The ancient Greeks believed the universe was broken down into four basic elements: Earth, Air, Water and Fire (as proposed by the philosopher Empedocles). Aristotle added a fifth element, Aether – the matter that fills the universe above the terrestrial sphere.
Many cultures actually believe in five basic elements.
In Hinduism there is Earth, Water, Air, Fire and Void. This is the same in Japan.
In China there is Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water.
The Celts believed in three: Earth, Sea, Sky.
However, in this article, I’m going to focus on the four elements.
Obviously we know today that the universe is broken down into the 118 elements on the periodic table, which is ordered by each element’s atomic number (the number of protons in its nucleus).
Yet the “four elements” provide an important way for people to conceptualize who they are on a spiritual level. Understanding what each element represents helps us evaluate where our individual strengths and weaknesses are. And in the West, the four classical elements seem to be the default.
And there’s a certain, balanced logic to the number four. There are four seasons in a year. Four states of matter (solid, liquid, gas, plasma). Most tables are held up by four legs. Most people have four limbs (or a fifth if you include the head). The spiritual significance of the number four is stability and structure.
There are many healing traditions and religions which incorporate the elements in their practices. The four suits in the Tarot represent the four elements. The medicine wheel is an example of Native Americans recognizing the four elements. Wiccans honor the classical elements along with a fifth added in that represents the spirit or the self.
So, now that we’ve clarified why the number four is important, what is the significance of the elements themselves?
ELEMENTAL SIGNIFICANCE: BASIC DEFINITIONS
- Air represents intellect, mental intention, and connection to universal life force.
- Earth represents grounding, the foundation of life, substance, connection to life path, and family roots.
- Fire represents energy, a tool for transformation, connection to personal power, and inner strength.
- Water represents emotional release, intuition, and inner reflection.
THE ELEMENT OF AIR
GODS: Enlil, Kheohera, Mercurym, Shu, Thoth
GODDESSES: Aradia, Arianrhod, Cardea, Nuit, Urania.
Cardinal Direction: East (where the sun rises)
Season: Spring (A time of freshness)
Time of Day: Dawn
Positive Qualities: vigilance, care-freedom, kind-heartedness, trusting nature, clarity, lightness, independency, dexterity, optimism, diligence, acuity, joy, smiling…
Negative Qualities: lack of perseverance, dishonesty, gossipy, cunningness, backbiting, garrulousness, inconstancy, touchiness, prodigality.
Astrology: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius
Spiritual Significance: Intellect, freedom, purity.
“The element of Air is vital to human survival, without it we would all perish, its aspects are Thinness, Motion and Darkness and its quality is Active. Air is the manifestation of movement, freshness, communication and of the intelligence. Sound is another manifestation of this element. As an element, it is invisible, but its reality can be felt in the air that we breathe in every day.
To connect with the power of this element, find a place with clean air and breathe deeply, touch a feather or inhale the fragrance of a heavily scented flower. Let yourself experience the energy of this element, and reflect that we also possess Air energy within ourselves.
In magical terms, Air is the power of the mind, the force of intellect, inspiration, imagination. It is ideas, knowledge, dreams and wishes. Air is the element of new life and new possibilities and is essential to spells and rituals of travel, instruction, finding lost items, some types of divination, and freedom. Air aids us in visualization, a vital technique in magic.
Air is a masculine element and governs the magick of the four winds. It is the vital spirit passing through all things, giving life to all things, moving and filling all things. Thus Hebrew doctors ascribe it not as an element but as a medium or glue that binds all things together.” (Source)
THE ELEMENT OF EARTH
GODS: Adonis, Athos, Arawn, Cernunnos, Dionysus, Marduk, Pan, Tammuz.
GODDESSES: Ceres, Demeter, Gaea, Mah, Nephthys, Persephone, Prithivi, Rhea, Rhiannon.
Cardinal Direction: North
Season: Winter (A Time of Darkness)
Time of Day: Night
Positive Qualities: consistency, conscientiousness, perseverance, punctuality, caution, resistance, responsibility, carefulness, firmness, reliability, sobriety, ambition, respectfulness, matter-of-factness…
Negative Qualities: stuffiness, superficiality, laziness, indifference, cumbersomeness, touchiness, lack of conscientiousness, irregularity, timidity, scornfulness…
Astrology: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
Spiritual Significance: Discipline, Vigilance, Stabilizing, Grounding.
“The basis and foundation of all the elements is the Earth. The Earth is the object; subject and receptacle of all celestial rays and influences and in it are the seeds of all things. It is made fruitful by the other elements and the heavens, and brings forth all things of itself. It is the first fountain from whence all things spring; it is the centre, foundation and mother of all things.
