It’s Elemental, My Dear
by Barbara Stoner
Years ago, when I first began exploring Wicca, a serious question arose. Who was to be my goddess/god? To whom did I relate? To whom did I address my petitions? Upon whose energy did I call? I am at heart a practical, secular soul, drawn nevertheless to the beauty that speaks to me from Wicca. I loved the images of other Wiccans, each comfortably calling on her own chosen goddess. I did so want to join them.
However, the goddesses who were most familiar to me from the Greek/Roman pantheon, such as Athena/Minerva, Hera/Juno, Artemis/Diana, Aphrodite/Venus and even Demeter/Ceres and Persephone, seemed a trifle distant. They were imagined in lands in which I had never lived. I didn’t know the contours of their landscapes. I didn’t know how their sun felt at noon, or what constellations they see from that latitude. Astarte and Isis I respected because of their great antiquity, but I had trouble seeing them in my world. I am half Norwegian, but I did not feel any particular affinity for the Norse pantheon. I related very well to Celtic myth, the myth of Britain, and I wanted to be able to use those images, but even though my other half is English, nothing really spoke to me from that corner either. I tried Cerridwen, Dana and even Bridget, but I’m not Irish, and I thought I had no business adopting Irish deities if I couldn’t speak the language. The same held true for Native American imagery.
So here I was, a witch without a witchdom. No deities to call my own. And it was clear to me that something was needed here. There had to be a focal point, someplace to address my petitions, to hear my blessings, to put up with my imprecations. I didn’t want a new god, and I couldn’t find a goddess who would put up with me. Where to go?
Reading on, gathering information wherever I could, I ran across another set of beings upon whom one could call. The “circles” called by witches in many traditions often begin with calling these entities to be with them. They are the elementals: earth, air, fire and water. I was drawn, first of all, to the drama of the calling. One of the first I read began, “I call upon the watchtowers of the east and the spirits of air.” Very cool. I liked the language. Most of all, however, the elementals seemed to be solid things, much more real to me than the psychological projections of humanity that the gods and goddesses represented. I could walk on the earth. I could breathe the air. I could warm myself by fire. I could drink the water. I needed all of them to survive. So calling on them, blessing them, beseeching them for their favor and thanking them for their generosity is very easy for my practical soul. Yes, I was completely in my element with the elementals. And so earth, air, fire and water became my familiars. They are my genius loci, my lares and penates. They guard my hearth.
These are the “elements” that for centuries were assumed to be the building blocks of which the earth and all on it were composed. It was an assumption that supposedly was shattered by the scientific discovery of the micro-world. So why do earth, air, fire and water still speak so strongly to me, indeed to many of us? Why do we not call on oxygen, hydrogen, combustion and, say, molybdenum? Neptunium? Ah! Californium! In embracing earth, air, fire and water, are we becoming like the members of the Flat Earth Society? Rejecting the realities of science and all that follows from that?
Not really. As a matter of fact, I believe that the elementals are just as important today as they ever were, if not more so. As I thought about them, I realized that no matter how you break these simple elements down into their component parts of hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen– indeed the entire periodic table of elements of which all earth is composed — it is still these four that sustain life. Their constituent parts cannot do it until they are combined into those magical properties: earth, air, fire and water. And it is indeed these very elements that are presently becoming contaminated, even endangered.
Each of the elementals has a long history of correspondences and qualities associated with it: directions, seasons, times, signs of the zodiac, suits of the tarot, goddesses and gods, even such particulars as senses, jewels, incense, plants and animals. I can’t think of a single book I have picked up delineating the basics of Wicca that does not have a list of these correspondences. I like to think of these as our own version of the Periodic Table. Each elemental has its own number of electrons, protons, neutrons and valences. We call them by other names, but their history of use throughout many years in many different traditions have made them part and parcel of each element. If it is true, as I believe it to be, that we each take part in creating the world, then all of those who continue to use these associations add to their reality and, therefore, to their efficacy, each time we do so.
Let us consider air: Air is associated with the east, perhaps because of the newness, the freshness, that seems to come with each new dawn, with each fresh breath of air. It has in its charge the mind, intuition, intellect and knowledge, both factual and theoretical. It is movement. It sweeps the hills and the mountaintops, plains and beaches. It moves ships and windmills. It moves around us, and yet we can move right through it. It is what we breathe, it is breath itself, which means it is analogous to life itself.
