Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The four humours

‘Nature that framed us of four elements,
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds.’
Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great

Humoral theory had been passed on from the late classical world in the works of Galen (c. AD 130-201). The four humours were four fluids that were thought to permeate the body and influence its health. Disease was thought to be caused by isonomia, the preponderance of one of the humours:
Yellow Bile
Black Bile
The four humours matched the four seasons

Autumn: black bile
Spring: blood
Winter: phlegm
Summer: yellow bile
Each of the humours was associated with one of the four equal and universal elements posited by the pre-Socratic philosopher, Empedocles.
'Aristotle … used the image of wine to expose the nature of black bile. Black bile, just like the juice of grapes, contains pneuma, which provokes hypochondriac diseases like melancholia. Black bile like wine is prone to ferment and produce an alternation of depression and anger...' From Democritus, The History of Melancholy.
Earth: black bile (cold and dry)
Air: blood (hot and moist)
Fire: yellow bile (hot and dry)
Water: phlegm (cold and moist)

An imbalance of the elements affected character:
Too much Earth: Melancholic (despondent, sleepless, irritable)
Too much Air: Sanguine (courageous, hopeful, amorous)
Too much Fire: Choleric (easily angered, bad-tempered)
Too much Water: Phlegmatic (calm, unemotional)
Which are you?