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Timeline: Elements - Air

Created by Emily Alfin Johnson and James Stewart

In our final episode of Timeline: Elements,host James Stewart explores the history and cultural significance of the element air.

Enjoy the podcast and experience the video of Timeline: Elements Live recorded in VPR's Stetson Studio One.


We’ll begin this episode with a bit of theater; a moment from Aristophanes' The Clouds, an ancient Greek comedy written over 2,400 years ago. In this scene an elderly farmer, Strepsiades, seeks the legendary philosopher and teacher Socrates for lessons on how to speak in order to get out from under a mountain of debt. He comes across a disciple of Socrates keeping watch over a curious sight.

STREPSIADES: Who is that man suspended up in a basket?

DISCIPLE: That's himself.

STREPSIADES: Who's himself?

DISCIPLE: Socrates.

STREPSIADES: Socrates! Oh! I pray you, call him right loudly for me.

DISCIPLE: Call him yourself; I have no time to waste.

STREPSIADES: Socrates! my little Socrates!

SOCRATES: Mortal, what do you want with me?

STREPSIADES: First, what are you doing up there? Tell me, I beseech you.

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A depiction of Socrates suspended in his basket.

SOCRATES: I am traversing the air and contemplating the sun.

STREPSIADES: Thus it's not on the solid ground, but from the height of this basket, that you slight the gods?

SOCRATES: I have to suspend my brain and mingle the subtle essence of my mind with this air, which is of the like nature, in order clearly to penetrate the things of heaven. I should have discovered nothing, had I remained on the ground to consider from below the things that are above.

JAMES: Aristophanes was poking fun at Socrates, using his popular name as a representative of the elite intellectual class at the time. These thinkers seemed to have their heads in the clouds without grounding their feet on the earth. A bit like the phrase, “So heavenly minded you’re no earthly good.” The play continues a few lines later with the great Socrates praying to his own made-up deities, the clouds and the air itself.

SOCRATES: Oh! most mighty king, the boundless air, that keepest the earth suspended in space, thou bright Ether and ye venerable goddesses, the Clouds, who carry in your loins the thunder and the lightning. Arise, ye sovereign powers and manifest yourselves in the celestial spheres to the eyes of your sage.

JAMES: That satirical prayer struck me as a great way to start: Classical comedy about classical ideas. Just a little bit of levity before we think too highly of ourselves. This is our fourth episode of Timeline looking at the elements of antiquity. We’ve already discussed fire, water and earth and how our understanding of these substances has influenced our thoughts and our art throughout history. Now we’ll look at probably the most enigmatic of the classical elements: air.

Explore the full Timeline archive: Apple Podcasts | Google Play Music | Stitcher | VPR web app

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The philosopher, Diogenes, sitting in his tub.

In the early days of Greek philosophy, before Socrates and his hanging basket, many thinkers were obsessed with what element came first. Some believed that fire was the “uncreated” element and therefore eternal. Others believed that the waters of chaos existed before all else. But the late 5th century B.C. philosopher Diogenes taught that air was first and the source of all things. His main argument for this linked air with the soul, thought and the mind. Diogenes thought that air was the same as consciousness itself, so he posited that thought came first. After all, he was a professional thinker.

A good word for this concept is psyche, the totality of the mind, conscious and unconscious. It is literally connected to the breath. The Greek verb psycho means “to blow.” It makes me think of the phrase “the breath of life,” which comes from Hinduism, Judaism and Christianity. Father Sky is said to have given all creatures the breath of life. In second chapter of the book of Genesis, God breathes life into mankind for the first time. Many theologians see this moment as the imparting, the origin of the spirit or soul. The concept of the soul, this essence that lives on eternally, was very important to Plato. He saw the soul as the ineffable, immortal mind that would be free to pursue wisdom and knowledge in perfection after death.

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The traditional Chinese symbol for qi or chi.