Air’s time of day is dawn, or early morning, when the sun is rising and the mind is awakening for the day. Air’s season is spring, when the earth is awakening, when we open our windows to the fresh air that carries the promise of the warmth of the day, of the year to come. Its sense is smell, which it carries to us. It is the suit of swords, cutting through to the heart of the matter. The colors of air are the pastels, lavenders, the pale greens of new grass swaying in the wind, the pinks of spring blossoms drifting on the breeze. The element of air rules the signs of Gemini, Libra and Aquarius: expression, balance, freedom. Air, along with fire, is associated with masculine energies, and the ritual tool of air is the sword, or the athame’.
You call on the element of air when it’s time for mental work: balance your checkbook, schedule your day, write your novel. The air elemental can be called to cram your exams with you, work on your resume’, find the right things to say to a friend in need, get the best deal on a vacation in Italy. Air holds kites, clouds, rain, wind, balloons, planes and those most magical of creatures, birds. Air creates sound. Wind instruments, flutes and such, are instruments of air. Feathers and leaves float in the air. Whenever you have felt the wind blow your hair back, chased scattered papers in an errant breeze, rolled the window in your car down to get a breath of fresh air, sat in meditation, breathing deeply and evenly, you have experienced the power of the element of air.
When we speak of things highly academic, conversations or ideas that we believe must come out of the halls of great learning, we speak of the “rarefied air,” when we daydream, we build “castles in the air,” when we are elated, we “walk on air,” when we wish to impress, we “put on airs,” people on the radio are “on the air,” when we leave a thought unfinished, we leave it “up in the air.” From whence, presumably, it can come again and whisper sweet inspiration into our ears. And what is inspiration, but breathing in? And breathing out at last, we expire.
Face east in the morning, take in a deep breath of air, and ask to face your day with a clear mind and an open heart.
Fire is associated with the south, no doubt because in the Northern Hemisphere, the south side is the sunny side. Although the sun may rise in the east and sink in the west, it is from the south that it brings its warmth, and to the south that it withdraws, season by season. Fire is energized matter, and so under its name in our Periodic Table we can write energy, heat, flame, blood, and sap. Fire makes life possible. Because the sun is fire, and without the sun, what are we? There may be a million other conditions that need to be met before life can emerge, but first and foremost among them are heat and light. Without them, we are a frozen rock in space, with no further possibilities. Fire can heal, destroy and purify. Fire transforms food and metals. It creates warmth from wood, coal and oil, transforming them into heat, ashes and smoke. We see fire in bonfires, hearth fires and candles. Forest fires, deserts and volcanoes are the earthly homes for fire. Sight is its sense, for it provides the light by which we see. Fire’s time of day is noon, when the sun stands at its greatest power for the day. Fire’s season is summer, filled with heat, fired by passions, bursting with fecundity. It is the suit of wands, transforming all it touches. It has the strength of the lion, tawny yellow in the Serengeti sun, the passion of the volcano, simmering deep and red within the earth, the grinning orange of a Halloween pumpkin, shining a welcoming light into the sacred night. The element of fire rules Aries, Leo and Sagittarius: aggression, leadership, adventure. Fire, as well as air, is associated with masculine energies, and the ritual tool of fire is the wand.
We call on fire for energy, creativity and passion. When we need a pick-me-up in the middle of the day, hot coffee can be a fire ritual. When our love life is dull, when we need to bake cookies, when our feet are cold, we call on fire. Fire is anger. When we march for peace in the streets, perhaps we should use the healing power of water, but very often the energy that gets us there is fire. Fire is fireworks, bullets, bombs. Fire must be controlled, or it will consume us — and burn the cookies to boot.
We speak of fiery passions. We jump from the frying pan into the fire. When we are under attack, we are “under fire.” Fervent or zealous, we are “on fire.” To get the troops ready for battle, we “fire them up,” and when we send someone to perdition, we wish them a storm of “fire and brimstone.” Rock beside your fireplace on a blustery night, join friends around a campfire, light a candle for meditation. Look for transformation in the flames.
Water is associated with the west, no doubt because so much water lay to the west of Europe, where many of these associations had their beginning. Its Periodic Table column includes emotions, feelings, love, courage, daring and sorrow, as well as the ocean, tides, lakes, pools, streams and rivers, springs and wells. Water fills the womb, and is associated with the feminine powers of intuition, generation and fertility. The element of water is liquid, able to take any shape, yet always finding its own level. Water brings taste to our tongues, as air brings smell to our nostrils. Water is in our tears, falling in joy or pain. It is the dew that falls gently in the mornings and late in the evenings. It is the rain, which waters earth to make our food. Water’s time of day is dusk, when the day begins to cool and quiet. Water’s season is autumn, bringing in the harvest for the long, cold months ahead. It is the suit of cups, running over with abundance. Water has its own colors — blue, green, grey, sparkling silver. Water rules over Cancer, Scorpio and Pisces: nurturing, magical, intuitive. Water is associated with feminine energy, and its magical tool is the cup.
