Chances are, by this point in your reading, you’ve come across people referring to the elements in terms of Pagan practice. These aren’t the same as the elements you learned in chemistry class, as fascinating as those are.
Instead, they refer to what are sometimes called the Platonic elements: air, fire, water, and earth, the elements considered for many centuries to be the building blocks of all life. We know the science’s different now, but these four forces still have a great deal of resonance for magical and ritual practice.
These elements all have a huge impact on our lives: without air we can’t breathe (or communicate, or many other things). Without the fire of the sun and the molten core of the earth, we wouldn’t be here – and without the fires that let us cook and have light in the dark, we’d have a very different world. Water, of course, not only makes up over 60% of our bodies, and covers more than 70% of the planet. And of course, the earth and her cycles give us food and trees (good for oxygen) and much much more.
Why are they important in religious practice?
Different religious witchcraft practices – and different Pagan religions – go at this in different ways. (For example, Druidic and Celtic reconstructionist groups often work with Land, Sea, and Sky, which are the ways the Celts saw how the world worked.)
They give us something to build and create with:
When we cast a circle, one of the theories is that we’re creating a space between worlds, and between times: a place where anything might happen, and anything new might be born. But in order to make that happen, we need something to build with. In many traditions, the elements are those basic building supplies.
They give us a way to link similar things:
The universe is a very big place, and while our brains are very clever at making connections and patterns, it can still get overwhelming. One common use of the elements in ritual and religious practice is to create collections of things that have something in common.
In ritual and magic, particularly, we can then use those representations to help us get closer to the ideas we’re trying to reach in our ritual and magical work.
For example: I live in Minnesota. I don’t have an ocean handy. But if I’m looking at Water, I can look at all of the other things that fall in that category, and consider what options the Mississippi, a lake, a stream, my bathtub, or a glass of water might bring for my ritual work. They’re all Water – just in different amounts and settings. In the same way, a candle can be a representation of the Sun – something we’re never going to get near, or of a hearth for a community to gather around, even if we’re in a room that doesn’t actually have a fireplace.
But at the same time, a river is not an ocean, a glass of water is not lake, and a candle is not the sun: even when we’re using one thing to link to another, it’s good to keep in mind how they’re different, and adapt appropriately.
They give us a way to link ideas and concepts, too:
In the example above, I focused on physical similarity – but you can also link things to the elements based on ideas and concepts. Over the centuries, particular aspects of how we interact with the world around us have become associated with particular elements. (There is a lot of variation, and there are differences between cultures, and so on: the examples I’m talking about here are the most common ones used in Western-European influenced witchcraft.)
Air is commonly associated with learning (book learning, in particular), knowledge, communication, creativity, inspiration, having an idea, and many more.
Fire is commonly associated with hearth fires, transformation, passion (especially love), raw energy, will, purifying, rapid change, among others.
Water is commonly associated with wisdom, intuition, divination, community connections (family, friends), cleansing, slow change (erosion), daring to seek emotional change, and more.
And Earth is associated with the cycles of the seasons, rocks and plants and living things (including us!), with introspection and rest (think of a bear hibernating), but also with all the things we get from the earth – food and nourishment, prosperity, and much more.
Each element is also commonly associated with other things, too – more below, and you can learn more in the Correspondences article – this is just a taste.
They give us a model for dynamic balance:
Looking at these elements together, they also give us a guideline for our lives. A life lived entirely in Air is your classic absent-minded professor: they might be brillant, but they can get in real trouble if they neglect practical issues they need to handle. We all know one or two people who are amazingly passionate, but who burn through their connections and communities in a flash of fire, leaving change – but also some trauma – behind them. And so on.
In general, our lives tend to be better – richer, fuller, more flexible and able to adapt to change – when each element has some presence in our life. But at the same time, one or two might be more prominent at any given time. (And if you’re wondering how that works with people saying they’re strongly of one element, we’ll get there.)
Creating a map of the world:
One theory of circle casting is that we’re creating an entirely new bubble of creation between the worlds and times that we normally live in. Like all people in a new place, we need to orient ourselves to what we’re doing.
Many traditions invite guardians of the elements (often called guardians of the quarters) to anchor, guard, and protect the four directions. Traditions also often associate a particular element with a time of year and a time of day. Different traditions use different associations – more on that in a moment – but the most common associations in the Northern hemisphere are:
- Air : East : Spring equinox : dawn
- Fire : South : Summer solstice : noon
- Water : West : Fall equinox : twilight
- Earth : North : Winter solstice : midnight
These associations create much larger connections between parts of a tradition’s or path’s practices: for example, a tradition that follows these might choose to cast circle beginning in the east, because that’s where everything begins.
However, they’re not the only options out there. Various people I’ve talked to on the East Coast of the United States put water in the east, for the good reason that there’s this large ocean there. Mike Nichols makes a thorough argument for placing air in the north and earth in the east. And of course, people working in the Southern Hemisphere need to make some adjustments: the warm part of the world is north for them, not south.
That said, because the connections tie into many parts of a given tradition, changing them isn’t trivial: each change affects several other things. If you’re designing your own personal practice, you’ll want to look at the different sources you’re using, and decide which things fit together. You may need to discard some that contradict each other.
Having one dominant element:
You’ll often see people out there who say “Oh, I’m a Water” or “Oh, I’m Fire.” Sometimes they base this on their personality, sometimes on their astrological chart (since each sign is associated with one of the four elements.)
Personally, my path and tradition encourage us to integrate and learn to work with (and use) all four of the elements. I’ve also found a number of people who are particularly drawn to elements they need more of in their life – not the ones you’d have thought would come naturally for them.
I’m certainly one of them: I grew up in a household with very stereotypically British parents (well, one born there, one raised there), and on top of that, my father was a professor. (And the entire rest of my family are either in fields relating to the academic world or the arts). Very much an Air environment.
And yes, I do find working with Air quite easy. However, I have a constant and persistent pull towards Water: the element that encourages me to be more open to emotions, to share them, to trust intuition and instinct, not just book knowledge, and much more. It’s a running joke with my friends now, because the color I’m so strongly associated with in their minds is blue.
It also explains why one of my greatest joys is being in the bathtub with a good book – it combines both of those elements quite nicely! Throw in a bit of Fire (for passion and desire), and Earth (for the practical needs in my life), and I work towards balance.
Many books include at least a section on the elements. However, if you’re interested in learning more, Deborah Lipp’s Way of Four: Create Elemental Balance in Your Life is a great collection of ways to look at and connect with each element. (She’s also got a spellbook that goes with it.)
For a wonderful example of how to use each element to help us focus on different aspects of the same act or practice, her Elements of Ritual uses each element to look at each piece of creating ritual (so looking at the words and intention is Air, Fire is about bringing the passion and focus, and so on.)
[last edited January 8, 2011]