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Natural Elements
aka: Elements Of Nature

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Before people discovered the atomic elements, past thinkers hypothesized the existence of other elements that were the building blocks of life and the physical world. These elements were the different forces of nature that humans encountered: water, fire, earth, air, lightning, thunder, dark, light, metal, sound, smoke, even space and cosmic energy, among several others. Though disproven, believing these forces of nature to be the base components of all matter has influenced several real world belief systems and practices and shows up in many fictional works, particularly those concerned with the mystical and magical. In fact, channeling these forces as a magical ability or power or using them as the basis of a Functional Magic system are some of the most popular ways this concept gets applied in modern works.

In addition, amongst these foundational elements were those considered the most basic, from which all others were derived. These are known as the "classical", or "great" elements. The elements that make up this group are, broadly speaking, water, fire, earth, and air, though this does change slightly depending on which philosophical tradition you're referring to:

    Different takes on the "classical elements" 
  • Hinduism: Arguably the originator of this concept, Hinduism has the Pancha Bhuta,note  Sanskrit for "five great elements" or "five physical elements", which are said to be the foundation for all of creation. These are Agni (fire), Vayu (air), Jala/Varuna (water), Bhumi/Prithvi (earth), and Akasha/Dyaus (space/void), though some sects do not consider space a foundational element because of its lack of physical form.
    • Buddhism which takes many influences from Hinduism, also has the "great elements" of water, fire, earth, and air, but excludes space.
    • Japanese Tradition: Taking direct influence from both the Buddhist and Chinese traditions, Japan has the godai ("five greats"), five elements that are considered to be the building blocks of physical existence. These are earth, water, fire, wind, and void/sky/heaven.
  • Ancient Greece: The earliest example of "element" to refer to water, fire, earth, and air as a group by thinkers from this region comes from Plato, though pondering the idea of life's building blocks and attributing them to different natural forces predates him by quite a bit. This would later be expanded on by Aristotle, who included a new fifth element, aether, an immutable, incorruptible substance (as opposed to the other four that can be altered and changed) from which the heavens and stars were made.
    • Wicca: Most modern Wiccan traditions use the same five elements as the Grecian framework, however with differing opinions as to their specific meaning. Some associate them with the four phases of matter (earth = solid, water = liquid, air = gas, fire = plasma, aether = energy), while others take a different approach (earth = all matter, fire = energy, wind/water = phases of matter). Regardless, these elements are associated with the cardinal directions and are called upon during spellcasting with the drawing of the ritual pentacle.
  • Alchemy: Though early alchemists considered earth, water, fire, and air to be the smallest element one could reduce all life to, they expanded the concept to include three elements connected to the properties of metallic substances and agents of reactions: mercury, sulphur, and salt. Sulphur was the basis for combustion and flammability, mercury, the basis for volatility and metallicity, and salt was thought to be the basis for solidity.
  • Chinese Tradition: Wuxing ("five phases" or "five elements") refers to a cycle that ancient Chinese philosophers believed underpinned many natural phenomenon and human interactions. This makes it distinct from the other schools of thought on this list, which considered these elements the sub-components of all matter, rather than as the basis for change and processes. This cycle has five phases, the order of which changes depending on whether the process is creating (generative) or destroying (destructive), and each phase corresponds to a natural element: wood, fire, earth, metal, water.note 

The different elements in each tradition take on a wide assortment of meanings, functions, and roles, some of which are consistent across the different systems and others wholly unique to a particular system. So it is important to consider which conceptualization a work is (likely) referencing when analyzing this trope's application. See the Analysis page for further details.

Regardless of whether or not a work closely follows a particular school of thought, making use of the notion that the forces of nature are actually "elements" falls under this trope, as do most references and allusions to the "classical elements" so long as they don't fall under one of the subtropes listed below. Bonus points if their function in the work is connected to being a primordial substance or to the creation of life itself.

