It all started many years ago. I was a teenager then, and a recent
initiate to the religion of Wicca. Like most neophytes, I was
eager to begin work on my Book of Shadows, the traditional
manuscript liturgical book kept by most practicing Witches. I
copied down rituals, spells, recipes, poems, and tables of correspondences
from every source I could lay hands on. Those
generally fell into two broad categories: published works, such
as the many books available on Witchcraft and magic; and unpublished
works, mainly other Witches’ Books of Shadows.
In the late 1960s, most of us were “traditional” enough to
copy everything by hand. (Today, photocopying and even email
attachments are becoming de rigueur.) Always, we were
admonished to copy “every dot and comma”, making an exact
transcription of the original, since any variation in the ceremony
might cause major problems for the magician. Seldom, if ever,
did anyone pause to consider where these rituals came from in
the first place, or who composed them. Most of us, alas, did not
know and did not care. It was enough just to follow the rubrics
and do the rituals as prescribed.
But something brought me to an abrupt halt in my copying
frenzy. I had dutifully copied rituals from different sources,
and suddenly realized they contained conflicting elements. I
found myself comparing the two versions, wondering which
one was “right”, “correct”, “authentic”, “original”, “older”, etc.
This gave rise to the more general questions about where a
ritual came from in the first place. Who created it? Was it created
by one person or many? Was it ever altered in transmission?
If so, was it by accident or intent? Do we know? Is there
ever any way to find out? How did a particular ritual get into a
coven’s Book of Shadows? From another, older, Book of Shadows?
Or from a published source? If so, where did the author
of the published work get it?
I had barely scratched the surface, and yet I could already
see that the questions being raised were very complex. (Now,
all these years later, I am more convinced than ever of the
daunting complexity of Neo-Pagan liturgical history. And I am
equally convinced of the great importance of this topic for a
thorough understanding of modern Witchcraft. It may well be
a mare’s nest, but imagine the value it will have to future Craft
historians. (And you are unconditionally guaranteed to see me
fly into a passionate tirade whenever I’m confronted with such
banal oversimplifications as ‘Crowley is the real author of the
Third Degree initiation’, or ‘Everyone knows Gardner invented
The first time I noticed conflicting ritual elements was when I
was invited as a guest to attend another coven’s Esbat celebration.
When the time came to “invoke the Watchtowers” (a ritual
salutation to the four directions), I was amazed to learn that this
group associated the element of earth with the north. My own
coven equated north with air. How odd, I thought. Where’d
they get that? The high priestess told me it had been copied
out of a number of published sources. Further, she said she had
never seen it listed any other way. I raced home and began
tearing books from my own library shelves. And sure enough!
Practically every book I consulted gave the following associations
as standard: north = earth, east = air, south = fire, west =
Then where the heck did I get the idea that air belonged
in the north? After much thought, I remembered having copied
my own elemental/directional associations from another
Witch’s Book of Shadows, her book representing (so she
claimed) an old Welsh tradition. Perhaps I’d copied it down
wrong? A quick long-distance phone call put my mind at ease
on that score. (When I asked her where she’d gotten it, she said
she thought it was from an even older Book of Shadows, but she
By now, I felt miffed that my own tradition seemed to be at
variance with most published sources. Still, my own rituals didn’t
seem to be adversely affected. Nor were those of my fellow
coven members, all of whom put air in the north. Further, over
the years I had amassed lots of associations and correspondences
that seemed to require air to be in the north. The very
thought of air in the east offended both my sense of reason and
my gut-level mythic sensibilities. There are good reasons to
place air in the north. And the whole mythological superstructure
would collapse if air were in the east, instead. If this is so,
then why do most published sources place earth in the north
and air in the east?
Suddenly, I felt sure I knew the reason! Somewhere along the
line, someone had deliberately tampered with the information!
Such tampering is a long and venerable practice within
certain branches of magic. In Western culture, it is most typically
seen among Hermetic, Cabalistic, and ceremonial magic
lodges. It is common among such groups that, when publishing
their rituals for public consumption, they will publish versions
that are incomplete and/or deliberately altered in some
way from the authentic practice. This prevents someone who
is not a member of the group from simply buying a book, and
performing the rituals, without benefit of formal training. It is
only when you are initiated into the lodge that you will be
given the complete and/or corrected versions of their rituals.
This is how such groups guard their secrets. (And it is a telling
postscript that many scholars now believe modern Witchcraft
to have “borrowed” its directional/elemental correspondences
from ceremonial magic sources! What a laugh if this was
Crowley’s last best joke on his friend Gerald Gardner!)
I remember the first time I became aware of such deliberate
ritual tampering. A friend of mine had been making a study
of the so-called planetary squares, talismans that look like magic
squares consisting of a grid of numbers in some cryptic order.
There are seven such squares—one for each of the “classical”
planets. While making this study, he began coloring the grids
(more for his own pleasure than anything else), making colorful
mini-mosaics, using first two colors, then three, then four,
and on up to the total number of squares in the grid. Six of the
planetary squares yielded pleasing patterns of color. Then there
was the Sun square! Against all expectation, the colors were a
random jumble, with no patterns emerging. Thus, he began
his quest for the corrected Sun square. And I became convinced
of the reality of ritual tampering.
