fol 77r Five elements

The short story:

In my opinion, this represents a 5-element system, but not one that counts ether as a separate element.


 added note re Richard SantaColoma and his ‘New Atlantis’ blog. (March 30th 2013)

  I first wrote a post about f.77r in 2011. Most of my post is revisited in what follows after this note.

Later in that year – May 2011 – I heard that Rich Santacoloma had earlier suggested the diagram was a reference to the elements, though he supposed then, and still does, that the system will be the European one.  I did leave a note but I did not, and do not agree with his idea that the manuscript shows the western system, in which there were only four effective elements, not five as I explain below.

However: today Rich added a few comments here  expressing a desire to have my post link not just to his web-page as  I had intended  (Rich’s [web-page] post) but to his blog. I chose and still recommend the web-link in preference, since it shows clearly each  element’s detail enlarged and labelled according to his system.

However, this choice Mr.  SantaColoma considered in some way an error, insisting that the ‘correct’ link should be to a later(?) blogpost.  Since I’m well-known for being willing to add a note to one of my own blogposts, so here is his own preferred link for you. His  blog is called “New Atlantis Theory” and his post about f.77r is dated February 10th., 2010.

so – that’s cleared away – back to the content of  f.77r

further postscript April 3rd – apparently Mr. SantaColoma ha now come to believe that my opinion of this folio is derived from his.  Readers may decide: I have provided the necessary comparisons and referred to the textual sources informing my views.


Many other systems are five-element ones, including the Chinese ‘5 agencies’, the Hindu, the Turkish, and more. These are equally deserving of consideration, given the evidence offered by the manuscript about its context..

Once more, there does appear to be influence from the Hellenistic period here, and to explain it I have decided to use Isidore’s text, chiefly for its parallel use of the Latin with the Greek terms.

The original post included a lot of the comparative vocabulary, but made the post over-long and has been removed.


Isidore recognised ether as a rarefied form of fire, but is specific about its not contributing to the world below:

“The ether is the place where the stars are and signifies that fire which is separated high above from the entire world.”

‘The most potent elements’

Isidore then turns to the natural world and begins with the two ‘potent’ elements.

The most potent pair of elements for human life are fire and water, whence those to whom fire and water are forbidden are gravely punished.

Etym. XIII.xii.2

That pair, I think, is probably the reason why the diagram is flanked by a female and what appears to be a non-gendered male. (which could be our first indication of religious bent, supposing it alluded to Isaiah 53:8  Who shall declare his generation?” and see Naasseni, in Hippolytus Bk.V

details from fol 77r (textual portion omitted).

Forms given their containers agree with Isidore’s assignments, too: that on the left appears to be modelled on the wall-sconce or  glass-beakers  filled with oil and used in that way.

On the right the container is formed as a bucket or basket from which falls a mixture of water and potent earth (i.e. life-producing water, like the fertile soil brought by flood. The mechanism of reproduction through seed was not entirely understood in earlier times.).

Postscript: (November 1st., 2016). I may have mis-read the first element motif of ‘wavy lines with scattered dots’. It could be meant for Smoke ~ as rising air mixed with burned particles.. on which see:  ‘On the doorstep.. and things Manichaean’ (October 31st., 2016).  (following illustration  added 2/11/2016)


 While Isidore’s description of these older ideas is compatible with the diagram so far, overall the maker of the drawing does not appear to have had any identical conception of the matter.  I don’t think this is an illustration of the Etymologies,  so much as an illustration of some accepted and local ‘5-elements’ system, assumed within an education that was also infused by respect for the same classical sources.

 Isidore’s constantly referring to both Greek and the  Latin vocabulary, and explaining both, means that the Latin tradition maintained some knowledge of Greek from that time. The Etymologies was so widely used and copied that it is often compared to the later Encyclopaedia Britannica, in that it served as a standard reference in its time, used by scholars and its information then disseminated as standard opinion, through the lay population.