Air, life, breath, spirit, ghost — these words are very closely connected, and not just in Western culture. We’ve been talking a lot about the four classical elements, but every culture has its own version of this breakdown of the physical world into component parts. In ancient Chinese culture there are five elements, none of which is labeled as air. Yet, air does seem to be closely related to the concept of Chi, “life force” or “energy flow.” In the Chinese language the character for “spirit” is a blend of the symbols for “clouds” and “breath.” In ancient Egypt, the god of the air was Shu, and in their Coffin Texts the people would perform spells meant to aid the deceased in their transition to the afterlife, their journey through the air. In Hindi the word for air is Vata and breath is Prana, which means “life force” or “vital principle.” If you’ve ever practiced yoga you know how important controlling the breath is in every position. The flow of energy throughout the body is said to be determined by the conscious control of the breath. Indologist Georg Feuerstein wrote, “The Chinese call it chi, the Polynesians mana, the Amerindians orenda, and the ancient Germans od. It is all-pervasive ‘organic’ energy.”

Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.

Air is a wonderful symbol for a world unseen, the spiritual or supernatural. Unlike the other elements, it is invisible to our eyes although we can easily see and feel its influence. Air is an immediate, essential need for human life. When it comes to our survival you’ve probably heard of the “rule of threes.” The human body starts to shut down after three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air or oxygen. For organisms like you and I, oxygen is a “vital force.” Oxygen is the third most plentiful element on the periodic chart. It is extremely reactive and bonds with other elements easily, creating oxides. Bringing oxygen into your body is what breathing is all about, after all. Take a moment and think about how you are breathing right now.

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An anatomic diagram of the heart and lungs.

When you inhale, your diaphragm is contracting and creating space inside your chest. Little muscles between your ribs push up and out to make space for your lungs to fill. Air is sucked into your body and travels down tubes, dividing and collecting the air into sacs. These little sacs have very thin linings that allow oxygen to pass into your bloodstream. Your red blood cells (hemoglobin) pick up the oxygen and drop off carbon dioxide. The beating pulse of your heart then carries this oxygen-rich blood throughout your body. Every cell requires oxygen to harness the energy within proteins and sugars. When deprived of oxygen, cells die within minutes. There’s a good reason why ancient humourism connects the air element to blood; air or oxygen truly is the “vital force” flowing through our veins.

We inhale for survival and we exhale to express. Our breath is the means by which we speak, sing and play instruments. In your throat there is a complex mechanism of muscles and cartilage that react to the air released from your lungs. These vocal cords and surrounding tissue vibrate many times a second, allowing you to control the shape of the air. Your body, your voice, is an instrument. The air comes through your lungs, passes through your larynx or voice box, like a reed, and bounces around your face like a resonating chamber. Your mouth proceeds to cut the sound into pieces and when you speak you are twisting the air leaving your body, shaping it. The way your body is built, the way your tongue moves, the length and shape of your sinuses, all affect the sound of your voice. You sound like you because of the physiology of your body.

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Your voice creates a sound wave unique to you in color, shape and tone.

The precision of the human voice is extraordinary. There are so many systems that must work together to create a voice, and when you add the element of music or controlled pitch it gets even more impressive. A musical instrument, like a violin, is the result of generations of research, trial and error. Every time a violinist picks up their instrument they carefully check and adjust the strings to be sure they are in tune. Wind instruments like a clarinet or trumpet are manufactured at just the right length and thickness. Even then, the performers make small adjustments to valves and joints to ensure the instrument is in tune. The human voice, with the right training, does this almost automatically, just like breathing.

DAWN: It is like breathing. It’s so connected to the human experience. It is the most intimate musical experience because it’s not an instrument you’re playing. You’re expressing through your own body.

Credit Dawn Willis, courtesy
Dr. Dawn Willis, artistic director of Bella Voce Women's Chorus of Vermont and Solaris Vocal Ensemble.

I’m Dawn Willis. I’m a resident of Essex Junction, Vermont, and a choir director in this area. I have two community choirs that I conduct. Solaris Vocal Ensemble is a mixed group, men and women, and I also have Bella Voce Women’s Chorus, which is a delightful group of women who have sung together for almost 15 years now.

JAMES: I spoke with Dawn about singing, the first art. First, I asked Dawn our favorite question on Timeline, why do you sing?

