Understanding the Four Elements
by Simon Jester
In the Western esoteric tradition, the four Elements of Fire, Water, Air & Earth are so ubiquitous & so basic (so "elemental" one might say!) that many students of magic begin to take them for granted. After learning the basic pentagram rituals for banishing and invoking the Elements, some people tend to look at them as merely a kind of minor preface to the more important rituals that follow. This is a very big mistake because the esoteric theory of the Four Elements conceals the steps of a crucial inner process that must be initiated and completed before any magical operation can be successful. Properly understood, the four Elements help the practitioner of magic prepare the inner foundation that is so necessary to support and ground the higher magical operations. Without this foundation, magic is just empty words and meaningless posturing.
Given their importance, why do so many magical practitioners neglect the Four Elements or use them ineffectively? There are several answers. Ritual magicians tend to get caught up in the intellectual side of their Art. They begin by learning the many correspondences the Elements have—correspondences to the four letters of the Tetragrammaton, the four worlds of the Qabalah, & to certain Paths and Sephiroth on the Tree of Life; to zodiac triplicities & planets; to the Wands, Cups, Swords & Pentacles of the Tarot deck and the four basic tools of the magician; to the cardinal directions of the compass and the points on the pentagram; to various Archangels, Angels, Spirits, Intelligences, Elemental Rulers and Orders, etc. After absorbing and learning this extensive and complicated data, some students of magic tend to stop there, at the purely intellectual level, and mistakenly believe that they have "mastered" the four Elements simply because they know all this material.
At the other end of the esoteric spectrum, practitioners of Wicca and other Pagan traditions tend to run off-track regarding the Elements by over-emphasizing the importance of making a purely emotional connection with them. This can be a lot of fun, but is therefore potentially distracting and can become out of balance very quickly. Some Pagan groups perform orgiastic dances in which participants try to "become" Fire, Water, Air or Earth in the same fashion that Voodoo practitioners try to be "ridden by the Loa." Some popular books on witchcraft recommend meditating on burning candles or campfires, splashing in flowing streams, running across meadows on windy days, and rolling around contentedly on the good green earth. Donald Michael Kraig, in his book Modern Magic: Eleven Lessons in the High Magickal Arts (Llewellyn Books, 1988, p. 83), suggests an ingenious method that females can use to connect with the Element of Earth. He advises women to wear skirts with no panties on underneath. They are supposed to go out in public, sit down on the lawn, spread their skirts out around themselves and wiggle their behinds in the foliage. While I enthusiastically endorse and highly recommend this practice, and sincerely believe the world would be a much happier place if more women wore skirts without their panties, I doubt that such delightful techniques do much to further one's esoteric understanding of the Elements.
So how do you come to master the Elements and put this mastery into practice as a ritual magician? First, you must understand that the Four Elements, as they are meant in magic, are used metaphorically. Material fire, water, air, and earth are used to symbolize four crucially important activities and states of consciousness. Remember that magic involves "tuning" the mind so that it can start to receive the higher frequencies. The Four Elements provide the fundamental tuning mechanism, and the magician uses them like a martial arts expert uses warm up exercises, i.e., as ways of getting into the right state of mind.
One big clue that observant students of magic may detect concerning the use of the Elements is concealed within their traditional correspondence with the Tetragrammaton. The Four Holy Letters of the Sacred Name provide a diagram of the emanative process used in the Creation. Yod-heh-vov-heh reveals the most crucial steps in the Path of the Qabalistic Lightening Flash by which God created the universe, and the ritual magician is trained to use the Elements that the letters of this Name symbolize like a ladder to retrace the steps back upward to the Divine, where contact is made with the Power needed for magical operations.
