Five Fingers and Five Planets
The earliest significance of the number 5 was the number of digits per hand. The first magical importance of it was probably the number of visible planets. In ancient times before streetlights, it was much easier to notice changes in the stars. The big bright moving stars were what really caught the attention of ancient humans, and led to much mythology and symbolism. The 5 visible (called Classical) planets, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, were called Wandering Stars, which gave rise to the word planet through the Greek for wanderer, ‘planetes.’
After the basics of Yin and Yang theory in Chinese medicine and philosophy, the Five Elements (which is also called Five Phases and Five Star theory) is the next taught traditional concept in Chinese Medicine. These traditional five elements are wood, fire, earth, metal, and water in Chinese tradition. They are called the Wu Xing, which is pronounced Woo Shing (as in shingle) and literally means Five Travelers. In Chinese, the phoneme Xing is also used for the word Star, but that is a different character. The similarity in sound is often used to connect symbols (such as the words Lucky and Bat, so Bat is a good luck symbol due to the sound of saying it).
Xing literally means travel or wander, same as the Latin word Planetes:
One key connection of the five elements is to the five visible planets. They are used to categorize things such as flavors, organs, and emotions in many areas of Chinese culture, particularly in Traditional Chinese Medicine. Most Asian acupuncture styles and Chinese herbal medicine schools rely heavily on the associations and interactions of these five elements. Five Element theories have been around for centuries, West and East, and met in our calendar and the days of the week.
7 days=Five Elements plus Yang and Yin
The other 2 big ‘moving’ objects in the sky are the sun and the moon, forming 7 ‘heavenly bodies’ that move against the backdrop of the stars with their fixed constellations. This is the origin of the 7 days of the week, both East and West. In the West, we have Sun-day and Moon-day (Monday) followed by Tuesday (Martis in Latin, Martes in Spanish) is for Mars (Tyr’s Day and Tiwaz’s Day, from Norse/Proto-Germanic languages), Wednesday is Woden’s Day for Mercury, Mercurii in latin. Thursday is Thor’s day, another Norse reference. Thor and Jupiter have a connection mythologically. Friday is Fria’s day, which is for the goddess Fria/Frigid/Freya, and is synonymous with Venus.
In Chinese, the old names for the days of the week lined up with the planets the same way, with the associations of the sun, moon, and five elements, with Mars being Fire, Mercury being Water, Jupiter as Wood, Venus as Metal, and Saturn as Earth. The names of the days used the Chinese words for the elements followed by Yao Ri (thus Huo Yao Ri for Fire day, and Shui, Mu, Jin, and Tu respectively):
Now the days are called Xing Qi (sounds like the first syllables of “shingle cheese”) and are numbered. Xing Qi literally means Star Phase (it’s a different Qi than the Energy/Breath/Gas character), so the days are Star Phase One (Xing Qi Yi), Star Phase Two (Xing Qi Er) and on (3-San, 4-Si, 5-Wu, 6-Liu). It starts at Monday, and Sunday is not Star Phase Seven, but Star Phase Sun or Star Phase Heavens (Xing Qi Ri/Xing Qi Tian).
Four Elements or Five Elements?
In the West Aristotle is credited with the theory that the world is made of four elements: Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. The 4 directions are a fairly obvious way to think of the world, with front, back, left and right. A cross is easy to draw and is found in symbolism around the world. So what is this fifth element? The fifth element in the west was introduced by Aristotle as Ether/Aether for the unchanging spiritual essence he thought the immovable stars were made of, in contrast to the ever-changing earthly four elements. The word Quintessential means the Fifth Essence, and refers to this. In the west, this is generally translated as Spirit. The other four elements represent the material world. The four suits in a deck of cards are the four elements, and the Joker is the Spirit. The Joker actually represents the other Tarot cards missing from the playing card deck. In the 78 card Tarot deck, there are 22 Major Arcana, representing the major archetypes of the spiritual/psychological world. The other 56 cards are 4 suits of 10 plus 16 court cards representing every combination of 2 elements. The card numbered 0 is the Fool on his spiritual journey, and is now the Joker in the common deck. Can you figure out the four elements and the four suits of cards? In the Tarot, the four suits are Wands, Cups, Swords, and Disks. Wands are like torches, thus are fire. Cups hold water, Swords whistle through the air, and Disks are like plates holding food from the earth (or coins made of mined earth metals). Fire and Air are the Yang elements, while Water and Earth are Yin. Wands have become Clubs, Swords are Spades. Cups are Hearts and Diamonds are Disks. In the era of the Four Elements theory, it was taken very seriously that the material universe was made of nothing but these four things. It was Robert Boyle’s book the Sceptical Chymist in 1661 that really broke scientific thought free of the four element theory and set it forth towards the Periodic Table of the Elements.
