is the purest, most digested form of matter (see
"Water"), the Elixir of Nature, the Mercury of Life. Thus the Innate Fire "inhabits" the Moist Radical, which is called therefore the Laboratory of Vulcan, the Hearth in which burns the Eternal Fire; it is the Innate Heat of the Womb of Mother Earth.

Alchemy explains the cosmos as the result of the Luminous Agent exploding out of the Primordial Darkness and acting on the Primal Mud (which was discussed in "Water"). Since Fire is separating (Hot) and inflexible (Dry), the effect of Heat on the Primal Mud is to rarefy the Watery part and to condense the Earthy part. That is, through its Heat the Luminous Agent causes separation, so the part of the Primal Mud that retains its Moisture becomes Water, and the part that retains its Coolness becomes Earth; thus the two Elements separate.

So also Empedocles (fr. 73) says, "when Cypris [Aphrodite] was busily producing forms, She moistened Earth in Water and gave it to swift Fire [Hephaistos] to harden." And Anaximander (6th c. BCE) said that living things were generated from the Warming of Earth and Water, and likewise Heraclitus (5th c. BCE) said people are made of Fire, Water and Earth (for in this case Fire means the Warm elements, Air and Fire).

The Harmonia of Fire and Water

Warmth and Coolness are the more active powers, according to Aristotle. Since Warmth is the dominant power of Fire and Coolness is the dominant power of Water, these are the most active Elements, and the primary opposition is between them (as represented in their signs; the signs for Air and Earth each contain a part of the sign of their opposite). Therefore, Fire and Water cannot be united directly, for they have nothing in common. The Two must be joined by a Third, which constitutes a mean linking the extremes, that is, a Harmonia, which is often translated Harmony, but more accurately means a seamless union in which the parts form a whole and yet retain their separate identities. In the Greek tradition, Harmonia is a Goddess, the daughter of Aphrodite and Ares (Love and Strife). She may unite any opposites, including the opposed Elements, Fire and Water. Empedocles (fr. 96) says that "the kindly Earth received in Her wide melting-pots" a mixture of Persephone (Water) and Hephaistos (Fire) held together by Harmonia.

Air and Earth as Harmoniai

Fire and Water may unite in Air, which has Warmth in common with Fire and Moistness in common with Water; the other intermediary is Earth, which is Dry like Fire and Cool like Water. However, Air functions more easily as a uniting Element, because it is also intermediate in subtlety between Fire and Water.

Such a union takes place in a Pyria, which is the ancient Greek version of a sweat lodge (essentially the same as the Scythian version described in Herodotus 4.73). Woolen blankets are spread over a wooden frame, in the center of which is a cauldron in which red-hot stones are placed. The Pyria is a microcosm in which the Elements unite. When Water is thrown on the Fire, it creates steam, which is the Hot-Wet Air that unites the opposites. This all takes place in contact with, or even within, the (Cool, Dry) Earth.

In alchemy the essences of Fire and Water are called Sulphur (the Fiery Principle) and Quicksilver (the Watery Principle), the alchemical Sun and Moon. Their union is a major task in the alchemical Great Work, which may be accomplished by means of alchemical Salt (Prime Matter), corresponding to Earth. In this case Salt is the Harmonia uniting the opposites Sulphur and Quicksilver. (See below for Quicksilver as an intermediate.)

Dionysos and the Union of Fire and Water

As explained in "Air," Dionysos is a second Zeus and, like Him, associated with Air. We can see "Thrice-born Dionysos" as a result of the union of Fire and Water in each of His three births. In the Orphic Mysteries it is said that Zeus and Persephone mated as snakes and conceived Dionysos; this is a union of Persephone, associated with Water, and the Chthonic (Underworld) Zeus, corresponding to Hades and Fire. (As explained in "Water," Rhea, Demeter, Persephone and Dionysos are four consecutive generations in the Orphic Mysteries; see figure.) Second, it is also told in the Orphic Mysteries that the Titans cut Dionysos into seven parts, which they boiled and roasted (Water + Fire). After They had eaten six parts (a function of Their Watery, nutritive soul), Zeus blasted Them with His Fiery Lightning, vaporizing Them (converting Them to Air). Finally, there is the well-known story of how Semele drank a potion made from the seventh part and became pregnant with Dionysos. When she was tricked into seeing Zeus in His full glory, she was incinerated by His Fire, but the infant Dionysos was protected by her Girdle of Ivy (which is considered Cool and Watery). Semele Herself is in origin a Phrygian Underworld Goddess, corresponding to Persephone, and thus to Water. (We may also compare the Lightning-receiving Womb of Hekate, above, and Koronis, below; see below for more on Semele.)

