6.3.14

Elementals

When I first heard about elementals, I compared them to wild animals for some reason, but in the magical, energetic sense, although one could tame them so they could also be perceived as pets. This, of course, is a very naive viewpoint, one which I no longer embrace. This was a very long time ago and my understanding of the subject has grown since then. 

I've gained enough knowledge on the subject through some experiences, a few of which I will mention in this post, although it was mostly through discussions, reading and answering questions on the subject that I actually came to be aware of what elementals are and how they function. It was precisely one of these questions that inspired me to write on this topic for week 10 of the Pagan Blog Project. Anyway, since I have only mentioned elementals one or two times on the blog, I think it's best if I start from the very beginning.

What Are Elementals?

No matter where you look to try and find the answer to this question, it will always revolve around the same three words: spirits of nature. Essentially, elementals really are spirits of nature, sometimes referred to as "embodiments" (although this word should be taken with a grain of salt) of natural energies or the elements (water, fire, earth and air). Each book will say the same and if you look anywhere in nature, energy is present, natural forces exist and if you are in tune with nature, you will be able to feel them. 

Our ancestors possibly went a bit overboard with this idea of everything in nature having a spirit; streams, rocks, each tree, leaves, thunder, sunshine and so on. The ancient Romans, for example, had even taken this a step further believing that all sorts of spirits inhabited their homes, although these weren't spirits of nature per se; they were spirits of the home and hearth such as the Panes (spirits of the pantry which were believed to provide food, although they were also thought of as spirits of the earth which is a relation to elementals), the Lares (spirits of one's ancestors which shared their home), the Parentes (the spirits of one's immediate family such as their departed mother and father, although they could be spirits of living family members that lived far away), the Lemures (wrathful, mischievous spirits of the deceased) and so on. The Romans took all of these spirits very seriously and gave them offerings, performed special rituals for them and, for those they were fond of, left spaces at the dinner table. 

In any case, four groups of spirits came to be established which corresponded with the four natural elements - water, fire, earth and air. The spirits which are believed to personify each element (or possibly its extreme) are called elementals and, accordingly, there are four of them: undines (elementals of water), salamanders (elementals of fire), gnomes (elementals of earth) and sylphs (elementals of air). But, as I have said, the term "elemental" can also be used to refer to any natural spirit. In Wicca and most Pagan traditions, this term is most commonly applied to these four groups.

As elementals are essentially spirits, or energetic forms, they are no usually seen, although certain cases have been noted where some people actually did see them. Still, it is believed that only a person who is greatly attuned with nature has the ability to perceive them. Others merely sense their presence, feel it even physically, or if the elemental is not dismissed properly, see physical evidence of their presence (for example unusual occurrences related to the specific element at hand). 

Elementals and Calling the Quarters

In Paganism, elementals are sometimes invoked into the ritual circle in stead of invoking the elements (or even the guardians). No matter what is invoked, this part of the ritual is called "Calling the Quarters" because in any combination, there are always four points to be called (i.e. four quarters). All of these notions may be confusing so I would like to take a moment to define them and emphasize their differences.

A normal part of every Pagan ritual is the Calling of the Quarters (also often called the invocation of the elements). Now, what confuses some practitioners is the fact that the invocation of the elements is preceded by cleansing the circle (i.e. the ritual space) with the elements themselves. This is done by walking deosil (clockwise) around the perimeter of the circle with incense and sprinkling the perimeter with salted water (some also walk around separately with the salt and a candle to symbolize fire, though these are additional options). The circle is cleansed by these elements and the elements themselves are thus already present, or somehow invoked because, while cleansing, the practitioner usually says something along the lines of: "I consecrate this circle with the element of ____". In her book The Elements of Ritual (of which you can find an excerpt here), Deborah Lipp says that the invocation of the elements is more of a greeting than anything else since the elements are already present in the circle (and you cannot invoke something that is already present). 

To elaborate on this, the "Calling the Quarters" section of the ritual can be adapted for the individual so you may decide to:
  1. Call the elements themselves
  2. Call the directions (north, south, east, west)
  3. Call the elementals or
  4. Call the guardians
They are different in that when you call the elements, you ask the physical elements and their characteristics to be present and aid you in the ritual. This is what Deborah Lipp believes makes no sense as the elements are already present by this point in time.

