What do the card game Magic the Gathering; animated television series Adventure Time; R&B musical group Earth, Wind and Fire; Marvel superhero team the Fantastic Four; Swedish heavy metal band Ghost; the four houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and Disney game Kingdom Hearts all have in common? The answer is at once simple and complicated. You might even call it elemental.
In Magic the Gathering, for example, the five primary card colors correspond to the elements—white for aether, blue for air and water, black for nether, red for earth and fire and green for wood. In Adventure Time the elements play a major narrative role, although in true Adventure Time fashion, element classification is more whimsical than scientific. Specifically, the four primary elements are fire, slime, candy, the qualities of which are embodied in the four elementals: Flame Princess, Slime Princess, Princess Bubblegum and Patience St. Pim. Marvel’s superhero team the Fantastic Four is comprised of the Human Torch who has obvious links to fire, the Thing who boasts undeniable earth-like qualities, Mister Fantastic who has a fluid form like water and the Invisible Woman who has certain links to air.
Wikipedia article “Classical elements in popular culture” notes, “It should be mentioned the two obvious elemental personalities (the Human Torch and the Thing) tend to have personality traits people tend to associate with their own elements. Johnny the human Torch is extremely hot-headed and impulsive, with a brash personality. Contrast this to Ben the Thing who is more sullen, dependable and strong.”
There are no shortage of examples of characters in pop culture that derive key aspects of their personalities from one or more of the elements. But with Disney’s highly-anticipated Frozen 2 just around the corner and a frenzy of speculation around hints about the role the elements will play in the new film. According to Insider article “We finally know what these 4 mysterious symbols mean in ‘Frozen 2,’ and they explain the danger heading for Anna and Elsa” in the upcoming movie “Anna and Elsa will have to face elemental spirits” each of which is “represented by a diamond-shaped symbol.”
The Queen and Princess of Arendelle, and their assorted companions, will be forced to leave their castle to confront the four elemental spirits, although little is currently known about the individual characters and their personalities. Drawing heavily from Scandinavian and Norse mythology, the wind element is a mischievous spirit known as Gale, the enormous Earth Giants tower over the trees of the forest, the shape-shifting Nokk embodies water and thus far the fire element remains the most mysterious of the quartet.
But where does this fascination with exploring the elements as personality characteristics come from? The concept of the classical elements—consisting of earth, water, fire and air according to western culture—dates back to multiple ancient cultures including Persia, Greece, Babylonia, Japan, Tibet, India and Hellenistic Greece. As early as the sixth century BC, Persian philosopher Zarathustra identified the four elements (earth, air, water and fire) as "sacred." In the fifth century BC Greek philosopher Empedocles developed a theory that all life was made up of four classical elements—earth, water, air and fire—and published his ideas in a 450-line poem called On Nature.
“But if thy assurance of these things was in any way deficient as to how, out of Water and Earth and Air and Fire mingled together, arose the forms and colours of all those mortal things that have been fitted together by Aphrodite, and so are now come into being,” Empedocles wrote more than 2,400 years ago.
But how did this ancient theory that all life in the universe was derived from these four elements evolve into Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby developing a superhero comic team based on the elements? Or a spritely water Nokk facing off against Queen Elsa in a vast ocean? An entire novel could—and probably has—been written on the subject, but Funko isn’t in the habit of assigning homework so it’s not required reading. It may be enough to recognize that fascination with the elements has endured across cultures and millennia.
The big question that remains is what fresh storylines Frozen 2 will contribute to the considerable oeuvre of literature, songs, games and stories devoted to the classical elements.