What Are the Elements?
In much of Western occultism, including Paganism and Wicca, the four elements of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth describe the universe and everything in it.
Everything can be understood as taking part in one or more element. Everything that is whole contains all four, and can be understood more deeply by dividing it into four, and viewing it through that lens. The elements are the building blocks of creation; they are the beginning of things. The undifferentiated void that preceded creation had no elements; or, to put it another way, all elements were One. But creation-things, reality-consists of the elements.
From a scientific point of view, the periodic table of the elements describes the building blocks of the universe, and the modern magician doesn't reject science. But from a magical point of view, both simplicity and symbolism call for only four elements.
The four elements give us a way of thinking about the world. They give us a structured approach to knowing the unknowable. They provide us with a system of interrelations; and magic is all about interrelations. Have you ever heard of "sympathetic magic"? If you've heard of a Voodoo doll or poppet, you have. Sympathetic magic means that something that is like a thing (has sympathy with a thing) is the thing. A doll is like the person it represents; therefore it is that person. That's interrelationship-sympathy. A doll is an obvious, direct representation, like drawing a picture. Other sympathetic objects are parts of the original.
The well-known stereotype of Witches using fingernail clippings in a spell is an example of sympathetic magic; the part (the clippings) has sympathy with the whole (the person). There are all manner of direct and indirect sympathies that interconnect us. Elemental things have an indirect sympathy with each other. A candle is not the same as a lion, but both represent Fire and therefore have sympathy with each other. These interrelationships add to our understanding of the universe around us.
The Qualities of the Elements
In the natural world, Air is associated most closely with the sky, wind, and clouds. Mountain peaks, which seem to touch the sky, are also Air. Birds of all kinds belong to this element, and hawks and eagles are especially associated with Air, because they fly so very high and make their nests at such high altitudes. A stork or duck, by contrast, is a less powerful symbol of Air, because, although these birds fly, they live in and near the water.
In a person, Air is associated with thought and with the intellect, corresponding in the Witches' Pyramid to "To Know."1 Ideas are said to come from Air, as is inspiration, a word that also means "to breathe in." Logic and scholarship are Air functions, which is perhaps why academics are said to live in ivory towers as opposed to ivory basements. People who spend all their time thinking "have their heads in the clouds," and if they are "airheads," they mistake imagination for real life and are impractical (because practicality is an Earth quality, which they lack).
The direction of Air is the east, and since the sun rises in the east, Air is associated with the morning, with the spring (the beginning of the agricultural and astrological year), and with beginnings of all kinds. Anything that "dawns" is a thing of Air. The things in our lives that dawn, be they projects, creations, or careers, begin with an idea. Often inspiration feels like the sunrise, a bright beginning full of promise and possibility. Since seeds are beginnings and are associated with the spring, seeds, too, belong to Air.
Air's gender is male. Don't think of this as "men," but rather, as yang, or outward-moving, in terms of magical energy. Throughout this book, I will refer to Air creatures and people as male when a singular pronoun is needed, just to use good grammar, although obviously Air people are both male and female.
For magic, we need to look at Air's symbolic associations. Its colors are sky colors-white and sky blue-although some systems assign yellow to Air. The magical entity of Air is known as a sylph. The astrological Air signs are Gemini, Libra, and Aquarius. The Tarot suit of Air is Swords, although there is an interesting story behind this correspondence.
In 1910, Arthur Edward Waite published his book The Pictorial Key to the Tarot and his "Rider-Waite" Tarot deck. Waite was a Kabbalist and a member of the Golden Dawn magical lodge. His was the first deck to give all seventy-eight cards unique illustrations, and the first to draw associations between the Tarot and the Kabbalah. The Rider-Waite deck became the most popular and influential Tarot ever created, and its influences are seen in the vast majority of decks available today.
However, Waite's membership in the Golden Dawn included an oath of secrecy, so he hesitated to reveal too much in his deck or accompanying book. He decided to switch two of the elemental correspondences in order to preserve his oath. He couldn't very well change the association of Cups to Water, since that's a pretty obvious one, and Pentacles are mostly depicted as coin-and again the association between money and Earth is straightforward and obvious. But Swords and Wands are abstract tools, that were not in common usage at the turn of the last century. The Golden Dawn associated Air with Wands and Fire with Swords, so Waite reversed these two and filled his deck with Fiery Wands and Airy Swords.
