The Five Elements

So why earth, air, fire, water and spirit? Where did these concepts come from and why give a fipplin’ a about them? Dividing reality into elements is a fairly common way of looking at the world. It gives order to a seemingly chaotic universe and acts as a conduit for connecting to nature in a way that is systemized and accessible.

Going way back to ancient Greece, Aristotle was the philosopher who most closely divided reality into the five elements seen today. To him the natural world could be divided into fire, water, earth, air and “Aether,” or spirit. He was the man to add spirit to the first four elements devised by Empedocles. However, his was a mission to classify the natural world in a way that was a precursor to modern science.

For this to be useful to spiritual growth, we must look at the writers of Renaissance Europe generations later. In an effort to understand and connect with the divine and natural world, increasingly complex rituals sprang up involving magical tools, invocations and signs. Circles and quarters were usually marked. Ronald Hutton, noted in his book Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft that this was typical of a time when God, geometry, and angelic and demonic kingdoms were the obsessions of the day. He also noted that it was a time of “increasing formality and elaboration” of religious ritual in general. The traditional five pointed star pentagram had always been around in Egyptian, Roman and Greek art, but at this time it was the center of divine thinking, given meaning for the first time. It was noted that the human body has five senses, five fingers, five members, making the pentagram a symbol of divine patterns in life, according to Hutton. And it just stuck in ritualized thinking.

Later in the early to mid 1800s France, a mystical writer who went by the pen name of Eliphas Zahed Levi was the one to state that the pentagram controlled the “demons” of the four elements, which he called elementals. These were summoned and associated with four quarters of the scared circle marked upon the ground in ritual. The pentagram was drawn in the air in a certain way to invoke elementals and in another way to banish them (more on that farther down). Air was associated with the east, fire to the south, water to the west and earth to the north, as noted by Hutton.

Today the elements carry plenty of personal and mystical associations, both divined by the intuition and mediation of the individual, as well as ritual tradition. The cardinal directions of the four elements still hold for many natural magic practitioners (ie. air to the east). The most common color associations are air- yellow, water-blue, fire-red, earth-green and spirit- purple or white.

The pentagram still has its five points associated with certain elements, and you can draw the pentagram from the associated point to invoke the powers of that element and opposite from that point to banish them. Below is a diagram of the pentagram’s Western occult elemental associations with a ritual symbol for each element:

five_elements_and_pentagram

I still hold and refer to these color and directional associations for consistency and logical purposes (ie. green for earth seems pretty solid). If something feels better to you, feel free change the associations (maybe brown for earth feels better because you live in the desert).

All elements correspond to positive and negative qualities. Personally, I’m not into the domination of spirits. Truth be told, I don’t really believe in spirits or a literal deity. I do believe in the strong psychological associations for the elements, many conclusions drawn from reading and mediation. For instance, you might invoke fire for courage, but it also has the associations for a wild temper.   Below are some common elemental associations to be starting with:

  • Air- Communication, intellect, music, creativity, study skills / Negative: Flightiness, lack of emotion, not being grounded or realistic
  • Fire- Courage, passion, purification, lust / Negative: Temper, destruction, too much intensity
  • Water- Empathy, deep love, intuition, art / Negative: Too much emotion/moodiness, grudges
  • Earth- Stability, strength, good with money issues, bounty / Negative- Rigidity, materialism, greed
  • Spirit- Divination, purity, virtue, love on an even wider scale (as in all of humanity), wisdom / Negative- Not grounded in the present moment, may let life “pass by”

Already patterns emerge: each point is a give and take, a perfect balance. Be strong in each of these points and wonderful possibilities emerge: you’re communicative, brave, empathetic, stable and virtuous. What’s more, stability combats flightiness (earth and air), love combats anger (water and fire), virtue combats greed (spirit and earth), communication combats and being too rigid (air and earth), etc. Granted no one’s perfect. There will never be a system that breeds the most pure and good human who ever existed, but this can be an anchoring point. Need courage for a presentation? Mediate with fire and focus on being courageous. Want to do well on a test? Do a breathing exercise and focus your mind to the task of studying.

The rest of this site contains specific sections exploring the elemental associations more deeply and exercises to connect with them. As part of living closer to nature, I’ve also included sections on green living and environmentalism. I also have sections on Zen / mindfulness and general inspiration that relate to nature will be posted in corresponding sections. And of course, this site wouldn’t be complete without a further reading section. I encourage you to learn and question as much as you can, even what I type.

Thanks for visiting and I hope some of this info is as useful to you as it is to me!