The extreme importance of the Elements is also revealed by the fact that the Magician card of the Tarot's Major Arcana, in which the magical weapons symbolizing the Elements are prominently displayed on a table in front of the robed Magus, is assigned to the penultimate Path of beth on the Tree of Life. This Path connects Binah, the sephira of Understanding, to Kether, the highest sphere on the Tree. Qabalistic traditions about the letter beth show why its correspondence to the Magician card with its symbolic Four Elements is very meaningful. Beth is the first letter of the first word that appears in the Torah: bereshith, which means "in the Beginning." This tells us that the Magician begins by mastering the Four Elements that lay on the table standing before him. Traditions about the Hebrew letters further tell us that the shape of beth represents a house. From this we may conclude that the Magician masters the Elements by making himself their dwelling place. He learns how to become like a house in which they live. In other words, the Four Elements are inner processes & states of consciousness.
Within the context of an online blog, I couldn't possibly reveal all the theoretical underpinnings and ritual practices that are used in magical lodges to help initiates attain proficiency in the understanding & use of the Four Elements. But I can provide an outline that will describe and explain some of these things, hopefully along with enough hints to help you make progress in your own magical endeavors with Elemental workings. If you read the following carefully, you will begin to view the Elements a little differently than you perhaps have till now, and will begin to understand how they can be used as the steps of the graded initiatory process offered to members of magical societies.
Earth—The key term to help you understand this Element is: actual manifestation. In terms of magical practice, Earth represents the things that you make real in the phenomenal world. It is the reality behind your claim to be a practitioner of the magical arts and distinguishes the real magician from the armchair scholar of magic. As a magician, you master Earth by actually doing & creating. Simply knowing how to perform a ritual or make magical tools and talismans is one thing (see Air below) but actually performing the ritual or making magical objects is another. The magician works with Earth whenever he puts theory into practice. He doesn't just read about magic in books or only talk about it with those who share his interests. The Earth-working magician does it, or at least attempts to do it. Success at doing magic depends on blending this Earth-actualizing activity with the other Elements.
When you think of magical Earth, think of personality traits like stability, reliability, endurance & discipline. Earth is strong, stable, and sturdy, and we humans take on these characteristics whenever we become disciplined in our actions. Maintaining a disciplined program of daily ritual and meditation is the best way to start becoming an Earth-worker. This means you must cultivate a willingness to practice, practice, practice until the steps of rituals come naturally. This is the same process used when learning how to play a musical instrument, and it takes as much effort. Moving Earth always takes effort, and (just because you've been raised in a very non-spiritual scientific culture) you are trying to dig your magical foundation in some pretty hard soil.
Every day, once you have established a reliable routine, you will really be doing things that help to ground and realize your magical aspirations. Golden Dawn initiates are advised to perform the Lesser Pentagram Rituals and the Middle Pillar exercise every day, and some such daily practice is as essential to the development of magical ability as it is to becoming proficient in one of the martial arts. It doesn't matter if you can't do these things well at first—nobody can! Just keep doing them in spite of your initial clumsiness and your skill and mastery of the Earth Element of magic will eventually improve.
Air—Nothing can grow in Earth when Air is not present. Air is an intellectual Element and symbolizes your knowledge of magic. Earth represents what you actually do in your magical practice. Air is the knowledge that motivates, informs and infuses this activity with direction. Acquiring proficiency at this level demands a willingness to study, learn, and memorize a fairly large amount of material. Magical scholarship means a lot of reading and/or communicating with adepts willing to pass on what they have learned. Air rules all forms of communication because, in an airless void, no speech can be heard. Even written words are indecipherable lines and squiggles on paper unless you have the knowledge (Air) required to read them.
When you become more advanced, you will also have to begin learning from your Inner Plains Contacts, and you must know how to record, evaluate, and systematize such data. Since you will have to be able to discern the difference between good material, mediocre material, and utter nonsense, the cultivation of good judgment and intellectual discrimination is absolutely necessary for the mastery of Air. So is magical problem solving, and there are many situations in magic that call for quick thinking and good problem solving skills.
Water—This Element symbolizes an inner state of receptivity in which Higher Powers can communicate to you and channel their energies through you. This is a very difficult Element for students to master primarily because our language contains no terms that unambiguously denote the inner state of consciousness symbolized by Water. Thus, it is challenging to describe exactly what students should be trying to experience at this level. Our culture employs terms like "imagining," "day-dreaming," and "reverie," which approximate what the magician aspires to do when working with Water. But all these commonly used terms fall short of completely capturing the meaning of this magical state of mind. They all indicate a state in which a person consciously constructs fantasies according to the whims of his various moods, and this is certainly not what the magician is doing.