If you're a Tarot reader who has used Waite's deck or a Waite-derived deck, it's hard to break the mental pictures of Air/Sword and Fire/Wand. Every Wand in Waite's deck has little flames, salamanders, and orange colors, and every Sword has prominent clouds, sylphs, and a lot of light blue. Perhaps because most Witches read the Tarot, most associate the sword, or athame,2 with Air.
On the other hand, the original association used by the Golden Dawn and others makes a good deal of sense. The Sword is the stronger and more destructive tool, and Fire is more destructive than Air. The Wand is the tool of the intellectual magician, but the Sword is the tool of the willful warrior (Fire is associated with will). Once you get to know the tools, it's hard to escape the conclusion that a person wielding a Sword means business (has will), but a person holding a Wand might still be just thinking it over.
Other magical tools that are associated with Air are incense, feathers, bells, rattles, and fans.
In nature, Fire is itself, first and foremost. Fire has always been set apart from the other elements, because Fire alone has no natural home on the earth; Air has the sky, Water the sea, and Earth the land, but only Fire stands apart from geography. In nature, Fire is the outsider; it is out of control, and it conforms to no known rules.
The places Fire is most connected to are the desert and volcanoes. The Fiery animals, lions and tigers, are distinguished by their fiery color and disposition.
Salamanders are also associated with Fire, both because of their bright-orange color and because of the way that licks and curls of a fire can come to resemble salamanders (which is how the magical being of Fire got its name). Other lizards, such as iguanas and Gila monsters, are also Fiery. Other natural things associated with fire either burn-like chiles and cumin, or are red or (especially) orange-colored-like fire opals. Fire is male and outward-focused.
The personal quality of Fire is will, and in the Witches' Pyramid, Fire is "To Will." Willfulness burns hot, and the will to get things done is a spark that ignites. Temper is also associated with Fire; a fiery person is a "hothead," and lust is Fiery-you burn with desire. All of these things are closely associated with the life force itself, the spark within that fills us with life. For that reason, healing is a thing of fire; a person who is losing his spark needs Fire magic to reignite him.
Fire resides in the south. It is associated with noon, the hottest and brightest time of day, and summer, the hottest and brightest time of year. In terms of endeavors, just as beginnings and ideas are Air, things that are "on fire" are Fire. As Air is the seed, Fire is the sprout, emerging. Fire takes the original seed and gets it going, gives it force. Lots of creativity gets stuck in Air; it needs an application of Fiery will to turn on the power.
Fire can be a transformative force; in fire, the old is burned away and what comes out is utterly different. Transformation by fire is sudden and total: the blacksmith transforms iron ore into steel, raw meat becomes a delicious meal, and logs become embers, all by using fire.
In occult symbolism, Fire is orange, red, and sometimes yellow. As already mentioned, its magical entity is the salamander. Fire signs of the Zodiac are Aries, Leo (another lion association), and Sagittarius. As just discussed in the section on Air, the tool and Tarot suit of Fire can be either Swords or Wands (I use Swords).
The representative of Fire on a Wiccan altar is one of those things that people like to debate. The obvious choice is a candle, or perhaps an oil lamp. A flame on the altar is a pretty intuitive way to represent Fire-can't argue with that! Others (including me) prefer to use burning incense to represent both Fire and Air.
In a typical Wiccan ritual, the female (yin) elements Earth and Water are combined, and the saltwater is used to represent them both. So I think it makes sense, and is more balanced, to represent the two male (yang) elements by combining them as well. So, the incense (Air) is put onto the censor (Fire) to make smoke (Air) rising from a burning ember (Fire)-an elegant arrangement.
There are myriad natural forms of water, including not just the sea but every body of water from a little creek to the Great Lakes. Water is also found in our bodies: in the clichéd "blood, sweat, and tears," in mother's milk, and, perhaps most importantly, in amniotic fluid. Just as life first evolved in the sea, the fetus swims in saltwater as it "evolves" and develops. Since all bodies of water have tides, the moon is also associated with water, and many lunar qualities are also Water qualities.