Sacred Geometry, Profane Geometry
Since we are now in the controversial depths of western esoterica, we may as well detour through Freemasonry and occultism. I prefer to focus on the historical development of science through systematized observation of the natural world. Most evil forces of this genre are easily banished with a grain of salt.
Freemasonry has a curious history, having been very important in the development of the United States. One of my grandfathers was a Freemason (I am not), and I inherited some neat books from him including some astrology books from the late 1800′s and early 1900′s. Here is the spine of my set of Masonic encyclopedias showing the main Masonic symbol of the compass and square:
The early mathematicians were the astrologers, priests, and then by extension the drafters, designers, and builders of big structures (temples, churches). They saw tremendous significance in numbers and the geometric forms which represented them. A pentagram is a very important figure in geometry because in the sequence of numbers, it is the first one to require real skill to draw perfectly (after a dot, line, triangle, and square). You need both a straightedge and a compass to draw a five-pointed star. It is rare that someone can do it easily without being taught, thus it is sort of knowledge gained through initiatory teaching. Here is my version, following the rules linked to above:
Also in the modern West, the five-pointed star is often seen in popular culture as evil or a sign of black magic, as in this 1970′s comic book “Do You Dare Enter… The House of Mystery!”:
With my tongue in my cheek, I say that the comic book cover is unrealistic because the candles should be red. In the world of the Qabalah and ritual magic, the number 5, and thus the pentagram, are connected to Mars and the color red, the metal iron, etc.
It is also used by many Neo-Pagans such as Wicca practitioners as a positive religious symbol. Naturally, with the history of Christian persecution of witches, there is some animosity between these groups. There are some self-described Satanists out there, mostly in their teens, who latch on to the inverse pentagram as their symbol. They are probably the ones stealing the library books on witchcraft, though it could be some Fundamentalist Christians as well. Some say the upright pentagram is good whilst the inverse is evil, reminiscent of the goat-footed god Pan.
The pentagram is indeed a part of esoteric theory and practice, but there are a large variety of uses of it, most of which are not intrinsically ‘evil.’ Most of them do represent some hidden teaching or arcane knowledge, and as the word ‘occult’ means hidden, it is fair to say that most uses of the pentagram have an occult aspect (as do any symbols with special meaning for insiders).
Upright Good, Downright Evil?
The most sensible explanation I have heard for the meaning difference between the upright and the inverse pentagram is that with the top point representing Spirit, the point at the top represents “the triumph of spirit over matter.” This is said to be the special symbol of Man. I would prefer to think of that as in HuMan or WoMan, but apparently one of the secret meanings of this is the root of much mystical misogyny. If the point is on the bottom of the pentagram, it then represents the “triumph of matter over spirit.” As far as I can tell, this is the meaning behind using the inverse pentagram for the women’s Masonic order, the Order of the Eastern Star. It probably goes back to blaming Eve for eating the apple. I think Eve was just an early adopter, she probably got an iPhone right away, too!
