The ancient philosophical model of existence

A medieval illustration of the ancient map of the universe, after Claudius Ptolemy (2ndC CE).

A medieval illustration of the ancient map of the universe, after Claudius Ptolemy (2ndC CE).

The ancients had a very practical, empirically deductive and reductive system of describing how the universe worked. This was based on a synthesis of observations of natural cycles, the rotation of the stars and planets, and the physical properties of things, and it produced an intellectual ‘map’ which included both the earth and the heavens, people, animals, spirits and gods and described how they interacted – quite some achievement!

This system divided the universe into the mundane world and the spheres of the heavens. The mundane world and everything in it was deemed to be made of four ‘Elements’: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. These were under the control of a fifth element called Spirit or Aether, which was the substance from which the stars, heavens, gods, souls and spirits were formed. Aether was the ‘divine substance’ and was the driving ‘spirit’ of nature.

The elements were in a state of continuity and flux with one another. The theory arose from observations of how natural things change their qualities, through inductive reasoning. Solid stone becomes liquid under the influence of heat, water becomes solid ice when heat is taken away. Water and solids (‘earth’) becomes gaseous (air) when evaporated by heat (fire). Water lies on top of earth in the oceans, fire rises up above air towards the heavens, which are made of spirit. Rain falling from the heavens brings life back to the land, so it must have partaken of the animating spirit of Aether. Different animals were classified by their affinity to elements: snakes to the earth, birds to the air, fish to water etc. The system even made up animals that associated with fire (the phoenix)! Even the human body was deemed to made of four ‘humors’ which represented the elements. It seemed the most logical way to view things.


The ancient Greek word for an element was Stoicheon, meaning ‘to line up’, probably after the elements’ dynamic relationships as just mentioned. The system was first described in Mediterranean European literature by Greeks including Empedocles of Sicily (who described them as ‘roots of nature’ under the influence of the twin forces of love and hate), and later fleshed out in discourse by Plato and Aristotle at Athens. Plato frequently ascribes such learning to his favourite ancient scholars – the Egyptians, especially so in his book known as The Dialogue of Timaeus or just Timaeus, from the 4thC BCE.  However, we know that these divisions were obvious to all in the ancient world – why else would people everywhere offer burnt sacrifices to their spiritual gods during the Bronze Age, why were bodies cremated if not to release their souls back into the sphere of spirit?  The Greeks just wanted to appear first with a ‘published’ system in literature – something that Julius Caesar said the Druids of Atlantic Europe in the 1stC BCE apparently abhorred, even though they used Greek writing for secular matters!

The Four Elements and Four Qualities linking them

The Four Elements and Four Qualities linking them

Above the elemental world in this ancient map lay the heavens, comprising of the moving stars (planets and constellations) and above these the fixed stars of the Empyrean, representing the universal spiritual godhead! Yes – even before Hebrew monotheistic religion came to dominate Europe in the form of Christianity, Islam and Rabbinic Judaism, those polytheistic pagans had a concept of a unified central spirit! This may come as something of a surprise…

The spiritual ‘Gods’ were represented by the moving stars of the visible planets, the sun and the moon, who could be seen moving most rapidly across the sky and interacting with the constellations. The constellations appeared at different points in the sky, marking different times of the year. The interactions between the planets and constellations provided an ‘astral story’ narrative that linked their appearance and activity to natural phenomena in the elemental realm of existence. Many ancient religious stories offer explanations for how the constellations came to be. Astrology was the science of interpreting the conjunctions of planets and constellations with their influence upon the elemental world

The fact is that paganism itself was not in its origins so much an adorative suppliant religion as a Philosophy or Science describing existence through the relation of allegory and archetypes in the form of gods. This system was most successfully illustrated in a dialectic fashion through the arts: Story, poetry, illustration, dance and drama. Given the complex and plastic nature of reality, a literary representation would be too limited and didactic to hold true.

The problem with Europe during the period known as the ‘Iron Age’, was that there was a pressure, particularly within powerful centralised cultures, to represent the figurative in an increasingly concrete or literal manner. this caused the philosophical ‘gods’ to become physical manifestations, commodities and properties under the control of worldy human power.  If Caesar was correct about the Druids refusing to commit their religious doctrines to writing, then he was describing a political religious movement which recognised and rebelled against this change which characterised their era.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s