    Subtropes 

See also Alchemy Is Magic, Transmutation, Eastern Zodiac, Western Zodiac, and Four-Temperament Ensemble for tropes that typically incorporate the idea of the nautral or classical elements without necessarily being a direct subtrope. Given that this is quite a large Super-Trope, check first to see if there is a more specific Sub-Trope that an example can be listed under and list it there.


Examples:

    open/close all folders 

    Film — Animated 
  • Frozen II: The classical elements (earth, fire, water, air) are associated with the Enchanted Forest and have elemental spirits associated with each one.
  • Scooby-Doo! and the Witch's Ghost is rife with Artistic License Religion in its portrayal of Wicca, but just to make sure, at the end the Hex Girls sing a song naming the elements as "Earth, Wind, Fire, Air". Yes, it rhymes, yes it scans, but... it's missing water! And who considers "wind" and "air" separate elements? Although given how well witches and water normally mix...

    Music 

    Literature 
  • Discworld:
    • The Disc, being a nearly-unreal world, uses the classical Elements, but adds a fifth. According to the History Monks, the world is made of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth, and the fifth element, Surprise, allows everything to keep happening.
    • The Light Fantastic: It's stated that the druids believe the world consists of four elements: magic, uncertainty, charm and bloody-mindedness.
  • Young Wizards by Diane Duane has the wizards assemble the Four Treasures of Ireland, which were identified with the four elements: Lia Fail — Earth; Spear Luin — Fire; the sword Fragrach — Air; Ardagh Chalice — Water. Together they can help defeat the Lone One.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Charmed (1998): In "Is There a Woogy in the House?," Prue and Piper figure out that the Manor is located on a spiritual Nexus by noticing that it is equidistant from five elements: water, fire, wood, metal and earth.
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation: The Barkonians' natural philosophy believes there are four elements, like the Greek conception, but slightly different: their four elements are rock, water, sky and fire.

    Myths & Religion 
  • There's little evidence for a concrete Native American system, though the Plains Indians attributed their directional winds to South/Fire, West/Lightning and North/Water (as ice). In general, directions and times of day seem to have been the concepts that got formalized instead, with groups from at least across the American Southwest (extending into Mexico) associating each direction (North, South, East, West) with a time of day (morning/predawn, midday, evening/twilight, full night) and a color (what colors are used, and for what direction, varies significantly from culture to culture).
  • The ritual of the Kabbalistic Cross is an Esoteric protection ritual use in Cermonial Magick and summons the protection of four archangels, one for each element - Michael: Fire, Raphael: Air, Gabriel: Water, Uriel: Earth

    Pinball 
  • The "Barbarian" table of Balls of Steel requires the player to collect Air, Earth, Wind, and Fire elements.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Everway makes extensive but relatively subtle use of the four classical elements in character creation. To start with, characters' personal stats are named for the elements: "Fire" relates to active energy, dynamism, combat skills, and so on; "Water" determines sensitivity and intuitive feelings; "Earth" is the stat of raw might and resilience; "Air" determines thinking ability and verbal skills. Furthermore, special character powers and schools of magic are all linked to one element or another. However, these associations rarely involve direct invocation of the element itself; rather, "air magic" involves words of power, fire-linked powers can involve the manipulation of any sort of energy, and so on.
  • RuneQuest: The Glorantha setting has five basic elements: Darkness (the primal element), Earth, Sky (which includes fire), Water, and Storm (the air between Earth and Sky). The Lunar Empire regards "Moon" as a sixth element, and most other cultures hate and fear them.

    Video Games 
  • This Starry Midnight We Make: The game uses the classical Chinese elements of fire, wood, earth, metal and water, which are all part of yin and yang.
  • Tree of Savior: Here the natural elements are Water, Earth, Wind, and Fire. They are explicitly considered "the simplest forms of all things," and under the purview of the Goddesses.

    Webcomics 
  • Planeta Absurdo: According to Flowder, the natural elements are water, fire, propane, butane and Bill Murray.
  • Talamak has 12 elements: water, fire, wind, earth, flora, fauna, flux, chimera, storm, time, space, and decay.

    Western Animation 

Alternative Title(s): Elements Of Nature, Classical Elements

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