Three Worlds and Five Elements

excerpts from

Real Energy

Copyright © 2006 c.e., Isaac & Phaedra Bonewits

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The following are excerpts from Real Energy, Phaedra and Isaac's forthcoming book This text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net.

Indo-European Cosmology:

Before we can understand the "elemental" system that Western magicians and mystics have used for so many centuries, we first need to look a bit at the common cosmological beliefs of the ancient Indo-European peoples. "Cosmology" means people's theories about how the universe or cosmos was created and/or how it is put together now. The Indo-Europeans were (and are) a motley assortment of tribes from about 5,000­4,000 years ago who spoke (and whose descendents still speak) related languages in territories stretching geographically from India to Europe and beyond. Most Europeans, people living in the Indian subcontinent, and current inhabitants of the Americas are descended from these people and the many languages they spoke.

These people thought of all reality as composed of what we could call three horizontal "worlds" of organic beings (the Land, the Waters, and the Sky) and three vertical "realms" of inorganic existence (the Underworld, the Middle Realm of Land/Waters/Sky, and the Celestial Realm of sun, moon, and stars), in which the Three Worlds were present or reflected. There was also a "This World" and "the Otherworld" polarity between the places where mortal and immortal beings resided, which passed through all the other worlds and realms; and a set of three "gateways" passing between all of them in the form of Sacred Fires, Sacred Wells, and Sacred Trees (or sometimes mountains or big stones) which grew at the center of all things.

Each of the Three Worlds had physical beings such as animals, fish, and birds, associated with it, as well as spirits of various sorts that we might call "nature spirits." There were "ordinary" creatures, both wild and domesticated, who came to symbolize different concepts such as courage (lions), faithfulness (dogs), fierceness (boars), wisdom (salmon), cunning (foxes), nurturing (cows), as well as wildness (wolves) and domesticity (sheep) themselves. To these were added various mythical animals such as dragons, gryphons, satyrs, fauns, etc.

Trees, with their roots growing in the Land, needing Waters for nourishment, and growing up into the Sky, not only symbolized all Three Worlds (or Three Realms, as in the Baltic regions), but also had species-specific associations. Oaks were connected to clergy and matters of knowledge, strength, stability, trustworthiness, truth, and order. Yews or other evergreens were connected to warriors, the ancestors, and all matters related to the dead. Birches were connected to the producers, to fertility, pleasure, marriage, and so forth.
Animals obviously had their own spirits, but so did plants, special places, and even inanimate objects, whether natural or human made. We'll talk more about these ideas in Chapter 00, but for now it's sufficient to say that the cosmology of the Three Worlds was one rich in organic metaphors and doctrines based upon them.

To the ancient Indo-Europeans, including the Vedic/Indian peoples, the Iranians, the Hittites, the Greeks, the Romans, the Celts, the Slavs, the Norse, the Germans, etc., Fire was seen as the tangible symbol of deities and other spirits. Tribes such as the Aryas ("Shining Ones") of ancient India or the Gaels ("Shining Ones") of Gaul and the British Isles, took their names from the association of Fire with deities, light, brightness, intelligence, creativity, beauty, and other valued concepts. Fire was present in all Three Worlds, on the Land as normal wildfire or human hearths, in the Waters as swamp lights, in the Sky as lightning. It was also seen in the Three Realms, in the Underworld in the form of coal fires and burning lava, in the Middle Realm as just described, and in the Celestial Realm as the sun, moon, and stars.

Now the Sacred Trees could be metaphorically connected to the Underworld and Celestial Realm by extending the roots and branches infinitely, and the waters of the Sacred Well could seen as connected to them as well, but neither were as visibly ubiquitous as the Sacred Fire.

Perhaps this is why, when looking at the physical world around them, these ancient peoples tended to think in patterns of "three-plus-one," that is, the Land, the Waters, and the Sky (or sometimes the Underworld, the Middle Realm, and the Celestial Realm) plus Fire. This pattern matched their social systems, which were originally composed of three main classes or castes of Producers, Warriors, Clergy, plus Royalty (the tribal chieftains). So how did this three-plus-one pattern become the modern magical and mystical cosmology of Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Spirit, which is a system of "four plus one"?

An Elementary Theory:

Ancient Greek philosophers from about 600 BCE onwards tried to figure out what primal substance or substances had given rise to the world(s) as they knew them. They called each of these suggested substances stoikheion, meaning "a step or component part." This term became "elements" in English from the Latin elementum, which the Romans used to translate the Greek term. The ancient Indo-European concepts of the Three Worlds and Fire became somewhat abstracted by these intellectuals into Earth, Water, Air, and Fire, and different philosophers argued over which had given rise to the others.

One named Empedocles (490-­430 BCE), believed that everything in the universe was made up of varying amounts of all four of these now abstract concepts. Later Aristotle (384­322 BCE) completed the abstraction process by discussing these Four Elements as representing combinations of the "specific being-ness" (Greek ousia, Latin essentia, from esse-, "to be") or the "essence" of two sets of polarities: hot/cold and wet/dry, thusly: Earth was cold and dry, Water was cold and wet, Air was hot and wet, and Fire was hot and dry. Aristotle thought that there must be something that would be beyond, or the origin of, these four essences (heat, cold, dryness, wetness) that would be a "quint-essence" (quint = five), which he called the fifth Element of Aether.

