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Classical Elements

Quick Definition

Chances are pretty good that you've heard of the Periodic Table and have some exposure to the concepts related to it. You probably also know that atoms are really tiny pieces of matter, that there are different types of atoms, and how they are arranged determines what sort of substance something is -- for example, when two hydrogen atoms connect to a single oxygen atom, you get water.

But hundreds of years ago, this wasn't common knowledge. Instead of a Periodic Table, molecules, and atoms, there were four (or five) natural elements. Like modern chemistry, it was believed that interactions between these elements or mixtures of them described the natural world.

These elements were Fire, Water, Earth, Air, and Aether. Sometimes Air was called Wind, and Aether was called Spirit (or more often, it was left out altogether), but the group was well known. In fact, you probably already recognized them, as they are commonly used in popular fiction. For example, each of the four nations in Avatar: The Last Airbender represents an element (Aether being absent, as usual).

Games often use a simple system like this to create a paper-scissors-rock style of magic. This allows some strategy in combat, and gives the developers an easy way to theme their creatures so that players don't need to spend time studying what does and doesn't work. For example, if a monster is made of living lava, it's probably a Fire-type monster, so using a Water-type attack will be the most effective method to defeat it.

Another common place to find the classical elements is in alchemy, the precursor to chemistry. Alchemy recipes use symbols to describe ingredients and how to use them, so it's not surprising that the classical elements are some of the simplest symbols you'll see if you look into that pseudo-magical practice.

Illustration of the alchemic symbols for the elements
The five classical elements, with their associated symbols