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Alchemy uses the following symbols for the four elements that appear in a number of classical cosmologies, namely fire, earth, air and water (I have added letters to show which is which):

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The symbols have been described as each corresponding to a part of the hexagram formed from two equilateral triangles. What is their origin?

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  • Would the downvoter and close voters mind reversing their clicks? This question is on-topic, being about "metaphysics – the nature of being and reality", an area listed in the help file as on-topic, and also about cosmology, as tagged. Thanks. If reluctant, please refer to the help file that you button-clicked to link to, and to any introductory article on the classical elements which will explain that they concern the nature of reality and cosmology. – user19558 Dec 11 '17 at 11:14
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    This question might be better suited for history.SE – Daniel Goldman Dec 11 '17 at 12:01
  • For sure, it has Medieval origin. See some hints in Bruce Eastwood, Ordering the Heavens: Roman Astronomy and Cosmology in the Carolingian Renaissance, BRILL (2007) referring to Isidore de Seville's De Natura Rerum (ca.600 CE). See Ms, folio 15r. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Dec 11 '17 at 12:42
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    Many thank for this, @MauroALLEGRANZA. It is possible that the four symbols derive from Isidore de Seville's square-based diagram, but as well as referring to the "amazing diversity of shape" that "copies" showed over the following three centuries, Bruce Eastwood also refers to earlier traditions. It seems quite a big jump to get from squares to equilateral triangles. The symbols here can be - and by alchemists are - understood as parts of the hexagram formed by two such triangles. – user19558 Dec 11 '17 at 14:18
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    But the link with hexagram in Wiki is through a ref to a book called The Wicca Bible ... It seems a very poor ref for "history of philosophy". – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Dec 12 '17 at 9:15
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From "Alchemy" (1995) by Eric John Holmyard: "the symbols for fire, air, water, and earth indicat the property of the first two to ascend and that of the second two to descend..." So fire and air face upward while water and earth face downward. I am not 100% certain about the lines themselves, but you might be able to find more information in the book. They seem to indicate the "top" and "bottom" however, with water and fire in the middle.

This site, while not as scholarly, may provide additional information. Notice that if you overlay air and earth, the extra lines do connect, suggesting a relationship between the two elements.

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    Some correspondences are that F and A (uppointing) are hot, whereas E and W (downpointing) are cold, with E and F, for which the symbols connect as you say, are dry, and A and W (symbols connecting similarly) are wet. That (although not the symbols as far as I know) is in Aristotle. The symbols may be fairly young, or they may go back a long way. – user19558 Dec 11 '17 at 12:37

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