A pre-Socrates magician-philosopher, Empedocles of Acragas (c. 495-435 BCE), is the first to be credited in western civilization with the dogma that everything consisted of combinations of four basic components — fire, water, air, earth — which he called “roots.” In his writings he also appears to make it clear that he found these roots as more than just material substances, even associating them with the Gods Zeus, Hera, Nestis, and Aidoneus.
Simplifying the physical world to these easily observable and basic functional units was later embraced by other Greek philosophers, to include Aristotle, and the four classical elements became the cornerstone of Western philosophy, science, and medicine for the next two thousand years. Ancient cultures in Egypt, Babylonia, Japan, Tibet, and India also had similar but different lists. For example, the Chinese Wu Xing system lists Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water though these are described more as energies or transitions than as types of material.
Today, science has taught us that there are 118 known elements with 94 naturally occurring on Earth, but many Contemporary Pagans still find value in viewing the world as composed of these four classical elements.
- Simplifying our View of the World. The world is complex and simplifying the world into the four classical elements helps them as they resacralize the world around them. How would you relate to Osmium, Bismuth, Strontium, or Meitnerium? Just as the ancients were able to visualize and relate to a world composed of four basic elements, so do some Contemporary Pagans today. For example, when you think of “Earth” what comes to mind? Perhaps you feel the stable element of solidity and grounding. Or maybe you see Earth as the third planet from the Sun. Or for you, Earth the rich brown soil in your own backyard? Earth is all these things and more. Earth can be found in the language we use every day. Next time you hear the phrase “down to Earth” think about the words and what they mean. More and more each year, people are drawn to things that help reconnect them to the Earth. Looking at the world around us in simpler ways allows Contemporary Pagans to see the world more real, more alive and allows us to see it in more sacred and magickal ways.
- Finding Relationships. Some Contemporary Pagans in their personal world views find relationships between apparently unconnected things such as emotions, objects, actions, qualities and symbols. These relationships are called ‘correspondences’. Each is used to suggest another. Contemporary Pagans will often create correspondence tables based on the relationships that they find. For example, Aleister Crowley’s ‘777’ contains many tables of these relationships or ‘correspondence tables’. Various tables of correspondences are also found in Chinese traditional and Indian Ayurvedic healthcare manuals.One of the most popular correspondence tables is that relating to the classical elements. For example, let’s look at the element of Air. Of all the elements, Air is perhaps the most elusive. It can be the most difficult to describe, but can also be one of the most vibrant. Air brings us the light sensation of a cool breeze, the sudden rage of a storm, and the sweet smell of every scent we experience. When we breathe certain scents, we can easily visualize the source and may often even taste or feel it. When we think of Air, we may think of filling our lungs and with it communications or singing. Each one of these may lead to more relationships: communications may lead us to think of learning, intellect, community, anger or joy; singing may lead us to music, dancing, joy, and movement. As we dwell on the essence of Air, as with any of the elements, and its relationships, Contemporary Pagans increase their understanding of the interconnectedness and sacredness of everything around them.
- Comparing and Contrasting. Breaking things into simple groupings allows us to compare and contrast easier. Comparative thinking is one of our first and most natural forms of thought. Without the ability to make comparisons—to set one object or idea against another and take note of similarities and differences—much of what we call learning would quite literally be impossible. Breaking something down into smaller chunks allows you to see more clearly how the pieces fit, and how to tackle each piece individually. This can often help get you started in problem solving because now you have identified tasks that you can actually do. Though comparing and contrasting four things, versus two or seven, is a subjective choice, many Pagans find that some things fall naturally into groupings of four just as Empedocles found when he developed his philosophy. For example, Hermetic and Wiccan magic often refers to the Four Powers of Sphinx which are related to the four classical elements: to know (air), to will (fire), to dare (water), to keep silent (earth). (These are also known as the Four Powers of the Magi, Motto of the Sphinx, the Four Pillars, the Powers of the Elements, the Witch’s Pyramid, and the Magic Pyramid). Taken together, they form a “simple but not easy” program of personal improvement and spiritual development as well as a useful framework for decision making.
The Elements in Magic
As Empedocles associated the Elements with the Gods, Contemporary Pagans will often view the Elements in more than their symbolic form and instead view them as powers of nature and with it have developed an extensive, and often complex, theology surrounding them.
For example, let us touch on some of the theology surrounding the Element of Fire from a classical Greek perspective. Empedocles distinguished Fire as the Agent of Action (Kinêtikê) among the Elements. In Vehicles of the Soul described in Neoplatonic lore and Chaldean Theurgy, Fire is the radiant body, while Earth and Water correspond to the gross body, Air to the spirit body. The radiant body (augoeides), also known as the astral body (astroeides) or aitherial body, is the vehicle of the Higher Soul, which is responsible for the intellect, including discursive reason, but also for the Rational Will. In the myths, Prometheus created humans by mixing Earth and Water to create the gross body; and then Athena breathed Air into it and imbued it with a Spirit-Soul. Prometheus added the Higher Soul, which is the Fire that He took from the Wheel of the Sun and brought to humanity in a Narthêx (giant fennel) stalk. Hippocrates says that the soul is an Immortal Warmth (Athanatos Thermon), which sees, hears and knows everything; most of this Warmth is pushed to the outermost sphere, where it is called Aithêr, and forms a kind of Fiery World Soul.
A more common use of the Elements is in Contemporary Pagan ritual in the form of the Watchtowers. The concept of the Watchtowers come from Christian Enochian magic, got a makeover by the Golden Dawn, and found their way into Wicca. The Watchtowers are a tutelary or guardian spirit of one of the four cardinal points or “quarters” (north, east, south, and west) that are used during ritual to help create a boundary for a ceremonial circle or sacred space. They are also variously associated in many traditions with each the four classical elements. The Watchtowers may be asked to “guard” the boundaries, or they may be invited into the ritual to share their “powers” often related to their correspondences.
The Elements are also commonly associated with various magickal tools or objects. For example, you may see Air associated with the athame or ritual knife, Fire with a wand, Water with a Chalice, and Earth with a Pentacle though various traditions may use different associations. In Tarot, they might be relate Swords to Air, Wands to Fire, Cups to Water and Pentacles/Coins to Earth but again, you may find different associations used.
The classical elements, like most broad spiritual concepts, can have many uses and meanings. Try to step back a bit from traditional teachings and cultural norms, even within . Avoid charts created by others and work to developing your own spiritual understandings. Create your own lists of properties and correspondences. Elements are multi-dimensional. Look at things from a variety of angles. Look for how these magical forces manifest in very simple ways within your own surroundings. Often we draw the boundary between magical and mundane; nature does not.
“…if that which thou seekest thou findest not within thee, thou wilt never find it without thee.” ~ Charge of the Goddess, Doreen Valiente