Gather round kids; it’s time for moon school!
When we talk about the Elements, what do you think we mean? An element (lower case e) normally means the smallest part of an idea or thing. With modern science, we know that the periodic table of elements contains the building blocks of the universe, and while most Witches and Neo-Pagans tend to believe wholeheartedly in science, we’re not really referring to the periodic table when we speak of the Elements (capital E).
In Wicca and many other Neo-Pagan traditions, we tend to view the world and magick through the 4-Elemental system. It’s more symbolic and simple to use just 4 Elements. “They provide us with a system of interrelations, and magic is all about interrelations.“ (Deborah Lipp, The Way of Four) In other words, how things work with and relate to each other. Like most things with magick and the Craft, we need to go back to the beginning of civilization and science to understand. We need to go back to the time of Alchemy.
I know you’ve heard the word “alchemy” before, what do you think it means? Alchemy combines philosophy (how we think/feel about the universe/ourselves) and science. It was practiced all over the ancient world, including ancient Egypt, Europe, and Asia. The alchemists worked on many things, like the elixir of life, trying to turn base metals like lead into “noble” metals like gold (a process called transmutation), as well as ways to cure people of illnesses. They also worked on perfecting the human body and soul – they called this “The Great Work”. As you get older and read more books on Witchcraft, you’ll see that many Witches, Magicians, Druids, and Wizards consider the practice of magic the best way to achieve “The Great Work” – transforming themselves into what they see as their perfect self – or trying to be the best person they can be. Understanding the Elements and how they work together within us and the world around us is an excellent way to achieve this.
In the beginning, our ancestors could see with their eyes what they called the three worlds – Land, Sea, and Sky. All three worlds were full of life. On Land, there are many animals, plants, and insects. The Sea is teeming with fish and plants, and the Sky is full of birds and flying insects. Fire, while not a world itself (nothing can live in Fire) was considered the great transformer. So, the ancients saw our planet as consisting of 3 worlds plus one.
The 4 Elements with which we work are called Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. They are abstracts (meaning an idea or essence of something) and don’t exist in our world in their pure forms. For example, the Sea isn’t just water, it contains Air and Earth, too, along with animals and plants. Even a drop of seawater is full of little creatures that we can only see with a microscope. Fire needs to be burning something (like Earth and Air) to exist in our world. Soil contains water as does the air we breathe. “Boundaries are slippery in the real world, less so in the world of the Elements.” (my interview with Phaedra Bonewits) So, when we use things to represent the Elements, like a feather for Air, a bowl of water for Water, Salt for Earth, and a burning candle for Fire, we’re using these items to represent the idea of the element on our altars.
We also use different colors and directions to represent the elements. Not all traditions agree on the colors and directions. For example, many use white or sky blue to represent Air as these are the colors of the sky and clouds. For some, yellow is fire, along with red and orange. Some use green for water (some oceans and seas do look more green than blue), and some use black for Earth. In our tradition, we use yellow for Air, red for Fire, blue for Water, and brown for Earth.
In our tradition, Air is East because the sun rises in the East, so Air is also in charge of mornings. Fire is South and is strongest at noon, the hottest part of the day. Water is West and oversees sunset, while Earth is North and is strongest at midnight.
Now, I’ve been talking about the 4 Elements, and you’re probably wondering why I’m not saying 5 Elements. The 5th one, as many of you already know, is Spirit. Many Witches consider Spirit to be a separate Element and might use the color white to represent it. Around 500 BCE in Greece (about 2,500 years ago), there was a man called Empedocles. He wrote a book called “Tetrasomia, or Doctrine of the 4 Elements.” He was the one that said we were composed of all 4 of the Elements. I and many other magickal workers including Aristotle agree with Empedocles, Spirit (also called aether or ether) is the combination of the other 4 Elements. We are Spirit; we are a combination of all the Elements.
At this point you might be thinking I’m nuts, there’s no fire inside you. Oh, but there is! You see, the Elements also represent parts of ourselves. Fire is the will and courage inside of you. Water is your emotions. Air is your knowledge. Earth is your patience and stubbornness.
As I wrote before, the Elements are abstract; they are ideas. You can’t really communicate with an idea but, you can communicate with the Elementals and the Guardians. The Elementals are the embodiment of the Element. In other words, they are simple beings made up of single Element. The Elementals were identified and described in the 16th century (about 500 years ago) by a doctor and alchemist called Paracelsus. He called the Air elemental beings sylphs, Water was called undines, Fire was called salamanders, and the Earth Elemental beings he called gnomes. (Lipp, 2004)
The Elementals are made up of only their Element and behave that way. For example, the sylphs represent Air, which is about knowledge (“To Know” in the Witch’s Pyramid). They are highly intelligent but, have no emotions. Emotions are saved for the undines of Water, which are pure emotion (“To Dare” in the Witch’s Pyramid) so, you can’t reason with them. The salamanders are like Fire – changeable, unpredictable, no caution nor concern (“To Will”). The gnomes are of Earth (“To Be Silent”), so they are extremely patient and stubborn. They barely move. While the Elementals are simple beings, they aren’t lesser beings.
The Guardians of the Elemental Watchtowers are the ones with whom you can really communicate. They are more complex than the Elementals. They pretty much only exist in our plane when we call them to protect our rituals. Not all Witches call on the Guardians. Some just work with the Elementals or even just the Elements. 500 years ago, around the time of Shakespeare, a famous court magician, John Dee, and a medium [someone who speaks with ghosts, spirits, angels, etc. and it able to let them speak through him/her], Edward Kelley, developed an elemental system called Enochian, named after a language which they said was taught to them by angels. The angels, through Kelley and Dee, taught us about the Elements, the Elementals, the Watchtowers, and the Guardians. They used special names for the Guardians that Paracelsus had taught – Paralda is the Guardian of Air, Seraph is Fire, Niksa is Water, and Ghob is Earth. His friend, Sir John Dee, could understand Enochian and translated the lessons. Dee is credited with organizing the ideas in a way that we could understand. Other magickal practitioners see the Guardians as the 4 Archangels but, as our tradition is not based in Judeo-Christianity, we just call them the Guardians of the Watchtowers. Many Neo-Pagans consider the Guardians to be the Elementals – whichever Elemental being happens to step forward. I wish I could tell you what I believe but, I honestly don’t know. I can tell you that I experience the Guardians as different than the Elementals and the Elementals as different than the Elements.
Here’s a helpful chart I found on an excellent blog on Elements called “Elementals and Elemental Kings?” by Melissa Zupan.
Now, after this long lesson, you might be wondering how working with the Elements can help you be the person you want to be. What does all this mean and how can you use it, right? Remember, I told you that we are made up of the Elements, they are part of us. Let’s say you wanted more patience, maybe you get mad too easily and are always getting in trouble for it. Which Element do you think you would strengthen inside of you for patience? Earth! You might also want to ask Water to calm you down (go with the flow) and Air to give you inspiration and ideas on how to better handle situations. Fire could give you the courage to put it all into practice.
What other situations can you think of that you could use the Elements’ help?
We also read “What are the Elements” by Rowan Moss and TS Lamb
We used the book “The Earth Child’s Handbook, Book 1” by Brigid Ashwood and did the crafts in Chapter 2: Mother Earth and the Elements.