All that remains, then, is for me to assemble all the arguments
in favor of the air-in-the-north model, which I have now come
to believe is the corrected system of correspondences. The remainder
of this article will be devoted to those arguments, each
with its own name and number:
1. AIRTS: This is perhaps the strongest argument. In Celtic
countries, the four elemental/directional associations are referred
to as the “four airts”. And it is a known fact that this
tradition associates air with north. While it is true that some
writers, familiar with ceremonial magic (like William Sharp
and Doreen Valiente), have given tampered versions of the
airts, it is a telling point that folklorists working directly with
native oral traditions (like Alexander Carmichael and F. Marion
McNeill) invariably report the air/north connection.
2. PARALLEL CULTURES: Although arguing from parallel
cultures may not be as convincing, it is still instructive to examine
other magical aboriginal cultures in the Northern Hemisphere.
For example, the vast majority of Native American tribes
(themselves no slouches in the area of magic!) place air in the
north, which they symbolize by the eagle. (Aboriginal cultures
lying south of the equator typically have different associations,
for reasons I will discuss next.)
3. GEOPHYSICAL: If one accepts the insular British origins
of elemental directions, then one must imagine living in the
British Isles. To the west is the vast expanse of the Atlantic
Ocean (i.e. water). To the east, the bulk of the European landmass
(earth). South has always been the direction of fire because,
as one travels south (toward the equator), it gets warmer.
Which leaves north as the region of air, home of the icy winds
of winter. (These last two associations would be reversed for
cultures in the Southern Hemisphere, for whom north is the
direction of the warm equatorial region, and south is the land
4. HYPERBOREAN: In fact, an ancient name for the British
Isles was Hyperborea, which literally means “behind the north
wind”, thus associating north and wind (air) once more. The
inhabitants were themselves called “Hyperboreans”, and the
phrase “at the back of the north wind” (the title of one of George
MacDonald’s faery romances) is still current. Of all the winds
of the compass, it is unquestionably the north wind (Boreas),
bringer of winter, which is perceived as the strongest and most
influential (cf. Robert Grave’s Goddess fantasy Watch the North
Wind Rise). You don’t hear too much about the other three cardinal
5. SEASONAL: Many occultists associate the four seasons with
the four cardinal points, as well. Hence, winter = north, spring
= east, summer = south, and autumn = west. (To be precise, it
is the solstice and equinox points that align with the cardinal
points.) Again, in most folklore, winter is associated with air
and wind, as the icy blasts that usher in the season. In spring, it
is the Earth that arrests our attention, with its sudden riot of
blooms and greenery. Again, south relates to summer, the hottest
season (fire), and west relates to autumn.
6. DIURNAL: Occultists also often associate the cardinal points
of a single day to the four compass points. Thus, midnight =
north, sunrise = east, noon = south, and sunset = west. (Please
note that we are talking about true midnight and true noon
here, the points halfway between sunset and sunrise, and between
sunrise and sunset, respectively.) These associate nicely
with the seasonal attributes just discussed. It is easy to see why
sunrise should equate to east, and sunset to west. And, once
again, from the perspective of the British Isles, the sun rises
over land (Earth) and sets over the ocean (water). South is related
to noon because it is the moment of greatest heat (fire).
Leaving the “invisible” element of air to be associated with the
sun’s invisibility, at midnight.
7. MYTHOLOGICAL: In Celtic mythology, north is invariably
associated with air. The pre-Christian Irish Gods and Goddesses,
the Tuatha De Danann, were “airy” faeries (later
versions came equipped with wings, relating them to sylphs).
The Book of Conquests states their original home was in the
North, “at the back of the north wind”. And when they came to
Ireland, they came in ships, through the upper air(!), settling on
the mountaintops. (It has always struck me as odd that some
modern writers see mountains as a symbol of earth. The crucial
symbolism of the mountain is its height, rising into the air,
touching the sky. Virtually all Eastern traditions associate mountains,
favorite abodes of gurus, with air. A cave would be a better
symbol of earth than a mountain.) In Welsh mythology, too,
Math the Ancient, chief God of Gwynedd (or North Wales), is
specifically associated with wind, which can carry people’s
thoughts to him.
8. YIN/YANG: Many occultists believe that the four elements
have yin/yang connections. Both air and fire are seen as masculine,
while earth and water are seen as feminine. If air is
associated with the north point of the magic Circle, and earth is
east, then one achieves a yin/yang alternation as one
circumambulates the Circle. As one passes the cardinal points
of east, south, west, and north, one passes feminine, masculine,
feminine, masculine energies. This alternating flux of plus/
minus, push/pull, masculine/feminine, is the very pulse of the
universe, considered of great importance by most occultists.
That it was equally important to our ancestors is evidenced
by standing stones in the British Isles. At sites like the
Kennet Avenue of Braga, the tall, slender, masculine, phallic
stones alternate precisely with the shorter, diamond-shaped
9. GENERATOR: This argument flows out of the previous one.
Practicing magicians often think of the magic Circle as a kind of
psychic generator. Witches in particular like to perform circle
dances to “raise the cone of power”. Hand in hand, and alternating
man and woman, they dance clockwise (deosil) around
the circle, moving faster and faster until the power is released.
