Elementary, My Dear
In all cultures there are at least four basic Elements—the folklore version of the building blocks of material existence. The four basic elements are Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. In some cultures, Metal, Wood and Stone are added. In general, Western- European culture lists four Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, and Air. Eastern-Asian cultures often have five Elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Metal. When we hear the word “Elementary” (as used by the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novels), we tend to think that “elementary” must mean “easy.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Elementary physics, for example, is still very complex and difficult to understand, yet one must master it to move to the even more difficult levels of physics! Indeed, the information offered for learning in Elementary grades is not easy for young minds both to retain and understand, yet it must be mastered for later grades’ information to be understood. In essence, then, it would be best to think of “elementary” as equivalent to “basic,” and to realize that “basic” may not be simple or easy at all! So, while these folklore “elements” are considered basic to early people’s view of how their world functioned, there are complex scientific truths to be found in the cultural symbolism attached to the Elements and people (both non-magic and magic) believed one needed to grasp this understanding before moving to a higher level of personal consciousness and, especially, magical achievement.
The Element of Air
In Wicca, the East is the direction often assigned to the Element of Air (for Direction symbolism, please see Which Way Should I Go, the direction symbolism book in the site’s Library). However, the North can also be a direction for this element. The Element of Air is represented by birds and other flying creatures, winds (mild or tempest level), and wind instruments such as a flute, etc. In human beings, we associate this element with our ability to breathe. In most cultures, the Element of Air symbolizes and is represented by Wisdom, Logic (clarity of thought), Purity, Neutrality, and Idealism, and Strength, Levitation, Movement, Invisibility, Freedom, Spirit, Healing, and Inclusiveness. Air is a symbol for change and fluidity. The wind brings portents of the future–odors and signs, etc. Of course, there are negative connotations to the element as well: “airhead,” for example, refers to someone who gets so wrapped up in thought that he or she doesn’t use common sense or factual knowledge to judge reality. In a worst case, the term refers to the condition of only having air in one’s head–lacking a brain with which to actually think! Also, strong winds, such as hurricanes, can do terrible damage, while someone who is aimless in life is said to be blown around by the winds.
Colors associated with the Element of Air are white, silver, light blue, and light gray, reflections of the Rainbow colors, sometime light green or yellow—a tornado indicator, and Clear (transparent).
In the magic world, Owls—creatures of the air and symbols of Wisdom (Athena/Minerva’s familiar as the Goddess of Wisdom)—can be the purveyors of communication between wizarding folk too far away for direct speech. A Flying Horse, a Phoenix, a Hippogriff, some Dragons, a Sphinx, a Griffin, bats, Faeries, Pixies, even spiders (which waft through the air on their silk threads), are all representatives of the Element of Air.
If the Element of Fire reacts incompletely with the Element of Air, smoke results (sometimes because of the intervention of the Element of Water). This means that the light of wisdom or truth may be obscured, although sometimes the smoke can be turned to one’s advantage for camouflage and communication (smoke-signals).
The Element of Fire
The element of Fire is represented by and symbolizes Anger, Blood, War, Love, and it can represent Change as in Death and Destruction, and Birth and Creation. In folklore, Fire is often portrayed negatively as destructive; even an overabundance of Love (seen as Passion) can cause a human being’s downfall. However, in some cultures, Fire is revered for its cleansing and purifying properties. And, we do know that someone who has a “passion”—a fire—for something usually achieves a lot more in life than someone who finds life dull! The Good powers/properties of Fire are fuel, rebirth (seeds in the forest which will only sprout after intense heat and the Phoenix), nourishment (cooks food to make it safe), sanitization, etc. Thus, we see Growth, Cleanliness, Healing, etc. The Evil powers/properties are seen in volcanoes, lava, burning, even doing illegal drugs and cigarettes, etc., and a destructive jealousy, or consuming passion (envy, greed, etc.). Here we see Destruction, Burning and Pain, even some religions’ concept of Hell. The South is the direction most often associated with the Element of Fire; however, Fire may occur in all directions and conditions (even underwater and in anaerobic—no oxygen–conditions).
The representative colors for Fire are reds, oranges, sometimes yellow and deep blue—the least hot and almost the hottest of the flame colors, respectively– and even black (the final stage of destruction). Occasionally, we hear the term “white hot flame,” which is actually the hottest of the Fire element, but rarely achieved. This “color,” however, represents the purifying level of Fire.