This symbol is even on their parking space at the Masonic lodge in my town. Note the different colors and tools on the star. Red is fire, blue is water, green is air, and yellow is earth. White is spirit, and is very clearly placed on the bottom. There is much controversy about women’s equality in religions around the world. In Catholicism, women can’t be priests, and in some forms of Tibetan Buddhism, nuns are taught only to chant “may I be reborn as a man” and told that only men can become enlightened. In researching this, I ran across these verses from the Bible, 1 Timothy 2:
“9I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
11A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.12I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”
Freemasonry didn’t make this women’s group until 1850 in the United States, and the women don’t have full access to the initiatory grades that men have. There is controversy and claims of libel out there about the historical discussion of whether or not women have souls. I have encountered some extreme misogynists amongst “spiritual teachers” in the past and personally think that if male humans have souls, female humans, dolphins, chimpanzees, etc., also have them. It would be much more convenient to have a blood test for the presence of a soul. Clearly many esoteric groups are going to conceal their inner teachings and symbols, and many lower members don’t know what the upper members teach. Far too often, well-intentioned disciples spend years climbing to the inner circle of an organization, only to find that the leaders are insane, abusive bigots with delusions of grandeur.
Critters and Colors
Both in the East and West, animals or mythic creatures are associated with the different elements, in addition to the tools above. Some of my favorite diagrams of this are in Aleister Crowley’s _The Book of Thoth_. Aleister Crowley was a controversial figure in his day, a self-described magician who wrote extensively about Magick and mysticism. He more than experimented with drugs, sex, meditation, and ritual, and enjoyed tricking people in many ways, such as using confusing symbols in his writings. As offensive as he may have been in person, as an early intellectual writing about cross-cultural esoteric symbolism, he stands out as important and yet curiously disregarded in libraries and bookstores. Here is a five element image from his main Tarot book, _The Book of Thoth_:
This apparently is one of the mysteries of the Sphinx (the Giza sphinx dates back to 2500 BCE). The head is human, the body a lion, the wings an eagle, and the tail is a reptile (dragon/serpent), according the Greek mythology. The Book of Thoth has the Five Elements for the Sphinx as Spirit/God, Fire/Lion, Earth/Bull, Air/Man, and Water/Dragon. In the Chinese system, there are at least two groups of animals for the five elements. One is from the first system of exercises in recorded history, the Five Animal Frolics by physician/acupuncturist Hua Tuo around 200C C.E.. While mostly from oral tradition, his five animals are Tiger, Deer, Bear, Monkey, and Bird. The Taoist esoteric five element animals are the Green Dragon (Wood), the Red Pheasant (Fire), the Yellow Phoenix (Earth), the White Tiger (Metal), and the Black Tortoise (Water). These symbols with their color associations persist in Chinese culture to the modern day–most Chinese children know turtle as ‘Wu Gui’ or ‘Black Tortoise.’ Mantak Chia gives visualizations of these colors and energies as a meditative practice (the colors are drawn into the organs during the meditative rituals known as Inner Alchemy/Nei Dan). Details are found in his book _The Fusion of the Five Elements_.
I have a great little old book from 1874, _Birth of Chemistry_. Here is an image from it, attributed to a book from 1546:
Here the bird is air, the dragon water, the bull earth, and the winged person is fire.
I suspect that the dragon in symbol and myth may be an early esoteric connection between China and Europe. In fact, I think that many of the symbols that became the ritual focus of medieval magicians, alchemists, and Freemasons trickled over from the returning religious soldiers from the Crusades, who had interacted with Muslim mystics and other Eastern factions. This is part of the legend of the Knights Templar.
The Chinese Five Element theory is precisely balanced in the interactions of the elements. Here is a nice concise historical introduction from my Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs book:
The Book of History mentioned dates from 200 BCE, with some things added hundreds of years later. The main Chinese medicine text, the Yellow Emperor’s Internal Classic (Huang Di Nei Jing,Su Wen and Ling Shu being the two parts) dates from around 200-100 BCE, and also has references to the five elements. In the image above, it is written:
“Water produces Wood, but destroys Fire;
Fire produces Earth, but destroys Metal;
Metal produces Water, but destroys Wood;
Wood produces Fire, but destroys Earth;
Earth produces Metal, but destroys Water.”
