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Calling The Directions

Author: Janice Van Cleve
Posted: October 28th. 2012
Times Viewed: 9,235

Neo Pagans are generally a widely diverse, creative, and flexible lot who really don’t follow many rules and definitely don’t like to be told what to do. However, there are some practices that have come into common usage for our rituals. Casting a circle is one. Calling the directions is another.

What do we really mean by “calling” the directions? And just what are these directions, anyway? In The Spiral Dance, the seminal book that popularized the Neo Pagan movement in the United States, Starhawk writes the classic call of the four directions in words that in one form or another have become standards in Pagan rituals:

Hail, Guardians of the Watchtowers of the East,
Powers of Air!
We invoke you and call you,
Golden Eagle of the Dawn,
Rising Sun,
By the air that is Her breath,
Send forth your light,
Be here now!

Hail, Guardians of the Watchtowers of the South,
Powers of Fire!
We invoke you and call you,
Red Lion of the noon heat,
Flaming One!
Summer’s warmth,
Spark of life,
By the fire that is Her spirit,
Send forth your flame,
Be here now!

Hail, Guardians of the Watchtowers of the West,
Powers of Water!
We invoke you and call you,
Serpent of the watery abyss,
Gray-robed Twilight,
Evening Star!
By the waters of Her living womb,
Send forth your flow,
Be here now!

Hail, Guardians of the Watchtowers of the North,
Powers of Earth!
We invoke you and call you,
Cornerstone of all Power,
Lady of the Outer Darkness,
Black Bull of Midnight,
North Star,
Center of the whirling sky,
Fertile Field,
By the earth that is Her body,
Send forth your strength,
Be here now!

This example from Spiral Dance contains all the basic elements of the standard calling: hailing, listing attributes, and command. Starhawk says these Guardians are “energy forms” which bring their elemental powers to the circle to augment the powers of the humans in the ritual. Some Pagan circles call five directions, adding Spirit or Center, to the classic four. Others call Above and Below, making six directions, while still others call all seven. While each circle follows its own traditions, most incorporate the concept that the directions are something “out there” that they need to bring “in here” to protect or enhance their magical work.

“Calling” the directions may seem a bit presumptuous. After all, who are we to conjure up elemental spirits? This notion of command is best summed up by Ken Biles, author of Invoking the Egyptian Gods. On his website he states, “You are commanding the presence of the entity you contact. It is imperative that you understand that you must maintain control over each of the Elementals you invoke. Elementals are not evil, or malevolent, they simply follow their nature. . . An uncontrolled Elemental will take advantage of situations it finds.” Biles also warns practitioners to banish Elementals when they are done with them: “I have seen far too many witches say ‘Go if you must, stay if you will. . .’ All they are doing is giving the Elementals permission to do whatever the Elementals wish to do.”

While Ruth Barrett, author of Women’s Rites, Women’s Mysteries agrees that ‘Go if you must, stay if you will’ is a formula that makes no sense, she totally disagrees with the command and control notion of calling the directions. “Although there are magickal and ritual traditions that order the gods and spirits around, I consider it offensive, disrespectful, and arrogant even to consider approaching deity in this manner.” (p. 185) . She sees it as a patriarchal attempt at domination over Nature used by ceremonial magicians. Indeed, that was exactly the intention of the medieval alchemists and occultists.

When Starhawk calls the directions, she is adding to ordinary compass points aspects of the four classical elements and roles of guardianship. This connection is purely arbitrary. It follows the western or Celtic association of air with east, fire with south, water with west, and earth with north. These four “roots” were first identified by Empedocles (~450 BCE) as the four basic building blocks of all things. Plato later called them “elements” and Aristotle added aether as the fifth because he thought the stars were beyond the earthly four. Nevertheless it was the classic four that guided thought in these matters right through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

We don’t know who exactly first linked elements to directions, but Doreen Valiente in An ABC Of Witchcraft says this comes from the British Celtic experience relating to the four winds. The south wind in Britain is warm and dry while the west wind is warm and wet. The east wind is cold and dry while the north wind is freezing and wet. From an English point of view, the Scottish highlands do represent earth and the Atlantic is water. The south is warmed by the fiery sun, which leaves east for air. This may or may not be the origin of this linkage in Western Neo Pagan practice.

Of course, this does not work in other parts of the world. In ancient Egypt, for example, east was associated with life, rebirth, and the rise of the sun to begin a new day while west was associated with death, twilight, and the end of the day. This is why they built cities in which to live on the east bank of the Nile and tombs and pyramids for the dead on the west bank. The Egyptians did not really identify with north and south as cardinal directions. Quite logically in their context, they referred to north as Lower Egypt and south as Upper Egypt, corresponding to the Nile.

Colors have often also been ascribed to the four directions. Valiente says that the old Gaelic tradition associated the crimson of dawn with the east, the white light of high noon with the south, the brownish gray of twilight with the west, and the black of midnight to the north. Most modern Neo Pagan traditions associate yellow with east, red with south, blue with west, and green with north.

Other cultures see the directional colors differently. The Chinese assign green to the east, the element of wood, and the season of spring. South is red, elemental fire, and carries the season of summer. West is white, metal, and the season of autumn. North is black, water, and winter. To the center, the Chinese assign the final element of earth, yellow color, and the change of seasons every third month. There are heavenly creatures like dragons, a tiger, a tortoise, and a bird in the same colors for each direction.

