The Power of the Elements by Melusine Draco
A magical practitioner, whether witch, druid, ritual magician or shaman must be aware that there are all manner of different currents and movements on the planet that affect us on a deeper magico-mystical level than we could ever imagine when we begin our voyage of discovery. And as I asked at the beginning of Traditional Witchcraft and the Path to the Mysteries, do we ever stop to think that the burst of energy that sets the pendulum swinging could be caused by the swirling molten layer under the Earth’s crust, creating the electro-magnetic field that surrounds the planet by the spinning outer crust around the solid part of the inner core? Do we recognise the continuous re-arranging of the Earth’s surface by tectonic plate movement; of the earthly debris from volcanoes that brings precious stones and minerals to the surface and the underground eruptions that causes giant tsunami to race around the globe. Or is our Elemental Earth just a quiet ramble in the countryside and a container of sand marking the Northern quarter in our magic Circle?
We may sit meditating by a rippling stream, watching the sunlight dance in the water as it trips over the stones and pebbles in its path – but do we allow our minds to explore the greater picture of where that crystal clear water comes from? Do we realise that this stream began its brief chapter of life being drawn up as vapour from the ocean and falling as rain on the hills and mountain sides, before flowing down into the river valley with enough power to bring rocks and stones tumbling in its wake? Do our magical energies focus on the stream; the rainfall on the mountain; or the ocean? Are we constantly aware of the force of that water-flow throughout the seasons – the spring floods; the summer drought; the clogging of the channel with autumn leaves and the frozen surface in winter. Or does our concept of Elemental Water begin and end with the symbolic bowl of tap water marking the Western quarter in our magic Circle?
Nothing on the planet can live without clean, breathable air, but a magical practitioner needs to think beyond soft summer breezes and rainbows after a spring shower. Air is the stuff from which tornadoes and hurricanes are made; it brings puffs of cumulus clouds or a billowing thunderhead some ten miles high; not to mention the thousands-of-feet-high dust storms that are created when a monsoon collides with dry air currents above it. Or is our Elemental Air merely the curling smoke from a perfumed joss stick marking the Eastern quarter in our magical workings?
Fire, even in its most modest form has the capacity for great destruction – a box of matches in the hands of a child, a fallen candle, or a carelessly discarded cigarette. On a grander and more epic scale, we are well acquainted by television coverage with devastating wildfire destroying anything that stands in its path; the eruption of a volcano; or the power of solar winds that reach out from the sun to interfere with electronic equipment here on Earth. Or is our contact with Elemental Fire restricted to a candle burning at the Southern quarter of our Circle?
For over two thousand years of human history there were just the classical elements of the ancient Greeks – earth, air, fire and water – who formulated this idea in the sixth century BC. The Greeks had an insatiable curiosity about the workings of the world and came to the conclusion that there was a logical explanation for natural phenomenon that was not caused by dyspeptic deities or any other supplicatory supernatural agencies. These ancient men of science at first believed that a single element was the fundamental principle of the universe but eventually the natural philosopher Empedocles argued that all four played equal and interactive parts.
These essential four, he expounded in Tetrasomia, or Doctrine of the Four Elements, either singly or in combination, account for all matter on Earth. That ‘things take on different forms when their component elements separate and rearrange, variously directed by the force of Love, which brings elements together, and Strife, which tears them apart’. And as Dr Rebecca Rupp pointed out in Four Elements: ‘The theory revealed a surprising grasp of the basics: that is, all matter is assembled from a finite number of basic and irreducible elements; and these, combined in specific proportions, make up all the substances that exist.’
In reality, none of these, apart from water, was even close to being elemental. As Marcus Chown explained in The Magic Furnace, all that was needed was for someone to draw the right conclusion.
The man who did so was Antoine Lavoisier, a French aristocrat whose life was ended by the guillotine in the spring of 1794 … Five years before his death, Lavoisier compiled the first list of substances which he believed could not by any means, be broken down into simpler substances. Lavoisier’s list consisted of 23 ‘elements’. Some later turned out not to be elements at all but many were indeed elemental. They included sulphur and mercury, iron and zinc, silver and gold. Lavoisier’s scheme was a turning point in the history of science. It signalled the death of alchemy and the birth of chemistry.
Nevertheless, the contemporary pagan viewpoint is that the four classical elements are still a natural part of our mental make-up, though in each person only one predominates. There is still a lurking appeal of the ancient Greek view that a single one-word answer can reveal something about what we are. In truth, science has come a long way since then … and so has magic. The Greek four are the elements of tradition and time, and have dominated human thought for over two millennia – and have been around long enough to insinuate themselves into our lives, language, art and literature. Even Galen, the ‘Father of Medicine’ cited elemental properties as being at the root of sickness; a theory that was still being expounded by the seventeenth- century herbalist, apothecary and astrologer Nicholas Culpeper.