Earth is the element of stability, foundations and of the body. The Earth is the realm of wisdom, knowledge, strength, growth and prosperity. It is also the physical Earth on which we live and the very heart of life. It is essential in spells and rituals of prosperity, business, fertility and stability. Earth is a feminine element and governs stone and knot magic.
The Earth can be viewed as our mother, with its fertile and nurturing farmland, providing all Earth’s creatures with nourishment and shelter. The earth takes on qualities of the other elements, whether it is the dry, dusty and hot aspects of Fire and Air, as is found in deserts. Or the moist and fluid aspects of Water, in swamps, marshlands and fens. In its physical manifestations, such as stones, rocks, crystals and gems, the element of Earth represents the densest of the elements.
The Earth is the womb from which all things spring, pressing your hand against fresh soil, you can feel its vitality, stability and earthiness. In its fertile soil, we’ve grown the food that provides life, on its surface we live out our lives, and when the time to return to the Goddess and God comes, we are interred in the earth.
We couldn’t exist in this form without the Earth. But our planet is simply a manifestation of this element on the physical plane, each of the elements exist in the astral planes as pure energy. This Earth energy not only exists within ourselves but also throughout the universe at large.” (Source)
THE ELEMENT OF WATER
GODS: Dylan, Ea, Manannan, Osiris, Neptune, Poseidon
GODDESSES: Aphrodite, Isis, Mariamne, Mari, Tiamat, Yemaya.
Cardinal Direction: West (where the sun sets)
Season: Autumn (a time of harvest)
Time of Day: Dusk
Positive Qualities: understanding, placidity, mildness, trusting nature, devotion, mercy, forgiveness, modesty, compassion, fervour, pliancy, meditativeness, internalization…
Negative Qualities: indifference, heartlessness, laziness, indolence, rigidity, lack of daring, lack of concern, unstableness, dejection
Astrology: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
Spiritual Significance: Intuition, Emotion, Compassion, Healing
“Water, is a great necessity, without it nothing can live. Only earth and water can bring forth a living soul. Such is the greatness of water that spiritual regeneration cannot be done without it.
Thales of Miletus concluded that water was the beginning of all things and the first of all elements and most potent because of its mastery over the rest. Pliny said “Water swallow up the earth, extinguishes the flame, ascends on high, and by stretching forth as clouds challenges the heavens for their own, and the same falling down, becomes the cause of all things that grow in the earth.
Water is a cleansing, healing, psychic, and loving element. It is the feeling of friendship and love that pours over us when we are with our family, friends and loved ones. When we swim it is water that supports us, when we are thirsty, it is water the quenches our thirst, another manifestation of this element is the rainstorms that drench us, or the dew formed on plants after the sun has set.
The power of the energy of Water, can be felt by tasting pure spring water, moving you hand through a stream, lake, pool, or bowl full of water. You can feel its cool liquidity; it’s soft and loving touch, this motion and fluidity is the quality of Air within Water. This Water energy is also contained within ourselves, our bodies being mostly composed of Water.
As well as being vital for life, within the energy of this element is contained the essence of love. Love is the underlying reason for all magic. Water is love.
Water is a feminine element, it also the element of emotion and subconscious, of purification, intuition, mysteries of the self, compassion and family. It is psychic ability; water can be used as a means of scrying or as an object for meditation. Water is important in spells and rituals of friendship, marriage, happiness, fertility, healing, pleasure, psychic abilities and spells involving mirrors.” (Source)
THE ELEMENT OF FIRE
GODS: Agni, Hepaetus, Horus, Promtheus, Vulcan.
GODDESSES: Brigit, Pele, Vesta.
Cardinal Direction: South
Season: Summer (The Time of Heat)
Time of Day: Noon (When the Sun in Highest)
Positive Qualities: vigorousness, zeal, enthusiasm, courage, decisiveness, power of creativity, daring, sedulity…
Negative Qualities: quarrelsomeness, irritability, urge to destroy everything, passion, immoderacy, jealousy, voraciousness, vindictiveness, violence, hate, anger, sudden ebullition…
Astrology: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
Spiritual Significance: Destruction, Renewal, Rebirth, Transformation
“The element of Fire is both creative and destructive, its qualities are Brightness, Thinness and Motion and its mode is Active. It is fire that we and our ancestors used to warm our homes, we use it to cook our food, we sit around it to ward of the darkness of night, and it fuels our passions. Fire, unlike the other elements, does not exist in a natural state. Its physical form can only take place by consuming some other element. Fire is the transformer, converting the energy of other objects into other forms: heat, light, ash, and smoke.
To feel the manifestations of this power, go out on sunny day and feel the warmth and light of the Sun, hear the crackling of logs and smell of smoke from a burning fire. As you gaze into the transformational flame of a candle, immerse yourself in the energy of Fire. Fire is the natural element of animals and mankind, and they “have, in their natures, a most fiery force, and also spring from celestial sources.”
