It's Elemental, My Dear Wiccan: The Elements Turn 2600
Article ID: 13009
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Marty Couch
Posted: January 4th. 2009
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The Elements turn 2600.
As we head deeper in to the dark (and cold) half of the year, it seems each day I am feeling more my age. But even feeling on the older side myself, it can boggle the mind how old the stuff we are made of (or were thought to be made of) is. So, when we talk of the elements, it seems fair to ask how these ideas came about. And when. Well, fasten your seat belts as we hit the way back machine (Wow, I am old!)
Just as a note, the information in this article is specific to the elements typically used in current Wiccan practice, those of Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Spirit. This article does not cover the traditional Eastern elements such as the Chinese Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water or the Buddhist Void, Water, Earth, Fire and Air. It is important to note that all these concepts came about at primarily the same time and for the same reason, the learned thinkers of the time were trying to answer, “What exists?” For the purposes of our discussion, we will talk about the emergence and acceptance of the European beliefs in the elements.
So, how far back does this go? Well, let’s go all the way back to Greece, say around 600 B.C. The city of Miletus was a prominent center of trade. Because of this, the scholars of that city were likely to have been exposed to some of the philosophies of the East as well as their goods. So it started them thinking. What makes all this? What are we formed of? One of the first to answer this question was Thales of Miletus. He concluded that every thing in the Universe was created from and resolved itself back to Water. Well, there might have been a couple holes in his theory. First, if this took hold we would be saying “River to River, Lake to Lake” instead of “Ashes to Ashes…” But there was an even more critical error in his thinking, according to others of the time. He was not attributing anything that was created to any of the Gods. Hmmm…It should also be noted he never committed any of his theories to paper. Probably a good idea.
So, along comes Anaximander, also of Miletus. He reasons that everything comes from indefinite substance which he termed The Boundless (sounds a bit like Spirit, huh?) and that this substance when acted on produced the other four elements. When it was hot and dry, it was Fire, when cold and wet it was Water, when hot and wet it was Air and when cold and dry it was Earth. Ultimately he reasoned that everything was of this source as opposed to the idea of independent elements. Many, such as Plato and Aristotle had their input, but the one who declared that everything was made of a combination of the four main Elements was Empedocles. Plato was the first to use the term Elements in connection with these four primary building blocks. And the idea really took off. Hippocrates used the Elements to develop his concept of the human body and medicine. He did this by discovering and treating the four humors.
So, mystery solved. Everything in the entire Universe was made of these four Elements. Case closed. We could now go on and no longer question it. Actually, that really is what happened. Through the Roman Empire, the teachings of Christ (when he was just a Rabbi) , the rise of Christianity, The Renaissance, The Hundred Year War, The Black Plague, Wars of the Roses, The Spanish Inquisition, Christopher Columbus, all the way up until 1669. That was the year that a merchant in Germany by the name of Hennig Brand was trying to make a Philosopher’s Stone. The idea was that this stone would turn metal in to gold. Well, accidentally discovered Phosphorus, the first recorded element of the current periodic table.
Now, let’s think about this. For over 2200 years, it was accepted fact that everything was made of some combination of the four elements. This was not a passing fancy. This is what the most advanced scholars of the time were learning and accepting as complete fact. The Alchemists of Europe relied on these principles. The Roman Catholic Church supported some of these concepts. As Wicca and Witchcraft grew in Europe, these concepts were utilized in ritual practice.
This is not small. Our very lexicon is based on this (he is an air head, she has a fiery temper, he is flooded with emotion, etc.) So, why is this so important to us today? Well, have you ever felt a ritual was lacking something? Maybe unbalanced? In need of more power, more energy? When we realize in our ritual that we are not just invoking the Elements because that is what we learned, but rather that we are invoking a philosophy, a belief, a truth over 2200 years old, we are gaining a power to our ritual that is beyond measure.
The reality is, we practice an ancient Religion in a modern time. What was thought of as fact only 340 years ago is thought of as “out there” thinking. But think about it. 340 years ago means our great grandparents parents may have lived when the four Elements were the accepted reality. Many people reading this may have met their great grandparents. This is only 1 generation removed from our current reality. To truly use these ideas and energies in our ritual today is not as big a “leap of faith” as some might believe.
Next time you invoke the Elements for your ritual, take a moment. See these great thinkers and experience the reality of the Elements as it hit them. Feel the connection with these Elements in what you are doing at that very moment. Don’t think of them as abstract concepts, but as real sources of power and energy that have outlasted the ages. Then see if there is a difference in the work you are doing.
In future articles we will be looking at the Elements individually as well as seeing how they still hold power today. Until next time…
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