A Quartet Convenient but not Required

Vivaldi Spring and cherry blossoms
Spring is the ideal time for Vivaldi, photo & music from Youtube

I had a lovely post on tariffs all mapped out for this week’s essay, but then the sunrise came up pink and the Dailypost word turned out to be “Quartet” and I looked at the daffodils on the kitchen counter, and all I could think about was Spring! Spring! Spring! We’ve sprung into a new season–officially last week in northern California, the northern United States, the northern hemisphere of Terra Firma. Everyone knows there are four of everything that make up the universe: seasons, elements, states of matter, humors, food groups. Is four some sort of natural requirement?

Maybe only Two Seasons. Or, How about Six?

We are humans; we like to divide things. It seems pretty obvious that there would be at least two seasons, since the winter and summer solstice create natural divisions in a calendar. There is a point of time where the days get longer in most of the civilized part of the world, and another point where days get shorter.  Western civilization evolved to recognize four separate seasons, with the other two categorizes recognizing the equinoxes, those times when the day and night are roughly equal before transitioning to slightly longer or slightly shorter.

If you were taught about four seasons, then you naturally think there is a clear division in the weather. New growth/spring, hot/summer, harvest/cooler/fall, and ice/no growth/winter. Seems pretty straightforward. However, there are cultures that measure different numbers of seasons. Poland actually measures six: Early spring (Przedwiośnie ), Spring (Wiosna ), Summer (Lato ), Fall, also called Golden Polish Summer ( Złota Polska Jesień), Fall/Early Winter (Jesień ), and Winter (Zima). Each of the seasons lasts about two months. The Poles understood about March:

W marcu jak w garncu. – In March it’s like in a pot.
Polish Six Seasons: A Guide

The more I read about it, the more it seems like Przedwiosnie, in particular, should be a season. In the Bay Area, it warms up in February, followed by cool rain in March. The early hot followed by rain always seems to “surprise us,” but it happens every year,  just like summer in San Francisco, which is also known as Cold & Fog Season. Just ask the tourists in their sandals, shorts, and garish Fisherman’s Wharf sweatshirts.

Countries closer to the equator, like Cambodia or the Philippines, typically feel only two seasons: Wet and Dry.  The monsoon season across many of these countries, as well as in India and Malaysia, is so strikingly different that these countries may count two, three, six, or some other number to account for the variation. One twitterer from Thailand claims they have only three: Summer, summerer, and summerest.

The ancient Aztecs counted only two seasons: Rainy and Dry. According to the Mexicolore website, the Aztecs worshipped water and fire as the elements representing the two seasons that drove their agriculture. We certainly understand worshipping things which create food. I’m still trying to ascertain the exact name for the Goddess of Chocolate.

Aztec symbols for water and fire

Water & Fire from the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, courtesy of mexicolore.co.uk

It isn’t much of a leap from measuring the seasons, the change in the weather and the daylight hours, to understand the underlying elements of the world. Four seasons, four elements. Weren’t they all defined that way by Aristotle, who invented everything, even when he was wrong?

There Really Was a Fifth Element

Aristotle actually considered aether to be the fifth element. He recognized those same two essential divisions of wet and dry, added the notions of hot and cold, and came up with the four basic elements as combinations of two of each:

Fire is both hot and dry
Air is both hot and wet (for air is like vapor, ἀτμὶς)
Water is both cold and wet
Earth is both cold and dry
–Good ol’ Aristotle

But four wasn’t quite enough, even Aristotle. He defined a fifth element,  aether, which was thought to be the “quintessence” or culmination of all of them. Aether belonged to the celestial and heavenly bodies as opposed to the four terrestrial categories. Movie fans might suggest that the Mondoshawans knew it all along.

four elements
Four terrestrial elements, seasons, humors from astro.nu

Do I feel more Melancholic or Phlegmatic today?

Hippocrates used a four-part system that started with the elements, linking them to body parts with fluid that he called humours. Remember those from  school? I could never quite remember the distinction between phlegmatic and melancholic, and I didn’t quite understand how someone could be bilious. Years of acid reflux later, bilious is a much clearer concept to me.  Most of the medicinal techniques from those days involved rebalancing the humors, either through bleeding or purges, neither of which sound particularly appetizing. But then, I’ve never tried a High Cleanse, either.

Humour Season Ages Element Organ Qualities Temperament
Blood spring infancy air liver moist and warm sanguine
Yellow bile summer youth fire spleen warm and dry choleric
Black bile autumn adulthood earth gallbladder dry and cold melancholic
Phlegm winter old age water brain/lungs cold and moist phlegmatic

Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Aether, Metal, Wood, Cheetos

The Chinese developed what I’ve read is a more sophisticated approach to medicine, and they also had a five- part system of elements (as did the Hindus). They didn’t think of the elements as four distinct sets of matter but rather as five types of energy which were in constant states of flux and interaction with each other. Perhaps you can imagine the aetherial spirits of Aristotle and Confucius each sitting on an Einsteinian shoulder whispering in his ears: “matter…energy…matter…energy…” until he says, Scheiße! It must be both!

For the Chinese, however, these weren’t defined as much as energy states as change states: Wu Xing — the five changes.

Five Chinese elements
Chinese five Wu Xing, states of change, courtesy of Chinesehoroscop-e.com

The divisions of five become linked to the divisions of two where the split between heaven and earth become associated with shifting directions–since shift is fundamentally based on two. The five phases were also connected to the five planets (besides earth and known to the ancient astronomers).

Connection to the heavens weighed heavily into Chinese and Greek astrology and it must be remembered that until medieval times, astrology and astronomy were treated as linked disciplines. The astrologers in many cases were the first astronomers, who needed complex calculations in order to create predictions that would tell kings whether to invade or to give more grain to the peasants. If you’ve ever developed an actual astrology chart, you know that it’s quite mathy, with lots of tables and sidereal calculations involved. At least, that’s how we did it before there was an app for that.

A Last Bit of Scientific Hooha

Coming full circle–or full orbit if you will indulge me–I will point out that because of the way the earth is tilted, summer (in the northern hemisphere) is actually longer than winter. It may not seem that way, but there are 94 days of summer compared with 89 days of winter. This is because earth’s orbit around the sun is not circular but elliptical. When we get closer to the sun, we speed up a little–there’s a ton of physics, astronomy, elliptical math, and scientific, well, hooha that explains that. The time of year where we go just a wee bit faster is fall and winter in the northern hemisphere.

You might think that it would then make more sense for us to have spring and summer when we’re nearer the sun, instead of the colder seasons. However, since you also surely know that the seasons are defined by the tilt of the earth on its axis, you can probably guess that tilt has a bigger influence on the seasons and weather. The northern spring and summer are when that hemisphere is tilted closer to the sun.

And that includes Przedwiosnie.



Today’s post was entirely inspired by the word of the day: Quartet

Next week: Fun with Tariffs. Meanwhile, time to listen to some Vivaldi!

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