These two cycles are called the Sheng and the Ko, or Creating and Destroying. The Shang cycle goes around the outside of the star, and the Ko cycle follows the lines of the star.
I’m not sure when the first pentagram drawing was made in China, but it has long been the teaching that going around the outside of the star is the generating cycle and the inside of the star is the controlling cycle. Here is an image from Mantak Chia’s Fusion of the Five Elements which shows the counteracting/controlling cycle and its related emotions and organs:
A huge part of these correspondence systems is the idea of the human body mirroring the universe–that the entire cosmos are the big system, designed in the same way as our own body’s little system. This is called the Microcosm and Macrocosm and is also the Western esoteric teaching ‘As Above, So Below.’ Thus, when the ancients identified 5 big stars that moved in the sky, and 5 main organs in the human and animal bodies, they drew the correspondence and created a system where everything fit. Sometimes they really had to stretch to make things fit their system, but sometimes the system ‘clicked’ and things made sense. For example, the system says Water is the emotion Fear and Wood is the emotion Anger, and Water gives growth to Wood. Thus fear gives rise to anger, says the meditation on this elemental relationship. Perhaps that is often accurate and useful, and it may not occur to someone unless they are going through all of these theoretical relationships between the elements.
In acupuncture, the 12 meridians are related to the 6 pair of organs, which have been fit into the 5 element system by proclaiming Fire to be the most important Emperor element, and thus worthy of a double spot. Each acupuncture meridian has 5 special points between the tips of the fingers and toes, and the elbow and knee, respectively. In the traditional five element system of acupuncture, the points are selected specifically to balance out a situation among the elements, so that if someone had extra fire, they would increase the water and decrease the wood with the respective points on the fire meridian, and/or a related water or wood meridian. I use many points in my practice partially based on the five element attributions, but I do not go into obsessive detail, as I think this system is largely symbolic and has suggestion as a large basis of effect. In other words, I don’t think it is an anatomic reality that the five elements are wired via these 60 points on each limb, and that I can shuttle actual elemental energy between the points and meridians via acupuncture to fix any imbalance. I know that makes me an unbeliever in some circles, but frankly I get great results from acupuncture with my Ancient Way Acupuncture Technique, which combines some traditional acupuncture with modern dermatome and gland based point selection. It is very realistic and effective, and doesn’t take constantly referring to complicated memorized elemental point associations.
When I first started learning acupuncture with Dr. Henry Lu and Wally and Jenny Mui at the International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Victoria, BC, I learned of the rivalry between the TCM and Five Elements schools. I don’t take it seriously, though I am offended when the Five Element school claims it is far superior than the TCM school, and that treating pain is a low practice. My patients are contracting me to help them reach specific goals, and it is my job to help them. If getting out of pain from an injury is the goal I am being hired to help with, it is not a good service to get all esoteric on them and do a ‘constitutional wood energy treatment’ on just their hands and legs while ignoring the bulging disk in their lower back.
I do appreciate the use of the Chinese five elemental associations with the Qi Gong exercises taught by Mantak Chia as the Inner Smile and the Six Healing Sounds. The Inner Smile was historically more referred to as the ‘Ingestion of the Five Sprouts.’ It involves various visualizations of the color of light from the associated direction going into your body (often through the Third Eye point or the mouth) and nourishing the corresponding organ. For example, a red light coming from the south, going through your forehead as you inhale and going to light up and nourish your heart, healing yourself from the effects of hatred and increasing your capacity to feel love. The Six Healing Sounds are very old, as well, and involve releasing heat or toxic emotions, etc. from the organs by exhaling their color with a particular sounds, such as “SSSSSSSS” from the lungs, while exhaling white or cloudy light and releasing stored grief. Mantak Chia teaches this with specific poses, which are done while sitting with the exception of the 6th sound, done laying on the ground, for harmonizing the whole body (the Triple Burner ‘organ’ which represents the different spaces in the torso–upper, middle, and lower).
