The most fundamental error that most Neophytes in the study of magick make is to mistake the symbols of the occult for the things that they represent. The basic misapprehension begins with the simplest set of magickal symbols, the Platonic Elements. Almost every manual of occult instruction invokes this set of symbols but throughout the long history of the literature of magick very few have attempted to explain what they are.
The Elements According to Plato and Aristotle
Although Plato indicates that the concept of the elements predates his use of them he was the first to develop them into their current format. The origins of the Elements derive from the four ‘roots’ described by Empedocles. He referred to them metaphorically as rhizomata which implied that they are the source or a more developed cognition of our empirical experiences. Plato developed the idea and made these roots into the basic building blocks, the smallest divisions of cognition, the most fundamental observations that we can make of our experiences1. Aristotle went on to delineate the classifications of the sense impressions that are implied by the Elements as being hot or cold and wet or dry and admixtures of these qualities.
Aristotle went on to postulate that the material Elements must have been generated out of their pure forms at the creation of the Universe2. This led to the thought that these Elements are the basic building blocks of the material universe. We have since learned that this is not the case and the classical Elements of fire, water, air and earth do not make up the most basic composition of all things.
Agrippa, Levi & the Esoteric Elements of the Occult Arts
Henry Cornelius Agrippa first defined the occult properties of this set of symbols. He observed that they do not appear anywhere in nature in an unadulterated state and from this we can assume that the apprehension of the pure Elements is a conceptual rather than actual appraisal of the material world.
But there are none of the sensible elements that are pure. They are more or less mixed, and apt to be changed into one into the other, even as earth being moistened and dissolved becomes water, but the same being made thick and hard becomes earth again – Henry Cornelius Agrippa3
The impermanence noted by Agrippa indicates the imperfection of the elements of the material world. The pure Elements of occultism are not those that are perceived by the physical senses. The Elements of the Magick Temple are not the elements of the material world. The magician does not invoke the wind when he calls upon the spiritual powers of Air.
The magical elements are:… according to vulgar names and notions, air, water, earth and fire. But in magical science we know that water is not ordinary water, fire is not simply fire, etc. These expressions conceal a more recondite meaning… We shall therefore preserve the wise distinction of elementary appearances admitted by the ancients, and shall recognize air, fire, earth and water as the four positive and visible elements of Magic.- Eliphas Levi4
The Elements as Pop Culture Icons
The boom in occultism that has occurred in the last half a century or so is largely superficial and so its grasp on the concept of the Elements generally tends to reflect this. The apparent accessibility of this fundamental set of symbols sees the Elements being employed without instruction in what they actually are. The literature of modern witchcraft is especially susceptible to the most basic misapprehension of the Elements as being something outside of ourselves.
The “Guardians of the Watchtowers” are energy forms, the raiths (sic) or spirits of the four elements. They bring the elemental energy of earth, air, fire, and water into the circle, to augment our human power.- Starhawk5
The development of the Elements into universal forces that are represented in the magick circle by incomprehensible and unnamable spiritual entities completed the shift in perception from the inner to the outer. It made the Elements into an object of veneration that obscures their essential nature behind merely physical manifestations.
These four essences are the building blocks of the universe. Everything that exists (or that has potential to exist) contains one or more of these energies. The elements hum within ourselves and are also “at large” in the world. They can be utilized to cause change through Magic. The four elements formed from the primal essence or power-Akasha.- Scott Cunningham6
The cause of such a basic misapprehension lies in the erroneous perception that is reliant upon the senses to construct its image of the universe. Our perception of experiences comes via the agency of the senses and is interpreted by the elemental yardstick of apperception. Because this cognitive apparatus exhibits elemental qualities the interpretation that it makes of its experiences is confined to elemental parameters. The four Platonic Elements aren’t the building blocks of anything; they are the sensual filters of consciousness.
The Elements in the Qabalah
The Elements are a vital component to the Hermetic Qabalah as they form the foundation of its whole symbolic structure. The central symbol of the Holy Qabalah, the Tree of Life, is divided into four worlds that are themselves a representation of the unpronounceable name Tetragrammaton. The progression of the four letters in this name establishes the cycle of the Elements as the central means by which we can comprehend the divine.
The letters of the name Tetragrammaton are then the cycle of manifesting that divine will in material creation and so each of the nascent Elements concealed in that name represents a stage in the evolution of that Will from the purity of Light to the imperfection of matter; that is, the state of the total admixture of the Elements.
The prototypical elemental forms of the Four Worlds are then reflected into the conceptual symbolic forms of their Yetzirac expressions. This final conceptual state before the World of Matter is the interpretive faculty of the mind. The Elements as they are employed by the magician find their fullest development in this stage of their manifestation. Beyond this point they must devolve into their imperfect forms in the Sphere of the Elements. These conceptual forms of the Elements as they occur in the Formative World are our cognitive filters and so they are the Elements that we are accessing when we invoke their influence.
Transcending the Elemental
The elemental apprehension of experiences doesn’t represent their reality. They are only our apperception of how those experiences have impacted upon us after they have been filtered through the elemental apparatus of cognition. To perceive that which is truly essential we must transcend the elemental impressions of our sensual apperceptions and trace them back to their source. We must break our attachment to them as the measure of our existence and replace them with a comprehension that is truly outside of ourselves.
Invoking the physical elements into spiritual manifestation perpetuates the attachment to the mundane apperceptions that mask the reality behind the sense driven interpretation of intellectual experience. It celebrates and reinforces the material conception of the Earthly elements as the domain of the Self rather than a construct of it. The conception of the universe as Elemental is not the perception of reality and merely the intellectual interpretation of the sensual perception of it. Exalting that perception negates the opportunity to transcend that erroneous interpretation because it places a conceptual attempt to create order from chaos over the interior apprehension of reality as it truly is.
1. Timaeus, Plato
2. On Generation and Corruption, Aristotle
3. Three Books of Occult Philosophy, or of Magick: Book 1- Henry Cornelius Agrippa
4. Dogma et Riteul, Translated by A. E. Waite- Eliphas Levi, Rider & Company, England, 1896
5. The Spiral Dance- Starhawk, Harper & Row, USA, 1979
6. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner- Scott Cunningham, Llewellyn, USA, 2002