Calling the directions would be a more logical option for those that don't believe in various otherworldly entities. Deborah Lipp gives the contrast of saying "O Air, come to our circle!" (for calling the elements themselves) and "O East, be in our circle, You are the direction of Air!" (for calling the directions). She explains the difference between these two actions as follows: "What you're calling is the direction itself, and the element is being placed there; its connection with the direction is being used and reinforced".

Calling the elementals makes more sense because they haven't been called yet, although some may have trouble visualizing them or even perceiving them as real. This option is slightly more drastic, I would say, because elementals are beings which are much more active and harder to control than elements. They are embodiments of the elements and thus represent that specific element in its totality and that element alone! This makes them extreme, in a sense. Deborah Lipp says that "to call an elemental, you would have to be rather forceful; you would summon or command rather than invite. This is not because you're ill-mannered, but because they are simpler beings who need to be spoken to very clearly, and niceties will confuse the issue". I will elaborate more on the subject later, though this is enough for the sake of comparison.

The final option is calling the guardians, which are also referred to as the Guardians of the Watchtowers in most rituals. They are essentially the guardians of the four quarters, the four cardinal points and thus the four elements which are put under the umbrella term "watchtowers". Just the choice of the word "watchtowers" alludes to a higher position and power. This implies that the guardians are "higher" beings than elementals in the sense that they aren't all that extreme and they are more complex in nature. Deborah Lipp says the following about the guardians: "They have been compared to Archangels; some Witches have said that these are different words for the same thing. (Other Witches don't care for Biblical creatures like Archangels to be included in a Pagan ceremony.) The comparison is apt, and who protect and support human beings . . . I have come to understand them as beings roughly equal to ourselves, as sophisticated and complex as humans, as spiritually evolved as we, and with a similar relationship to the gods - sharing their essence but still distant from them in practical terms . . . The primary purpose of the Guardians is to serve the gods; they protect humans and guard us primarily as an adjunct to protecting and guarding rituals devoted to, and sacred to the gods. Outside of ritual, they have little interest in our lives, and don't seem to watch over people in their day-to-day lives. The Guardians protect the circle from danger from their direction and from their element (i.e. the Guardian of the South prevents fire from breaking out in the circle), and they use the power of their element to do so. Their nature is heavily influenced by their element, but the Guardians aren't made up exclusively of their element, the way that elementals are". I think this about answers all the basic questions on the guardians.

Now that we understand the difference between calling all these various entities/spirits/forces (or whatever you wish to call them), let us return to the main topic of this post. 

Working with Elementals

Obviously, Pagans work with elementals during their rituals, as explained before. The elementals represent the elements in their full potential during the ritual, ensure the presence and protection of that element (if they are invoked appropriately) and generally make the ritual fuller. I say the latter because Pagans believe that all the natural elements should be present in the ritual circle, along with the practitioners (which represent the fifth element - the soul) and certain deities, in order for the ritual to be truly energetically full. But in order for elementals to be present, one should know what to visualize and how to call them appropriately.

How Do We Perceive Elementals?

