The elements of ceremonial magic are not the elements of the periodic table. Rather, they are summations of particular qualities: hot and cold, wet and dry. Something that is wet and cold is considered watery; something that is hot and dry is considered fiery; something cold and dryis earthy; something hot and wet is airy.
The categories are derived from ancient Greek philosophy and science, and were further codified in the medical texts of Galen and Avicenna; both physicians used variants of the diagram here as a way of summarizing their findings. In their system, herbs and stones could be characterized according to this system.
Yet nothing is purely one or the other of these. Consider a dandelion, for example. The Earth part of the plant is its root system; but could also be understood as the plant’s physical body. The Aerial parts of the plant are those which extend upwards from the ground — but could also be seen as the seeds. The Watery part of the plant is its juices, carefully squeezed free. The Fiery part of the plant can be understood as the essential oils extracted from the plant through alchemical processes like distillation.
Or consider online communities (such as Tumblr itself). The Earthy part of the community is the physical hardware and wires which connect us. The Airy (or intellectual part) is the proprietary software that makes the online community run, and the mental energy we expend creating and viewing art and text for one another. The watery parts are the emotional actions and reactions which this art and text causes in us; and the fiery parts are the passions and creative drives which move us to contribute and to view.
Without an atomic theory, ancient authors were left trying to describe how to manufacture metals and medicines, alloys and apothecary recipes, to people thousands of miles away and decades later in time. The elemental theory provided that framework for artisans and scholars to communicate.
Why is it useful for ceremonial magic?
First, it is a cosmology. The four directions and their four symbols and their four seasons and their four underlying qualities allow us to communicate with our unconscious minds — which are rarely wired intuitively to understand the Periodic Table or Quantum Mechanics.
Second, it helps us to communicate by names and images: for it is by names and images that all powers are awakened and reawakened. We human beings are symbolic thinkers; it is both our power and strength, and our weakness and limitation. The risk is always that we come to rely too much on only one symbol-set, only one number scale, and only one way of viewing the world. The elements allow us to see the world another way, to tell another story, and to count in different ways.
Third, it is a form of serious play. The ceremonial magician does not believe in the four elements. She knows, in the same way that she knows the postman or the barista. The elements are there, all the time, in everything, and immediately observable and distinct from one another (even when indisputably commingled to form the One Thing).
When one enters into the mindset of a ceremonial magician, one practices looking for evidence of the presence of the Elements. And, as with the Robert Anton Wilson exercise to search in the world for the mystical correspondences of the numbers 5 and 23, it is certain that you will find the four elements present in all things.
In this way, the practicing magician’s mind is raised from mindset of modern scientific materialism, to the awareness of the four elements, and so in turn to the Seven Planets, and thence to the Three Worlds, and so on into the mysteries of the One Thing. In this way, the ceremonial magician learns to see the world through many eyes at once, and so grows in power and beauty and strength.
The project continues.