Q is for qualities

The four elements are fundamental to Paganism and occult studies. However, just as the atoms of the chemical elements contain smaller particles (protons, neutrons, electrons), the metaphysical elements have components as well. These are the four qualities: hot, cold, wet (often called moist), and dry.*

The qualities may be seen as active and passive. The active qualities are hot and cold; the passive ones are wet and dry. “Active,” in this case, means capable of acting (on other qualities), while “passive” means susceptible to the influence of the active qualities. That sounds kind of circular; what it means in plainer English is that the hot quality can make something drier, while the cold quality can make it moister—but the dry quality can’t make something hotter and the wet quality can’t make it colder.

The qualities and the elements.
The qualities and the elements.

The elements are more than just literal fire, earth, air, and water, and the qualities are more than their literal counterparts as well. Hot and cold describe how energetic something (or someone) is, how much vitality it has. For example, as a conflict heats up, it’s more likely to become violent. But if you take a break from an argument to cool off, you’re trying to be less passionate about it and calm down. Or compare people who are “hot-blooded” with those described as “cold-hearted.”

Wet and dry describe how discrete, formed, and hard things are. Wet means without a fixed shape, amorphous, pliable. Things which are wet by nature are flexible, supple, changeable, and resilient…and fluctuating and unstable. Dry things, on the other hand, are formed, defined, distinct, and firm…and inelastic and brittle. Not having much in the way of boundaries, wet things join together, while dry things tend to stay neatly compartamentalized. A conspiracy theorist could be described as strongly wet, seeing links and connections between events that their opposite, the (dry) skeptic considers completely unrelated. All the qualities are on a spectrum, though, so while a rubber ball is drier than a cotton ball, it’s wetter than a marble

Elements consist of two qualities. Although you can make six pairs out of the four qualities, pairing the opposites (hot/cold, wet/dry) cancels them out. This leaves four combinations, and in each element, one quality is stronger than the other:

  • air: hot and wet
  • fire: hot and dry
  • earth: cold and dry
  • water: cold and wet

Pairing them this way means that each element is a combination of an active and a passive quality. Ancient writers often used these paired qualities to describe the seasons. Spring is hot and wet, the qualities associated with growth. Summer is hot and dry. Fall is cold and dry, the qualities associated with dormancy. Winter is cold and wet. As you can see, the seasons—and the elements, for that matter—change one quality at a time (this reminds me of those doublets word puzzles, the ones where you change one word into another by changing just one letter in each step).

As with many of these bits of esoteric knowledge I come across, I’m not sure if there’s an easy way to incorporate them into Pagan practice, or if there’s even any need to do so. The first thing that comes to mind is the quarters of the circle. Often in Wicca and Paganism, we associate air with spring and the east, fire with summer and the south, water with fall and the west, and earth with winter and the north, and these associations are reflected in our circles. Using this system with the qualities, air and fire have the same seasonal associations, but earth and water trade places. This would make a circle where opposite elements lie opposite to each other, yet the elements progress both clockwise and counter-clockwise. I appreciate the symbolism of the classic circle, but I must admit this other version appeals to my sense of order.


*The modes are also called qualities, but they were the subject of my M post.

M is for modes

And with this post, I reach the halfway point of the Pagan Blog Project. (Wow.) Admittedly, anyone who has been reading my past entries might be thinking I was participating in something called the Astrological Blog Project. I didn’t set out to write on so many astrological topics to the exclusion of others—and yeah, there are more to come—but I was doing astrology years before I’d ever heard of Wicca or Paganism, and I find the two just fit so well together. Think about it. The planets bear the names of gods. The signs correspond to the four elements. The signs are also divided into three modes, which have a strong seasonal association, which in turn leads me to make a connection between the “circle of animals” (zōdiacus) and the Wheel of the Year. Although unlike planets, signs, and elements, chances are that unless you’ve studied astrology, you haven’t heard of the modes.