So what are they like? How are they depicted? What are their characteristics? All of these questions are very general and hard to answer, but I think the following quotation may make things a bit clearer. It is from Marian Green's book A Witch Alone:
"Elementals are natural energies associated with the elements of Earth, Water, Fire and Air. We can't really be sure what they are like in their own realms, for like all beings that appear to our clouded vision, they tend to be shaped by our own imagination. A simple example is an angel. Now, you can look at pictures throughout Christendom and see illustrations of robed figures with feathered wings, in various colours, designs and degrees of reality. Show such a picture to a foreigner or a child and they will probably be able to identify the image as that of an angel. 
Angels don't actually look like that - they are not flying people but great energy forms, shapeless and rainbow-hued, if you ever see them in their own forms, as you can if you ask them to appear like that. But human artists, over many hundreds of years, have created the stereotyped image, originating from some vision but interpreted into human form. The same applies to Elementals. They look like their element, flowing, streaming, illuminating, almost invisible giant vortices of power, but because they are willing to limit themselves to the stereotyped image constructed by humans, they may be perceived as nymphs or dryads or sylphs or gnomes. 
Once you learn to catch them unaware, by entering their worlds gently and without making crossdimentional ripples, you may see them as they are. Do realise, though, that all these beings are huge, vast, lofty and expansive. Imagining them as little animal-like spirits diminishes them and demeans their might. They are eternal, awesome, potent and far wiser than we children of Earth. 
Part of the Old Arts is the acceptance of other dimensions, other realms, alternate realities from which we are only cut off by ignorance, or perhaps over-keen skepticism. We cannot see TV pictures without a set, electricity and an aerial, but those waves of information are all round us. We cannot see Elementals or angels, but if we visualise them, so mentally providing the power, the aerial and the receiver, we may well perceive them. As we tune these senses, just as an engineer would tune a satellite dish, the picture becomes clearer, the sound more distinct and our understanding of what is being transmitted greater all the time. All of us are born with the ability to pick up these 'astral' signals from the starry heights. Many of us as children were well aware that we could travel through the air, meet fairies or animals or other childhood heroes. We encountered them most nights in our 'dreams' but now, as adults, we have to learn again that childlike simplicity, acceptance of what our adult logic tells us is improbable. That is the secret of walking into the Otherworld, realising that there can be things of which we are not aware in our everyday state of mind, but which the Old Arts may reveal to us if we trust intuition and our inherited wisdom.
It may require us to make huge cultural leaps, but that is one aspect of 'becoming a witch' or walking the solo path towards the realms of the Great Ones. We will certainly be surprised, for that is a sure sign that something magical is at work in our lives, and that we have stepped through that flimsiest veil of conscious acceptance, and so begun to see and experience for ourselves. Try it; it might genuinely change your life!"
Whereas Ms Green is an advocate of elementals, other authors such as Raymond Buckland advise practitioners to not invoke elementals. He claims that there is really no need for them as the protection of the deity/deities is enough. Deborah Lipp also warns the practitioner to be careful when invoking elementals because they can be "difficult to handle" and should also be firmly dismissed at the end of the ritual because they may linger and cause mischief (not because they are bad, but it is in their nature to play with their own element; undines may cause pipes to clog or the sink to start leaking, gnomes may help but also harm your plants and so on). Not everyone believes this is possible, but I had one or two experiences which make me believe that this might be possible and have since read many other similar accounts.

Let us talk about the elementals separately now. Each elemental embodies one of the elements and thus holds only the energy of that element. This results in the elemental being depicted or perceived as female or male (as fire and air are thought to hold male energies, while water and earth generally hold female energies) and having characteristics that can be associated with the nature of that specific element.

Undines

A sculpture of an undine
(a part of a fountain),
city: Baden-Baden, Germany
Undines are the elementals of water. Their name is very fitting as it comes from the Latin word unda meaning wave. They are usually described as woman-like creatures (since water is a female element) that live in the sea; they are sometimes compared to mermaids, or other water-related mythological beings or spirits such as the Greek Nereids.

Water is connected to emotions (especially love) and intuition as well as cleansing, healing and fertility. The key word here is feeling, so undines embody all emotions and represent the aforementioned notions fully. Like I said, elementals really are extreme, so an undine has no connection with discipline (which is an earthy characteristic) nor will it be logical (any though and logicality is connected to air). Undines can be very emotional, spontaneous, hard to control and active (as in constantly moving) so reasoning with them or trying to calm them down is pointless. The best way to attract an undine into a ritual circle is by playing the emotion card; to be almost seductive and emotional in the invocation and possibly even a bit spontaneous as this is their nature also.

Salamanders

Salamanders are the elementals of fire. Their name comes from the Greek word salambe which means "fireplace". They are usually depicted as lizards or lizard-like creatures (sometimes with some human features).

