The world is metaphorically/metaphysically viewed in terms of four physical elements – earth, water, air and fire (which roughly correspond to the four scientific forms of matter: solid, liquid, gas and plasma) – plus spirit. Together, these elements form a united whole, as is symbolized in the pentagram.
No Wiccan thinks these five elements somehow trumps the periodic table of elements in the slightest. Physically, objects are made of atoms. But physical (and non-physical) things have qualities that can be categorized by element.
There are lots of personal understandings of the elements. Generally speaking:
・ Earth is solid, enduring and grounding. It is also the element of fertility, both literal and figurative, and therefore of pregnancy, growth, birth, material gain, business, prosperity sustenance, and creativity. As the element from which came and to which we will return, earth is the element of death and rebirth, beginnings and endings, and silence.
・ Water is emotion and wisdom. It is also the element of intuition and divination. It’s mutability can give it aspects of transformation. It can also represent death and rebirth, just as baptism is a symbolic death and rebirth. Like earth, water is nurturing, and both are feminine elements.
・ Air is the element of intellect, study, and book-learning, and therefore of the sciences. It is also the element of youth, creativity, and spontaneity, and of communication and travel.
・Fire is activity and life. It is the element of strength, especially physical strength but also strength of will and energy. Fire
is also the element of passion and sex. It’s ability to reduce things down to basic components makes it an element of purification and transformation. As a source of light, it is protective, but it is also chaotic and destructive.
・ Spirit is that thing beyond the physical world, the ultimate source of life, and the center of being. Spirit is the element of transcendence, transformation, change, the void, everywhere and nowhere, all time and no time. It is the primal force that flows through all of us and all things. It is not often addressed directly in ritual, because it is the element of ourselves, our will, and the gods, all of which are already actively invoked.
The elements are commonly used in ritual, particularly in circle casting which prepares an area as ritual space. The cardinal points (north, south, east and west) are often marked with a representation of an element placed at each one. The traditional system puts earth in the north, air in the east, fire in the south, and water in the west. This creates a microcosm mirroring the macrocosm: a space defined by all four elements just as the larger world is. The self is often seen as the representation of spirit.
While physical objects are used to represent the elements, it is important to note that these objects are not pure elements. Soil is not elemental earth and tap water is not elemental water. Tap water is mostly water, but it contains traces of all the physical elements; it’s physicality comes from earth, for example. Everything is a combination of qualities and, thus, a combination of elements.
The elements can be used to define non-physical things as well. The intellect is of air, for example, while emotion is of water.
Each element has an equal place in the world, and we are mindful to be balanced among all of them. The pentagram commonly symbolizes the unity of all five elements.
Being an element
Thanks to some recent fictional works, some people have the idea that everyone is an element. This is not remotely true. Our focus on balance emphasizes the need for all four aspects to be embraced. People generally have strengths and weaknesses, but striving to place one above all others is contrary to what we do.
Moreover, these same fictional sources have convinced some that being an element grants people special powers or control over the elements. That’s just silly. And fiction.
The theory of the five elements is Greek in origin and has been written about repeatedly throughout Western history. Like the Wiccan view, the Greeks (and others) recognized that all physical things were a combination of elements, not any single, isolated element.
Unlike in Wicca, through most of history the elements have been viewed as part of a hierarchy, with earth at the bottom and spirit at the top. Those things that were more fiery and airy were considered superior to things watery and earthy.