Four Humours

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

  • About

Four Humours is probably the most convenient phrase to indicate a system of thought about medicine, food, and diet which was of fundamental importance in Europe from classical antiquity until the development of modern scientific ideas in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This system of thought is especially associated with the name of galen (2nd century ad) who gave it what was regarded during the succeeding fifteen centuries as its definitive expression. However, much of it came from earlier Greek authors, notably the medical writer hippocrates (5th/4th centuries bc) and the philosophers Empedocles (5th century bc) and Aristotle (4th century bc). Empedocles contributed the idea that there are four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. A follower of his called Philistion connected each of these elements with a certain ‘quality’: to fire belonged heat; to air, cold; to water, moistness; and to earth, dryness.