The Progress of the Soul

Fire plays a central role in the process of Heroization by which a mortal may escape the cycle of rebirth and ascend to the Isles of the Blessed. To understand this we must begin with the normal progress of the soul after death, for similar rituals are used for immortalization in this life and in the afterlife.

The Pythagorean Alcmaeon (c. 500 BCE) and others related the immortality of soul to the immortal, divine stars. Plato also taught that the fiery substance of the stars, which he called Aithêr, is divine, and in the Cratylus (397c) he connected the term "Aithêr" to the Gods (Theoi) and to "run, move" (thein), because the Gods, like the stars, move eternally. This Divine Fire is found both outside surrounding us and inside us at the center of our being. Therefore, "man is made of portions of the cosmos, and in death like returns to like" (Burkert, Lore & Sci. in Anc. Pythag. 362): the soul goes to heavenly Aithêr, and the body goes to Earth, each returning to its own element. Thus, according to the Orphic golden tablets, when the soul reaches its destination, it should say, "I am a child of Earth and Starry Heaven, but my race is of Heaven alone; this Ye know Yourselves." (See the text in "Water.")

As Plutarch (The Face in the Moon, 943-4) explains in detail, at death the soul is separated from the body in the realm of Demeter, and the body returns to the Earth. The mind is separated from the soul in the realm of Persephone, and the soul returns to the Moon. This occurs in the Hidden Place of Hekate (Hekatês Mukhos), who lives in a cave that is a mouth of the Underworld (see below for more on Her). This is the place of judgment, the Infernal Coils (Bathê Koilômata) or Passages, the (uterus-shaped) Pythagorean Y, the meeting of Three Ways. Those who are not ready pass through the Gate on the dark side of the Moon facing Earth and there await reincarnation. Those who are sufficiently enlightened pass through the Gate on the light side of the Moon and arrive in the Elysian Fields in the realm of the Sun, and thereby escape the cycle of reincarnation. Some say that the higher mind can be mortal or immortal, depending on how it directs itself, upward or downward. According to the Pythagoreans, you can harmonize your mind with the World Mind by thinking the right thoughts and thereby keep it from dissolution at death.

The process of returning to the Earth, Moon and Sun at death corresponds to the alchemical dissolution into Salt, Quicksilver and Sulphur, for Sulphur, the Fiery Principle, corresponds to the higher mind, which is joined to the body, corresponding to Salt, by the soul or breath-spirit, corresponding to Quicksilver (Moist like Air). In this case Quicksilver is the intermediate Harmonia that connects the extremes of mind and matter. (We have already seen that the primary opposites Sulphur and Quicksilver may unite in Salt.)

Purification by Fire

There is a very old idea, predating even the Zoroastrians, which is that the soul of the deceased goes first to the nearest Fire, and from there to the stars, Moon, Sun, and finally to Beginningless Light. This path is mimicked in the symbolic death of initiation, which suggests (as in alchemy) that the soul must ascend through the Planetary Spheres before it can come to the Isles of the Blessed, for the Pythagoreans say the Sun and Moon are the Isles of the Blessed (hai Makarôn Nêsoi). (This is the cosmology of Anaximander, also known to the Zoroastrians, which places the Sun and Moon above the Planets and other "stars.") Generally Platonists believe that the Planets aid in the ascent, but Plutarch's account suggests that some trial must be passed, and a Pythagorean dictum says, "the Planets are the Dogs of Persephone" (i.e. the Guards of the Underworld, also recalling the Dogs of Hekate;
see below).

However, before the soul can ascend through the spheres, it must be purified by Fire. One must descend into Darkness to find the source of Light; one must die in order to be reborn. Thus heroization occurs through an actual or symbolic death by Fire. This is because Fire is purifying; it burns away the transient and imperfect, thereby freeing the soul and immortalizing it. By descent through the Crater of Rebirth, the initiate arrives at World Axis, which gives simultaneous access to the Heavens and the Underworld. There in the Earth's Fiery Womb he or she may be purified by Fire in preparation for rebirth. The passage through Fire is a means of uniting with the universe, which is a Cosmic Fire according to Heraclitus. Fire rises to the heavens, where it becomes the essence of the stars and of lightning. Since lightning is Celestial Fire, the purest form of Fire, it is the most potent force for heroization, and we read that Pythagoras ascended to heaven after being struck by lightning. (He had been initiated previously in a Cretan cave by means of a ritual Keraunios Lithos or Lightning Stone.)

