Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Fifth Element

This post is a follow-up to yesterday's Vampire Academy book review. It has to do with the elemental magic practiced by Richelle Mead's Moroi - vampires who are living, mortal beings and self-appointed guardians of the earth. I may make occasional reference to the 1997 Luc Besson movie titled The Fifth Element, starring Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, and Gary Oldman (which, I'll have you know, I think is a very good movie).

We can learn much of interest about the Classical four elements by referring to Barbara G. Walker's wonderful resource The Woman's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets.

The Four Elements

Walker's encyclopedia entry on "elements" informs us of the following:

- Naming the four elements as water, fire, earth, and air was common to many ancient civilizations, including the Chinese, Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Hindus, Aztecs, and some other North American indigenous tribes. These four elements were commonly thought to make up everything that exists.

- Ancient Hindus believed the goddess Kali created the four elements. By inscribing symbols to represent them on her necklace of skulls, Kali brought the Sanskrit alphabet into being.

Public domain image by Ambereen21
- Kali is sometimes portrayed as holding one of four objects in each of her four hands: a bowl of blood symbolizing water, a lightning bolt-shaped scepter symbolizing fire, a lotus wheel representing earth, and a sword representing air.

- Kali's four symbols, once adapted by Europeans, evolved into the cup, wand, wheel (pentacle), and sword used on the Tarot deck. These, in turn, became the hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades of the modern playing card deck.

- Water and earth were feminine, and air and fire were masculine. This is why hearts and diamonds are red (feminine) and clubs and spades are black (masculine) - analogous to the concepts of yin and yang. In Hindu philosophy, the feminine elements were creative/benevolent  and the masculine elements destructive/cruel. However, to the ancient Greeks, the feminine elements were passive and the male elements were active.

- The combination of water and fire - male and female - represented sexual union. Together they made blood, which was red like fire yet tasted like ocean water.

- The "four humors" used by Western medicine are each related to one of the four elements. Blood was air, phlegm was water, yellow bile was fire, and black bile was earth. A predominance of blood in the body led to the sanguine temperament (cheerful), phlegm the phlegmatic (calm, cool, composed, imperturbable), yellow bile the choleric (irritable), and black bile the melancholic (tending toward depression).

Personification of the four temperaments. Title page of 'The Seven Planets' by Adriaen Collaert, 1581. Public domain image. 
 - In Christian iconography, the four Gospel writers (or Four Evangelists) are represented as a bull (ox), lion, serpent (according to other sources, an eagle), and a man or angel. These symbols represent earth, fire, water, and air as well as the Gospels of Luke, Mark, John, and Matthew.

The Four Evangelists depicted in the Book of Kells. Public domain image. 
The Moroi in the Vampire Academy series each specialize in one type of elemental magic in their teen years, similar to reaching puberty. Christian Ozera, for example, has fire magic, and Victor and Natalie Dashkov both specialize in earth magic. Lissa, however, has no specialization. She has some control over all four elements, but her true specialization is the rare fifth element, spirit.

The Fifth Element

According to Walker, the ancient Greeks characterized the fifth element as "ether," which means "heavenly." The gods and goddesses were thought to be made of ether - so I wasn't completely wrong in my movie review when I characterized Lissa as having an "ethereal" quality.

In the Luc Besson movie, the fifth element is both embodied in a person - Leeloo - and also representative of love itself.

Leeloo cosplay, complete with Multipass. Creative Commons image by Christopher Michel
Walker's encyclopedia entry for quintessence describes the substance variously as the blue blood of the gods (also known as ichor), specifically as the menstrual blood of the Goddess, or as the sacred wine or ambrosia consumed by the gods. Walker claims that in Homeric poetry, ichor is described as being made by the honeybees of Aphrodite. "Blue blood" is said to be the reason both the Hindu deity Krishna and the Gnostic creator-god known as the Demiurge were depicted as blue-skinned, and why ancient Celts painted themselves blue in religious ceremonies and in battle. Celts killed in battle hoped to be resurrected like the immortal gods.

