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The Elements: A Personal View

Author: Rhys Chisnall
Posted: September 18th. 2011
Times Viewed: 3,859

The elements were relative latecomers to the Craft. Gerald Gardner’s Bricket Wood Coven, the first coven that we reliably know about, did not originally make use of the elements and there is no mention of them in the early Books of Shadows. Rather the coven invoked ‘The Watchtowers’ of the directions, a term borrowed from the Enochian magic of the Elizabethan Magician and Mathematician Dr. John Dee. Dr. Dee was interested in the Christian concept of angels with which he ‘communicated’ through his medium (and well know rogue) Edward Kelly. Perhaps unremarkably his interest in Angels led him down some very unChristian roads. Anyway, the Watchtowers of the Bricket Wood Coven eventually gained elemental associations probably from ceremonial magic and they seem likely to be here to stay.

The 5th Century BCE pre Socratic philosopher Empedocles is credited with the creation of the concepts behind the four classical elements, earth, air, fire and water. He referred to these properties as ‘roots’. He believed that these four roots are simple and unalterable, the physical parts of the Universe mixed together by the dualistic forces of love and strife. Empedocles publicized his ideas in his famous poem called ‘On Nature’. As far as I know, it was Plato who first called them elements and Aristotle added a fifth to the list, which he called aether or quintessence (literally the fifth element) .

The five elements persisted in classical and medieval ‘science’. They were included within Galenic medicine, which was based upon the four humours of the body each with elemental associations. These four humours were: melancholic (black bile) associated with earth, phlegmatic (phlegm) associated with water, sanguine (blood) associated with water, and choleric (Yellow bile) associated with fire. The belief of the physicians who practiced this form of ‘medicine’ was that illness was caused by an imbalance of one or more humours, which the physician was then required to redress. This is where the reasoning behind bleeding comes from: the idea being that the loss of blood would restore the balance. It was, of course, at best completely ineffective and, at worst, detrimental to your health. Fortunately for us Galen’s method was replaced with effective medicine based on proper scientific method from the 19th century onwards particularly after Virchow’s publications on cellular pathologies.

Before the Newtonian Revolution most people accepted the Aristotle/Ptolemaic model of the Universe. In this Cosmology, which endured until Copernicus and onset of Newtonian physics, the elements were seen as trying to return to their place of origin. Hence earth and water would fall down (a nice but wrong explanation of the effects of gravity) , while air and fire would try to rise. This was a common sense explanation of why rain fell and fire rose.

The Aristotle/Ptolemaic view of the universe indicated that the closer you got to the centre of the Universe, i.e. the earth, the denser and more profane things become. The further you got away from earth the more ephemeral and sacred things were. Hence was the belief that the planets could influence what occurred on Earth, as they were believed made of a more divine substance than earthly things. This was the thinking behind Astrology. Newton showed us that it can’t be literally true, but it still has value as a metaphorical symbolic system and inspiration for culture.

The five elements endured into modern times and today the five classical elements are an integral part of the Western Mystery tradition, including Witchcraft. But it is one thing for them to be included in classical science and quite another thing for them to be relevant today. After all, we now know that the Universe is not made up of just five kinds of stuff. We now have the periodic table with its 118 known elements; you know hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, sodium etc, etc. As such it would be very difficult to take the classical elements seriously if we view them as literal. But all is not lost as they do, of course, make wonderful metaphors. The classical elements are myths, they are figurative and not literal and it would be a mistake to confuse them with objective reality.

Empedocles, Plato and Aristotle have provided us with a wonderful psychological allegorical model for the human spirit. It is a model that has important practical implications and is well suited to the initiatory Craft with its emphasis on personal understanding, empowerment and the mysteries. With this in mind, to avoid the trap of literalism and supernaturalism, it is important to remember that when we discuss spirit we mean a representation of character as we have examined in the essay ‘Spirit and Character’. In this case it is the meta-representation we have of our own spirit. In other words we are reflecting on and possibly transforming our own characters.