In the Inner Smile, the controlling cycle is used–the order of elements is Fire–>Metal–>Wood–>Earth–>Water. In the Six Healing Sounds, it is the generative cycle: Metal–>Water–>Wood–>Fire–>Earth. I assume in other rituals with these elements, the order of the elements is followed and chosen carefully. I’m sure there have been many involved in Chinese mysticism who overdid it into Obsessive-Compulsive behavior between the five elements, the Yi Jing (I Ching), and interpreting cracks in turtle shells to determine the future. It is important to take a Zhuang Zi (Chuang Tzu) break once in a while and daydream about being a butterfly or something.
The Lesser Banishing Ritual
The five elements are also used in the Western esoteric ritual. The most popular ceremonial magick ritual of all time must be the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram. Instructions abound online and in print. I has many elements of Hebrew Qabalah, including Hebrew names for Jehovah and Adonai. It also involves drawing and visualizing a cross of light in the body, uses part of the Lord’s prayer and also calls on the Archangels by name: Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, and Auriel. It was apparently developed by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which puts it in the late 1800′s or early 1900′s. Many Golden Dawn and Masonic types have been esoteric Christians, so it would be wrong to consider this ritual as a priori Satanic. I would assume most Satanists wouldn’t use most of these symbols as a source of positive power. I bring it up here largely because of the interesting tradition regarding the direction the pentagram is drawn. Here is an illustration from Crowley’s _Magick in Theory and Practice_ which I understand was largely cribbed from Golden Dawn teachings:
What I find telling about this is that while the different directions of drawing the pentagram are supposed to be invoking (generating) or banishing (controlling/dispersing), there is no true internal consistency of the system. The rule is apparently “draw a line towards an element to invoke, draw a line from an element to banish.” It is almost as if someone told someone about the Chinese pentagram with its two different cycles, and as it travelled over to Europe, it became somewhat confused and ended up as this. The Chinese five phases are perfectly balanced in their theory and diagramming, and existed from about 200 BCE. The earliest potential reference to some type of pentagram/pentacle ritual is the Key of Solomon book from the 14th century at the earliest, though from my perusal of it, it doesn’t really present this ritual or specific directional rules for drawing pentagrams. It is highly likely that the Silk Road brought this type of esoteric knowledge as well as spices and fabrics, and that it was not always accurately transmitted. Then again, Aristotle was active around 350 BCE, so it could have gone the other way, too. I have completely ignored the Hindu five elements thus far, and won’t go into them in depth, but here is a site with more about them and the Tattwas, which are the Indian symbols for the five elements. They follow the Aristotelian five more than the Chinese five, which is interesting in itself. Here’s a graphic from the linked to site:
Many meditations exist involving all of these symbols. Part of the importance of meditating on these symbols is to give the visualizing part of the brain something distinctive and simple to focus on, to increase both intention span and the ability to visualize. These results alone can be almost magical in increasing brain power, and I doubt it has anything to do with supernatural power intrinsic in these diagrams. Some take comfort knowing others have meditated or prayed with the same symbols for thousands of years. It is nice to feel that you have some giants with welcoming shoulders when pursuing the Sisyphean task of exploring and controlling your own mind.
This essay has grown to be somewhat lengthy, and I haven’t yet gotten to the specific details of which acupuncture points are what elements, and how they would be selected to balance other elements. I’ll leave that to a future post, and let this be the groundwork. I also failed to get into the presence of the pentagram on so many countries’ flags, from the United States to the People’s Republic of China. Perhaps it is the Martial connection.
I photographed sections from most of the books mentioned in this post, and if you’d like to do further reading on these topics, you may browse my online Five Element References photo gallery here (click on an individual image to see it larger, it should be comfortable to read the text)..
Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. I have reopened comments on my blog, but also encourage you to discuss this and other related topics on my Facebook page.
I would prefer you post the link to my blog rather than copy and paste my writings. Some of my images are original and some are copied–if you ‘own’ them, let me know if you want them referenced or removed–I’ve tried to give references to all images.
Kevin O’Neil, L.Ac.
Tuesday, August 3, 2010