In Hindu tradition, the guardians of the four directions are called the Lokapalas and they have accumulated a bewildering array of aspects and rulerships. Fierce Indra is the god of war (among many other things) in the east bearing a thunderbolt. Dark Yama is the god of death in the south and carries a staff. Varuna is the god of sky and water in the west and he carries a noose. Fat Kubera in the north is the god of wealth and has a mace. No single color seems to attach to any of the Hindu directional guardians although most come well adorned with gold.

The Maya present a wholly different picture. They hold that the four pauahtuns or elemental spirits lifted the sky up off of the earth and still stand today holding up the four corners of the heavens. For them, there is technically no spirit or element in each of the cardinal directions – the whole quadrant between the corners is the direction. East is red for the rising sun. South is yellow the high noon or for maize. West is black for death. North is white for the clouds which bring hurricanes in from the Caribbean.

Over time, other attributes have become assigned to the four directions and their elements in an ever-growing plethora of correspondences. It was the Golden Dawn that started codifying some of these correspondences in the 19th Century for Pagans in Europe. The east was associated with new beginnings, youth, the waxing moon, the season of spring, and sunrise as well as the element of air. Similar associations were made for the other directions. By the time Starhawk published Spiral Dance, the directions had picked up all sorts of correspondences. She lists gods and goddesses, trees and birds, plants, jewels, incense, angels, winds, spirits, tools, zodiac signs, seasons and times of the day. Association was also made for abilities: east was associated with mental activity, south was associated with energy and will, west was associated with emotions, and north with the physical body.

Wait a minute! Who says air can’t be emotional or north can’t have energy? Who says that topaz belongs to east and garlic belongs to south? Just what is all this in aid of and is there any reason to take any of it seriously?

Not really. One woman related a story to me about a circle she was in. The priestess had them trance further and further out from the room to the city, to the continent, to the world, and out into space. Then she bade them to call the directions. And there is the problem – just which way is west of Pluto? In actual fact, even on the surface of planet Earth there is no such place as west. Every point on the globe is west of somewhere. Even the north and south poles have wobbled over geological history. There really is no presence or being or spirit that is West, or South, or North, or East. The directions do not exist. There is nothing “out there” to call “in here”.

Since there are no such things as directional entities, it follows that there is nothing “out there” to which to ascribe all these correspondences either. All of this is entirely a human invention. Humans made up the whole thing. The directions and everything associated with them is a fabrication, nothing more. However this is not to say that these inventions are useless. In one example, Blacksun, a respected priest from Aquarian Tabernacle Church, instructed the direction callers to embody the elemental attributes of their respective directions and lend those attributes to the work in the center by their attention, attitudes, body language, and focus. Even though they had no other assignment, their elemental energies contributed strongly to the whole ritual.

It was on a trip to Guatemala that I learned another way to understand the directions and their uses. We visited some of the rural communities in Guatemala and were invited to participate in a series of modern Maya rituals. I published the story of these rituals in an earlier Witchvox article. The Maya shamans do hail the directions and they have assigned different attributes and deities to each. However, they do not command them. They do not even treat the directions as beings. Instead they lay out the four directions to ground and center themselves. They designate what is “out there” to identify where “here” is. In other words, when the shaman calls the directions, he or she is claiming his or her position in time and space. Calling the directions is like announcing our current GPS coordinates – it is not about them “out there”, it is about us right “here”.

If we apply this concept to our Neo Pagan rituals, we can conceive of our directions as cupboards or parking lots that we erect and place where we want them. Then we stuff them with whatever we want from within our own beings. The attributes we assign to the east, for example, do not come from the east – they come from within ourselves. There is no law or external order that determines what corresponds to what. We can put emotional power in the east if we want to, and mental power in the north, etc. The only correspondence is what we ourselves create and put out there. The most obvious example of this is the different colors each culture has assigned to the directions. There cannot be any external universal law if each culture sees different colors and different elements in different directions.

One illustration of this principle occurred during a ritual in which I was supposed to call north. I have a Gemini sun with Aquarian moon and rising. When I finished my call, the priestess remarked, “That was the airiest north I’ve ever heard!” Of course it was. It could not be otherwise. The north I called did not come from “out there”. Rather the north I called came from within me.

Calling the directions is really setting up the space in which we will work our magic. It is another action like casting the circle or consecrating the circle that creates the environment for our ritual work. We park our cupboards where we want them and we stuff them with things that will aid our magic. When we are finished, we take back the things we put into them and dismantle the cupboards until next time. There is no commanding or banishing. It is like setting the table for dinner and clearing it afterwards.

The real benefit of establishing correspondences is to create a group dynamic so everybody in the circle can be on the same page. It is the harmony between individuals that enhances the power of a ritual, not some command to something outside. If that harmony can also be coordinated with the features of the seasons and the forces of Nature, so much the better. There is lots of stuff “out there” and like Biles says it “follows its own nature.” Topaz and garlic, colors and elements, are what they are and do what they do (or not) , without any reference to us humans. When we call them, we are fabricating an imaginary, spiritual structure within which we hope to put our minds into harmony for group work.

In my solitary practice as well as in our Circle, I still call the directions and I find it useful to attribute to them certain characteristics. I find it comfortable to use the common Neo Pagan language. I don’t call:

Cupboard of the East
I park my ideas with you

Cupboard of the South
I park my will power with you

Cupboard of the West
I park my emotions with you

Cupboard of the North
I park my skills and training with you

. . . but I know that is essentially what I am doing.

Copyright: Janice Van Cleve. Copyright 2012.


Janice Van Cleve

Location: Seattle, Washington

Author's Profile: To learn more about Janice Van Cleve - Click HERE

Bio: Janice Van Cleve is a priestess with the Women Of The Goddess Circle in Seattle. Our website is She calls airy souths and wests, too. Copyright 2012.

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