E is for elements

(This almost got to be an “E is for electricity” post after the power went out for a short time Thursday evening. Of course, if it had stayed out, my ability to post on any topic, be it electricity, elements, or eggplants would have been severely compromised.)

I realize that the way I tell it, my childhood was filled with all the things that would eventually shape my adult Paganism: early exposure to astrology, tarot, Greek mythology, fairy tales and fantasy, and yes, the four elements. Really, it was filled with lots of “normal” things as well. My theory is that I remember all these Paganish things because I kept playing with them, enjoying them, using them, reading about them into adulthood; I never left them alone long enough to forget them. Other parts of my childhood didn’t age as well, and were relegated to memory as I grew up.

They got spiffier costumes later.
They got spiffier costumes later.

I first read about the four elements—or rather, the four elementals—in a comic book. Oh, not a classic comic book with tons of historical value, but the tie-in to a mid-1970s cartoon called Super Friends. Not that I remember much about the plot after this long; something about Sylph, Salamander, Undine, and Gnome start out as villains, then it turns out there was a misunderstanding and they and the Super Friends become allies against a real villain. Or something. Even at the time, I wasn’t paying that much attention to the plot, mostly because I was too busy being absolutely fascinated with the idea of the elements themselves. Pity my mother. I’m sure no child-rearing book she read had prepared her for having her child ask, “Mom, who was Paracelsus?”

By now, you’d think that I’d be accustomed to the fact that the elements are so widely used. Each of the twelve signs of the zodiac is associated with an element, as are the four suits of tarot’s Minor Arcana (although there are differences on which suit should be paired with which element). The elemental associations in Wicca alone can (and do) fill books. They’re certainly not limited to Paganism; a few years ago, I enjoyed reading a book called Water, Wind, Earth & Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying With the Elements, and I’d be surprised if that was the only Christian work that refers to the elements. Beyond this, you can find the elements in just about everything if you know how to look: the human body, the seasons, personality typology, the directions, and…well, lots and lots more. I am fully in agreement with Deborah Lipp when she writes, “Everything can be understood as taking part in one or more elements. Everything that is whole contains all four, and can be understood more deeply by dividing it into four and viewing it through that lens.” And I am accustomed to all this at one level. But I also continue to be surprised and delighted when I realize that I can see the elements in something or someone new in my life. In the end, the sense of wonder is what makes the elements truly real to me.

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