Friday, March 2, 2012

E Is For The Elements

Once upon a time I was in a coven. It was a while ago now; we split up when some of us moved north and others of us moved south and it just wasn't working, geographically, anyway.

In this coven, like a lot of others, when we cast circles we used the correspondences of east as air, south as fire, west as water, and north as earth.

I went along with it; it was what we did, and I guess I didn't think about it too much. But one thing always bothered me and never made any sense to me at all, and that was putting earth in the north.

North is winter. Winter is cold, dead, sleeping, comatose; none of this makes sense to me as earth. Oh I get that earth represents the Void in some ways, the black primal matter from which all else arises; but in my experience with the Void, or the wings of my daimon, shall we say, that black is not dead, but vibrantly alive, teeming with potential: radiant, even. And north and winter just don't fit that, for me.

If something is going to function as the I guess archetype of the element, then I'd expect that element to be awake, at least, and for earth, that means growth, luxurious unbridled inexhaustible life, zoë, as Kerényi would say. In other words, not winter.

But then in my wanderings about the internet I found this article: Re-Thinking the Watchtowers, by Mike Nichols. If you've never read it, go do that now, and then come back. I'll wait.

He makes a fairly compelling argument for doing it this way: east as earth, south as fire, west as water, and north as air.

So I tried it, since north as air fit with what I'd always seen, here in New England, which is so much like Old England, in both the lay of the land (once in fact the very same land, which split off with continental drift) and, more or less, in climate. North as the place from where the cold winds blow? Yes, that makes sense to me.

And it worked. Holy moly it worked. Everything got upped, got more powerful. I could feel it. Mostly, I think, because, like Nichols says in his article, you get a sort of 'generator' effect, of alternating 'feminine' and 'masculine' energies, of the obviously horizontal (earth and water, that which literally is the horizon and that which seeks the level, east and west) and the vertical (fire and air, both of which can flow upward, heat rising through the air, south and north); and it really does feel (to me, anyway) like an radial engine firing, round and round and round, building up power.

Now. One of Nichols's arguments for putting air in the north, is that it corresponds to the layout of the land, specifically the British Isles. When you look on the map, to the west is the Atlantic Ocean, to the south, the warmer lands (and eventually the equator), to the east, the great land mass of all of Asia, and to the north, the cold blustery Arctic, which, incidentally, is not land anyway, being a frozen ocean.

But then the other night I was again wandering about the internet and came across another web site talking about the elements and the directions; alas, I don't remember what the site was, so I can't link now, but the author recommended trying all kinds of different correspondences, to see what fit best for you. Everyone, after all, has different associations with things depending on circumstance and experience, or on how one's individual brain works.

So then I thought: well, much as I like England and wish I were there (I've been and it felt like home, oh my god it felt like home), I am not. I'm in New England. And when I look at the map of where I actually am, the land I am supposed to be grounded to, my landbase, as Hecate would say, what do I see? I see water, that same Atlantic Ocean, to my east, and the great mass of the rest of the country to my west. Now I know, west as the Sea over which the Dead pass, sure, that's very ingrained in folklore. Folklore that I've certainly read, and which resonates, because my family does ultimately come from those lands, but folklore which is still specific to a place that is not where I am now.

So I switched it again, putting water in the east, and earth in the west. It still has the same horizontal/vertical, feminine/masculine tension to it.

Now I've only just come up with this, and so I've only had one chance to try it, and that wasn't in a full circle, just as part of cleansing a space. But as I faced east, I could picture the ocean before me, the ocean I know and am familiar with; and facing west I saw the rest of the land, all the way across the Mississippi, over the plains, over the mountains, all the way, all this land, and I knew where I was. I could feel my feet firmly planted in the reality of this land, this specific place.

So I'd say, if you live on the eastern seaboard of the US (Hecate, yeah, I'm totally looking at you), give it a try. It grounded me instantly, profoundly, unthinkingly, just as a matter of course, because it represents where I am.


RasJane said...

Thank you so much for this post! I'm new to witchcraft, and everyone I know uses the North/Earth, East/Air associations. I didn't get it. I read or heard somewhere to relate everything in your practice to your immediate location. So I did. I live in W. Oregon. The wind blows hard from the North. The Ocean is to the West and the vast expanse of the continent is to the East. Anything warmer than here is South. So that is my way of doing it and I can definitely feel the difference when I practice this way. Now I don't feel so odd. LOL, well, not AS odd I guess!

Debra She Who Seeks said...

Thanks for this -- much to think about. I like the idea of North representing Air because of our fabulous Aurora Borealis northern lights which dance in the winter night skies.

Zoe M said...

I've come across quite a few Australians who do the same thing, since we already have to reverse the casting order (our fire is in the North, as we're below the equator). We have, those of us on the East coast (which is more of our population centres), the vasty Pacific Ocean to our East, and the wide brown land that is our country to our West.
I haven't used a circle calling regularly for some time, having meandered over to Graeco-Egyptian revival traditions, but maybe I should give it another go.

Zoe M said...

Oh, and since I've just reread the article, can I leave one argument for earth in the north? (Since he says the only one is "we've done it this way.)
In the traditional method of doing things, you actually begin with the lightest element and progress around the circle to the densest, finishing with the groundedness of earth. Then when uncasting. The only disadvantage I can see is that you lose that neat progression. (Which doesn't mean, of course, that you don't gain other things in its place.)
And I wonder how much that ritual progression is dependent on the writers of our traditions generally being men - if you want to move from the masculine realms you generally inhabit to try and embrace the elements that you feel more distant from, you start from the airy east, move through fire, then meet watery west and finish in grounded earth. Whereas if you [generic second person pronoun], as a woman, want to meet the elements of the other gender, you could ground yourself thoroughly in earth in the north/south (it feels wrong to associate earth with the north after nearly fifteen years of southern hemisphere practice, believe me) before reaching up to the 'masculine', lighter elements.
(Of course, there's both power and problems with a gendered binary approach.)
Food for thought.

Rose said...

Thank you for this. I am currently looking at Shamanism and the Medicine Wheel but these things are so very much linked to the land that I think in order to practice as my Ancestors did here (in England)that things have to be slightly different because the land is different - it never occurred to me to switch the elements around though!

Casey Hamilton said...

I love the notion of individual directions, depending on the person and where that person is located. I really thought long and hard about North being Air for me, but ultimately determined that for me, it is not.

East is Air, because when I look East, I see the tops of trees, rooftops marching away up the hill, and the radio towers up at the top of Capitol Hill. North is Earth, because when I look North, I see the rectilinear masses of apartment buildings and then the land masses of the city North of Lake Union.

So I really like it, but I seem to belong with the "traditional" associations.

Lady Jake said...

Mind blown. This makes much sense, and as an England-born Cascadian living in the PNW, it works for me.

And yet, and yet, and yet - I LIKE Earth in the North! It's the quiet, chtonic aspect of Earth that resonates for me, the strength of mountains, the steadfastness of forest, the womb of the cave...