Understanding the Five Elemental Symbols

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The Five Elements

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 simply call it Spirit. Others call it Aether or Quintessence (literally "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.

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Elemental Qualities

Four Elements and their Qualities
Catherine Beyer

In classical elemental systems, each element has two qualities, and it shares each quality with one other element.

Warm/Cold

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.

Moist/Dry

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.

Opposing Elements

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, air and then fire, the least material of the elements.

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Elemental Pentagram

Five Elements and Pentagram
Catherine Beyer

The pentagram has represented many diverse meanings over the centuries. Since at least the Renaissance, one of its associations is with the five elements.

Arrangement

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.

Orientation

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 simply 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.

Colors

The colors used here are those associated with each element by the Golden Dawn. These associations are commonly borrowed by other groups as well.

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Elemental Correspondences

Elemental Correspondences - Seasons, Cardinal Directions, Time of Day, Moon Phases
Cardinal Directions, Seasons, Time of Day, Moon Phases. Catherine Noble Beyer

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 the directional/elemental correspondences reflect a European perspective. To the south are the warmer climates, and thus is associated with fire. The Atlantic ocean lies to the west. The north is cold and formidable, a land of earth but sometimes not a lot else.

Occultists practicing in America or elsewhere sometimes do not find these correspondences to work.

Daily, Monthly, and Yearly Cycles

Cycles are important facets of many occult systems. Looking at daily, monthly, and yearly natural cycles, we find periods of growth and dying, of fullness and barrenness.

  • Fire is the element of fullness and life, and it is closely associated with the Sun. Therefore, it's unsurprising that noon and summer would be associated with fire. By that same logic, the full moon should also be in the same category.
  • Earth is in the opposite direction as fire and therefore corresponds with midnight, winter, and the new moon. While these things might represent barrenness, more often they are representative of potential and transformation; the point where the old gives way to the new; the empty fertility readies to feed new creations.
  • Air is the element of new beginnings, youth, increase, and creativity. As such, it is associated with spring, the waxing moon, and sunrise. Things are growing warmer and brighter, while plants and animals give birth to a new generation.
  • Water is the element of emotion and wisdom, particularly the wisdom of age. It represents a time past the peak of livelihood, moving toward the end of the cycle.

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Fire

Symbol of elemental fire
Alchemical Symbol and Occult Associations. Catherine Beyer

Fire is associated with strength, activity, blood, and life-force. It is also seen as highly purifying and protective, consuming impurities and driving back the darkness.

Fire is traditionally seen as the most rarefied and spiritual of the physical elements because of its masculine properties (which were superior to female properties). It also lacks physical existence, produces light, and has a transformative power when it comes in contact with a more physical material.

  • Qualities: Warm, Dry
  • Gender: Masculine (active)
  • Elemental: Salamander (Here referring to a mythological lizard creature which could burst into flames)
  • Golden Dawn Direction: South
  • Golden Dawn ​Color: Red
  • Magical Tool: Sword, athame, dagger, sometimes wand
  • Planets: Sol (Sun), Mars
  • Zodiac signs: Aries, Leo, Sagittarius
  • Season: Summer
  • Time of Day: Noon

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Air

Symbol of Elemental Air
Alchemical Symbol and Occult Associations. Catherine Beyer

Air is the element of intelligence, creativity, and beginnings. Largely intangible and without permanent form, air is an active, masculine element, superior to the more material elements of water and earth.

  • Qualities: Warm, Moist
  • Gender: Masculine (active)
  • Elemental: Sylphs (Invisible beings)
  • Golden Dawn Direction: East
  • Golden Dawn Color: Yellow
  • Magical Tool: Wand, sometimes sword, dagger or athame
  • Planets: Jupiter
  • Zodiac Signs: Gemini, Libra, Aquarius
  • Season: Spring
  • Time of Day: Morning, Sunrise

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Water

Symbol of Elemental Water
Alchemical Symbol and Occult Associations. Catherine Beyer

Water is the element of emotion and the unconscious, as opposed to the conscious intellectualism of air.

Water is one of two elements that have a physical existence that can interact with all of the physical senses. Water is still considered less material (and thus superior) to earth because it possesses more motion and activity than earth.

  • Qualities: Cold, Moist
  • Gender: Feminine (passive)
  • Elemental: Undines (water-based nymphs)
  • Golden Dawn Direction: West
  • Golden Dawn Color: Blue
  • Magical Tool: Cup
  • Planets: Moon, Venus
  • Zodiac Signs: Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces
  • Season: Fall
  • Time of Day: Sunset

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Earth

Symbol of Elemental Earth
Alchemical Symbol and Occult Associations. Catherine Beyer

Earth is the element of stability, groundedness, fertility, materiality, potential, and stillness. Earth can also be an element of beginnings and endings, or death and rebirth, as life comes from the ground and then decomposes back into earth after death.

Qualities: Cold, Dry
Gender: Feminine (passive)
Elemental: Gnomes
Golden Dawn Direction: North
Golden Dawn Color: Green
Magical Tool: Pentacle
Planets: Saturn
Zodiac Signs: Taurus, Virgo, Capricorn
Season: Winter
Time of Day: Midnight

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Spirit

circle
Alchemical Symbol and Occult Associations. Catherine Beyer

The element of spirit does not have the same arrangements of correspondences as the physical elements since spirit is not physical. Various different systems may associate planets, tools , and so-forth to it, but such correspondences are far less standardized than those of the other four elements.

The element of spirit goes by several names. The most common are spirit, ether or aether, and quintessence, which is Latin for "fifth element."

There is also no standard symbol for spirit, although circles are common. Eight-spoked wheels and spirals are also sometimes used to represent spirit.

Spirit is a bridge between the physical and the spiritual. In cosmological models, spirit is the transitory material between the physical and celestial realms. Within the microcosm, spirit is the bridge between body and soul.

  • Golden Dawn Direction: Above, Below, Within
  • Golden Dawn Color: Violet, Orange, White