In order to gain benefit from the energy of this element, we need to control Fire’s destructive aspect. When we light a candle, we are not only calling upon the energy of Fire, we are also limiting its power. This destructive aspect should not be seen as negative, forest fires, actually help, clearing away underbrush and encouraging seeds lying dormant within the Earth to burst forth into new life.
Fire is a masculine element, its aspects being change, passion, creativity, motivation, will power, drive and sensuality. It is sexuality, both physical and spiritual. Fire is used in spells, rituals and candle magic for healing, purification, sex, breaking bad habits or destroying illness and disease. Fire is the element of authority and leadership.
The properties of Fire, Heat, Making things fruitful, Celestial light, Giving Life to all things. Its opposite the Infernal Fire are a parching heat, consuming all things and darkness, making all things barren.” (Source)
The Four Classical Elements (Wikipedia)
The Elements of Magick (The White Goddess)
The Elements – Fire, Earth, Air and Water (Thought.Co)
I invoke the land of Ireland
Shining, shining sea
Fertile, fertile mountain
Abundant river, abundant in waters
Fish abounding waters
Fish abounding sea
Irruption of fish! Fish there
Bird under wave! Great fish
Crab hole! Irruption of fish
Fish abounding sea
Among the ancient Celtic people, there was a primitive nature magic that permeated the land. The verse above is a proclamation from the poet of the Milesians, Armairgen, before the Milesians invaded Ireland.
WORSHIP OF THE ELEMENTS
It was common for folk to invoke the elements when taking an oath. People could swear by heaven, earth, sun, fire, moon, sea, land, day, night etc, and these things would punish the oath breaker if they did not keep their word. Even the Gods would swear by the elements. Such oaths existed at a time when people believed the elements to be a divine force. Similar beliefs were practiced by the Greeks and Scandinavians.
It makes sense that people would worship the basic objects of nature. As the comedian George Carlin said in one of his sketches, “I’ve begun worshiping the sun for a number of reasons. First of all, unlike some other gods I could mention, I can see the sun. It’s there for me every day. And the things it brings me are quite apparent all the time: heat, light, food, and a lovely day.”
SPIRITS OF THE LAND
Yet the Celts also populated the Earth with spirits, both friend and foe. Some of these spirits may exist as fairy in a meadow or as a demonic being haunting a lonely place. The druids were known to send forth mischievous spirits called siabra. These were spectral bodies they could raise from the ground. And of course there are the The Tuatha Dé Danann (a mythical race of people who were defeated, moved underground and resided within the Earth as spirits or fairies).
One of the most important elements of nature to the primitive folk was the moon. The phases of the moon offered an easy way to measure time. The Celtic year was lunar before it became solar. There are still many cultures today that use a lunar calendar (the Islamic calendar for example). Night also preceded the day.
The moon dictated when certain tasks would be carried out. The moon waxes and wains, therefore it was a symbol of growth and decay. Crops would be sown on a waxing moon and harvested on the waning moon. If you needed something to grow – you would do it while the moon was waxing. If you needed to finish a task, you did it when the moon was waning.
In Greek Culture, Artemis and Diana – the moon goddesses – had power over all growing things.
There is evidence that the primitive peoples of Europe may have worshiped animal deities: Wolf Gods, Bear Gods, Deer Gods and Bird Gods. The current theory is that as humans became more agricultural and asserted more power over the land – anthropological deities replaced animal deities. As nomads, humans were more subject to the whims of nature. The might and power of a bear could certainly seem divine. Yet as a farmer, man not only asserted himself over the land – but began to assert himself more in the spiritual realm as well (Native American and Hindu Mythology are rife with traditions of Animal Deities).
Also, as the Romans took over the Continental Celts (The Gauls), they forced the Gauls to abandon their more animalistic deities in favor of purely human ones.
What is the evidence that points to the worship of animal Gods? Many of the Gods the European pagans worshiped were shape-shifters who could turn into animals. The Morrigan, the phantom queen of battle, strife and fertility, often took the form of a raven or a crow. Moccus was a Swine Agriculture God. Epona was a Gallic/Roman horse Goddess. Then there is Cernunnos the horned God, a liminal God connected to the hunt, the underworld and sexuality.
Even in their more humanized form, certain Gods still had an association with an animal familiar. For example, there is the wise Roman Goddess Minerva who would often be associated with an owl. Even today the owl carries a connotation of learning (just watch Winnie The Pooh).
Most of the information in this post came from “The Religion of the Ancient Celts,” by J.A. MacCulloch. If you go to the listed link, you can read his ebook for free. A great comprehensive source on the religion of the Celts.