The Greeks proposed the existence of five basic elements. Of these, four were the physical elements—fire, air, water, and earth—of which the entire world is composed. Alchemists eventually associated four triangular symbols to represent these elements.
The fifth element, which goes by a variety of names, is more rarefied than the four physical elements. Some call it Spirit. Others call it Aether or Quintessence (literally “the fifth element” in Latin).
In traditional Western occult theory, the elements are hierarchical: Spirit, fire, air, water, and earth—with the first elements being more spiritual and perfect and the last elements being more material and base. Some modern systems, such as Wicca, view the elements as equal.
Before we examine the elements themselves, it is important to understand the qualities, orientations, and correspondences that are associated with the elements. Each element is connected with aspects in each of these, and it helps correlate their relationship to one another.
In classical elemental systems, each element has two qualities, and it shares each quality with one other element.
Each element is either warm or cold, and this corresponds with a male or female gender. This is a strongly dichotomous system, where male qualities are things like light, warmth, and activity, and female qualities are dark, cold, passive, and receptive.
The orientation of the triangle is determined by warmth or coldness, male or female. Male, warm elements point upward, ascending toward the spiritual realm. Female, cold elements point downward, descending into the earth.
The second pair of qualities is moistness or dryness. Unlike the warm and cold qualities, moist and dry qualities do not immediately correspond to other concepts.
Because each element shares one of its qualities with one other element, that leaves one element completely unrelated.
For example, air is moist like water and warm like fire, but it has nothing in common with earth. These opposing elements are on opposite sides of the diagram and are distinguished by the presence or absence of the crossbar within the triangle:
- Air and earth are opposites and have the crossbar
- Water and fire are also opposites and lack the crossbar.
Hierarchy of Elements
There is traditionally a hierarchy of elements, although some modern schools of thought have abandoned this system. The lower elements in the hierarchy are more material and physical, with the higher elements becoming more spiritual, more rarefied, and less physical.
That hierarchy can be traced through this diagram. Earth is the lowest, most material element. Circling clockwise from earth you get water, and then air and then fire, which is the least material of the elements.
The pentagram has represented many diverse meanings over the centuries. Since at least the Renaissance, one of its associations is with the five elements.
Traditionally, there is a hierarchy among the elements ranging from the most spiritual and rarefied to the least spiritual and most material. This hierarchy determines the placement of elements around the pentagram.
Starting with spirit, the highest element, we descend to fire, then follow the lines of the pentagram over to air, across to water, and down to earth, the lowest and most material of the elements. The final line between earth and spirit completes the geometric shape.
The issue of a pentagram being point-up or point-down only gained relevance in the 19th-century and has everything to do with the arrangement of elements. A point-up pentagram came to symbolize spirit ruling over the four physical elements, while a point-down pentagram symbolized spirit being subsumed by matter or descending into matter.
Since then, some have simplified those associations to represent good and evil. This is generally not the position of those who commonly work with point-down pentagrams, and is often not the position of those associating themselves with point-up pentagrams either.
The colors used here are those associated with each element by the Golden Dawn. These associations are commonly borrowed by other groups as well.
Ceremonial occult systems traditionally depend on systems of correspondences: collections of items that are all associated in some way with the desired goal. While the types of correspondences are nearly endless, associations between elements, seasons, time of day, elements, moon phases, and directions have become fairly standardized in the West. These are frequently the basis for additional correspondences.
The Golden Dawn’s Elemental/Directional Correspondences
The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn codified some of these correspondences in the 19th-century. Most notable here are the cardinal directions.
The Golden Dawn originated in England, and
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