The most common idea taught in Western magick is the idea of the elements of fire, water, earth and air. Many people add in spirit or Akasha but that’s unimportant in relationship to the following. These elements are intertwined in almost every ceremony, every charm and almost every other aspect of Wicca or any other commonly practiced Western tradition. So where did the idea of these elements come from? Were they handed down to mankind on a mountain or given to us by aliens of immense knowledge? And why are we using them? Obviously it’s commonly agreed upon that they’re useful or else the entire magickal community would not be in agreement on using them, but what exactly is the reasoning behind using them? And more importantly, should we use them? These questions may seem silly or pointless, but in order to ever understand why you’re doing something, you should know the history of how it came to be whenever possible.
In the 5th century, there was a man that lived in Greece named Empedocles. He lived before Socrates or Plato and was considered an extremely enlightened man. He was an incredible orator and there were legends of him healing the sick and escaping epidemics. He proposed an idea that the world was made up of four elements: earth, air, fire and water, as well as two forces: love and strife. Everything in the world was made up of these four elements in differing amounts which accounted for the difference in shapes and forms of the world. The two forces were the reason for the differing amounts of each. Love drew the elements together and strife pushed them apart. These elements and forces were eternal and therefore indestructible. These ideas were the commonly accepted science and philosophical ideas until the modern ideas.
The elements were called the roots of everything, but in fact they were categorized by whether they were hot or cold and whether they were wet or dry. Fire was hot and dried things, water was wet and cold, air was hot and wet (think of where Greece is), and earth was dry and cold. After a bit of pondering and reasoning, I came to the conclusion that the cold seems to represent the feminine aspects and the hot seems to represent the masculine. Earth and water are considered the femininely-aligned elements while air and fire are the masculine-aligned elements. Also, Qabalists would agree that the masculine energy is about force which is indicated by the energy of heat and lack of form, while the feminine force is losing energy and creating form. This seems simple enough, but the interpretation of the wet and dry is far more vexing in my opinion. Water and air are both fluids and this seems to be the key to the interpretation. The wet elements seem to deal with living life and are far less focused. Fluids will fill a container while a rock will not and fire will go where there is fuel. On the other hand, the wet elements also are about growth. They will push boundaries and will move quickly. The dry elements are far more focused but are not as apt to explore their possibilities. These ideas can’t truly fit the common associations of masculine and feminine. If I were more knowledgeable in the Qabalah, I’d hypothesize that the cold and hot categorizations corresponded to the upper trinity while the wet and dry categorizations corresponded to either the lower or middle trinity.
So when these combinations are considered, we end up with the current ideas about the elements:
Fire is a very masculine energy and force that is focused (passion). Because male energy is less about boundaries, fire energy is more apt to explore than earth, but it is still dry and will only explore where it is drawn (fuel). It is also far more permanent than air (dry versus wet) because wind is there and is gone whereas fire is there until it runs out of fuel or some outside force puts it out.
Water is a feminine energy that is unfocused and apt to adapt and grow. It is far slower than air because it is a feminine energy but it is far faster than earth because it is wet. Water is the midpoint between the solid world and the invisible world of air in many ways and because of this, it is the realm of the mystic who crosses between the invisible world and the solid world. This element is also the great emotional element because it is a feminine energy as well as a flowing wet element enabling the communication of emotions.
Earth is a feminine energy that is focused. This is the slowest energy but also has the greatest momentum once it gets going. The earth is a place for growing things. It is the great nurturer because of its unending stability and feminine energy.
Air is a masculine energy that is unfocused and apt to explore. It is the fastest element and also is the least solid. This is why it is often associated with the mind because nothing is faster than the mind or as intangible. Air is also the great communicator because it is wet and yet has more focus than water because it is hot.
These are the ideas that are currently in place in the magickal community, now why do we use them? After much frustration I finally came to the conclusion that it’s because they represent something that is inexpressible. How do you explain what earth means to someone? It’s more than a huge list of characteristics, it’s a feeling when all of those characteristics come together to form a symbol. This is the true reason why it is necessary to use symbols in magick. The elements may or may not be inherently magickal, but they hold the idea of something just as a flag represents something more than the United States government. This is true of almost any magickal system. The Qabalah is the most prominent alternate representation of the universe and everyone recognizes it is simply a system of characterizing the universe and this characterization is what gives it power.
So the final question is “Should we continue to use this system?” That’s absolutely up to the individual, but I’m not changing much about my rituals. I’m glad I added more depth to my understanding of the elements even when I thought I understood them as much as possible. I am also very glad that the assumption that the elements were inherently magickal is turned off because that’s simply an ignorant idea. Nothing is inherently magickal and at the same time, everything is inherently magickal. Overall, I hold to the idea that understanding where your beliefs came from is absolutely necessary to understanding your beliefs. My ideas about the world may have changed but my practices will probably stay the same because the system works as is, and will work better now that I have more understanding of it.