The Greeks observed earth, air fire and water as the building blocks in the composition of everything in nature.
Air contained fire (heat) water (vapour) and earth (particles) as well as its main element air.
A burning piece of wood leaves off heat, water and air (smoke).
- The primary qualities of the elements are hot, cold, moist and dry. Each element was associated with a pair of primary qualities.
Fire – heat and dryness
Air - heat and moisture
Water- coldness and moisture
Earth- coldness and dryness.
Secondary qualities associated with the 4 primary qualities are
HEAT - lightness, rarity (thinness), ability to penetrate
COLD - heaviness, density, grossness.
DRYNESS - hardness, dryness, roughness, friability/easily crumbled.
MOISTURE – softness, slipperness, smoothness, clamminess.
As well as these 4 elements there was also the life giving principle/ innate heat/spirit.
The above basic system was developed by the Greeks, accepted by the Romans and developed by the Arabs after which it returned to Europe again.
It is based on close observation of the world around us and also applied to the human.
This system of the 4 elements is vital in that the elements moves from one to the other and there is no separation of any part of the body from any other part or from the environment.
In Graeco-Arabic medicine herbs were also observed to have certain characteristics and this characteristic was imparted to the human body in a greater or lesser degree.
The four primary characteristics were HOT, COLD, MOIST/WET and DRY
They could affect in various degrees ranging from the FIRST degree to the FOURTH degree.
Herbs hot in the first degree were said to impart a moderate and natural heat to a part cold by nature or cooled by accident.
Herbs hot in the 2nd degree were hotter then the natural temperature of man.
Herbs hot in the 3rd degree were more powerful especially in promoting sweating.
Herbs in the 4th degree are so hot that they can burn when applied externally.
Cold medicines were not seen as friendly to the body and easily hurt children and those with weak stomachs.
Herbs cold in the 1st degree were used to heat of food in Summer i.e salads, and to cool the blood in fevers.
Herbs cold in the 2nd and 3rd degree were used for people with strong stomachs and hot livers to ease the heat of choler, for insomnia, and frequent fainting. They were used externally for inflammation.
Herbs cold in the 4th degree were narcotic and they eased pain by ‘stupefying’ the senses.
Herbs said to be moistening did not go beyond the 2nd degree because after that the heat of a hot herb would dry out the moisture thus causing it to become dry. Likewise with a cold herb, where the moisture (i.e.herbs that were both cold and moist) would be driven out by condensation
Herbs moist in the 1st degree were used to ease coughs and dry throats and as an emollient for the skin Herbs moist in 2nd degree thickened the blood and spirits.
Herbs dry in the 3rd and 4th degrees could dry up the body and is organs too much and thus cause undernourishment.