In magic we have four elements, called earth, water, air, and fire, and a fifth higher quality, sometimes called the quintessence, that pervades the four and transcends them. Even though they are called “elements,” they are not the same concept as the 118 physical elements of science. The magic elements are much older and have been with us from the days of ancient Greece.
Philosophers believed that the four elements made up all earthly things. They thought that all four elements are present in all objects and substances, but in differing degrees, and that the mix of elements gave a thing its physical nature.
The names of the magic elements must not be confused with the actual physical things of the same name. Elemental fire is not fire. Elemental water is not water. And so on. Water expresses by its qualities and tendencies the essence of the watery element.
For the modern student of Western magic, it may be easier to come to terms with the concept of the four elements by likening them to the four states of matter—solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. The elements express by their predominance on how matter manifests itself. More elemental earth gives weight, hardness, and solidity. More elemental water causes a flowing, wetness, and coolness. Elemental air expresses itself as expansion and lightness. Elemental fire is upward-rising, hot, quick, explosive.
The four elements were understood to be confined to the earthly sphere, which is the sphere of being below the moon—our normal dimension of reality. Ancient cosmology posited a set of nesting concentric spheres with the material world at its center. Surrounding the sphere of the earth were nine other concentric, larger spheres. The moon was the gatekeeper between the earthly realm below, and the higher spheres above, which were represented by the planets and stars.
In this ancient system, the element earth has its natural state of being in the flat circle of ground upon which we were conceived to dwell. The water was understood to flow around this island of ground, encircling it like a great sea serpent that holds its tail in its jaws. Above the earth and water was the natural place of the element air, which formed a transparent hemisphere. Finally, above the place of the air was the natural place of the element fire, because it tends to rise up above the other three elements.
The quintessence is a mysterious concept that has been somewhat crudely rendered into the teachings of modern magic as spirit, or light. Plato was evasive in describing it, but it seems to be the animating essence that enables being. In a religious sense, it may be described as the spiritual essence of the divine pervading all physical things.
By considering any object or material, it is possible to determine which element predominates in it and provides its main attribute. For example, in the vegetable realm, pepper is hot. Its heat comes from a predominance of fire in its nature. By contrast, a cucumber is cool, and this is the result of a predominance of the watery element in its makeup. All things, whether animal, vegetable, or mineral, may be categorized in this way, and by controlling with magic their prevailing element, all things may be influenced.
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