Fire and water: complementary and opposite

This striking image of fire and water by Martin Hill comes from his exhibition ‘Watershed‘, held at Mossgreen Galleries in Melbourne in April 2014. Fire and water are often paired as elements. Described as both complementary and opposite, they sit well with the concept of duality that underpins many philosophies.

A striking image of fire and water by Martin Hill from his exhibition 'Watershed' at Mossgreen galleries, Melbourne

A striking image of fire and water by Martin Hill from his exhibition ‘Watershed‘ at Mossgreen galleries, Melbourne. April 2014.

Yin-Yang is a powerful example of a philosophy underpinned by fire and water. Yang is associated with, amongst other things, the element fire, whereas Yin is associated with the element water. A Google image search using the words ‘Yin Yang Fire Water’ illustrates the range of artists that have represented this association with bold, diverse and dynamic images.

Google images illustrate the diversity of ways fire and water are visually linked to Yin and Yang

These Google images illustrate the diversity of ways fire and water are visually linked to Yin and Yang

bio sattva, the author of the blog of ‘Mindful discipline and integration in daily living’ has written a comprehensive and informative post titled ‘Fire and Water Metaphors in Mindfulness Practice’ (this can be viewed at mindfuldiscipline). It includes Yin-Yang and many other philosophies. The post is worth a look for those searching for greater detail, even though a few of the images are now missing. It is quite long for a blog, consisting of three parts (see below), so make sure you have some time at hand before proceeding.
1) Introduction and The Ocean
2) Fire and Alchemy, and
3) Lakes, Rivers and Sunlight

In my search for references to fire and water I also came across the European philosopher and spiritual master Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov. He was captivated by the mysteries of fire and water as described in the book below. Aivanhov viewed these elements as the most beautiful, potent and significant expressions that nature has to offer of the two great cosmic principles, the masculine and feminine. Complementary and opposite. Aivanhov described fire and water as being so full of meaning that you could spend your whole life meditating on them.

The Mysteries of Fire and Water‘ (1991) by Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov provides much food for  thought. For instance his text on how the actions of fire (expanding upwards) and water (spreading outwards) were symbolised by a cross made me pause and reflect.

The interpretation of Aikido philosophy and practice by William Gleason provides another perspective on the elements fire and water. In his book ‘Aikido and Words of Power’ the author states (p. 66):

The ki of fire is originally in the heavenly realm, yet branching outward it sinks down to earth. The ki of water is originally of the earth, yet rising upward it cycles in the heavens.”

This book by William Gleason (2009) explains the nature of the five vowels that govern the physical manifestations of universal consciousness. It contains many references to the elements fire and water.

The elements are fundamentally forms of energy. In Japan energy is referred to as ki, a concept that is challenging to translate. Ki is illustrated in Gleason’s book by a fork of lightning and a wave. In this context it has connections to life energy or essence, spirit and flow. The relevance of the elements fire and water to Aikido, and to the Shinto/Oomoto teachings the Martial Art is based on, is deeper and more complex than this one statement. It is used here as an example to illustrate the different ways fire and water can be represented, depending on the perspective in play.

For example in the quote above Gleason refers to fire sinking down and to water rising upward into the heavens. In contrast the title of my blog, Fire up Water down, was inspired by the nature of water to move downwards to find the lowest point, and for fire to move upwards as the heated gas becomes less dense. These describe some of the physical characteristics of the elements of fire and water. Gleason is referring to their spiritual dimensions in the context of Aikido.

The elements have many expressions in Japan where Aikido originated – a rich and rewarding topic covered in my sister blog This journey started in May 2016 when I started to explore the elements in Japan in greater detail. It didn’t take long to discover further references to fire and water. In July 2016 I wrote ‘Fire up Water down‘ – a post about Kinpusenji Temple and an associated Shrine in Yoshino, Japan. The experiences there made a deep impression.

This image is taken from the post ‘Fire up Water down‘ from my experience at Kinpusenji Temple in Yoshino, Japan. Here the Shugendo saito-shi is tracing a letter symbolic of the Mahavairocana Buddha over the fire. Water is sprinkled periodically to prevent the fire from burning too quickly and to increase the purifying smoke. Further details of the ceremony can be found in an informative article by Paul L. Swanson written in 1981.

The complementary and opposite nature of fire and water stimulates a diversity of actions and responses, across religious/spiritual and secular spheres. Martial artists and mountain ascetics bring these elements together in powerful ways. Martin Hill specializes in sculptures that return to nature, as illustrated by his burning figure in the alpine lake. The artists representing Yin and Yang with fire and water imagery used a diversity of mediums. The celebrated artist J.M.W. Turner also combined fire and water in his paintings. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

“Turner’s preoccupation with the dramatic elements of fire and water appears in the two versions of Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835), in the large sketch A Fire at Sea (c. 1835), and in Rockets and Blue Lights (1840).”

Fire is not only represented by Turner in buildings and boats that are burning. It can also be seen in his representation of the sun reflecting on clouds (water droplets) and the sea, such as in the painting below. Turner was a master in capturing the moods of nature.

The words on this inside cover of the catalogue ‘Turner and the Elements‘ (2011) note that Turner aimed to draw the viewer into the painting using the power of the natural elements. He excelled in doing so, particularly in relation to fire and water.

In contemporary times the incredibly successful TV series ‘The Game of Thrones‘ is based on a world of ice and fire. Our fascination with the elements of fire and water continues.

Many examples exist where the elements of fire and water are ‘paired’ across different cultures, philosophies, creative expressions, popular culture and more. This post introduces a selection of them. I would love to hear of others that readers are aware of. Humans appear to find this combination of elements compelling, part of our collective unconsciousness perhaps? Potentially a response to fire and water being both ‘friend and foe’ over our evolutionary history.

2 thoughts on “Fire and water: complementary and opposite

  1. Thanks again for a stimulating entry. ‘Complementary and opposite’ is a good description of the tension that exists between elements that may appear to be at odds with each other. As we move from a consciousness of either/or to both/and, the seemingly contradictory nature of what we previously conceived as ‘opposites’ can be appreciated for both their similarities and differences. Your final question regarding the way we are drawn to the intuitive elements and whether this desire is part of our collective consciousness is worth contemplating. Perhaps our longing to connect is reflected here in both our pull towards what is essential and in experiencing that pull, we find ourselves drawn together as one consciousness.

    • There are some excellent and thought-provoking points in your comment. Moving consciousness from either/or to both/and should help break down some of the barriers to what has been (and sometimes still are) considered opposites.

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