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The Four Humours

The four humours
The four humours.
from Shakespeare's Life and Times

In Greek, Medieval, and Renaissance thought, the traditional four elements form the basis for a theory of medicine and later psychological typology known as the four humours. They constituted the western equivalent of the Chinese five states of change. Each of the humours were associated with various correspondences and particular physical and mental characteristics, and could, moreover, be combined for more complex personality types: (e.g. choleric-sanguine, etc). The result is a system that provides a quite elaborate classification of types of personality.

The Four Humours and Classical Thought

"[In classic times] medicine was equated with philosophy and three Greek philosophers Wikipedia link Hippocrates (c.460 – 370 b.c.e.), Plato (427-348 b.c.e.) and Aristotle (384-322 b.c.e.) contributed to the vision of health, disease and the functions of the body. Although they had differences in general they saw health as an equilibrium of the body as determined by the four humors.

Sap in plants and the blood in animals is the fount of life. Other body fluids- phlegm, bile, faeces, became visible in illness when the balance is disturbed. For instance, epilepsy, the sacred disease was due to phlegm blocking the airways that caused the body to struggle and convulse to free itself. Mania was due to bile boiling in the brain. Black bile was a late addition to disease theory and was associated with melancholy."
[ref external link The Roots of Scientific Medicine by Dr. P. Warren, - The Humoral Theory of Diseases.]

The Four Humours and Unani (Greek-derived Islamic Medicine)

The four humours
The four humours.
from external link An overview of the Unani System of Medicine and external link Hikmat (Unani Medicine)
Unani is Arabic for “Ionian,” which means “Greek.” It is a formal medicine that has been practiced for 6,000 years. Also known as “hikmat,” Unani Tibb Medicine was developed by the Greek physician Hippocrates from the medicine and traditions of the ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. When the Mongols invaded Persia and Central Asia many scholars and physicians of Unani fled to India. Proponents of Tibb el Unani included ibn Sina (Avicenna) who wrote of Tibb el Unani in his medical classic ‘al-Qanun’ and Ishaq ibn ‘Ali al-Ruhawi (1200AD) who wrote ‘Adab el-Tibb’, Medical Ethics. Hikmat is still practiced today among Muslims of Xinjiang, China as a part of Uighur medicine in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Unlike modern Western medicine, “hikmat” does not hold to mind-body dualism but is rooted in the understanding that spiritual peace is essential for good health. Unani medicine considers many factors in maintaining health and divides the body in a number of ways to define this wisdom.

The first way that Hikmat defines the body is to describe it in terms of the four humors or akhlaat: air, earth, fire and water emanate from the liver forming a subtle network around the body. In healing, foods and herbs are also classified according to the four humors. The four humors correspond to four bodily fluids: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. A typical diagnosis of a patient would take the balance of these humors into consideration. For instance, over-stimulation of wet-hot elements effects nervous biochemical interactions within the body with glandular ramifications within the blood. A wet-cold over-stimulation also effects nervous biochemical interactions but with ramifications for the relationship between the muscular biochemical exchanges and the bloodstream such as diarrhea and diabetes. Excess black bile in the blood leads to heart palpitations and constipation whilst excess yellow bile leads to general weakness (mypakfree, p.2).
Islam Online - Hikmat (Unani Medicine)

The Four Humours in Reniassance and Elizabethan time

By this time the humours had become standardised as follows

Humour Body substance produced by Element Qualities Complexion and Body type Personality
Sanguine blood liver air hot and moist red-cheeked, corpulent amorous, happy, generous, optimistic, irresponsible
Choleric yellow bile spleen fire hot and dry red-haired, thin violent, vengeful, short-tempered, ambitious
Phlegmatic phlegm lungs water cold and moist corpulent Sluggish, pallid, cowardly
Melancholic black bile gall bladder earth cold and dry sallow, thin Introspective, sentimental, gluttonous

Note: "lazy" is sometimes attributed to Phlegmatics [ref external link The Four Humours] and sometimes to Melancholics [ref external link The Four Humors]

"[It was though that each of] The "humours" gave off vapors which ascended to the brain; an individual's personal characteristics (physical, mental, moral) were explained by his or her "temperament," or the state of that person's "humours." The perfect temperament resulted when no one of these humours dominated. By 1600 it was common to use "humour" as a means of classifying characters; knowledge of the humours is not only important to understanding later medieval work, but essential to interpreting Elizabethan drama"
Michael Hanly external link Medieval Themes and Topics

The Four Humours in the modern world

Rudolf Steiner, who derived a lot of his ideas from Graeco-Medieval thought, not unsurprisingly incorporated the humours into his overall synthesis, here is his lecture on the external link four temperaments. These are associated with dominance of one or the other of the four levels of self. Choleric with the ego (which Steiner associates with "warmth", hence "fire"), the Sanguine with the astral body, the Phlegmatic with the etheric body, and the Melancholic with the physical body. The sequence is from most subtle (fire, traditionally "spirit") to most dense (earth, hence physical) elements

Steiner's thinking, being occult-theosophical based, has had little impact outside the specialised world of Anthroposophy. Of much greater influence however was the personality classification of external link Hans Eysenck (1916 - 1997). Eysenck took the two gradations of extrovert-introvert and stable-unstable, to come up with four quadrants which could be associated with the classic four temperaments. Each quadrant is also are further divided by keywords, creating a 360° gradation as follows

Hans Eysenck's personality chart
original url

Another 20th century equivalent (although with only three temperaments) are Sheldon's Somatotypes. Additional recent temperament theories are external link reviewed by Richard Dagan


Web links Links Web links

Wikipedia link The Four Humors - good intro

Web Page Hikmat (Unani Medicine) from Islam Online

Web Page The Four Humours from Shakespeare's Life and Times

Web Pageillustrations The Four Humors - description and illustration of each

Web Page Medieval Themes and Topics

Web Page The Four Cardinal Humors by Sheridan Hill. Includes extracts from Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) and Rudolf Steiner on the four temperaments.

Web Pagediagrams Temperament ... A brief survey by Richard Dagan - includes some modern psychological theories and applications

Web Page Hans Eysenck (and other temperament theorists) - overview by Dr. C. George Boeree

illustrations The four humors and elements Aristotle and the Anishaabe Medicine Wheel, Canada

Web Page The Role of Plants in Health and/or Healing - includes herbs classified according to the four elements and humours

Sacred Geometry Jewelry
by the artist David Weitztman
Sacred geometry is a term which describes the geometrical laws which create everything in existence. This term has been used by mathematicians, geometricians, spiritual seekers, anthropologists, and archaeologists to encompass the religious, philosophical, and spiritual beliefs that have sprung up around geometry in all the major cultures during the course of human history.  When you connect spirit and geometry you get sacred geometry!
Christ grid
Flower of life Merkaba
Christ Grid
The Flower of Life
The Merkaba

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page uploaded 3 July 2004, relocated 14 July, last modified 16 August