In India the clergy originally had a system of just three "elements" or original substances of Earth, Water, and Fire. Simultaneously, they had the three-plus-one system focused on the Three Worlds. After encountering the Greek system around 400­500 CE (there was a lot of trade between India and the Mediterranean and philosophers and clergy traveled in both directions), the Hindus added Air and Aether (which they called Akasha) as elements. Then the system was brought back to Europe, where medieval clergy and magicians translated Akasha/Aether as "Spirit," calling it the fifth element. By this time, the original Indo-European concept that Land, Waters, and Sky represented organic realms of living beings and that Fire represented spirit had been forgotten in Christendom, which preferred nature to be dead and exploitable in keeping with Christian theology and philosophy. So medieval and Renaissance magicians and mystics used the expanded Greek elements, often representing them by a five-pointed star of interlaced lines, now known as a "pentagram" ("five-lines").

It should be obvious that these mystical elements are not the same thing as what modern scientists call "elements," although an argument can be made that they represent the "states of matter," thusly: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire could be seen as the solid, liquid, gas, and plasma states respectively, while Spirit might represent the quantum field, or perhaps dark energy, if we want to annoy the physicists. To keep matters clear in this book, we will capitalize the word "Elements" as well as their individual names when we are referring to the metaphysical ones and leave it lowercase should we need to talk about scientific ones.

Cosmic Cubbyholes

However they originated and developed, the idea of the Five Elements today (and for the last fifteen centuries or so) is primarily used as the basis of a core Western "system of correspondences," linked to other systems such as astrology and the tarot. Systems of correspondence or associations give us a framework for categorizing things and experiences according to how alike or unlike they are. Many modern magicians and mystics (at least in Western cultures) believe that everything can be categorized by how well it corresponds with (how similar it is to) the qualities of "Elemental energy" represented by Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and/or Spirit. You will have noticed how often Lipp uses the phrase "is associated with" in her elemental descriptions. This is because for most moderns, the Elements are more useful for their correspondences than for their abstract philosophical meanings.

Things that are similar attract and support each other. In magical terms, these are the laws of similarity and contagion discussed in Chapter 00. Like laughter, magical similarity is contagious; just as laughter draws more laughs to it (while a frown encourages frowns), the presence of that which corresponds to an Element encourages the presence of other things that have similar qualities. Thus, the more we understand about the tangible and intangible qualities of an Element, the more we can utilize the principles of similarity and contagion in our magic.

Here's an example. The Element of Fire is associated with the tangible quality of heat and the intangible qualities of courage and passion. If we want to work magic geared toward the intangible qualities of passion or courage, we would enhance the effectiveness of our work by including things that have the tangible quality of heat. Heat is a quality associated with hot peppers, roaring furnaces, high summer, and the color red; hence, all these things have Fire correspondences, and therefore have something in common with everything else that corresponds with Fire. So, in order to align ourselves most powerfully with our desired result of passion or courage, we surround ourselves with things that have a fiery nature: we eat spicy food, wear red, use images of furnaces in our visualizations, and do our ritual at high noon on Summer Solstice.

Since everything there is corresponds with one or another of the Elements, the presence of all four Elements together symbolizes completeness. Thus, when we call Air, Earth, Fire, Water, and Spirit to be present in our rituals or meditations, we are calling upon all there is in the universe (the "macrocosm") to be present and to help us in our work. Here/facing/on the next page is a brief summary of some typical (not universal, not absolute) elemental correspondences as used by most modern Western metaphysical and esoteric movements.

A Brief Summary of Common Elemental Correspondences:

Element Air Fire Water Earth

Direction East South West North Center / Circumference
Intangibles Inspiration, creative breakthroughs, beginnings Energy, passion, courage, determination, transformation, purification, peak experiences Love, hope, caring, compassion, fear, dreams, change, flow, ebb, Gate to the Summerland Concreteness, reality, stability, money, housing Centrality, encompassment, merging

Mystical Body 
Mental Causal Astral Physical Soul?
Human Nature The mind, intellect, breath, the voice, hearing, smell, birth and childhood True Will, sexuality, blood, sight, prime of life Emotions, unconscious, heart, womb, aging & death Body, touch, afterlife The soul, astral self

Natural World

Spring, sunrise, first crescent & waxing moon, birds, feathers, clouds, wind, windy places, high cliffs, open fields

Summer, noon, full moon, heat, deserts, dry places, cactus, peppers, volcanos, fires Autumn, twilight, waning moon, lakes, rivers, oceans, rainfall, dew, seaweed, other water plants, Winter, midnight, dark of the moon, mountains, forests, caves, crystals, precious gems & metals, trees Seasonal cusps, twilight/dawn and noon/midnight

Birds, bats, feathers Lizards, lions, other big cats Fish, dolphins, whales, sometimes snakes Stags, bulls, badgers, bears, wolves, sometimes snakes Totem animals, animal spirit guides

Mythical Beasts
Dragons, harpies Dragons, the phoenix Dragons, sea serpents, mermaids Dragons, satyrs, fauns Unicorns
Color Yellow, sometimes violet, grey, sky-blue Red, orange, sometimes gold Blue, sometimes sea-green, purple, silver Green, sometimes brown, black, gold White, grey
Magical Tools Athame, dagger, incense, sword Wand, candle, flaming cauldron Cup, cauldron, mirror Pentacle (pantacle, shield), salt, oil Bell
Elemental Sylphs, ruled by Peralda Salamanders, ruled by Djinn Undines, ruled by Neknar or Niksa Gnomes, ruled by Ghob ???

Copyright © 2006 c.e., Phaedra & Isaac Bonewits. Unlike our other sharetext postings on the Net, this text file may NOT be freely distributed on the Net, since it is part of an eventually-to-be-published book.

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