The Fifth Element
Note: The Chinese system of Five elements (Wuxing) is not what this article is about This is about the western / alchemical tradition.
In addition to the traditional four elements of Fire, Air, Water & Earth, some traditions talked of a fifth-element called Aether.
This used to puzzle me, as I couldn't see how there could possibly be five children of Yin & Yang.
The fifth element was described as being somehow 'above' the other elements, and I wondered if it might just be duality, Yin & Yang, the next higher-level of the hierarchy... I was half-right...
The fifth element is also sometimes called 'Quintessence' (literally "the fifth essence")...
So what is the fifth element, and how does it fit with the other four?
substrate: a substance or surface that an organism grows and lives on and is supported by.
Aether is the substrate, it's the thing all the other elements depend upon. In aether-physics theory, the aether is the medium which light is transmitted by. So it's the thing that allows electrical activity to exist, like light (electromagnetic waves).
Light, and all EM waves are made of the four-elements because the sine-wave itself is.
Aether is what allows the existence of electricity, and EM waves, which is what the whole of our reality is made of. So it's like a 5th element, but is more accurately represented as the parent of the four.
The Branching Tree
The four elements describe the Tree archetype that we see in family-trees, trees of cause & effect, and actual trees. Trees are all fractals, branching many times, from the huge trunk, down to the fine twigs.
The four elements fully describe the tree. There is no need, and no room for a fifth element... So why did alchemists talk of it?
The fifth-element describes the fractal nature of the tree, that is it's purpose & meaning.
The fifth-element is the branch the four-smaller branches grew from. It's the Parent-Branch...
The Next-Level Up
Aether is the parent-branch in the "tree-of-life" that the four-elements we perceive grew from.
"Aether" is a relative concept, not an absolute.
Just think of a tree branching repeatedly from trunk to twigs...
- The trunk of the tree is 'aether' to first set of four branches: F, A, W, E
- The first set of branches are each 'aether' to a second set of (smaller) branches, eg. FF FA FW FE
- The second set of branches are aether to third set of (smaller) branches, eg. FFF FFA FFW FFE
So aether is describing a parent-children relationship: One to Many, Yang to Yin.
The fractal nature of the tree-of-life implies that reality is a branching multiverse.
It suggests that each level of reality is fully-formed, with three spatial dimensions and all the four levels from desire to matter...
Each branch of the tree-of-life could be a complete "universe" with matter, and people, and animals etc. but could still appear to us as simple one-dimensional principles.
A three-dimensional thing can appear to be two or one-dimensional from a different perspective.
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