The Fifth Element: Ether
by Catherine Nash

“In the sphere there are five elements, those inside the sphere: fire and water and earth and air, and what is the hull of the sphere, the fifth.”

-Philolaos, Greek Philosopher

I had been exploring the physical structure and mythological allusions of boats in my work: through time, boats have been used as a symbol to depict the journey through life as an odyssey, the mythical vessel that transports the soul through time and space. When artist Robert Renfrow brought the historical Greek symbolism of boat as ether or the fifth element to my attention, it opened a new direction in my art.

The term “hull” (olkas), used by the Greek philosopher, Philolaos, was the common name for freighters, built for bulk cargo, broad in the beam...the ‘hull’, i.e. the sphere, was the actual containing frame. The sphere, ether, which contains the four earthly elements but is wholly removed from them, was what Plato called the ‘fifth essence’.

Viking Ship
Burial sites with Viking ships, unearthed
Mother Earth

Ether, the fifth element and container of the four earthly elements of water, earth, air and fire, has been viewed in various cultures as the unseen spirit and energy which supports the physical world but is not a part of it. To the ancient Greeks, ether was compared to a cargo vessel or ship which held all the other elements. To pre-Christian Druids, nwyvre, the fifth element, was the spirit and soul of living things:

“Druidic cosmology gives a particularly Celtic view of the nature of existence. The best explanation of these teachings is found in Barddaas, the collection of medieval Welsh texts and more recent commentaries explaining the elements of Druidry and Bardism. It is an entire system, that, in its modern form, is influenced by Christian doctrines. Nevertheless, it has many differences from other European and non-European religious systems, and provides some idea of what the pre-Christian Druids may have believed and taught. One text describes the five elements thus:

‘ Calas: fluidity; breath; uvel and nwyvre. From calas is every corporeity,
namely, the earth and every thing hard; from fluidity are moisture and
flux; from breath are every wind, breeze, respiration and air; from uvel
are all heat; fire and light; and from nwyvre every life and motion, every
spirit, every soul of man, and from its union with the other elements,
other living beings.’
The subtle fifth element, a manifestation of the divine spirit, was recognized as a reality by the people of pre-scientific, pre-industrial cultures. It is an important element of esoteric teaching, appearing all over the world under many different names. The ancient Greeks talked of the pneuma, which the medieval European alchemists identified with Quintessence, the fifth element.”

-Nigel Pennick, The Sacred World of the Celts

As a collaborative artist team, Robert Renfrow and I addressed these ideas and thoughts within an environmental installation entitled “The Five Elements: A Journey” seen below. Earth, air, fire and water, represented by large photographic images on fabric panels and large handpoured sheets of abaca, created the walls of a contemplative space. Symbolizing ether, an overturned, 8’ long translucent boat of lashed branches and cast handmade kozo paper, was suspended in the center of the installation. Underneath, small ceramic vessels rested on a pit fired slab and contained the four earthly elements: water, charcoal, red sand and air. The experience of these vessels and being sheltered by the boat, provoked thoughts of how our own bodies act as containers of the five elements.

Catherine Nash and Robert Renfrow, The Five Elements: a Journey, environmental installation. Cast flax and gampi papers, mixed media fabric banners, depicting fire, water, earth and air. Cast 8 ft. long boat suspended from the ceiling. Low pitfired clay slab supports four small clay vessels holding water, red sand, charcoal and air. Straw, branches.
photos C.Nash

Our exploration of these ideas also stimulated numerous months of fascinating library research and information gathering which finally manifested into a collaborative artist book. “Elemental Connections” serves as a kind of encyclopedia of the five elements (according to us of course!). Viewers can open the wood worked mahogany cabinet to discover the five elements cross-referenced with the six subjects of Creativity, Sciences, Organism, Conflict, Technology and Topography. Computer generated text and images are printed on strips of tan Nideggan paper.

Catherine Nash and Robert Renfrow, Elemental Connections, one of a kind artist book
in a woodworked cabinet: an encyclopedia of the five elements. Fire, Earth, Air,
Water, and Ether are cross referenced with subjects of Creativity, Science, Organism,
Conflict, Technology, and Topography. Text and Images printed on Nideggan paper.
24 in. H x 34 in. W x 8 in. D

All Rights Reserved — use of images/text by written permission of the artist only © Nash/Renfrow Productions