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Element n. 1. One of the four substances air, water, fire and earth formerly believed to compose the physical universe. 2. A constituent part; the simplest principles of a subject of study 3. One of the necessary data or values on which calculations or conclusions are based; one of the factors determining the outcome of a process.
Just what are the elements? Where did they come from, psychologically and historically? In our modern world we are familiar with the periodic table of chemical elements which make up the substances of the cosmos. But there is more to existence than the material world. How do we connect the physical matter of our bodies and the world around us with the more ethereal substance of our minds, our thoughts, and consciousness?
The metaphysical elements are a system of classification that allows us to categorize, study and think about the concrete and abstract components that make up the universe. A number of cultures around the world have long used systems of four or five esoteric elements to explain the world in both spiritual and material terms. In this post we will explore the element systems of Europe, China and India.
The esoteric elements are associated with various properties – geographic direction, color, emotion, time, season, even animals and historical characters. Some of these properties vary from culture to culture but many of them, particularly season and emotion, cross cultural boundaries.
Why do we use the elements in ritual? We already call on deities or some form of consciousness greater than our own. Why do we need to focus on these smaller aspects as well?
While we each have a spark of the divine within us, the faces of deity we confront in ritual are facets of the cosmic whole that is ultimately beyond our comprehension. Elements, in contrast, are a part of our everyday world. They remind us that we have within ourselves our own shades and flavors of energy and being that can change from moment to moment and according to our needs. The elements reflect our baser instincts, those primitive emotional responses from ages ago that still underlie our daily thoughts and actions. To call on the elements in ritual is to acknowledge yet another level of existence within the universe and within ourselves.
The European Elements
The four familiar elements of the European alchemists are fire, air, water and earth, inherited from the philosophy of classical Greece. These four elements make up the world, both magical and mundane, for those who follow European spiritual traditions. They represent the changing seasons, the cycle of time during the day and the year, and the phases of life. Each element corresponds to a direction and a set of emotional responses as well.
The European pagan worldview encompasses both male and female within the divine; the European elements also correspond to both masculine and feminine. The directional associations listed below are common among European-derived traditions. There is variation, however, and some traditions place air in the north and earth in the east. Ceremonial magicians may use a different orientation entirely, but for our purposes, these are the most common correspondences.
Air Fire Water Earth East South West North Yellow Red Blue Green Wisdom Passion Faith Discretion Dawn Noon Dusk Midnight Spring Summer Autumn Winter Birth Growth Decline Death Masc Masc Fem Fem
In addition to the four "material" metaphysical elements above, many European traditions incorporate a fifth element, usually referred to as Spirit. Spirit is the combination and culmination of the other four elements. When the four elements are arranged in their given directions around a circle, Spirit is located in the center of the circle. The five elements can also be set at the points of a pentagram. In this case, the connecting lines of the pentagram serve as a reminder that all of creation is connected to every other part.
The Chinese Elements
The Chinese system employs five elements, not four. They are associated with color, season and emotion just like the European system. But the Chinese elemental system also correlates each element with a life relationship and a vital organ. This is yet another method of emphasizing how the basic aspects of our existence influence our lives.
The Chinese use this elemental system in their traditional medicine as well as their spiritual practice. They see the two as intimately connected. Doctors who practice Chinese Traditional Medicine often describe physical ailments as an imbalance in the patient's elements. They still prescribe medicine and dietary changes just as a Western doctor would do, but they also use the elemental system to help the person focus on emotional or psychological factors that may be affecting their health.
Fire Earth Metal Water Wood Red Yellow White Blue Green Passion Nourishment Strength Emotion Growth Partner Mother Father Death Life Summer Harvest Autumn Winter Spring Heart Stomach Bowels Kidneys Liver
The Vedic Elements
The Vedic element system, based in Hindu traditions from India, is similar to the two systems we have already discussed above. It contains five elements that roughly correspond to earth, water, fire, air and spirit. But the Vedic elements, or mahabhutas, are described more by their qualities as perceived by our senses than by categories such as color or season. The five Vedic elements also correspond to the five physical senses humans experience.
Like the Chinese, the Indians use their elemental system in their traditional medical practice. Ayurvedic medicine categorizes food and people according to the five elements, and Ayurvedic practitioners view illness as an imbalance of these elements.
Earth Water Fire Air Space prithivi apas agni vayu akasha solid fluid barely material immaterial void dense movable visible invisible existence smell taste sight touch sound
The Ayurvedic tradition describes food according to the five elements. It also relates the elements, or combinations of them, to the different tastes that food can have. Thus sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent foods are said to have combinations of the elements (and their energies) within them. How might you use these qualities to choose your foods to enhance your mood or help heal illness?
Using the Elements
Which element system might you choose for a certain ritual or meditation? How would you decide among them? Of course, using the element system intrinsic to your preferred culture or spiritual tradition makes sense. But what if one of the other systems suits a particular purpose better? Think about how you would incorporate it into your spiritual practice. These are not the only element systems in existence; consider researching others as well.
When using elements in spiritual practice, it is wise to remember that they represent the most basic, simplistic levels of existence. But they are also infinitely powerful, since they are the building blocks of the universe. Just as you would not command a deity into your ritual space and order them around as your servant, you should also show respect to the elements. They are aspects of the greater One, powerful but simple. Be respectful.
Since each element represents an aspect of the great puzzle of the universe, it stands to reason (or intuition) that one element alone would be unbalanced. The elements together ring round the circle, evenly spaced and in balance, completing a harmonious picture. What would happen if you left out one or two elements? How would that affect the energy you had to work with?
There may be times when you choose to focus on just one element, its properties and effects. How would this be different from an occasion when you use all the elements together? How might you plan for it? How might it be uncomfortable or even dangerous to use just one element at a time? I have a friend who spent some time in the burn unit of a hospital after performing a ritual centered on the element of Fire.
When might you choose not to use the elements at all? How would it affect a ritual or meditation if you consciously chose to leave out any reference to the elements? These are important questions to ponder as you progress in the practice of your spirituality.