The four elements of nature are Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. (There is a 5th element, called Ether, which is Spirit—or what connects us to Spirit.) This system of thought, it seems, is attributed to the Greeks. But the Chinese culture similarly has 5 elements—wood, earth, water, fire, and metal. The four elements are used in astrology, are the basis for the suits in tarot, are found in indigenous cultures— including the Native American culture, and in witchcraft and other earth-based spiritualities—which, again, includes Native Americans.
At least in witchcraft, the four elements are also connected to the four directions. But those assignments can vary depending on where you live in the world. One of the most common ones is North = Earth, East = Air, South = Fire, and West = Water. These are the associations I’ve settled on. But another common one has South and East assignments flipped.
The four elements also have a ton of other associations but, in my mind, these are the primary ones. Earth = Grounding/Physicality, Air = Intellect/Truth, Fire = Energy/Action, Water = Emotions/Intuition.
Zodiac signs fall under these elemental groupings. Gemini, my sun sign, is an air sign, which makes complete sense to me because I am a thinker, that I am. Groupings are as follows:
- Earth: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
- Air: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius
- Fire: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
- Water: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
Come to find out, there are even more associations to the elements. You can find them here in this online dictionary of symbolism.
The four elements are also assigned masculine and feminine categories, with masculine being the more active energies and feminine being the more receptive energies. Fire and air are considered masculine, earth and water are considered feminine. You can also connect this to the symbols for each element, with the masculine symbols pointing upward and the female ones pointing downward (this is my own interpretation). According to the book Signs and Symbols, An illustrated guide to their origins and meanings, fire, an upward pointing triangle, rises through air, which is also an upward pointing triangle with a horizontal line. And water, a downward pointing triangle, falls through earth, which is also a downward pointing triangle with a horizontal line. The symbols for ♂ masculine and ♀ feminine are circles rather than triangles, one with an active arrow pointing upwards, the other with crossed lines below the circle. I don’t think they were created with that upward/downward consideration, however. Here is an interesting article that posits how those symbols came to be. They aren’t in the Signs and Symbols book, which is odd. Note: Feminine/Masculine, like Yin/Yang, are all about energies, not gender, in this discussion.
I dunno, I find all of this stuff fascinating!
Witches bring the elements into their practice. And Feng Shui is about balancing the elements in your environment for harmony (the Chinese elements). Me, who likes to take a little bit of what I like from everything and leave the rest behind, feels like balancing the four elements in your home seems like a good idea to try. My sun porch has a book shelf full of what I call “witchy” things that has all the elemental objects on it—even metal, actually. I do feel really good every time I am out on my porch—lighter, freer. Which might also be because I am surrounded by nature (without the bugs, except for random ones that make it into the house). So, now it’s time to tackle some other rooms! One of the Feng Shui “tricks of the trade,” so to speak, is about adding living things to your rooms, to bring nature inside. Could be a fish tank, but the simpler way is to add houseplants. I’m up for that.
An Elemental Practice
I wanted to end with an elemental practice I’ve incorporated into my life. I try to do it most days. It is a combination of Calling in the Directions (with my elemental associations) and the Navajo Beauty Way prayer (highly abbreviated).
As I face each direction, starting with the north, I ask for elemental help as I walk through the day, followed by the Beauty Way Prayer. It goes something like this:
[3 deep breaths]
[Facing north] I ask the North for groundedness as I walk through my day,
[Facing east] I ask the East for wisdom and mental clarity in all that I do,
[Facing south] I ask the South for energy and the courage to walk in my truth,
[Facing west] I ask the West to help me walk in love and kindness today.
May I walk with beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty above me, beauty below me, beauty all around me.
[deep breaths, often a moment of reflection]