Magical, and other, creatures representing Fire are the salamander, the Phoenix, some Dragons, fire ants, and many stinging insects. Notice that many of these are Air creatures as well. Hephaestus and Ares, Mars and Vulcan were all names of gods associated in the Greek and Roman cultures with Fire. Other cultures and religions have gods and goddesses who are linked with this element. However, it is important to note that many cultures have legends that say Fire was an element that was secretly, and in defiance of a head god, brought to humanity by a member of the gods (and the bringer was usually punished for this transgression). This was because the gods feared that the possession of Fire would allow humanity to become more godlike and powerful in their control over their environment and, ultimately, given the other three elements, ensure their survival.
The Element of Water
We have already seen that Air and Water are elements that have “double identities.” The Water element is also dual: nurturing and creation vs. erosion and destruction. It is necessary, like Air, for human survival. It is a universal symbol of Cleansing and Birth (Baptism, etc.). On the positive (Good) side, there are buoyancy, soothing, life-giving, thirst-quenching, nourishment (fish and other aquatic food sources), and cleansing powers, etc. Indeed, the Good powers of water all concern Life, Birth or Rebirth, and Healing properties/powers. On the other hand, the negative (Evil) properties/powers are seen in stormy weather (rain, sleet, snow, etc.), ice, whirlpools, riptides, flooding, undertows, etc. In this side of Water, we see Death and Destruction.
Magical beings associated with Water are the Merpeople, Octopi, Squid, Sharks, Sea serpents, Whales and Dolphins (although they are also creatures of Air), Basilisks (also of the Earth), and other aquatic beings/and creatures. Naiads and river sprites exercise watery powers.
Colors associated with Water included the Blues, Greens, and their Aqua combinations, White, the Rainbow colors, and Black (deepest depths of Water).
The Directions most associated with Water seems to be North (tons of frozen water), and East or West because of the larger oceans; indeed, the Element of Water can occur in ALL of the Directions and its powers might be influenced by the Direction with which it associates.
The Element of Earth
The element of Earth is also a Growth and Life symbol; yet, it also involves Death–“dust to dust.” So, while plants need earth to grow, they can also be buried too deeply to germinate or land–and mudslides can destroy things–as can earthquakes. It is the name of our planet—so far the only one found to sustain Life, although there may be other forms of Life of which we are unaware.
The Element of Earth works in tandem with Water and Air to sustain our lives and that of many other creatures. (In colder climates, Fire plays a necessary role, too.) We see planting and plant life (on which many animals feed), the durability of soil and difficulty in moving it, the length of time for things to live in the ground and then to finally sprout, the foundation properties for our abodes (rock strata, etc.), etc. Thus, on Earth’s side of Good, we see the powers/properties of Patience, Growth, Nourishment, Practicality, and Good Ethics (indeed, all the BASIC attributes of a good life). On the other hand, we see earthquakes, landslides, cave-ins, deserts (although we noted that creatures of Fire might dwell in the desert), as negative Earth activities. These portray Evil powers of Destruction and Barrenness.
Colors of Earth range the Green and Brown spectrums—any color associated with growth. East and West are the prominent directions, but, as we have seen with all the other Elements, all directions could be brought to bear for Earth.
The creatures associated with Earth are too numerous to list, but all burrowing, and surface land-living beings are included in this element’s symbols, and this includes humanity. Magical creatures such as the Unicorn, Sphinx, Dragons, Flying Horses, Dryads, Elves, Faeries, and miserably mean “baddies,” such as Trolls, Basilisks, Tauri, etc., are representative of Earth.
The Element of Metal
The Element of Metal (in Asian cultures, the fifth Element) represents Strength, Protection, Neutrality, Flexibility, Durability, Radiance, Earthiness, Wealth, and Conductivity. But, on the negative side, we see Rigidity, Greed, Imprisonment, Coldness, Obsession, Destruction, Impersonal Attitudes, and Death.
The animals associated with Metal are Lion (gold color), Dragon (metallic scales), Unicorns (hooves, and silver hair and blood), Sharks (steel gray color), Birds of prey (talons), Pigeons (magnetic homing instinct).
The colors associated with Metal are silver, gold, copper, iron gray, black, rust, bronze, all grays, some green (oxidized copper), and red/orange/white (hot metal).
The Center (and all directions) is the direction associated with metal—usually represented by some sort of digging or mining. Dwarves (also Earth) and Trolls are two magical creatures associated with this element.
Back to Basics
You can judge by your own thoughts and actions which Elements may be the strongest in your personal character. By understanding the basic Good traits of the Elements (as well as recognizing the Evil aspects), a wizard can work to emphasize the positive strengths of character and power and become a benefit to a magical realm, and the outside world!