Aether (classical element)

Aether (classical element)

According to ancient and medieval science, aether (Greek _gr. αἰθήρ "aithēr" ["ether". "The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language". 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.] ), also spelled æther or ether, is the material that fills the region of the universe above the terrestrial sphere.

Mythological origins

The word _gr. αἰθήρ ("aithēr") in Homeric Greek means "pure, fresh air" or "clear sky", imagined in Greek mythology to be the pure essence where the gods lived and which they breathed, analogous to the "air" breathed by mortals (also personified as a deity, Aether, the son of Erebus and Nyx). It corresponds to the concept of "akasha" in Hindu philosophy and is linked to Brihaspati (or the planet Jupiter) and the center direction of the compass. It is related to polytonic|αἴθω "to incinerate" [Pokorny, Julius (1959). Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, s.v. "ai-dh-."] , also intransitive "to burn, to shine" (related is the name "Aithiopes" (Ethiopians)), meaning "people with a burnt (black) visage". See also Empyrean.

Fifth element

Plato's Timaeus posits the existence of a fifth element (corresponding to the fifth remaining Platonic solid, the dodecahedron) called quintessence, of which the cosmos and all celestial bodies are made.

Aristotle included "aether" in the system of the classical elements of Ionic philosophy as the "fifth element" (the "quintessence"), on the principle that the four terrestrial elements were subject to change and moved naturally in straight lines while no change had been observed in the celestial regions and the heavenly bodies moved in circles. In Aristotle's system "aether" had no qualities (was neither hot, cold, wet, or dry), was incapable of change (with the exception of change of place), and by its nature moved in circles. [G. E. R. Lloyd, "Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of his Thought", Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1968, pp. 133-139, ISBN 0-521-09456-9.] Medieval scholastic philosophers granted "aether" changes of density, in which the bodies of the planets were considered to be denser than the medium which filled the rest of the universe. [E. Grant, "Planets, Stars, & Orbs: The Medieval Cosmos, 1200-1687", Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1994, pp. 422-428, ISBN 0-521-56509-X.] Robert Fludd stated that the aether was of the character that it was "subtler than light". Fludd cites the 3rd century view of Plotinus, concerning the aether as penetrative and non-material. [Robert Fludd, "Mosaical Philosophy". London, Humphrey Moseley, 1659. Pg 221.]


The concept of the aether impacted science long after scientists had rejected the ancient theory of the five elements. Prior to fully modern theories of electromagnetism, many scientists applied the term "aether" to the pervasive medium through which they thought light must propagate. The modern understanding of electromagnetism, including Einstein's particle theory of light and various scientific experiments of general relativity, has removed the need for a substance like aether to fill the otherwise empty parts of the universe. Newton's and Maxwell's aether model (the latter being a "classic static aether") were both developed from this classical element. However, the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment in 1887 led to the decline of the aether model. Albert Einstein, in an interpretation he offered for his theory of special relativity, dismissed it, as per Occam's razor. He later reinstated a logical need for an aether in a commentary on his theory of general relativity ("according to the general theory of relativity space without ether is unthinkable").

In fiction

In "Hamlet", by "William Shakespeare", Hamlet famously asks Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, "What is this quintessence of dust?", in reference to his growing inability to understand what distinguishes humanity from nature.

The 1997 Luc Besson movie, The Fifth Element, oppositionally portrayed the perfect being (played by Milla Jovovich) as a fifth element, whose powers were awakened by Love.

In many role-playing games, ether is magic in a tangible form. Imbibing ether allows one to instantly recover magical power. Ether appears as such an item in the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series.

In "Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance", "Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn", and "Super Smash Bros. Brawl", Aether is a special move by Ike during which he throws up Ragnell, jumps to catch, and spins in mid-air before descending in a two-handed strike. In "Path of Radiance" and "Radiant Dawn", this move can also restore health.

In the Nintendo Gamecube game "", Aether is the name of a planet in the fictional Dasha region that suffers from severe storms in the upper atmosphere due to dimensional flux. These storms serve as a plot device for the game's introduction. It was also the code name of a research lab in the original Metroid Prime.

In "W.I.T.C.H.", quintessence is the element of Will Vandom.



* [ FAQ - The Ancient Elements of Nature] Ancient proto-scientific conceptualisations of the domain of nature into its constituent elements ... Earth, Water, Air, Fire and the Aether.
* [ Plato's 5th element as the geometry of momentum]

Can be also seen in Metaphysical poet, John Donne's poem "A Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day" in the words, "A quintessence even from nothingness", through which the poet expresses his emptiness, having lost his wife.

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