In magical practice, these four elements still guard the four cardinal points of the Compass (or Circle) and it doesn’t matter in whose name, or in what form we summon them. When ‘Calling the Quarters’ for a Magic Circle it is usual to draw down the protection of the elements by summoning the:
Guardian of the Watchtowers of the North, South, East, West …
The Power of the Element of Earth, Fire, Air, Water …
The Guardian of the North, South, East, West …
The Element of Earth, Fire, Air, Water …
The Stations of the Gnomes, Salamanders, Sylphs and Undines.
The last comes from the classical Paracelsian perspective that there are four elemental categories: gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders, which correspond to the Classical elements of antiquity: earth, water, air and fire. Aether (quintessence) was not assigned an elemental and represents the realm of spirit. For those of ritual magic persuasion the Call would be for the archangels from the Hebrew tradition:
North = Earth = Uriel
South = Fire = Michael
East = Air = Raphael
West = Water = Gabriel
And there is a very good reason why we do this, as Kenneth Grant explained so well in Hecate’s Fountain:
It may be asked, why then do we not abandon the ancient symbols in favour of the formulae of nuclear physics and quantum mechanics? The answer is that the occultist understands that contact with these energies may be established more completely through symbols so ancient that they have had time to bury themselves in the vast storehouse of the racial subconsciousness. To such symbols the Forces respond swiftly and with incalculable fullness, whereas the pseudo-symbols manufactured in the laboratory possess no link with elements in the psyche to which they can appeal. The twisting and turning tunnels explored laboriously by science lead, only too often, away from the goal. The intellectual formulæ and symbols of mathematics have been evolved too recently to serve as direct conduits. For the Old Ones, such lines of communication are dead. The magician, therefore, uses the more direct paths which long ages have been mapped out in the shadowlands of the subconsciousness.
And since I go along with Crowley’s belief that magic is a blend of science and art, it is easy to see how ‘sulphur and mercury, iron and zinc, silver and gold’ later became the magical correspondences for the Underworld, Mercury, Mars, Uranus, Moon and the Sun respectively. It is true Uranus wasn’t universally accepted as a new planet until it was ‘discovered’ by William Herschel in 1783 but it had been observed on many occasions over the centuries and mistaken for a star. Possibly the earliest known observation was by Hipparchus, who in 128 BC might have recorded it in his star catalogue that was later incorporated into Ptolemy’s Almagest.
And although zinc was recorded as an ‘element’ by the unfortunate Antoine Lavoisier in 1789, ornaments made of alloys containing 80–90% zinc have been found that are 2500 years old, while a paper published in 1933 (Weeks, The Discovery of the Elements), cites a possibly prehistoric statuette containing 87.5% zinc found at a Dacian archaeological site. The smelting of zinc ores with copper was apparently discovered in Cyprus and was used later by the Romans. Alchemists burned zinc metal in air and collected the resulting zinc oxide calling it Lana philosophica, Latin for ‘philosopher’s wool’, because it collected in wooly tufts like white snow. The name of the metal was probably first documented by Paracelsus, a Swiss-born German alchemist and magician, who referred to the metal as ‘zincum’ in his book Liber Mineralium II, in the sixteenth century, before the metal was rediscovered later in Europe.
These ancient symbols are magical shorthand that cut across the aeons and connect us with the ‘Old Ones’ who are quite willing to pick up and communicate with those who ‘speak’ their language. And to repeat with emphasis what Kenneth Grant wrote on the subject:
To such symbols the Forces respond swiftly and with incalculable fullness, whereas the pseudo-symbols manufactured in the laboratory possess no link with elements in the psyche to which they can appeal … The magician, therefore, uses the more direct paths which long ages have been mapped out in the shadowlands of the subconsciousness.
Nevertheless, the idea for this book came from a Coven member who was involved in the filming of an opera on a beach at low tide:
“As we were shooting the film, the tide was starting to come in quite quickly and every five minutes we had to move forward because the water was catching up with us. Standing there I could feel the immense power of the energy that was rising right behind me. The wind was picking up and I could sense the power of the water. It was incredible. All I wanted to do was stop shooting this stupid film and work some magic! It also made me think that I wanted to go and live right by the sea so I could experience this more often. It was so amazing.
“And then it made me think about the conversation we had the other day when you asked about ‘Calling the Quarters’ in the Circle. You said you thought I was more connected to Water and I said, No, Air. Well boy, did I feel connected to that water. I can feel it now. When I need to call upon Water I will dig inside of me for that feeling I had. I can connect to Air as well but I think you were right, I think I have a much stronger connection to Water for some reason. Perhaps because I miss it, being from Marseille in the south of France, but now that I am on this path I feel like I miss it even more.”
Here we have the realisation that although we are psychically connected to the same elements as our ancient Greek counterparts, the modern belief that in ‘each of us only one predominates’ is a long way from the truth. In ancient astrology, the triple groupings of the ‘Star Signs’ were more of a seasonal nature, so each season was given the qualities of a particular element. For example:
- Spring (wet becoming hot) – Air – Aries, Taurus, Gemini
- Summer (hot becoming dry) – Fire – Cancer, Leo, Virgo
- Autumn (dry becoming cold) – Earth – Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius
- Winter (cold becoming wet) – Water – Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces
All the fire signs are by their nature hot and dry. However, the addition of the elemental qualities of the seasons results in differences between the fire signs; Leo being the midsummer sign gets a double dose of hot and dry and is the pure fire sign. Aries being a spring sign is wetter (hot & dry, hot & wet), and Sagittarius being an autumnal sign is colder (hot & dry, cold & dry); and in the Southern Hemisphere the seasonal cycle is, of course, reversed. Using the seasonal qualities also accounts for other differences in expression between signs of the same element.