DAWN: For me initially, I think it was a great opportunity to express the feelings I had as a young person to be a part of a group that would create art and have an experience that was unlike any other. I thought the comradery and the shared vision was very exciting for me as a young person. And as I weighed what to do with my life, I thought the places that I had the greatest joy and the most sort of experience of my soul was through music, through various musical groups I’d been a part of. And I thought, “Well, that seems like something I should pursue.” Other family members had done so, and I thought, “Well, I’d like to try.” As I went through my educational experiences I found that the opportunity to work with other singers and in fact to lead and create the musical experiences fed me in a way that was so rich and so enticing that I just kept doing it.

There is something about life; that we all reach for the richness of experiences. And I think when you’ve had one, you want to experience it again. For me, there are times standing in front of a choir when we have all of the forces come together — the text, the music, the energy, the people’s contribution — and it creates something magical. I’ve experienced that in so many different settings and different times in my life. There really is nothing quite as satisfying and meaningful as that kind of an experience. And what makes it even better is that I share that with other people and they share it with me, and I know that it’s because we were together at that moment that it occurred.  

JAMES: Making noise with our voices is one of the first things we ever do. I’ll never forget the first thing that happened when my children were born… they cried, loudly. No one taught them how. No one explained the intricate systems involved or gave them lessons into generating tone or pitch. They didn’t do any vocal exercises to prepare. They came into the world, into the open air, singing ... well, screaming. And why were they crying? Why were they screaming? Because, birth is hard and scary, and they were afraid. They were communicating. The power of the human voice is found in its ability to transmit an idea from one individual to another, a transfer of energy, communication. Speaking, singing, making music allows us to express ourselves to one another; our feelings, our fears and our faith.

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Singing is called "the first art." It is our most immediate form of musical expression.

DAWN: I have worked with a variety of church choirs over many years, providing the opportunity for other people to express their heartfelt faith through music. I know that they’ve been touched and certainly the congregation has felt as if they had had an experience of spirituality, of God, of something that somehow reached them in a way that frankly just the spoken word cannot. Somehow there is this deeper more significant experience, I think, that music can provide.

It is so personal and so, at the heart-level, meaningful that, I think, choral music (singing with other people, sharing that same idea) somehow is one of the deepest musical experiences that people can offer each other and the audience and their community.

Life is full of a million small moments and I’m always excited when I come home from a rehearsal and there’s been one of those great magical elements where everyone goes, “Well, that was pretty spectacular.” In truth, I think I continue to do this work because it feeds me on an ongoing basis throughout the year. It’s really the connection with the people and the music we make together that feeds my soul and I think helps us all express the beauty of art and music.

JAMES: And all this happens through the invisible medium of air.

Someone in passing mentioned the age of the air. Somebody spoke of flight, the age of flight. Begin from there.

When Plato first described the air element, he separated it into two pieces, or realms. The first is the sky we see by day, the atmosphere that fills our lungs, the realm of the birds and the clouds.

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We have always been drawn to the sky, the realm of the clouds.

From the early days of our history mankind has dreamt of touching the sky. The Persian King Kay Koos was said to have tied eagles to his throne, so he could look down on his kingdom. Alexander the Great supposedly harnessed four mythological beasts, the Griffins that allowed him to fly over his conquered empire. The tales of the Pegasus and Icarus and drawings from Da Vinci remind us of this intrinsic desire to join the birds, take wing and fly. Today we take for granted the technology that allows us to fly through the atmosphere, above the clouds. We can buy a ticket and travel across continents in hours. Somehow, we are bored as we speed along at 500 miles per hour at an altitude of 35,000 feet. Imagine what Da Vinci would say, or the look on his face if he could board a transcontinental flight on a jumbo jet.

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A photograph of Wright Flyer III over Huffman Prairie, October 4, 1905.

Over a hundred years ago, on a sandy flat, field 4 miles south of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville and Wilbur Wright made the first, controlled, powered flight, for a total of 12 seconds. Two years later, they perfected their design and flew their Flyer III for almost 40 minutes, until it ran out of gas. After that, the sky was the limit. From experimental craft, to war airships and fighters, to commercial airliners, planes became a common sight in our skies.

