The four elements—earth, air, fire, water—are representations of life-force/universal/divine energy. The idea that everything, All That Is, breaks down to one or more of four elements comes from the belief that all things are connected.
When the four elements are imbued with the fifth element of spirit, we have life! Without the elements, life cannot exist. Without you, the you-niverse cannot exist—we each comprise an integral part of it.
Earth isn’t necessarily the planet we live on, but the part of it that’s stable, solid, and dependable. It symbolizes abundance, prosperity, sustenance, grounding, and physical manifestation. It is associated with Winter, the dark of the Moon (when there is no moon in the night sky just prior to first crescent), and the root chakra.
Air symbolizes the realm of thought, learning, knowledge, harmony, communication, all things mental, and breath. It is associated with Spring and the heart chakra.
Fire is the creative spark, it represents our passions, the fire within. It is the element of change and symbolizes will, heat, freedom, vision, love, and power. It is associated with Summer, the full Moon, and the solar plexus chakra.
Water is the emotional realm, it symbolizes healing, dreaming, flowing, the subconscious, all things internal, and cleansing. It is associated with Autumn and the belly chakra.
Why work with the elements?
We humans thrive on symbolism, and working with the elements is a way of working with energy. As these four “flavors” of energy represent different fascets of human life, this way of breaking down and categorizing energy helps us focus on specific areas in our life in a way that’s easier for us to comprehend and connect with.
As these elements come from the natural world, in connecting with them we become more aware of our connection to nature and All That Is, and more aware of our own humanity, our personal nature.
Alchemical traditions and Shamanic traditions around the world work with the four elements. They often use a framework of symbolism that incorporates circular or spiral energy. These are ways in which energy moves in the world, and the circle and spiral are symbols of eternity, connectedness, cycles, and the natural world. Sometimes the metaphor of a wheel is used, the medicine wheel or wheel of life, to really illustrate the point that all things are cyclical, ever-turning.
More layers of symbolism
In some traditions, the elements are represented by a spirit called an elemental. Elementals are normally invisible to the untrained eye, don’t belong to the mundane world, considered sentient, and are comprised entirely of the element they represent.
Sometimes elementals are recognized as totem animals. Just like an elemental, a totem is a symbol. The animal species represents an energy or fascet of human life, often somehow related to the qualities or behaviors of the species.
Some traditions associate all of the above with the cardinal directions, North, East, South, and West. Relating the elements to the directions is a way of connecting to the land where you live. Many times this involves forming associations with the nature that exists relative to where you are, for example, here in San Diego we have the Pacific ocean to our west, the direction we associate with the energy of water.
These associations are not set in stone around the world. They can change as your location and intention changes. Specific traditions often adhere to specific correspondences as related to the land where that tradition was founded.
Why call in the four directions when setting sacred space?
Sacred space can be created anytime, anywhere—all it takes is your intent to do so. Often it is done for ceremony, ritual, or daily spiritual practice as a way to shift your consciousness from the mundane to the sacred. It’s a way of creating a “zone” in which all things will be treated as sacred.
Calling forth the directions as part of creating sacred space is a method of drawing from the power (of the four elements) that resides in the land where you are or where you live. It brings this symbolism and its power into your sacred workings.
When we take the time to include this level of detail in creating sacred space, we more readily engage in raising energy to direct toward our intent, and we are drawn that much deeper into the altered states of consciousness required to work with energy in a direct way.
In my ceremonies I also call in two or more additional directions. Spirit is represented in it’s masculine and feminine forms as Above, Sky Father, and Below, Earth Mother … of course these are the makings for another article, another time….