Heat is the Power that Separates and Fire is its Element. Therefore, according to Zoroastrian tradition, the Hero is the one who can make the perilous Hero's Journey and survive an ordeal by Fire and molten metal (flowing fire = Water + Fire). This trial takes place at the entry to the Bridge of the Separator under the oversight of Mazdah, for He is known as The Separator.

Empedocles and the Bronze Sandal

According to tradition, Empedocles ended his last earthly incarnation by jumping into the Crater of Etna, the Sicilian volcano which the Greeks and Romans viewed as a pillar reaching to heaven from the underworld. Diodorus of Sicily (8.75) wrote,
"Thou, Empedocles, didst purify thy body with the Living Flame,
and Fire didst thou drink out from Immortal Craters."
Diodorus elsewhere wonders if in fact "he leapt into the Craters of Fire and drank of Life."

There is considerable evidence (discussed in detail by Kingsley) that Empedocles was learned in the magic of Hekate, who grants ritual purification. Her mysteries are said to have been established by Orpheus, and She was key to the process of rebirth in the Orphic Rites on Samothrace. In a scene which borders on comedy, after Empedocles disappeared into the volcano's mouth, it belched out a single bronze sandal. However, a single bronze sandal is a common sign of Hekate and Her devotees, for bronze is closely connected with the Underworld and is used to invoke Hekate. It may be worn or held by magicians as an emblem of their ability to descend into Tartaros; such a sign is given by the Goddess to Her initiates: the "Bronze Sandal of the Holder of Tartaros." Further, Hekate is called by sounding bronze, and bronze cutting tools are under Her auspices; bronze represents the full moon. Therefore it is significant that Empedocles was known as "Bronze Foot," for that shows him to be a devotee of the Goddess. (Pythagoras' Golden Thigh has a similar meaning.) Likewise, Hekate Herself is sometimes said to have a single bronze leg.

Bronze is also connected to the alchemy of smiths, and we are reminded that magical smiths, such as Hephaistos, often have distorted feet, as do the gnomes, who bring forth metals from the Womb of Mother Earth. Like gnomes, the Daktuloi, Telkhines and Kabeiroi are subterranean dwarves. The Kabeiroi are called Crabs (Karkinoi) because of Their cockeyed walk, yet the grass beneath Their feet is ignited by Their magical dance. Hekate Herself is called Donkey Foot. Finally Kerényi (Heroes 248) remarks that the Monosandalos (Man with One Sandal) is an uncanny being, often with an Underworld connection, for he has left one sandal in the Underworld as a sign of allegiance to it. (Recall the myth of Jason arriving Monosandalos in Iolkos.)

Hekate the Keyholder

In the Descent to the Underworld the Magus must invoke and meet Hekate (Fire) as well as Persephone (Water). Like Persephone, Hekate is a mediator between our world and the Underworld; She is the Keyholder and Gatekeeper of the sacred regions; She is called the Lady of Tartaros, Phulada (Guardian), Propulaia (Before the Gates), Kleidophoros (Key-bearer) and Kleidoukhos (Key-holder, Priestess).

Hekate also holds the keys that unlock the uterus and facilitate birth, and the keys to both death and rebirth, which takes place through the Mukhos (Hidden Place) of Hekate on the Moon (see above). Thus She is called "Child-nourishing" in Her role as Nurse of Rebirth. Hekate is the source of souls and their final destination, a birth Goddess and a death Goddess, for She oversees the transition of the soul into the body and back out of it.

Hekate is called Sôteira (Savior) and has a prominent role in the Eleusinian Mysteries, for Zeus sends Her to bring the Maiden back from Hades, which happens each year, according to some ancient authors. Thus She is preeminently the Goddess who may lead us back from the Underworld. The principal Gods of the Eleusinian Mysteries are Demeter (Earth), Persephone (Water), Dionysos (Air) and Hekate (Fire).

