In a shadowy alcove on the first floor of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, right around the corner from the dinosaur exhibit, a video kiosk plays a continuously looped short film called Enter Life. Created by cartoonist Faith Hubley, Enter Life explains how four elements – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen – came together to form simple amino acid chains, which went on to develop into one-celled organisms. As such, these four elements were the building blocks of life on Earth.
The elements in the movie are represented by these darling psychedelic amoeboids, who caper about while announcing their names like submolecular cheerleaders: “Carbon! Hydrogen! Oxygen! Nitrogen!” As the story progresses, the creatures join together in conga lines and locomote through the primordial soup, cheering and singing and devising an acronym for themselves: “Carbon! Hydrogen! Oxygen! Nitrogen! Chon chon chon, chon chon ch-chon! Chon chon chon, chon chon ch-chon!”
I saw Enter Life a little over 30 years ago, during an 8th-grade field trip to Washington, D.C., but the Chon Song stuck with me. Late at night, or alone in an elevator, I’ve been known to dance around gleefully, chonning to my heart’s content: “Chon chon chon, chon chon ch-chon! Chon chon chon, chon chon ch-CHON!” [spirit fingers]
The Greek poet/philosopher Empedocles is credited with originating the concept of the Four Elements as objective states of matter: That is, everything in existence can be broken down into the fundamentals of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, which can change, combine or revert to their original forms, based on the effects of two opposing forces, Love and Strife. (I have ideas about combining Empedocledian doctrine with Chaos Magic and Traditional Wicca to create Discordian Witchcraft, but that’s a blog for another time.)
This perception of the Four Elements have permeated philosophical, medical, and psychological thought for centuries, influencing everything from the Hippocratic theory of the Four Humours to the Myers-Briggs Personality Test. Most recently (and by “recently,” I mean the late 1800s), the Four Elements were incorporated into the Western Mystery Tradition, eventually finding their way into modern Paganism. A lot of Pagans now view the Four Elements as metaphorical – Air is the intellect, Water is emotion, etc. – but it’s kind of mindblowing to think that 2500 years ago, a Greek philosopher declared that life was made up of four elements, and then a cartoon produced in the early 1980s declared that yes, he was right.
Some of Hubley’s other animated short films include The Big Bang and Other Creation Myths, which foretells the coming of the New Age; Yes We Can, featuring Gaia the Earth Mother; and Witch Madness, a documentary on the persecution of women throughout history, culminating in the witch-hunts of the Middle Ages. Methinks Ms. Hubley might have something else to tell the class.