Let’s talk about the elements!
I’ve written a lot about the seven classical planets and celestial/cosmic witchcraft. I think it’s time to bring things a bit more down to earth, though!
This is a new two-part series! It will focus on the natural elements as understood by the Western Magical Tradition.
In today’s article, I’ll be explaining a bit about the history of these concepts and how I see them. I hope you find this interesting and informative!
Thinking About the Elements
Elements are one of the first concepts I learned when beginning a journey into witchcraft.
But! How do we view the elements as concepts? Lets consider how they relate to us and the whole universe. Here’s my views!
Some believe the elements are simply words for natural phenomena.
In other words, Fire is fire - the burning of a campfire or candle, or another flame. Water would always be something like a stream, the ocean or other liquid. I don’t see it this way. They’re far more complex than that!
The four elements stem the observations of ancient philosophers. These thinkers guessed that these substances were the building blocks of physical reality. Of course, they were wrong! In reality, atoms comprise matter. Matter and energy, then, make up the physical universe.
We could associate four classical elements with the four states of matter. These are solid, liquid, gas, and plasma. They’d correspond to earth, water, air, and fire in turn. This is a very simplified view, though!
These concepts were fundamental to the ancients. A wealth of lore has developed around them. They have grown into complex metaphors for aspects of the human condition. The physical manifestations of the elements have become potent symbols.
They represent various mental and emotional phenomena. Symbols are important in witchcraft. The way I see it, all tools of the Craft are symbols used to connect with larger forces that work within the universe.
The elements themselves, and their attributions, are in fact, somewhat arbitrary. This means that each of us will have a different idea of what each element represents!
There’s nothing wrong with this, though. The point is to use them as symbols. What they symbolize to you is your own business!
Qualifying the Elements
In the Western Magical Tradition, there are four core (classical) elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
Some traditions do posit a fifth element called the quintessence, also known as Spirit or Aether. This fifth element stands apart from the other four, as it doesn’t behave in the same way.
I’ll be focusing on these four, not on the quintessence. Spirit as an element is a very large topic best suited for its own series of articles.
Alchemical thinkers have placed these four into categories. . They’re quite useful for understanding the system.
Each element is either “hot” or “cold,” as well as either “dry,” or “wet.”
This doesn’t describe the physical qualities of the phenomena in question. Rather, these terms are metaphors. They refer to the roles taken by the concepts each element embodies.
Hot and Cold Elements
Hot elements are active in human existence.
They stand for concepts that penetrate and alter the world around them.
An outdated way of putting this would be to describe them as “masculine.” This comes from historical stereotypes about gender. I tend to use the term “active” to describe hot elements. That’s Fire and Air.
Cold elements are passive and receptive.
They represent concepts from which we draw nourishment. They are the structure or substance that forms our mental landscape. The hot elements tend to be the essence or organizing principle.
Cold elements are often stereotyped as “feminine.“ They are Water and Earth, both of which play a nourishing role in human existence.
Wet and Dry Elements
Dryness as a concept within the Western Magical Tradition refers to a fixed state. In other words, the dry elements are things that don’t often change. These elements are full of stability.
The key feature of a dry element is lack of intense motion. We can depend on the stable parts of our existence, represented by these elements.
The dry elements are Fire and Earth. It may seem strange to call fire stable, but it is a reliable source of warmth to us. It represents a constant feature of human life.
When we speak of wet elements, we mean the two elements that aren’t fixed. In other words, elements that flow ,change and transform. It is the concepts associated with these elements that drive the changes. They are reliable, but only insofar as change, itself, is something to rely on!
The wet elements are Air and Water. Both are natural features that shift and flow through our lives. The inclusion of Air as a wet element shows that these are metaphorical, not literal terms.
Much more could be said about how people have described the elements throughout time. The above image shows the alchemical view of how the elements can combine to create secondary principles.
As you might guess, “fixed” and “volatile” here stand for what we’ve been calling “passive” and “active.” If you want to know more about these further topics, I recommend Robert Bartlett’s book, True Alchemy.
The entire concept of the elements is a metaphor, though. It’s a metaphor that can work for you. It can help with your Craft, and help you connect with the universe. I’ll be posting the next article tomorrow! In that, I’ll be discussing each element in detail.