Elementals, spirits of earth, air, fire, and water, are an enduring part of many ritual forms, especially in modern witchcraft. This article will shed some light on elementals throughout history, and give you some tips on how to go deeper with your understanding of elementals. Through a practical understanding of elemental philosophy and the basic exercise of creating an elemental altar, you can bring these powerful constructs into your life.
History of Elementals
It is human nature to put things into categories. From early childhood, everyone begins to ask questions about nature, and some of those answers help us to decide which things fit into that huge list of objects called rocks, and which things should be called birds (which in turn appear on a bigger list of creatures called animals). In the past, both science and magic were considered common ways to understand the world. Elementals, four basic categories of earthly things, were established and shared between that earlier understanding of science and in the still relevant concepts of magical thought.
Elementals in Chinese Medicine
The magical powers of elementals were found to be a very useful model for understanding the functions of human body systems and processes through a body of knowledge called wu xing that also extends to music, martial arts, and a geomancy technique called feng shui. The Chinese system of five elements includes earth, fire, and water, but omits air. Instead, the elements of wood and metal are added. The pentagram is still used to symbolize the five elements. The Chinese pentagram illustrations depict different elements at the top of the pentacle, but they all sit in the same order. Traveling clockwise around the points, wood is followed by fire, earth, metal, and finally water.
Like the Western system, fire represents an abundance of energy. Water represents stillness and a feeling of spiritual or emotional retreat. Earth is a changing, transitional element that shifts like the seasons. Wood represents growth, and metal is the rewards achieved through progress. In Chinese medicine, each organ is assigned an element according to what body process is best modeled by that elemental idea. The element assigned to each organ dictates how that organ is best cared for, or treated in the case of disease.
Elementals in Buddhism and Hinduism
The same four elementals, as well as variants on each, exist within Buddhist lore. In classical Buddhist stories, practitioners called yogis that set forth into the wilderness to challenge themselves to meditation and to living mindfully, would encounter dangerous and wild elementals in nature. Though the stories of elementals may paint them as something to be feared, causing disease and hardship or even madness, the theme of the stories reveal the elementals to be a part of the mind of the yogi. Indeed, each of us is made up of the essences of the four elements, so when working with elementals, one might choose to use the Buddhist understanding that the entities are those uncontrollable parts of ourselves.
More helpful than the Buddhist elementals, Hindu elementals called "dakinis" (or "khadomas," in Tibet) directly assist the Hindu deities and carry out their wishes in the material world. They may also choose to assist yoga practitioners, or to challenge them as with the Buddhist yogis.
Use of Elementals in Modern Witchcraft
Wicca is a type of modern witchcraft that has strong roots of philosophy and practice in ceremonial magic traditions. The man who first brought Wicca to the attention of the public, Gerald Gardner, was very knowledgeable about ceremonial magic and the four elements, and it is thought that he and others may have used a strong understanding of the elements of ceremonial magic to fill in the gaps of lost lore and knowledge from incomplete traditions of witchcraft handed down to them. It may have simply been that the ceremonial use of elements was comfortable because it worked, or it may have been that a precursor to all western forms of magic used elementals and passed the practice down to Wicca and ceremonial magic traditions because of their efficacy. Whatever made elementals a part of modern witchcraft, they are here to stay.
Modern witches often use the four elements in ritual liturgy in much the same manner that ceremonial magicians have always done. Since many forms of modern witchcraft have a deeper focus on spirituality and, in particular, earth-based spirituality inspired by nature, the elements and elementals have taken on a deeper meaning. No longer mere symbols or magical creatures to be tamed by powerful magicians, elementals have become sacred beings that are beloved to the Goddesses and Gods of witches everywhere and invoked for the purposes of specific spell work, worship, and honor.
In some cases, practitioners of Green Craft or other nature-based modern witch religions actually worship elementals as deities. The practice of worshiping elementals is called elementalism. Elementalists will pray directly to elementals, as well as honor and worship them primarily as powerful deities themselves, not merely symbols or servants of greater deities.
Some witches even think of elementals as energy archetypes of a Goddess and God that represent all that is sacred. While elementals themselves are not worshiped as deities by many modern witches, many of them do honor them to focus energy within the four powers of earth, air, water, and fire. Thus, earth and water can represent the Goddess of the witches. Earth is her abundance and barrenness, upheaval and stillness. Water is her life-giving and nurturing love. Fire and air are the domains of the God of the witches. Fire is his potent creative and destructive force, and air is his wisdom and swift action.
The pentagram, a five pointed star, and the pentacle, the same surrounded by a circle, has emerged as a symbol representative of modern witchcraft. It is still used by both witches and ceremonial magicians today. The pentagram represents the four elements, along with a fifth powerful idea, that of spirit.
The four elementals are so useful because they connect to ideas. And, of course, all of the ritual tool and spell props are just symbols for the ideas that they represent. So, it will help to go into the more intangible correspondences that draw ceremonial magicians, witches, and nature-lovers everywhere to use elementals as a thought focus. When making magic, all four elements must be present symbolically, not only because all of the ingredients of the universe are contained within them, but because elemental qualities are necessary for the process. Fire lends energy to the spell, air gives it speed, earth makes it manifest, and water brings about a conclusion that is satisfying.
The four elements are thought of as the four pillars, or the "Witch's Pyramid, since a pyramid can be built with three sides and a base to make four external faces of the polygon. The concept represented by air is knowledge, by water is daring, by fire is willing, and by earth is silence. Together: To know, to dare, to will, and to keep silent shows the essential natures of the elementals. The Witch's Pyramid expresses some spiritual values within Witchcraft. Some practitioners use the Latin verbs for each of the four pillars as magic words, to evoke the values from within. These four Latin verbs are below.