Is there illness? Hardship? Do you need comfort? Use the power of water. Do you need to search your soul? Does your spirit need healing? Water is a soothing cup of chicken soup. A glass of frosty iced tea on a warm summer day. A hot shower. A bubble bath. The first thing we must learn to do in the kitchen is to boil water. Water is a bay in Jamaica. A frozen Minnesota lake. Rain on the garden. Snow on the mountaintops. Seventy percent of our bodies is water. We are walking water. The depth of the ocean is a metaphor for the depth of our own psyches, and on a flood of gushing waters, we are born. Water is essential to our health and well-being. It is essential to life. Its soothing caress is a loving, healing touch.
Being safe is “keeping one’s head above water.” Something of high value is of “the first water.” Something of no value will never hold water. Desire can make our mouths water. Simon and Garfunkel offer the wounded psyche a bridge over troubled waters. When we go to heal, we take the waters. Wade in a shallow pool, lay back in a hot tub or just trail your fingers in a bowl of water. Close your eyes, and let the waters of life soothe your soul.
Earth, associated with the north, perhaps because of the cold north winds that drove our ancestors to ground, lists the Periodic Table qualities of body, growth, nature, birth and death. It is the silence of the snow, the magnificence of mountains, the dark womb of caves, the grandeur of the grove. Earth can be liquid as lava, solid as rock. It is fertile fields, sparkling crystal deep-toned jewels, hard-edged metals. Earth is in our bones, and is itself the bones of our Mother. We are born from an earthly womb, and it is to earth that we eventually return. It is the structure of our lives. Touch is the sense of earth, warm and cold, fuzzy and smooth, sand and stone and grass. Earth’s time of day is midnight, when the fire of the sun is spent, the dews of evening have fallen, and the air is dark and close around us. Earth’s season is winter, for in spite of the bounteous growth of summer and the harvest of fall, it is winter when the earth is laid bare, waiting for air, fire and water to once again begin to fill it with new life. It is the suit of pentacles, based in solid materiality. Earth is brown and black and green. Earth rules Taurus, Virgo, and Capricorn: steadfastness, devotion and ambition. Earth is a feminine elemental, and its magical tool is the pentacle.
Whattsa matter? Can’t pay the bills? Lost your job due to Bush’s recovery plan? Spent the tax return already? Turn to the earth. Afraid of the dark? Afraid of the neighbors? Try a protection spell, using the power of earth. Tending a houseplant? A garden? A yard full of blooms? Seek help from the earth, in which these things are rooted. Looking for a home to call your own, for protection from air, fire and water? Look to the element of earth. If water is a cup of chicken soup, earth is a grilled cheese sandwich. Solid, good, tasty, dependable. At Grateful Dead shows, I always got a dollar ready when the show was over to pick up a grilled cheese sandwich in the lot. It was cheap, hot and fast, you could hold it in one hand, and nothing squished out and ran down your arm when you bit into it. It was earth food, a good grounding after an adventurous flight. Earth is money in the bank, a forgotten five-dollar bill in last year’s jacket pocket. Earth is fresh spinach for your salad, pansies in the planters, that deer in the headlights, the cat on your bed. Earth is your lover, bringing home the bacon — or the tofu, as the case may be. Earth is Martha Stewart (bright blessings to her). Earth is a good thing.
The foods we eat are the “fruits of the earth.” When we are dressed in old clothes, dusty from our work, lusty for love or using salty language, we are called “earthy.” Important events are “earthshaking.” Lovers make the earth move. Treasures hidden in the bowels of the earth remind us that our planet is a body. And reminding us that our body itself is earth, we intone at the graveside, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes…” as we prepare to rejoin the mother of all. Sit on a warm rock in the sun, take off your shoes and push your toes into the dust, feel your own roots. Many Wiccan circles begin with this phrase: “Ground and center.” Grounding is doing just that. Feeling those roots go deep into the earth. Feeling our center solid and sure within ourselves. Gathering our spirit home.
A few years ago, wanting to insert a bit of daily ritual into my life, I composed four stanzas, one for each element, each direction, each significant time of day. I generally stand somewhere outside, facing the relevant direction at approximately the relevant time, raise my arms to the sky, and say the words aloud. Sometimes, I merely pause in my daily rounds, stop and breathe deeply, and let my heart speak the words. I encourage you to do something similar with your own poetry, your own small daily ritual. I hope you find room in your life to remember earth, air, fire and water. They are elemental.