It’s Elemental, My Dear Watson
Author: BellaDonna Saberhagen
In most modern neo-Pagan paths, there are four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. When I first started out, these were unquestionable facts. All the books I bought broke up the elements this way, ascribed certain tools to certain elements (though whether the athame and wand were air or fire often changed with the writer) , assigned the same directions for the elements and even gave their times of year. It even kind of makes sense from a scientific standpoint: the four states of matter are solid (earth) , liquid (water) , gas (air) and plasma (fire –ok, not quite, but lightning, which is plasma, often gave birth to fire) . It wasn’t until I left neo-Wicca and began researching ancient cultural religions that I even considered the ‘whys’ of the elements.
The elements as we know them now, are an ancient Greek construct. Around 500 BCE, Empedocles wrote Tetrasomia, or Doctrine of the Four Elements. It is doubtful he came up with the idea, but he was the first to write down all four elements as the foundation of the universe. When looking at a map of Greece and Europe, it’s easy to see why the elements were assigned the directions they were given.
In the Northern Hemisphere, as you travel south, it gets warmer; hence the realm of fire must lie to the south (Summer being assigned to fire also makes sense due to the warmth of the weather) . The Olympus Range is to the north of most of Greece (it separates Thessaly from Macedonia) , thus the home of earth being in the north makes sense; as does earth being assigned to winter, as when you travel north it gets colder, as it does when you travel high enough in mountains.
Most of the Mediterranean Sea is to the west of Greece. If you travel far enough west, you reach the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean; so the home of water should be to the west (though why it is assigned to Autumn, I really don’t know other than to make the transition from fiery southern summer to earthy northern winter flow nicely) . Air is more ambiguous; perhaps wind is more easterly than usual in Greece, or perhaps it was the only direction that elemental association wasn’t obvious.
Most books I’ve read say it is because the sun rises in the east, but that makes very little sense to me as the sun is a bringer of warmth and should thus be associated with fire. After all, the sun is in the sky longest in the summer, the month of fire. Aristotle added the fifth element, which he called ‘quintessence’, but is often referred to as Akasha, Ether, or Spirit by the modern Pagan community. And thus we have the five points of the pentacle. (A point which I find very interesting: If you wear a pentacle, you might state that it is a sign of protection, each point is an element and they are connected by the circle. However, according to elemental tool assignment and tarot cards, the pentacle is assigned to earth.)
Taken out of Greece, the directional associations we are so comfortable with start to break down. In the Southern Hemisphere, it gets warmer as you travel north and colder as you travel south (I have heard that some practitioners in those regions flip directions as they also flip the Sabbats) . How about in the northeastern USA? The closest ocean is to the east, not the west; the closest mountain range to me is to the west; the wind can blow from any direction, though the sun still rises east-ish (it only rises in the true east all year at the equator) ; it does still get warmer if I travel south. It would almost make more sense to me to put earth to the west, water to the east and air to the north… almost, if it weren’t for the power behind the belief in the traditional associations.
So that’s where our traditional elemental associations come from. How about other cultures? Let’s first look at two other major European cultures for comparison: the Celts and the Norse.
In Celtic cosmology, there are three realms: Land, Sea, and Sky. We can associate Land with earth, but it is more than that. The Land isn’t just the dirt and rocks, it’s the trees and plants and animals that live there, it’s where humans live and beneath which the dead reside. Sea is water, but it is also the gateway to the Otherworld from which the gods came and the way to travel to unknown lands. Sky can be associated with both air and fire. Wind moves the clouds in the sky; but the sun is also of the sky and fire first touched the land as a gift from the sky (lightning) ; the sky is also how time is reckoned by movements of the sun and moon. There were no directional associations as the Land was the land around them, the Sky was the sky above, and the Sea was the sea wherever it was found.
There were also three elements according to the Norse: Earth, Fire and Ice. If you look at places such as Iceland, this makes a lot of sense. Northern Europe is very cold and there are places in the northern most reaches of Norway and Sweden where the sun does not rise at Yule and does not set on Litha. Snow and ice have a greater grip and impact than they do elsewhere, frost giants were a very real threat to winter survival. You can perhaps associate ice with water and air, but it was more than that, it was something to respect and fear. The powers of ice were not called upon lightly. Earth was closer to the Land of Celtic beliefs than earth of Greek beliefs. It was the earth that sustained them, but it also suffered at the hands of the frost and fire giants. Fire for the Norse was trapped within the Earth. Iceland was (and is) very seismically active. Fire could be friendly to those in the cold north, but it could just as easily overwhelm towns and destroy all they had worked to survive on.
Let’s move further east now, to India and China. They also each have elemental systems that differ from our most common cosmology.
In Hindu belief, there were once only three elements: fire, water and earth. Air and Akasha were added later. The elemental health system of Ayurveda uses all five elements but breaks people down into three health types (or doshas) . The doshas are air-space (vata) , fire (pitta) and earth-water (kapha) . Each has their own strengths and weaknesses and each have their own rules about how to bring the other elements into balance within your body.
Similarly, the Chinese elemental system is used in Feng Shui. Contrary to western belief, Feng Shui is more than just a decorating guide; for example, one of the Feng Shui masters (known as The Living Treasure of China) has a restaurant, which serves food based on the elemental balance of Feng Shui his patrons need to maintain optimum health. There are five elements within the Feng Shui system: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. What we would refer to as earth is divided into three separate elements. Wood is associated with trees and plants. Earth is associated with stone, clay and mud. Metal is associated with all metals, both the ore that is mined and the finished pieces. Fire is associated with the sun and flames. Water is associated with bodies of water. There is no air element and no conglomeration of elements that one can extrapolate air from.
The Chinese and Hindu systems are older than the Greek system; at least based on dates they were recorded. Since the Celts and Norse did not have their own writing (use of ogham and runes aside) , it is impossible to date their ideas. My books do not cover Egyptian and Sumerian sources, so I do not know if they had elemental associations or what they might have been. However, having studied what I have, it does make me consider the whys of what I use in my spiritual and magickal practices. It’s important to understand why you use something or do something a certain way beyond “it’s what the book/my teacher said.”
Understanding the ‘whys’ of your practice will make your path deeper and your magick more effective. If you find that the Grecian elemental assignments do not work for you, you can always adapt them to your own geographical location or you can use another system altogether; just try to be mindful of mixing cultures in ritual. (I’m a bit uneasy about doing it. Others might be fine with it.)
Aveda Rituals by Horst Rechelbacher (he has a great section of Ayurveda)
Feng Shui by Gale Hale and Mark Evans
Mind, Body, and KickA** Moves (a BBC martial arts show that interviewed “The Living Treasure of China”
The Way of Four by Deborah Lipp