Water consciousness uses the same faculty that we use when we imagine, but uses it in a much more disciplined fashion. The magician puts specialized limitations on what he consciously places in his imagination. He selects some of the images to be imagined from a set of symbols established by means of magical correspondence and creates other images according to the rules for the construction of telesmata. Then he sets these afloat within the Waters of his ritually stimulated imagination and receptively waits for associated images to spontaneously manifest in consciousness. This state of inner waiting for "other things" to emerge spontaneously, while concentrating on preselected imagery, is the essence of the magical Element of Water.
This is a difficult state of mind for people to attain because our culture neglects to instruct people in the full range of their imaginative capabilities. Adult society has relegated imagination to the insignificant status of a child's toy. Most people assume that imagination plays a role of no importance in adult life, and are therefore completely ignorant of all the ways that imagination can be used. Another handicap is that we tend to restrict our imaginations to the purely visual, and forget that all the senses come into play at this level of consciousness. One can imagine odors, tastes, sounds and physical sensations as well as visual phenomena. There are even higher states of imagination that are completely beyond the sensual altogether and function purely on the intellectual, intuitive, and spiritual levels.
Magicians know that their imaginations are more than just inner entertainment centers, and use magical rituals and meditative exercises to switch their imaginative channels to higher frequencies. Such rituals are effective, however, only when performed correctly (an Earth factor) and with complete knowledge of their meaning and purpose (an Air factor.) Therefore, before you can attain this state, you must adhere to your daily ritual routine, meditate regularly, and continue to improve your knowledge base.
Fire—Magic requires the ability to think in unusual ways and will carry you into a world far beyond the looking glass of everyday reality. With this in mind, I pass on to you a strange old adage that conveys the surreal nature of magic perhaps better than most: "A Magician builds a fire with water." If you have followed what I have written above, you will see how the use of one Element builds on the use of the others, and, in magic, the acquisition of Fire depends on the attainment of Water.
In plainer terms, what this means is that the magician succeeds at attaining a state of inner imaginative receptivity (the Water state described above) and has allowed the preselected imagery employed in a ritual to stimulate spontaneous associations. When this happens, it is said that the imagination has "caught fire." Unless you have actually experienced this exhilarating (and sometimes terrifying) phenomenon for yourself, it will be difficult to understand how powerful and potentially overwhelming it is. This is not "daydreaming," because daydreaming is consciously created & compelled by moods of boredom or desire. It is more like the kind of dreaming you do when you're asleep and your consciousness is filled by sights, sounds and situations that just seem to happen of themselves. In Fire consciousness, you are dreaming, but you are wide-awake at the same time, and therefore able to interact purposefully with the things you are experiencing.
When the Fire energies are awakened, it is as though a switch has been flipped to the "on" position. Contact is made between yourself and a different dimension of reality, and a powerful current begins to flow. Magicians learn to channel this current through themselves and can transform and direct it into the different Elemental aspects of their own being. Fire can be transformed and manifested in four ways that add another level of complexity to the study of the magical Elements: (i.) Fire of Earth that produces changes in the world around you; (ii) Fire of Air that energizes the intellect; (iii) Fire of Water, described above, that manifests as perceptive imagination; and (iv) Fire of Fire, a highly spiritual form of energy capable of producing a total transformation of the personality.
Every Element can be subdivided in this four-fold fashion, and there is not enough space here to explore the meanings of all these combinations. Learning what they mean and how to activate all of them at will is the work of the Adept and requires many, many years of study & practice. For now, however, a summarizing statement may help you to direct your magical endeavors in the time honored order recommended in many magical lodges. In order to begin mastering the Elements, keep the following sentence in mind:
"Magicians perform rituals and meditations (Earth) using the symbol systems they have learned (Air) to stimulate & transform the imagination into a faculty of perception (Water) in which the Higher Powers will appear and communicate (Fire.)"
Hopefully, what was written in this entry will be sufficient to make this sentence of practical value.