The key to understanding the power of the elements as a model of the human spirit is firstly in the work of the Swiss psychologist Dr. Carl Jung and secondly in building up and exploring our semantic landscape. The ideas we are going to be discussing are not new. They have been put forward by people like the English Witch and psychologist Dr. Viviane Crowley in her book ‘Wicca the Old religion in the New Age’. But because of literalism and religiosity in popular Wicca, today these ideas tend to be forgotten or ignored and so I feel it is well worthwhile re-presenting them again. Before we examine these ideas, it is perhaps a good time to refresh our memories about the traditional meaning of four of the elements and how they lay in the Witch’s semantic landscape.

Each element traditionally has a direction. In the Robert Cochrane tradition of the Clan of Tubal Cain, the elemental directions follow the pattern of Galenic medicine, with air in the north, fire in the east, earth in the south and water in the west. In traditional occultism (including the Craft) , which was inspired by the 19th century magical lodge the Golden Dawn, air is placed in the east, fire in the south, water in the west and earth in the north. The associate of Gerald Gardner, Fred Lamond, in his book 50 years of Wicca has suggested that there is no reason why this convention should be followed and you may want to look at the local environment as to the elemental placements.

For example, if there is a large body of water in the east then the east could be the elemental direction of water. I have to admit that Fred’s breaking from tradition does appeal to my rebellious nature and I do agree with him to a point. However in practice if one has built up one’s semantic landscape with the traditional association of elements and directions it can be hard work to break from it. Perhaps it is a case of if it isn’t broken why fix it? But, if you are starting from scratch in the Craft, there is no reason why you shouldn’t follow Fred’s advice.

It is these directions that give the elements some of their associations within the Craft. For example, Air and the east are associated with the dawn. East obviously is the direction of the rising sun as the earth spins anti clockwise on its polar axis making the sun seem to travel in a clockwise direction from east to west. For this reason, it is the direction and so the element linked with new beginnings. It is associated with birth and youth, the emergence of consciousness from the unconscious and with the spring. The easterly direction is associated with the Sabbats of Candlemas and spring, which celebrate and allow us to re-experience the mysteries of birth and sexuality. Air is seen as the least dense of the elements and is viewed as masculine in gender and is given the attributes of being hot and wet. In the tarot it is associated with suit of rods and in the Craft it is semantically connected with the censer.

Fire and the south are associated with midday and the summer, when the sun is at the highest in the sky and the days are at their longest. As such, this element can be associated with adulthood, with the reaching of one’s potential. It is the full light of consciousness and the summer. Fire is the third densest of the elements and can be associated with vitality and action; it is the burning of energy, the transforming of chemical energy into heat. It above all is the element of change and transformation. Fire is the full emergence of will with life force. It is dynamic and changeable. In the tarot, fire is connected with the swords suit and in the Craft the athame or sword is associated with fire.

The element of water is the second most dense of the elements. It and the west are associated with the evening and the autumn. It is the element that suggests the melancholy, bitter sweet of old age. It is the inevitable force, subject to the tides and changes of nature. It is the element of wisdom, of self-reflection and reaping the benefits of the productivity of past youth. Water is seen as a feminine element. In the tarot, it is associated with the cups suit and in the Craft, it is most often linked with the chalice.

The last of the classical elements is earth. This is the densest of the elements and represents the physical world of matter. Earth and the direction of north mean that it is associated with death and the unconscious. Yet paradoxically, and this is a common motif in mythology, it is also associated with fecundity and fertility. Metaphorically and literally, sex and death are intimately linked; both of which power evolution by natural selection. Like water, earth is seen as feminine and in the tarot it is associated with the discs suit. In Craft, the element of earth is most often associated with the dish or the pentacle.

The directions and the elements associated with them also correspond with colours. For example, from the Golden Dawn and the traditions of ceremonial magic, which have influenced popular Wicca, its colour associations are black/brown for north and earth, yellow for the east and air, red for south and fire and blue for water and the west.

In the Enochian canon, the mythical colours of the directions are black for north, red for east, white for south and green for west. To my mind, influenced by this Enochian system are the colour associations given by the influential Witch Doreen Valiente, which are still used within the initiatory Craft today. She suggested that they should be red for east, white for south, grey for west and black for north. These colour associations also tie in figuratively with the meaning of the directions in reference to the time of the day. For example, red suggests the sunrise of the dawn in the east, white the brilliance of the noontide sun of the south, grey in the west, the twilight of dusk and black, the darkness of midnight. This myth like the wheel of the year and the phases of the moon models human life from youth, adulthood, old age and death.

