What Are the Elements?
In Wicca and much of the occult, the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth describe
the universe and everything in it. Everything can be understood as taking part
in one or more elements. 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 block 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
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 famous idea of
witches using fingernail clippings 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're "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, dawn
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 outwardmoving,
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 Wicca and magic, we need to look at Air's symbolic associations. Its colors
are sky colors-white and sky blue. 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. (We will discuss
the Tarot again when we discuss elemental personalities in chapter 3.)
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 coins-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 picture of Air/Sword, Fire/Wand. Every Wand 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, 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 just be
thinking it over.
Other magical tools in a Neopagan ritual that are associated with Air are incense,
feathers, 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 (see
the section "The Three Worlds" later in this chapter for more about this). In nature,
Fire is the outsider; it is out of control, and it conforms to no known rules.
The place Fire is most connected to is the desert, and Fiery animals such as 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 the licks and curls of a fire can come to resemble salamanders (which is
how the magical being of Fire got its name). Other natural things associated with
fire either burn, like chilis 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 with 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; it 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 the occult, Fire is orange, red, and yellow. As mentioned before, 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 suit of
Fire can be either Swords or Wands (I use Swords).
The representative of Fire on a Wiccan altar is one of those little things 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 salt water 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 salt
water 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
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 in the Sun. In the Tarot, the Moon card is full of watery
images, like crustaceans crawling up out of the water, and the card's meaning is
rooted in secrets, mysteries, and hidden knowledge. Water is female, and looks
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 its not surprising that many people's folklore depicts
death as a passage over water. To make the cycle complete, Hindus refer to rebirth as
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 of consciousness in general-trance, vision, and transformation coming
from these things. Transformation by water is visionary and may take the quality of
a journey, which is probably why the Hero's Journey generally begins with a passage
over water.3 (Note the difference from transformation by Fire: one is sudden and
hot, and one is slow and dreamlike.)
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
Water's direction is West. Sunset in the west is also associated with death, with
the end of things, and with transformation. Twilight is an in-between and mysterious
time, and so 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 get the 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
could never 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. The magical undine is Water's entity. Water signs of the Zodiac 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: 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 were 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 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 Pentacles5
or Disks, which represent money-that most physical of possessions (since it
provides all the other physical possessions). Wealth and buried treasure are things of
Earth. The elemental tool of Earth is also 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
to be 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 (Air)-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.
THE ORIGINS OF ELEMENTAL THINKING
The Three Worlds
The four elements of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth are abstractions. But most abstractions
are ideas that arise out of something direct and natural. In Bronze Age Europe,
life was seen as consisting of Three Worlds: Land, Sea, and Sky. While "Air" is abstract,
"Sky" is not. The three worlds were visible everywhere, and the Celts in particular
were practically obsessed with the number three. Everything came in threes (or
nines, which is three times three), and everything could be divided up into three.
There were three kinds of creatures-land animals, sea creatures, and birds. Social
classes were also divided into three. Farmers and other workers who lived off the
land were associated with Land. Warriors were associated with the Sea, because they
often traveled by sea and because of the blood they shed. Intellectuals, such as
druids and priests, bards and poets, astronomers and magicians, were associated
with the Sky, whence ideas and inspiration come.
Not just physical beings were associated with the Three Worlds, but supernatural
beings as well. The Land was imbued with nature spirits, such as the nymphs of ancient
Greece. The Sea was the home of the ancestors-death, and the dead, have long
been associated with the sea for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that
the warriors have an obvious connection to death. The Sky was where the gods and
As you can see, the process of dividing people, beings, or things into sympathetic
categories begins naturally, but quickly becomes abstract-the association of bloodshed
with the sea, for example, is a bit of a leap. But these intellectual and intuitive
leaps shouldn't be dismissed, as they are part of a magical and creative process that
helps us see the whole of life, of which we are all a part. Nonetheless, Celtic thought in
particular was always rooted in the natural world. A philosophical conception, to the
Celts, had its basis in a tree, or the weather, or some other observable phenomenon.
It became obvious to the ancients that there was a fourth category, but it wasn't
a World. That fourth category consisted of things that were singular and apart. It
was the category of Fire.
Fire isn't a World, but neither is it of the Three Worlds. It doesn't exist in the Sky,
it is doused by the Sea, and it isn't of the Land. The other Worlds are interconnected;
a bird can land on a tree branch, or dive into the sea to catch a fish. No creatures live
in Fire, and if one did, it would be alien to us and unable to exist elsewhere. The ancients
came to associate Fire with things that were singular, not a part of any World.
There was no social group associated with Fire-Fire was the King (or Queen), a singular
being whose nature set him or her apart from all other people.
Just so, the supernatural quality associated with Fire was singular-Spirit, which
imbues all and is apart from all, and which connects all beings but isn't any of them.
Here is not only a meaningful correspondence, but one that actually serves to explain
Fire's relationship to the Three Worlds. Here, too, is the King's relationship to
the people, he is singular and apart, yet he touches them all and rules over them all.
(Fire might also correspond to the High God, the first deity who created all the others
and rules over them.)
So, prior to the idea of four elements was the idea of Three Worlds plus one. The
"one" was apart from the three, and also permeated the three.