American composer Marc Blitzstein served in the U.S. Air Force in World War II. In 1946, with the help and support of Leonard Bernstein, Blitzstein premiered The Airborne Symphony. This work is part oratorio and part symphony. Blitzstein read the narration himself, exploring the history, passion and cultural significance – the miracle – of flight.

The theory, if you can call it a theory, went like this ... We move about in certain spheres, certain elements. Now those elements are - one - the ground, over and along and under the ground. And - two - the water, along the water and under the water. But, also conceivably, just possibly, don’t let this throw you - three - the air. We might be airborne. We might sit on the air. We might even tread the air.

But the push of technology and curiosity didn’t stop with exploring flight in the lower parts of the atmosphere. If you looked up into the October sky of 1957 you may have seen the first man-made satellite, the Russian Sputnik 1. Four years later, the first human entered orbit and only eight years after that, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Space races and Cold War aside, long after the debates about political systems are over and forgotten these astounding achievements remain. It is remarkable how human ambition and drive can make the seemingly impossible happen. How many thousands of years have we stared at the moon and dreamt of touching it?

When Plato described the air element he divided it in two, the sky we see during the day and the sky we see by night, the realm of the moon, stars and planets. He called this outer layer “ether.” Later, Aristotle went so far as to call ether a separate element. Aristotle noted how every other element changed form or moved, yet the stars and planets seemed fixed and eternal in the night sky.

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Plato described the night sky as "ether." Aristotle went so far as to call ether the fifth element.

Of course, the stars we see and the stars and galaxies we don’t see are not eternal and are not stationary. Everything in the cosmos is in motion. The entire universe, space-time itself, is expanding. We have observed within gaseous nebula the incubation of stars. We have watched supernovae that light up in dramatic violent explosions. There is a life cycle to everything: us, the planet, the sun, the galaxy and the universe itself.

This is something many world religions have understood for millennia. Just like Aristotle and Plato, teachers and philosophers from various cultures have separated the sky in various levels as well, calling them heavens. Some teach there are three heavens, others seven. The common thread is the belief that the motion, the movement of the heavenly bodies affect, influence life and behavior right here on earth.

We react to “the music of the spheres,” a concept coined by Pythagoras, the scientist and mathematician who gave us the Pythagorean Theorem and the mathematical tools for tuning musical instruments. Today we have separated astronomy from astrology, like we try to separate fact from faith. However, for most of human history these studies were synonymous.

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Gustav Holst (1874-1934)

Between 1914 and 1916 English composer Gustav Holst wrote a seven-movement orchestral suite called The Planets. Each movement is named for a planet in the solar system, sans Earth. Holst isn’t referencing scientific observation. He’s not painting a musical picture of what each planet looks like. He’s also not calling to mind the gods of mythology, where the planets get their names. Holst is evoking astrology in this work, putting on display the influence that each planet has on the human psyche. Mars is the bringer of war and aggression. Venus is the bringer of peace and civility. Mercury is the messenger. Jupiter the source of joy. Saturn brings about old age. Uranus is the magician, and the suite closes with Neptune, the mystic. As the piece fades away in the last movement, one can’t help but think that Holst’s The Planets is also about birth, life and death. It ends with a hidden choir of women singing and repeating, softer and softer until the sound is lost in the distance.

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All of the elements of antiquity, fire, water, earth and air seem to point us to cycles as well. There is logic to our human understanding of these elements that I find intriguing. Fire is the essence of beginnings, endings and transitions. The Greeks taught that it was eternal. We didn’t invent fire. We harness it and pass through it in every step of our development. Water is the source of life. We are born into and out of water. Earth is the realm of our daily lives, where the drama of our existence takes place. Finally, we spend this life looking up into the air, into the sky and stars for inspiration and hope for this life and perhaps a life to come. We breathe in this hope, this air that sustains us. We drink in the essence of life. We shape the very ground beneath our feet and we harness the power of transformation. The cycle continues. 

Explore the rest of Timeline: Elements.

Credits (in order of appearance): Rick Barrett, Meg Malone, Ric Cengeri and Dr. Dawn Willis.

Timeline, hosted by James Stewart, is a program from VPR Classical, a service of Vermont Public Radio. Special thanks to the entire family at Vermont Public Radio for making this program possible. Learn more and follow the Timeline at

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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