We must bear in mind the subjectivity of these meanings (remember Craft works in the realm of the subjective) connections and symbolisms. Other systems and other people’s experiences of these meanings are equally as valid as this short tour of elemental semantics. It is impossible to write about the meanings that these elements and directions have within the minds of the individual witch and this has to be built up over time using techniques in building one’s semantic landscape in relation to the myth. This is the Crafters own subjective experience.

Let’s discuss how the four elements can be used as a model for our spirit. The word spirit is often used to synonymously with the fifth element aether. They are seen as the same thing. As you are aware, we are taking the term ‘spirit’ to mean ‘character’ rather than a dualistic notion of another non material substance as suggested by Descartes and is popular in religious and new age thinking. In other words, we are not talking about the supernatural concept of spirits, which are difficult to believe in if one is blessed with knowledge of rudimentary science. Rather if the anthropologist Dan Sperber is correct, we have the ability to represent our own characters (and those of others including the dead and fictional personalities) in our own minds, which he calls meta-representation. These reflections of our own characters means that we can to some extent (within the restrictions of our biology) influence and change our characters. As character is a filter through which we interact with reality then so we can change our subjective reality, giving us a powerful tool.

In order for this model to work, we shall make the mythical assumption that spirit is made up of all the other four elements. Again we need to remember that what we are talking about here is myth and not literal reality. What we are saying is that in this model of spirit (representation of character) can be seen as being made up of what the four other elements are metaphors for. That our sense of character can be associated with the four elements is an idea suggested by the 20th Century Swiss Psychologist Dr. Carl Jung. He suggested an influential typology on how people made judgments about the world, which went on to influence Myers-Briggs psychometric test.

Jung suggested that people’s personality types were either extrovert or introvert (he invented the terms) , though he seems to have believed that this could change throughout one’s life and also with one’s situation. He constructed a model based on a four-fold system suggesting that people have favoured ways of making judgments, which influence their character. Some people prefer to make decisions through thinking and others through how they feel about something. These two ways of judging Jung called rational. Others make decisions through intuition and others through sensations, e.g. it tastes good or it feels good. By intuition Jung meant that we make decisions based on unconscious leaps where it is not clear where the information is coming from. In the public mind, intuition is often associated with creativity and artists.

Current psychological research suggests that intuition is really a matter of using information built up through experience. So those hunches that policemen or Witches get from time to time come from unconsciously using information from similar past experiences. Jung deemed the intuition and sensation judgment functions as irrational. According to Jung, people preferred one or two ways of making judgments, though a developed and balanced character type would make judgments based on all four.

I daresay that you can see where I am going with this. The four-fold typology can be associated with the four elements. In fact, traditionally in occultism the elements do have more or less these associations with air relating to thinking, communication and the intellect, fire relating to intuition and the will, water to feelings and emotions, and earth to perception and sensation. Therefore like the mediaeval physicians, though metaphorically rather than literally, our spirit is made up of these four elements. While useful and suggestive we need not follow Jung’s four functions to the letter rather we can use them as inspiration. To my mind air relates to thinking, intellect and communication, fire represents the transforming power of the will, water the profundity of emotions and earth the body. Together they are all aspects of the spirit, the character.

We are the product of our body (genotype and phenotype) ; we are our intellect including imagination; we are our will, what we want and how effective we are in achieving it, and we are our emotions and past experiences. At least that is one of the many possible stories that we can tell about how we are made up. But this is not reality and a fair criticism is that character is much more complex than this. However models are always necessary simplifications if they are going to be of use conceptually, but we should always remember that they are just models. This representation is how we see ourselves and so has a profound effect on our character and on our subjective view of reality. But simple or complex the proof of the pudding is in how the model can be put into practical use and I would argue that this model, mixed with no small amount of discipline does have practical if still subjective applications.

