While working on my Steampunk novel, I started taking a hard look at aether – the magical element that can power the steampunk universe (in addition, of course, to the ubiquitous steam).
I’d encountered this fifth element before, in Tarot. If each suit in Tarot’s minor arcana represents each of the four elements – cups/water, pentacles/earth, etc. – then the 21 cards in the major aracana symbolize the quintessence, or fifth element. Aether. I’d always considered this a shorthand for spirit.
But how does one power a ray gun with aether? The more I explored the concept, the more I realized I’d been playing at the edges of aether for years, with my Riga Hayworth series of paranormal mystery novels. But to explain how, first we need to go back a couple thousand years.
The philosophers: The ancient philosophers divided the matter of the universe into four elements: earth, wind, air and fire. Everything in creation was composed of different combinations of these elements. The concept of the elements as building blocks for matter really got going in the 3rd century, when Plato proposed a fifth element: aether. He considered it the material filling the region of the further reaches of the cosmos. Aether as an “in between” element was used to explain several natural phenomena, such as gravity and the movement of light.
In alchemy. Alchemists used the concept of aether – that substance which pervades all matter – and looked on it as an animating spirit, the anima mundi. The fifth element, an incorruptible substance, activates the other four. The Philosopher’s stone, that magical substance which can transform lead into gold, is composed of this fifth element.
The Victorian Era: Aether stuck around for the Victorian era, and scientists at that time theorized that aether was a hidden, dark energy in space. So empty space wasn’t actually empty – there was an energy within it that we simply could not detect.
Modern physics. In the 20th century, scientists discovered that the universe was expanding, and this expansion had to be driven by some sort of energy – the aether? There are still some bugs being worked out in this theory. And of course today we know that atoms aren’t “solid” per se – there’s space in between them. So this idea of aether permeating everything isn’t so off the wall.
Weirdly, I’ve been playing with this in-between energy as a magical concept in my Riga Hayworth novels. But until I began this steampunk research, I hadn’t connected it to any of these theories on aether. So my metaphysical detective, Riga Hayworth, will be reading up on her physics in book 6, The Hoodoo Detective.
About the Author:
Kirsten Weiss is the author of the Riga Hayworth series of paranormal mysteries: the urban fantasy, The Metaphysical Detective, The Alchemical Detective, The Shamanic Detective, The Infernal Detective and The Elemental Detective.