Noscere (pronounced nohs-CHEH-re): To Know
Knowledge of the true nature of things is vital to any magic. One of the laws of magic, that of knowledge, states that the more that you know about something, the more that you can control it. If you want to cast a spell on something in your life, you'd do well to know its true name, exactly what it looks like, and everything else you can learn about that thing. Knowledge is also a spiritual concept. Ever since Greek author Hermes Trismegistus wrote, "Know thyself," it has been passed along as an important part of being a spiritual person. Understanding the inner workings of one's soul is only done through the element of air.
Audere (pronounced ow-DEH-re): To Dare
Without moving forward to get something done, nobody's goals would be accomplished. It takes guts to cast a spell, even a very simple one. In fact, it takes a certain sense of daring to get out of bed every day, seeing as how there are dangers lurking around every corner in life. It isn't enough to merely get out of bed or make a wish upon a star to make your magic come to fruition. You have to work towards your goals in order to provide a vehicle through which your dreams can come true in your own life. Water embodies the daring that we each need in order to push forward and achieve our greatest passions, hopes, and desires.
Velle (pronounced VEL-leh): To Will
While daring implies action, to will is the silent fire within that powers all of your dynamic activities in life. Some magicians and witches also think of one's true will as different from simply wanting. There are those that believe that true will can only come from a person's higher self. Your higher self is the part of you free from confusion or short-sighted and selfish desires. The only thing for which a higher self strives is its true destiny. If you want what is best for you, and what makes your soul and heart sing, then your desire is in accordance with your true will. Calling upon the fire elementals can help align your life path with your will.
Tacere (pronounced tah-CHEH-re): To Keep Silent
The idea of keeping silent may be the most difficult and uncomfortable of the four pillars. After all, we all love to be proud and outspoken about those things that drive our true will. However, silence is something that comes about in many spiritual practices. It is only in silence that one can become truly receptive to elementals during meditation. It is through silent contemplation that you can finally gain true knowledge of yourself and your will. And, of course, there is the important concept that mothers teach children: When you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Silence can be a bandage and a weapon against our negative tendencies. Telling the truth, in life and during your magical practice, is vital when working with elementals. Elementals are literal beings, and if you don't tell the truth, you may not get what you want, or you may not be trusted by the elementals. Finally, keeping silent is an important part of some witch spiritual traditions. For example, British Traditional Wicca is an experiential mystery religion, much like the ancient Greek mystery traditions. When an initiate learns a secret about an elemental while working with his or her coven, that initiate can't just go shouting out the secret to the world. One reason is that it simply wouldn't make sense without somebody having had the same experience. It is sort of like seeing a sad movie and then telling your friend about it to try to make him or her cry. Chances are, you can't express the same artistry that brought tears to your own eyes. Another, more obvious reason to keep silent about a religious experience is so that you don't spoil the surprise for anyone who may choose to follow in your footsteps. Silence also allows you to become in tune with the earth elementals that can make spiritual and material fulfillment manifest in your life.
You can incorporate the Witch's Pyramid or the four pillars in your work in several ways. Some people actually make a representation of four pillars or a pyramid, decorating each face of the pyramid or each pillar with representations of an elemental. You can use the pillars or pyramid as ritual décor, or as focal points during meditation. You can also use the phrases, "to know, to dare, to will, to keep silent" (or their Latin versions) as magical words of power when invoking those elementals during ritual.
Creating an Altar and the Practice of Geomancy
The easiest and most common way to be mindful of the elements is to collect their correspondences and to create an altar. Geomancy is the art of positioning objects on the earth in order to effect magical change, and confining this geomancy to a small table or shelf altar is an easy way to integrate this practice into your daily life. In my home right now, I have an altar in the center of my ritual room for use during structured circles, and another family altar in the living room just off the entrance to our house. An altar can be a daily focal point as well as a collection of tools for spiritual work.
Choose a location for your altar that is easy to access and to reflect upon during your daily life, or one that is more private if you feel the need, though you'll have to dedicate yourself to frequent rituals involving your altar to stay effectively in tune. Divide your altar into four quadrants in your mind's eye, or with lines of cord, flour, salt, or four pieces of colored material. Place a representative of each elemental in each of the four quadrants. At first, you may need to be very deliberate and methodical about choosing objects. "Let's see, what shall I use for Earth… How about a dish of salt?" You can use available correspondence tables for inspiration on colors, directions, and objects, though your intuition trumps all else. After a while, you'll find yourself collecting things from your life or in nature that easily occupy a place on your altar, such as a found bird feather for the Sylphs or a seashell for the undines.
The construction and study of your altar itself can be used to focus upon elementals and to seek balance. If you find yourself lacking in something that falls within an elemental's sphere of influence, bulking up the altar in that quadrant may help. For example, a person wishing for more financial stability may add stones and other Earth treasures to please the Gnomes and bring his or her attention to that life goal. The inverse of this practice is to observe your altar's collection carefully if you feel an imbalance in your life but are not aware of the source. If you observe that one quadrant has more than its share of decorations, try to bulk up the three others to achieve balance and harmonize your focus.
In conclusion, elementals are a rich source of magical wisdom, easily accessible through daily activities. If you take the first step, making an elemental altar, you can help integrate the basic philosophy of elementals into your magical practice. By tapping into something that crosses the boundaries of time and culture, you can find power in the elemental essence of the human experience.