Carl Jung and the classical elements have provided us with a working model for the spirit, but what can we do with it? The answer is that, in theory, we can use it to have some control, subject to other complex forces, over our own character. One of the aims of the Witch is to balance all four elements within their spirit, to make wiser judgments and be a ‘more whole person’. It is possible to invoke within our characters biases towards one or more ways of making judgments, or a balance towards all four ways. Also as we are essentially working on our ego or the representation of the story of who we are, we are working on a relatively shallow level in Occult terms but this can still have profound effects on our reality.

For example, imagine that you are studying for an exam. It would be extremely useful to bring forth your thinking side. Perhaps you wish to take up exercise or give up smoking and it would be useful to invoke the will (while remembering that willpower is a skill) . Maybe you are participating in ritual and you wish to balance all the aspects of your character. This in essence is the start of using elements in magic.

Despite beginner luck, that common phenomena of newcomers having success with their first try (then failure thereafter unless they develop the disciplines) , these kinds of things are very difficult to do. The problem is that although some of the semantic connections seem logical, it takes a great deal of work to semantically link one symbol to another, let alone to a state of mind to facilitate change. This is where tables of correspondences often fail. They are written by people who have put a great deal of time and effort into building up their semantic landscapes, so that one symbol immediately brings up its corresponding state of mind in that person. But for newcomers the correspondences only have connections in superstition, which, while they can be powerful, can also be hit, and miss and is easily destroyed by doubt.

Therefore the Witch, if they want success, needs to spend a great deal of time and energy building up the elements as triggers in their semantic landscapes to achieve these states of mind. This is done through meditation and participation in the myth. The Witch needs to emotionally connect the elements with the tools, the judgment functions, with the directions, the colours and with other semantic values. To my mind, this is best done through actual experience of the elements, with visualisation meditation and with contemplation, where one gets emotionally involved and identifies with what you are meditating on.

It is important to get out there and experience the power of the wind and sea, be in the earth and experience the ferocious nature of fire. Visualisation involves building up pictures in the mind of the elements and interacting with them, building up a relationship. Some people prefer to use fantasy images using the corresponding elemental creatures such as gnomes for earth, sylphs for air, salamanders for fire and undines for water, in their meditation. I shall deal with elementals and their potential role in magic in a later essay. But generally my feeling is that by using such fantasy creature the unconscious is likely to treat them a fantasy and as such and the results will also be a fantasy.

Craft operates in the semantic, spiritual and emotional worlds and it also operates and needs to be of value in the real one. As such, I recommend using images taken from your real experiences. It is also much easier to feel that you have a relationship with them, as you have already experienced them. But this means that you have to go out and experience the four elements, the times of day, the time of the year, the four Jungian functions and contemplate the stages of your life. Then you can form the pictures, build the connections and the relationship of wonder, which after all, is the basis of spirituality.

Visual Meditation and contemplation on the four elements is a discipline that needs to be done regularly over a long period of time. One way to do this is to visualise your covenstead with the four elemental coloured candles, behind which is a veil or curtain of the same colour. In the centre of the covenstead is the altar on which sit the four elemental tools, the censer, the athame, the pentacle and the chalice. You can mentally pick up each one and associating it with the element it represents and with the Jungian function. You could then visualise yourself going round to each curtain and opening it. Beyond the curtain, visualise the scene of your choice that corresponds to that element.

For example, in the east, I would visualise myself opening the red veil to see the sun rising over RSPB Minsmere. This is a bird reserve on the east coast near to where I live. I imagine the sun rising in a red sky; there are daffodils and other spring flowers near to my feet and new buds in the trees. I picture the view as if I was standing on raised ground looking our across the reserve. The wind is blowing strongly in from the sea and I can hear it rustling the reed beds as it whips through them. I can also feel the wind on my skin and see and hear the birds in the distance. Here I can contemplate and feel intellect, thinking and communication, or youth and new starts.

I return back though the veil, closing it behind me with thanks before proceeding to the south. Here I open the white veil and step through. I see myself in a summer meadow surrounded by oak trees. It is midday at the height of summer and the sun is shining overhead. The meadow is filled with summer flowers and along its edges grow meadowsweet. It is hot and drowsy and ahead in the field I see a cauldron bubbling over a fire. The fire burns hot and I can feel the heat. I can smell the burning wood and hear the crackling of the flame. Sometimes I might choose to go into the fire and become the flames. [This scene comes from a memory of eating a meal cooked in huge cauldrons, al fresco, on a visit to Tuscany. I simply transplanted the scene to an English meadow instead of the Tuscan mountains.] Here I can consider will and more rarely intuition, or think on adulthood and action.