Sea creatures, both plant and animal, are connected to Water. Fish, eels, shells, coral, seaweed, sponges, and driftwood all partake of this element. Dolphins and whales are the creatures most commonly associated with Water, although I suspect this has more to do with our affection for them than with any natural or symbolic imperative.
The personal quality of Water is feeling. Emotion flows, following its own path, which may meander. Emotion runs deep, with mysteries not visible on the surface. Emotions can be like sunken treasure, hiding secrets at the bottom of the waters of memory or the subconscious. Emotionality and mood swings are, of course, associated with the moon, as are secrets-those things that are just barely visible, lit by moonlight and not exposed to the sun. In the Tarot, the Moon card is full of watery images, such as crustaceans crawling out of the water, and the card's meaning is rooted in secrets, mysteries, and hidden knowledge. Water is female, and looks within.
The moon and Water are the menstrual cycle, and Water is childbirth as well, making Water perhaps the most feminine of elements. Since moon phases are cyclic, ending where they begin and beginning where they end, it makes sense that Water is also associated with death, and it's not surprising that many people's folklore depicts death as a passage over water (for example, crossing the River Styx). To make the cycle complete, Hindus refer to rebirth as an ocean.
All of these things-the moon, feeling, depth, birth-death-rebirth, and mystery-combine to associate Water with dreams and the subconscious, and from there to altered states in general-trance, vision, and transformation coming from these things. (Note that the slow, dreamy transformation of Water is different from the sudden, shapeshifting Fire transformation.) Transformation by Water is visionary and may take the quality of a journey, which is probably why the Hero's Journey in the Tarot generally begins with a passage over water.
Watery people are weepy and overflowing with feeling. They are dramatic, sensual, and otherworldly. They can be draining to be around-wet rags. They can also be the opposite-joyful and full of love; their cup runneth over. The generosity of Water flows forth abundantly; people in love feel love toward everyone, and Water is love.
Water's direction is west. Sunset in the west is associated also with death, with the end of things, and with transition. Twilight is an in-between and mysterious time, as is autumn. Neither seed nor sprout, Water is the sap flowing through flora, just as blood flows through fauna.
In our creative/becoming process, we used Air to gain inspiration and Fire to provide the get-up-and-go. Now we need to let creativity flow through us. If you've ever written or played music or painted, you know there's a time to let go and let it happen. That's the Water time. Intuition has to play a part in any endeavor, and a "go with the flow" attitude has to allow us to take advantage of opportunities we never could have predicted in advance. Because this is daring, in the way that closing your eyes and letting yourself fall is daring, Water corresponds in the Witches' Pyramid to "To Dare."
For magical symbolism, Water has ocean and lunar colors-deep blue, sea green, and silver. In Western occultism, green is the color most typically used. The magical undine is Water's entity. Water signs are Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces (Cancer's crab and Scorpio's scorpion both appear on the Moon card in the Tarot). The magical tool of Water is the cup, which is the Holy Grail. On a Wiccan altar, Water is always represented by a simple dish of water-some people add a seashell, generally a conch. A conch can even double as a water dish.
Finally, we reach Earth. In nature, well, Earth is nature. Earth is the substance of the body of our Mother, Gaia, the Earth Herself. Earth is manifest in all things that are solid, or fertile, or both, including rocks, green fields, rolling hills, and soil. Caves and other buried places are quintessentially Earthy. Most people consider the bear the animal of Earth, although pigs, boar, and cattle also belong to this element. Bulls are an important Earth symbol, both because of their Earthy nature and because they are associated with the astrological sign Taurus. So, astrologically, goats are Earth as well, since they are associated with Capricorn. Also, humans drink milk from both cows and goats. Although all beverages are associated with Water, if one was to choose an Earth beverage, it would surely be milk.
A human being's Earth is her body. From Earth comes solidity, stability, and commitment. We call Earth our home, both the home of all life that is Mother Earth, and the house or apartment we live in. By extension, Earth is hearth and family and all those qualities that make us feel "at home." To be an earthy person is to be pragmatic, realistic, and tactile. Good Earth qualities in a person make her "the salt of the earth," but an excess of negative Earth qualities make her a "stick-in-the-mud." Earth is that deep, solid, immobile place, both in the negative sense of stubborn and in the positive sense of patient. The Witches' Pyramid describes this quality in the attribute "To Be Silent."