Walker goes on to write that in medieval alchemy, quinta essentia or quintessence referred to a blue elixir associated with both bodily resurrection and spiritual illumination. She also writes that quintessence is used to reference the fifth trump suit or Major Arcana of the Tarot deck.

For further evidence, I turned to The Book of Alchemy: Learn the Secrets of the Alchemists to Transform Mind, Body, and Soul by Francis Melville. It says, "Of all the philosophical principles, none is as mysterious and intangible as the quintessence, the fifth essence or element, which is concealed within the four philosophical elements and equates with the secret fire, the spark of divinity within all things."

If Lissa Dragomir's quintessence is the spark of the divine, it certainly explains what our narrator Rose feels when she experiences Lissa's healing: a sense of all the good, wonderful, happy things in the world, a beautiful bliss.

Melville further writes, "The four elements conceal within them a fifth element, known as the quinta essentia, the quintessence, or Azoth. This has the connotation of being the absolute essence of a thing and, as such, many alchemical magisteries (products or medicines) are called quintessences, particularly those that have been distilled, because distillation releases the soul and spirit from matter. Some alchemists call the spirit of wine (distilled brandy) a quintessence, and, indeed, it fulfills the criteria described by Isaac Newton:

"'Quintessence is a thing that is spiritual, penetrating, tinging, and incorruptible, which emerges anew from the four elements when they are bound to each other.'

"Paracelsus considers it to be the extract of the elements, their incorruptible, eternal substratum. Manfred Junius calls it 'The origin and goal of all things.'

"It is often said that the quintessence is not a product of the elements, but one of the three philosophical principles. In fact, it is all three: the trinity is everything. The quintessence is the soul and spirit within all things. It is also the salt that allows it to emerge through the four elements. This reveals it to be nothing less than the secret fire, the spark of eternal light from the first combustion of creation. It is the divinity in all things, the inner sun in which all things find their true identity. Alchemists give it many names: Universal Spirit, Never-failing Source...key of the philosophers, nursery of the world, heavenly substance, Mother of the Waters and, even, Mercurius [identified with the Egyptian wisdom god Thoth, the Greek god Hermes, and the Roman god Mercury].

"The quintessence can be symbolized by the pentagram, the figure that most perfectly divides the circle. It represents the microcosm, the individual containing the whole universe within itself."

If Lissa's spirit is the "extract of the elements," that explains why she and the other spirit-users (Saint Vladimir and Sonya Karp) have weak control over all of the four other elements. By alchemy is very esoteric and every one of its symbols and terms means different things to different alchemists, and now the exact nature and meaning of the fifth element may be murkier than ever.

I'll have to read the rest of the Vampire Academy series to found out if Richelle Mead sheds any more light on it.

Shadow-Kissed Anna

That said, it may be worth noting that St. Vladimir's Dhampir guardian, according to Mead, was called Anna. Walker tells us in her entry on St. Anne (the mother of the Virgin Mary) that Anne/Anna is a name associated with the "grandmother goddess." Analogous names include the Canaanite goddess Anat, the Roman goddess Anna Parenna (Grandmother Time), the Celtic goddess Ana or Anu who made up one third of The Morrigan, Morg-Ana ("invincible Queen Death") in Arthurian legend, and even Angurboda ("hag of the iron wood") the mistress of Loki and the mother of Hel. The pentacle (a pentagram inside a circle, according to modern Wiccan usage) was the symbol common to St. Anne and Morgana, and is the ancient Egyptian symbol for the Underworld.

Shadow-kissed Anna, Ms. Karp, and Lissa make up a kind of trinity. Anna is a legendary figure from long ago, a sort of ancestor or grandmother. She was a guiding light who kept St. Vladimir from giving in to madness. Ms. Karp is like the mother-figure of the trinity, although the madness swallowed her and she became Strigoi. Lissa is the maiden figure whose spirit-power is still largely untested. "Shadow-kissed" means brought back from the land of the dead, so naturally, Anna has an association with the Underworld.

As we know from a long line of myth and literature, there is always a heavy cost to be paid for bringing anyone back to life from the Underworld - a cost that will no doubt have to be paid by Lissa and Rose, since Rose herself is shadow-kissed.

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