Primary matter: ‘the wood’

Isidore says:

The Greeks call a certain primary material of things ΰλη (‘matter’ also ‘wood’) which is not formed in any way.

and he goes on:

 From this ΰλη the visible elements (Lat: elementum) are formed, whence they took their name, [Gk stoikeia: elements] for they agree with [Gk: stoikein] each other in a certain accord and communion of association.

Where we speak of the  ‘basic fabric’ or the ‘building blocks’ of the material world, the Greek term for the raw material of all things was  ΰλη, which – like this diagram – evokes the idea of a tree’s body, unshaped, but from which those elements [Lat. elementum] emerge.  The Greek term was not elementum, but  stoikeia.

(April 3rd – cf. architectural and philosophical associations for terms stoa; stoic)

In conception, then, this diagram does seem to reflect and influence from those Greek philosophical terms, though not the Latin.

At the same time, it includes five elements, and shows fire second from highest which, to judge from al-Biruni’s comments (see below) agrees with the situation in tenth-century Baghdad.

I think that this diagram is not designed to illustrate Isidore’s text, nor probably the system used in Roman times.

Some points of distinction between the diagram and Isidore’s account of the Greek system:

Where Isidore explains the Greek stoichaea with a sense of the four elements’ harmony and interaction, the diagram takes the term to mean rather that five elements have emerged from that formless ‘wood’  not as living things might, in amity, but as non-living things,  equal simply in terms of time and distance: the time of emergence being contemporary is indicated, I think, by the equal length of these short branchings.

Nor does the relationship of these five match Isidore’s understanding of that amity. Because Isidore’s understanding is that aether has no place in the world inhabited by mankind, it plays no part in his explanation of earthly substances, all of which are formed from the four.

 “Indeed [they] are said to be connected thus among themselves with a certain natural logic, now returning to their origin, from fire to earth, now from earth to fire: since fire ends in air, and air is condensed into water, and water thickens into earth and [then], in turn, earth is loosened into water, water rarefied into air, and air thinned out into fire”.

– Etymologiae XIII.iii.1-6

Now try as I might –  and though I feel fairly certain that the second element from the right is fire and, further, that the elements in the centre of the ‘wood’ and that nearest the fiery principal (not principle) could between them be interpreted as air and ether, yet no correspondence exists in the drawing to the way in which Isidore himself explains the four elements’ relationship.

Even if we do suppose, as Isidore and the western world normally did not, that ether and its radiance (aether) contributed to the composition of the natural world, the order and relationships here do not appear to me to coincide.

Some 5-elements systems in the east

1. Chinese

2. Indian (Hindu)

 3. Islamic

          Al Biruni gives brought knowledge of India’s  Hindu elements as being:

 Heaven; Wind; Fire; Water; Earth,

and he says specifically that none of the Hindu elements equates to the Greeks’ “aether”. This is a relevant point, since in more recent times there has been a tendency to refer to aether in interpreting the term Akasha.

 Writing in the tenth century, he explains in his India:

 “Heaven, Wind, Fire, Water and Earth are the Hindu’s five elements. They are called the mahabuta i.e. having great natures. The Hindus do not think, as other people do, that the fire is a hot, dry body near the bottom of the ether. They understand by fire the common fire on earth which comes from an inflammation of smoke.

The Vayu Purana says, ‘In the beginning were earth, water, wind and heaven. Brahman, on seeing sparks under the earth, brought them forward, and divided them into three parts: the first, Parthiva, is the common fire, which requires wood and is extinguished by water; the second is divya i.e. the sun; the third vidyut i.e. the lightning. The sun attracts the water..”

Sachau, Al Biruni’s ‘India’, Chapter III (v-ix).

4. Manichaean.

Five is a number of fundamental importance to Manichaean systems, including cosmology. A great deal of information about Manichaean thought is available online, (e.g.this site) but for its style of script, I add links to the very important  Cologne Mani Codex, found at Lycopolis in Egypt and a comparative example of cursive script in an early Christian codex from  Oxyrhinchus.

5. Buddhist

6. Turk

.. and others.


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