Earth is located in the north and is associated with midnight-because north is opposite the noon of south and because subterranean places are dark. Winter is in the north-the coldness of midnight, the coldness of deep soil, and the stillness and silence of waiting for spring. To be solid is to be patient and to hold still. Contrarily, Earth is also fertility-pregnancy, fruit, the physical manifestation of our labors. In endeavors, Earth is completion-the finished project-the thing that results. Earth is female and inward-focused.
The colors of Earth are brown and black for soil, and deep green for fertility. Gnomes are the magical creatures said to inhabit the earth, and the Zodiac signs associated with Earth are Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn. The Tarot suit of Earth is Pentacles or Disks, which represent money, that most physical of possessions (since it provides all other physical possessions). Wealth and buried treasure are things of Earth. The elemental tool of Earth also is the Pentacle, which, in Wicca, is a disk or plate with a pentagram inscribed on it. (Some traditions inscribe other symbols as well.) Since a plate also holds food and since food is also of Earth (the physical product that is the outcome of farming; the sustenance of the body), the pentacle is a doubly good symbol (triply good, really, since the pentagram on it represents wholeness).
The representation of Earth on a magical altar is usually salt. Salt is considered an exceptionally magical symbol. It was once used as money, and is also used as a food preservative-preserving the body through winter and driving away harm.
By now you've noticed how the four elements combine to make cycles, like circling the compass (east-south-west-north), or the seasons, or the time of day. They can make abstract cycles, like the cycle of an endeavor or creation that we described in this chapter: idea, then empowerment, then intuition, then manifestation/outcome. A romance, too, can begin with an idea-an observation, a crush, a hope. Next comes Fiery lust, then Watery love, and finally Earthy commitment. In Paganism, we know that every cycle ends at the beginning: midnight is followed by dawn, winter is followed by spring, and the manifestation of a creative process gives birth to the inspiration for the next process.
Is There a Fifth Element?
The Hindus have five elements-Air, Fire, Water, Earth, and Spirit (akasha). Most Western occultists (Wiccans, Neopagans, magicians) go along with this view. In fact, the pentagram-the major symbol of Paganism and Witchcraft-is said to represent the five elements. According to this view, each of the points of the pentagram represents one of the elements, with Spirit on top (figure 1).
I was taught that Wiccans place Spirit on top of the pentagram, while Satanists place Spirit on the bottom of their inverted pentagram. The idea is that Spirit is either above or below matter. For me, as a Wiccan, I see a contradiction between a religion focused on the Earth Mother, and a mystical separation of Spirit from matter-and how can either be above the other without them being forever separate? In a religion that venerates the earth as a Goddess, sacred spirit is inseparable from sacred matter.
Instead of looking at the four elements as being apart from Spirit, I chose to look to my own rituals to find a more meaningful philosophy.
A Wiccan circle is set up with a candle or torch at each of the cardinal points (east, south, west, and north), representing the elements, around the perimeter. Traditions vary as to where the altar is placed, but I was taught to place it in the center. I began to see the mystical value of the altar's placement: the ritual is a "squared circle" (figure 2), marked at the quarters, and the altar is the meeting point of the elemental points.
The mystical sigil that depicts a magic circle, then, is the squared circle-not the pentagram (which has mystical significance in its own right). At the center of the circle is the altar, drawing exactly balanced energies from each of the four quarters. What's on the altar? Why, the altar is where the representations of the gods, the idols, are placed. Doesn't that make the altar the place of Spirit?
The answer that I discovered, what I now believe and what I teach, is this: Spirit is what happens when all four elements meet and combine. Spirit is the quintessence, the "fifth essence," the original elemental whole from which the other elements emerged. Elementals have only their individual qualities. For example, Gnomes will only be Earth, and are incapable of acting in any way but an Earthy way; they won't feel or be willful. And Salamanders will only and forever be Fire; we cannot ask them to be stable or exercise self-control. But people, and other beings with Spirit, have the capacities of all four elements, and the freedom to grow and explore in any direction.
Squaring the circle also represents wholeness, balance. Just as nature is balanced, every person should be balanced in the elements-neither an airhead nor a stick-in-the mud, not a hothead or a sob sister. Rituals should represent that balance, and ideas, projects, and theories that don't reflect wholeness are probably missing the boat.