This model has an uncanny resemblance to an electrical generator,
as man and woman alternately pass each of the four
“poles” of the magic Circle. These poles themselves must alternate
between plus and minus if power is to be raised. This
means that if the masculine fire is in the south, then the masculine
air must be in the north. If the feminine water is in the
west, then the feminine earth must be in the east. If any adjacent
pair were switched, the generator would stop dead.
10. MASCULINE/FEMININE AXIS: When you look at a
typical map, north (the cardinal direction) is at the top. Any
north–south road is a vertical line, and any east–west road is a
horizontal line. Likewise, a “map” of a magic Circle makes the
vertical north–south axis masculine (with air and fire), while
the horizontal east–west axis is feminine (earth and water). This
makes logical sense. When we look at the horizon of the Earth,
we see a horizontal line. Water also seeks a horizontal plane.
Feminine elements, considered “passive”, have a natural tendency
to “lay down”. Fire, on the other hand, always assumes
an erect or vertical position. Air, too, can rise upward, as earth
and water cannot. Masculine elements, being “active”, have a
natural tendency to “stand up”.
11. ALTAR TOOLS: In modern Witchcraft, there are four principal
altar tools, the same four tools shown on the tarot card, the
Magician. They also correspond to the four tarot suits, the four
ancient treasures of Ireland, and the Four Hallows of Arthurian
legend. And, like the four elements, two of them are feminine
and two of them are masculine. The pentacle is a shallow dish
inscribed with a pentagram, representing earth, and is here
placed in the east. The womb-shaped chalice, symbolizing
water, is placed in the west. They form the horizontal feminine
axis. The phallic-shaped wand, representing fire, is placed in
the south. And the equally phallic-shaped athame is placed in
the north. They form the vertical masculine axis. (The gender
associations of cup and blade are especially emphasized in the
ritual blessing of wine.)
12. AXIS SYMBOLISM: In nearly every culture, the vertical
line is a symbol of yang, or masculine energy. The horizontal
line is yin, feminine energy. When the vertical masculine line
penetrates the horizontal feminine line, forming the ancient
Pagan symbol of the equal-armed cross, it becomes a symbol of
life, and life force. Place a circle around it or on it, and you have
a circle-cross or “Celtic” cross, symbol of everlasting life. (Please
note the importance of the equal-armed cross. If one arm is
longer or shorter, then the four elements are out of balance.
The Christian or Roman cross, for example, has an extended
southern arm. And many historians have commented on
Christianity’s excess of “fire” or zeal. Some versions actually
show a shortened northern arm, indicating a dearth of “air” or
13. ASTROLOGICAL: The astrological year is divided into
four equal quadrants, each beginning at a solstice or equinox.
And each quadrant is governed by one of the four elements.
Which element can be discovered by examining the exact midpoint
of the quadrant. For example, the first quadrant, beginning
at the winter solstice (north) is governed by air, which
rules fifteen degrees Aquarius, symbolized by the Man or Spirit.
The second quadrant, beginning at the spring equinox (east) is
governed by earth, which rules fifteen degrees Taurus, the Bull.
The third quadrant, beginning at the summer solstice (south)
is governed by fire, which rules fifteen degrees Leo, the Lion.
And the fourth quadrant, beginning at the fall equinox (west)
is governed by water, which rules fifteen degrees Scorpio, here
symbolized by the Eagle. Thus, north, east, south and west
correspond to air, earth, fire, and water, and to Spirit, Bull, Lion,
and Eagle, respectively. If the last four symbols seem familiar,
it is because they represent the four elemental power points of
the astrological year, and their symbols appear in the four corners
of the tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune.
(The same figures were later adopted by Christians as symbols
of the four Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.)
If those are the arguments in favor of air-in-the-north,
where are the counterarguments in favor of earth-in-the-north?
Surprisingly, I’ve heard very few. The most common by far is
“But we’ve always done it this way.” Not too convincing. However,
no matter how persuasive my arguments may be, many
have countered that magic doesn’t lend itself to rational arguments.
It’s what feels right that counts. True. And there’s no
denying that many practitioners do just fine with earth in the
north. Granted. Still, if they’ve never tried it the other way,
how would they really know?
My challenge to my fellow practitioners then is this: give
air-in-the-north a shot. Just try it on for size. See what it feels
like. And not for just a single ritual. It’ll take several tries just to
overcome your habitual ritual mindset. And nothing is as habitual
as ritual! So in order to give this a fair shake, you’ll have
to do a whole series of rituals with air in the north. And go into
it with an open mind. Like all magic, if you decide ahead of
time it won’t work, it won’t. Then, once you’ve tried it, compare
it to your old method. Ask yourself what’s different, if it worked
any better, and why or why not. And in doing so, you may
discover you have anticipated your tradition’s great Third Degree
Most Recent Text Revision: Tuesday, May 3, 2005 c.e.
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