Fire is a male element and is connected to laws, order and renewal (but also destruction). Imagine a fire and a large one at that, it consumes everything in its path, it is dominant, untamed, many are afraid of it and show it respect because it has the power to kill, but when controlled it can be very useful. It does not care who or what it burns; it is in its nature to simply burn. Still, fire can give warmth and light both physically and metaphorically. Salamanders completely embody all of these qualities; they are very passionate, call for caution and good handling just as any fire does. So when calling them, there has to be a certain distance, there has to be caution. They also have to be firmly dismissed at the end of the ritual.

Gnomes

Gnomes are the elementals of earth. When a person is "down to Earth", they are rational, they are intelligent and think straight. This can be connected to the meaning of the word "gnome" which comes from the Latin gnoma meaning "knowledge".

Although earth is a female element, gnomes are usually depicted as men and small ones at that. They are often mentioned in mythology living in the land and working hard to maintain their lifestyle. They react to respect and are not emotionally developed whatsoever as they do not have any of the characteristics of the other elementals. Gnomes are often described as being stubborn, very connected to the earth and all physical (including the senses), which is why the best way to attract them into a circle by activating all their senses (with smells, nice decorations and so on) as well as by showing great respect when invoking them.

Sylphs

Sylphs are the elementals of air. The word "sylph" comes from the Greek noun silphe which means butterfly (very appropriate, don't you think). Sylphs are thus often even depicted as butterflies, although, as air isn't really visible, some try and figuratively depict them with clouds and similar air-related imagery. 

The element of air is connected to communication (remember that sound travels through air, as do Wi-Fi signals haha), but also with the mind and thoughts in general. When someone has their head in the clouds, they usually aren't very "down to earth" i.e. rational or realistic; they daydream, have wonderful ideas (some of which cannot be physically executed) and are completely free in their imagination. Sylphs are the extreme of all of these notions and many more - they are unrealistic, free, elusive (like the wind, for example) and they do not have any characteristics of the other elementals (they don't rationalize, they aren't emotional, they aren't realistic or connected to the physical world and so on). This is why they are best attracted into the circle by means of words, direct thoughts and maybe best of all, simply by the power of the mind.


Obviously, each elemental is completely different from the others. They do not have a single same characteristic because they represent the extremes of all qualities. This may be strange to us because we, as humans, have many characteristics and are not as simple in terms of personalities. But it is precisely because of our differences and little understanding of them that we should be careful when working with such beings.

The Problems of Working with Elementals

Many practitioners call elementals "lower beings", although they aren't lower in terms of rank or importance; they are just more simple, more basic if you will, whereas more complicated beings (such as us even) are "higher" compared to them because they aren't extreme in the same sense that they are i.e. they have more elements which make up their personalities.

The closest comparison I can come up with is the notion of "flat characters" in literature in comparison to "rounded characters". The more rounded a character is, the more complex  he is, the more described, more human-like, more alive, the more emotions he has and so on. In this sense, elementals could be called "flat". It is this flatness that also makes them potentially dangerous if the practitioner doesn't know how to work with them (and, of course, truly believes in them; but like I said, you wouldn't call something into your circle if you don't believe in it because that would just be silly). 

There have been many instances when an elemental wasn't dismissed properly and started doing mischievous things around the practitioner's house. Depending on which elemental is at hand, the damages will vary. Each elemental can manipulate only his/her element, which is expected. 

It is also necessary to know how to call upon the elementals correctly. Nothing too horrible can happen, of course, but little issues have been mentioned from many sources. If the elemental is not called upon properly, he can get mischievous inside the ritual circle; candles may tip over, things knocked over, it can get too windy or things like this. It's all just very impractical. 

Although, many of you reading this may find all of this illogical and silly, in which case you don't even have to deal with elementals. I personally prefer to deal with the elements or guardians because the notion of an element being manifested in this manner simply doesn't make sense to me. I mention this issue because if you don't believe in elementals, nothing will probably happen and thus nothing can go wrong.

All in all, the choice is entirely yours! :) My goal was simply to explain what elementals are in a more textbook type of way, because each individual's experiences differ, as do their opinions on the subject. Hopefully I answered some questions and raised a few new ones! :D

Until next time. Yours,
Witch's Cat

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