Next, I turn to the West and the grey veil. After opening it, I find myself standing on the west coast of Scotland. Clouds obscure the sun as it sinks below the western horizon. It is raining steadily and I can see, smell and see the sea before me. Behind me are beech trees whose leaves have changed colour to orange and red. The beach is rocky and covered in kelp and rock pools. On occasions I slip into the water and sink below the surface. As a scuba diver, this is a familiar sensation and so the strange world, so full of life, comes into focus. On the beach or below the waves, I can contemplate and feel the profound depth of emotions and feelings and wonder at water as the source of life. It is also a good place to contemplate getting old.

Lastly, I turn to the north and open the black veil. Beyond is the frozen darkness of a winter’s night. There is no moon, but ahead is Polaris the pole star shining faintly in the sky. I touch the ground, which is cold and hard, and the air is chilly and still. I know that below the ground is the seed of next year’s crop, waiting for the ground to thaw so that it can germinate. Up ahead is an old churchyard behind a stonewall. Climbing over a wall passing by the evergreen yew tree a gravestone catches my eye. It is covered in lichens and a rose bush wraps around it. Upon that gravestone is my name. It is in this place that I contemplate the physical aspects of my body and my own mortality. After the last veil is closed, I imagine myself standing before the altar, left with the feeling of a profound sense of balance.

Alternative meditations can be done using the memory and the imagination to take oneself through a journey of your own life ascribing childhood, adulthood, old age and death to each of the directions in turn. It is interesting what you can learn about yourself when carrying out this kind of reflection.

These meditations are just suggestions and to my mind, it is much better to come up with your own visualisation loaded with your own meaning than borrowing from other people. After all it is your own semantic landscape on which you are working. For me, with a lifelong interest in nature and a spirituality expressed through it (one of the things that drew me to the Craft) visualisations and contemplations based in images of nature work best for me. It also aids in forming a relationship with what the elements represent in the outer world, connecting our pattern to the greater pattern of Nature herself.

Once you have done the work, you have built up the semantic connections and you have earned the right (metaphorically) to use the myth to transform your reality. You can use the meditations to invoke the elements and characteristics in your mind, influencing your reality, as they will speak to your unconscious. The symbols, once the work is done will automatically invoke the state of mind. If you need to work with emotions you may draw on the element of water, for healing yourself, to invoke your will draw on fire, for invoking your intellect draw on air, for sensation and the body draw on earth. It may be subjective but from my experience it has worked well for me.

In ritual, when the four elements are invoked, instead of just saying pretty words and drawing funny pentagrams in the air, you will truly be able to part the veils and bring forth those aspects of yourself, intellect, will, emotion, body making up your spirit in ritual. The four elements are not out there on the edge of your circle, but rather they are round the circle of your spirit, existing should you have done the work, in your semantic landscape, the metaphorical place where the unreal influences the real through the medium of mind.

In ritual, we are invoking the spirits of the elements. By this I mean we are invoking their characters within our mind. This can be more effectively achieved if we know their characters, if we have done the work and built up on that relationship, allowing those characters to work through us. This is where the Craft works, this work is the foundations of magic, and without the myth and the discipline and semantic connections all you are left with is pretty words and dodgy gestures.

The five elements, earth, air, fire, water and spirit are often at best overlooked or at worst treated as literal in books on the Craft. This is a shame as they make a powerful mythology that informs part of modern Witch rituals; they are a gift from ceremonial magic. Without the discipline and the exploration and building up of our semantic landscapes in regard to elements they are of little use. But if you put in the work, as in anything in magic, the time and effort you have spent will pay off, as they become powerful tools for changing your reality.


Rhys Chisnall

Location: Stowmarket, England


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Bio: Rhys is a member of a long established coven in the rural north of Suffok. He also runs an out of coven pre-initiatory training group for those people interested in initiatory Wichcraft. He is currently doing a degree in philosophy and psychology and works as a lecturer with students with special educational needs. He lives in mid Suffolk with his partner Martika and Tabbatha the cat.

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