Similarly, if we look again at Nicholas Culpeper’s Herbal, we can see how this seventeenth-century English herbalist’s medicine was the same as that practised by the famous Greek physicians Hippocrates and Galen that had been used traditionally throughout Europe for 1,400 years: ‘The four temperaments of the body, then, were said to arise from the interaction of the four elements and their primary qualities. This four-fold variation in the human body was matched specifically by the predominance of one of the four humours or bodily fluids. Indeed, the humours, elements, qualities and temperaments were all related’, observed Graeme Tobyn in Culpeper’s Medicine when describing the seventeenth-century’s approach to medicine, although the influence of astrology began to wane in the decades following Culpeper’s death.
The elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water were not literally viewed as things in this world, but as the building blocks in the composition of everything in Nature. Soil would be said to be formed of all elements but, in this case, with a preponderance of the element Earth so that it was perceived as being earthy. Likewise, Air contained Fire (heat), Water (Vapour) and Earth (particles) as well as, mainly Air. The philosopher Empedocles’ (c. 490–430 BC) ideas became truly established in Greek physics and natural philosophy when the great philosophers Plato and Aristotle incorporated it into their theories concerning the physical universe.
Empedocles might have watched a piece of wood burning. Something disintegrates. We hear it crackle and splutter. That is water. Something goes up in smoke. That is air. The fire we can see. Something also remains when the fire is extinguished. That is the ashes – or earth. (Gaarder, Sophie’s World)
And to put these ideas into a magical context, we discover that each element has other facets influencing its purity or effectiveness. By using the Court Cards of our favourite Tarot Deck we can begin to identify what causes those peculiarities that make us say we don’t identify with our particular Star Sign. Leo, for example, is represented by Elemental Fire and is identified with the Knight (or King) of Wands but his ‘family’ is made up of the Princess (the Earthy part of Fire) and the Prince (the Airy part of Fire) of Wands … and the Queen of Wands (the Watery part of Fire).
Adrien, being an Aquarian and a professionally trained singer and dancer, is obviously more geared towards the Watery Part of Air, while I’m an untypical Piscean wired for the Fiery Part of Water in my youth and the Earthy Part of Water in my later years. The current Magister of Coven of the Scales is a Leo and a former Fire Chief who obviously relates to Fire; while the Dame is a Virgo and a lawyer who associates with the Airy Part of Earth. As they get older and develop magically, it will be interesting to see whether these ‘parts’ are subject to change. For the point of this exercise, however, our current chosen points of the Compass for a magical working would be as follows:
The Crone: North
The Elder: West + The Dame: East
The Magister: South
So, here we have four people Calling the Quarters of their choice and who are not necessarily manning the Compass at the station related to their actual birth sign, but of the part of their personality that often overpowers the Star Sign. And we often do find ourselves altering perspective as we go through life-changing situations during our time on this earth whereas our birth sign remains the same until death.
And when a magical practitioner makes the sign of the equal-armed cross +1 at each cardinal point of the Compass, they are evoking the protection of the Elements – not using it in any Christian context. The equal-armed cross, also referred to as the square cross is another name for the Greek cross when this is found in ancient cultures pre-dating Christianity.
First orient yourself by facing the North – the Place of Power – and remember that the + is shorthand for Earth (forehead), Fire (chest), Air (right shoulder) and Water (left shoulder) and by introducing it into our Circle workings we are bringing down every attribute, association and correspondence relating to those four points of the Compass simply by evoking the Guardian and making the sign of that cross. Even if we begin traditionally casting the Compass at the East we still follow the sequence of the equal-armed cross at each station. For example:
East + South + West + North + and complete the Circle by returning to face the East.
Hopefully a picture is beginning to emerge concerning the exactitude necessary for a serious magical undertaking whether it be for spell-casting, banishing, divination or meditation. The famous magician’s directive ‘Know Thyself!’ is not just referring to spiritual self-analysis, it also exhorts us to understand exactly where we are placed in the magical and universal scheme of things.
- For the purpose of examples in the text, I have used Aleister Crowley’s Tarot and The Book of Thoth for imagery and his Liber 777 for correspondences since these are the sources with which I am most familiar on a magical level. Needless to say, many of these images will not be the same for those using other Tarot decks or Tables of Correspondences (i.e. David Conway’s The Complete Magical Primer), but the principles remains the same.
Pagan Portals: The Power of the Elements by Melusine Draco is published by Moon Books (ww.moon-books.net) ISBN 978 1 78535 916 3 : UK£6.99/US£10.95 : 90 pages