When Hades seized Persephone He carried Her underground in Sicily, which is hollow and has rivers of fire flowing under it. Therefore Zeus gave Sicily to Persephone as a wedding gift; Their marriage was celebrated there ever after, and there was a sanctuary of Hekate, Demeter and Persephone in Sicily. Hence, Sicily, and especially Mt. Etna, are home to many Underworld mysteries and the source of many Pythagorean magical ideas. Of course, much more could be said about Hekate and Her magic, but this is not the place for it.

Examples of Heroization

I will mention several other examples of heroization in the Greek tradition (there are many). According to Kerényi (Heroes 141, 144-5), at least ten of Heracles' Labors represent the conquering of Death, the most obvious being the fetching of Kerberos, the Dog of Hades. By these Labors he earned his name (Hêra-klês = Hêra's Glory) and proved his worthiness to ascend to Olympos and to be adopted by Her. When his Heroic status was proved, he built his own funeral pyre and ascended it, thus continuing the fiery purification initiated by the Robe of Nessos. The process of divinization was completed by a lightning bolt from his father Zeus, which "burned away the parts different from Zeus" and allowed his ascent. Although Heracles is often viewed as a mindless muscleman, for the Pythagoreans and many other ancient Greeks He was the archetype of the Spiritual Hero, and the "Imitation of Heracles" (Imitatio Herculi) was the basic path of spiritual development.

Dionysos is the archetypal Hero in Greek religion. I have already mentioned how He was cooked by the Titans and later blasted by Zeus's Lightning while still in Semele's womb. After she was incinerated by Zeus's Fire, her Divine Child Dionysos (Lord of Moist Nature) descended into the Underworld through the Lernean Swamp to rescue His mother and raise Her into Heaven. Thus She was called Herois (Heroine) in certain secret rites at Delphi, and Dionysos is called the Liberator (Pater Liber - Father Freedom - to the Romans).

Asklepios the Healer was doubly purified by Fire. When Koronis was pregnant with him by Apollo, she took another lover, and so Apollo (corresponding to the Sun's Fire) shot her dead with His arrows; while she burned on the pyre, the God rescued the infant Asklepios from her womb. (Koronis, "Crow," is a dark, Underworld Goddess corresponding to Persephone and therefore Water. See Kerényi, Gods of Greeks, 271.) Later Asklepios brought a person back from the Underworld, for which deed Zeus blasted him with His Lightning and made him a God.

The well-known "Mithras Liturgy" in the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM IV.475-829) is a late example of an immortalization ritual, primarily addressed to Helios and focused on Fire. In the Ascent of the Soul (Psukhês Anagôgê) in Chaldean Theurgy, the Purification of the Spirit Body is followed by the Elevation of Soul in five stages corresponding to the Elements: symbolic burial (Earth), dissolution (Water), breathing exercises (Air), ascent on the rays of the Sun (Fire) and immortalization (Quintessence). The Hermetic traditions and Spiritual Alchemy teach similar methods of heroization.


We have seen that Fire is the primary agent of transformation, for it represents the power to impose a self-determining form. This power has its origin in the Central Fire of Hades, which is associated with Hephaistos, the Craftsman skilled in Alchemy, and with Hekate, who holds the Keys to the Womb of Rebirth. The path to the Central Fire is through the Crater, where Fire and Water are united in Harmonia. For the worthy, Heroization by Fire provides an escape from the cycle of reincarnation and a passage to the Isles of the Blessed.

Principal Sources

  1. Johnston, S. I., Hekate Soteira, Scholars Press, 1990. (Hekate)
  2. Kingsley, P., Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition, Oxford University Press, 1995. (principal source)
  3. Kirk, G. S., Raven, J. E., & Schofield, M., The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1983. (pre-Socratic philosophers)
  4. Majercik, Ruth. The Chaldean Oracles: Text, Translation, and Commentary. E. J. Brill, 1989. (vehicles & ascent of soul)
  5. Pernety, A.-J., An Alchemical Treatise on the Great Art, Weiser, 1995, Part 1. (Luminous Agent & Radical Moisture)
  6. Plutarch, Isis and Osiris. (Elements & Gods).
  7. Plutarch, On the Face in the Moon. (progress of the soul).
  8. West, M. L., Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient. Oxford University Press, 1971. (ancient philosophy, especially Pythagorean)
  9. Wright, M. R., Empedocles: The Extant Fragments, Yale University Press, 1981.

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