The word element originates from the Latin word elementum, meaning “rudiment, first principle, matter in its most basic form” and takes on its occult representation sometime in the 1300’s and its modern scientific meaning in 1813 (source). For the modern practitioner of magic, elements are the simplest and most basic symbols and principles that make up both the physical and metaphysical constitution of any being or idea. In my own practice, I consider the elements to be the building blocks of nature-based magic. Deborah Lipp, in The Way of Four: Create Elemental Balance in Your Life, says “The elements are the building blocks of creation; they are the beginning of things,” and that “The four elements give us a way of thinking about the world. They give us a structured approach to knowing the unknowable. They provide us with a system of interrelations; and magic is all about interrelations.” Different systems of magic have varying ideas of what the elements actually are, as well as how many elements there are, though we can also find some general consensus between systems.
Most modern practitioners of magic use the four (or five) element system of Western occultism, that originated in Ancient Greece and stuck around via alchemy and medieval medicine until today (undergone a couple thousand years of revision and reinterpretation). This system of elements recognizes earth, air, water, fire and (sometimes) spirit. Each element has its own qualities and symbols, which have undergone the same evolution as the concept of the elements as a whole. The associations for earth, air, fire and water are fairly standard and the biggest disparity in opinion is over the existence and nature of spirit as an element. Regarding spirit, in some ways I find that I agree with Deborah Lipp’s assertion that,”The answer that I discovered, what I now believe and what I teach, is this: Spirit is what happens when all four elements meet and combine. Spirit is the quintessence, the “fifth essence,” the original elemental whole from which the other elements emerged. Elements have only their individual qualities.” In other ways, I agree with the idea that the spirit (life-force) of an individual is an aspect of fire–as the song in the video says “The fire in my heart, my soul flame burning; Is the fire in your heart, your soul flame burning; We are Spirit burning bright, by the light of day, in the dark of night; We are shining like the sun, and like the moon, like the Holy One(s)” and that the fifth element isn’t an element at all, but something else.
Either way, an understanding of the elements in magic, particularly nature-based magic is desirable for someone wishing to make full use of their power and symbolism. The goal for this series of blog posts is to not only act as an introduction/refresher to the elements, but to explore their history and symbolism as a way of forging new connections with and between them…so if you have any ideas or commentary to add to the mix, feel free to add your two cents!
Some views from other systems:
Druid Revival lore contains a system of its own, a set of three elements that first appears in Iolo Morganwg’s writings. Whether it’s an invention of Iolo’s or a surviving scrap of some older teaching is anyone’s guess, but the three elements have been part of Druid Revival teaching ever since his time. Their names are nwyfre, gwyar, and calas.
Nwyfre (pronounced “NOOiv-ruh”) is an old Welsh term meaning “sky” or “heaven.” As an element, nwyfre is the source of life and consciousness, and modern Druids often refer to it simply as the life force. Its image in nature is blue sky.
Gwyar (pronounced “GOO-yar”) literally means “blood” in old Welsh, but its more general meaning is “flow” or “fluidity.” As an element, gwyar is the source of change, motion, growth, and decay. Its image in nature is running water.
Calas (pronounced “CAH-lass”) comes from the same root as caled, Welsh for “hard,” and means “solidity.” As an element, calas is the source of form, differentiation, manifestation, and stability. Its image in nature is stone.
According to Druid philosophy, everything in the universe is made up of these three elements in some combination, with one element dominant. All are forms of primal substance, which is called manred. Manred has no characteristics of its own, except for the power to condense into calas, flow into gwyar or expand into nwyfre.
To get to the four elements, you begin with ONE – the original chaos (This Chaos is chaos because you can not differentiate between any things within it. They are all mixed together).
Out of the one, you pull TWO – as soon as you begin to make sense of something, you are bound to think in duality, hence “two.” (male/female)
Out of two, you get THREE – if you pair any two things, you make a third thing – the combined two, plus each individually. (Spirit, Soul, Body)
Out of three you get FOUR – the possible “moods” or “tones.” Each of the four is a different combination of the previous three (earth, air, fire, water).
Combine the four in all of the infinite number of possible proportions and you get INFINITY – all that is possible.
Out of infinity, you get ONE. Infinity is the perfected form of Chaos, so out of infinity, you get back to the original chaos, but in a cleaned and ordered form – i.e.: comprehensible.
Hermes sez: “Every thing comes out of the one, returns to the one, and never leaves the one.”
1 to 2 to 3 to 4 to infinity to 1 (the snake bites it’s own tale – it’s the Oroborus)
Chinese Five Elements Theory
The Five Elements theory posits wood, fire, earth, metal, and water as the basic elements of the material world. These elements are in constant movement and change. Moreover, the complex connections between material objects are explained through the relationship of interdependence and mutual restraint that governs the five elements.
So whether it is the environment that is inhabited, or the inhabitants, both of them are composed of four or five basic elements. These elements are earth, wind, fire, water and vacuum, that is space. About space, in the Kalachakra tantra there is a mention of what is known as the atom of space, particles of space. So that forms the central force of the entire phenomenon. When the entire system of the universe first evolved, it evolved from this central force which is the particle of space, and also a system of universe and would dissolve eventually into this particle of the space. So it is on the basis of these five basic elements that there is a very close inter-relatedness or interrelation between the habitat that is the natural environment and inhabitants, the sentient beings living within it.
If we want to understand the Elements as spiritual entities, we must go deeper than metaphors based on material substances; we must grasp their essences. This was first accomplished byAristotle in the century following Empedocles, who based his analysis on the four Powers (Dunameis) or Qualities, which were probably first enumerated by Empedocles. This double pair of opponent Powers, Warm versus Cool and Dry versus Moist, are the key to a deeper understanding of the Elements. Like the Elements, they must be understood as spiritual forces rather than material qualities (warm, cold, dry, moist).
The Powers manifest in as many ways as the Elements. The Pythagoreans identified one of the most important of these, a natural progression that can be called the Organic Cycle. The first phase of growth is Moist: spring rains, pliant green shoots, rapid growth. The second phase is Warm: summer sun, flourishing individuality, mature vigor. The third is Dry: autumn leaves, inflexible stems, stiffening joints. The fourth is Cool: winter chills, loss of identity, death. This cycle is also the basis for one form of the alchemical “rotation of the elements,” from Earth to Water to Air to Fire and back to Earth. Although the Organic Cycle can be found throughout nature, Aristotle discovered the deeper essence of the Qualities, which reveals their spiritual nature…