Short version: the modes describe energy, how it moves and where it’s directed. The three modes are usually called cardinal, fixed, and mutable nowadays, although there are older names for them as well. While signs that share an element are inherently compatible, signs that share a mode clash (actually, that’s also because their elements are usually incompatible: for example, fire and water will be at odds regardless if they’re both cardinal, fixed, or mutable).

The astrological signs with their modes and elements.
The astrological signs with their modes and elements.

Cardinal energy begins things and takes action. The cardinal mode directs energy outwards, making its mark in the everyday world; leadership is often associated with cardinal traits. Traditionally, the cardinal mode has been considered the strongest of the three, but I don’t think that’s because it really is stronger but because it’s the easiest to see. Especially in the West, we’ve favored an outgoing, extroverted approach to life, one that deals with the mundane realities of life. So planets in cardinal signs in horary charts may indeed gain strength from those placements because so many horary questions are about the physical world that cardinal energy is focused on. In natal charts, where we’re looking at a person’s mental, emotional, and spiritual makeup as well as how they function in the world, saying that one mode is stronger than another can be misleading. The drawback to the cardinal mode is its lack of follow-through: people strong in cardinal energy may leave things unfinished, always running off to start something new.

Fixed energy is pretty much what it sounds like: resistant to change. The four signs of the fixed mode continue, maintain, and persevere. Despite the term “fixed,” it’s not that the fixed mode is always petrified. If something is already in motion, the fixed mode will keep it that way, because stopping would involve change. Whereas the cardinal mode moves outward, fixed energy moves inward. The fixed mode has been seen as weaker than the cardinal mode, but stronger than the mutable mode. Although fixed energy turns inwards and doesn’t impact the world the way cardinal energy does, we see its sheer immovability as strength in its own right (think the Rock of Gibraltar). As you may guess, the downside to the fixed mode is its tendency to get stuck in a rut, often persisting in situations where change is desperately needed.

Mutable energy is adaptable and flexible, pliable and unsettled. Lacking the force of cardinal energy and the solidity of fixed energy, mutable energy has usually been viewed as the weakest of the modes. Today, we think of this as mental/psychological energy, not weaker, just not as obvious. Mutable energy has neither an inward nor an outward focus, but swirls around in all directions. While this flexibility is often a gift, the mutable mode can indecisive, scattered, and unable to commit to anything.

As for the Wheel of the Year, the modes are closely associated with the seasons. At the solstices and equinoxes, the Sun moves into the cardinal signs, 0º of Aries, Cancer, Libra, and Capricorn. The cardinal energy matches the “beginning” feeling of the seasons, the urge to get going, do something (seasonally appropriate, perhaps). The middle of the seasons correspond to the fixed signs, and if the cross-quarters hadn’t gotten thrown off a bit by calendar changes, they’d fall at the exact middle of the fixed signs, when the Sun reaches 15º of Taurus, Leo, Scorpio, and Aquarius. At this point, the seasons have settled into a consistent rhythm, with their beginnings fading into memory, and the transition to the next season not yet real enough to think about. Since there are eight sabbats, but twelve signs, the Wheel of the Year doesn’t map to the mutable signs (to fit the pattern, there would have to be another four sabbats when the Sun reaches 29º of the mutable signs, which would be only hours before it moved to 0º of the cardinal signs, starting the cycle over again). But even without official holidays to mark them, as the Sun moves into Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius, and Pisces, there’s a feeling of imminent change, as the fixed pattern of the current season begins to break up and we see hints of the season to come.

Although there is a lot about the elements in both the astrological and Pagan literature, I’ve seen almost nothing about the modes in Pagan writings. In Castings: The Creation of Sacred Space, Ivo Domínguez, Jr. devotes a chapter to the modes and how to combine them with the elements when casting circles: a cardinal circle, for instance, or a mutable one. The modes seem like something you could use in magic, although since I almost never practice magic, this is just a hypothesis on my part. And even if the modes aren’t named as such, I figure their qualities are well-integrated into the Wheel of the Year, which is enough for me at the moment.

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.