Why the Categorization of Elementals is flawed

Posted on April 16, 2012
Filed Under elemental work, entities, Magic, Taylor Ellwood | 10 Comments

I’m reading The Well of Light by R. J. Stewart right now (amongst other things). He makes an interesting point when he argues that the categorization of elemental spirits into Earth, Air, fire, and Water (and spirit) isn’t necessarily accurate. He points out the following:

If we think about Elementals as small components of ‘pure’ Air, Fire, Water, and Earth with some sort of limited consciousness, we are making them too abstract and too small…they are large conglomerate beings of one primary Element, but with the other three also present…elementals are perceived and encountered during a gathering of forces into undeniable, visible, tangible patterns: the forest fire, the volcanic interruption, the tornado, and the earthquake.

My own experience with the primary elementals has always been a recognition that to one degree or another the elements are interacting with each other. Think of a cloud in the sky. Sure there’s Air, but there’s also Water. But even leaving out the periodic table (which is a scientific analysis of the physical elements), I’ve never really been satisfied with the four or five elemental approach to magic. In the Strategic Sorcery course, Jason also discusses the elementals from the perspective of the five core elements and his approach to the elements is reminiscent of my early delving into hermeticism right down to the kings of the elementals. I’ve worked with them in the way Jason describes and I’ve also experienced them the way R. J. describes. In fact, my experience of elementals shifted to how R. J. describes them after my the working I did when I was eighteen where I exchanged some of my life essence for the life essence of the elemental spirits. And reading R. J.’s description made me appreciate that distinction he makes.

But as I said above, even the four or five elemental model never really worked. When I first started doing the elemental balancing work I realized that drawing on a traditional model for the elements was very limiting. An elemental force such as Gravity wasn’t included, nor sound, nor even emotional forces that I’d consider elemental such as love or emptiness. So I started including them because I liked the concept of elemental spirits and could certainly attest to my own experiences with them, but I felt that there were more out there than what was readily available. I still hold to this perspective, so that even though I am working with Fire this year, I could just as easily be working with Gravity another year and find that it has much to offer from a spiritual perspective as what fire offers.

What do you think? Do you stick to a traditional perspective on elementals, or have you tried my approach and worked with an elemental that wasn’t traditional?

Comments

9 comments
altmagic
altmagic

I don't think elementals exist as such; the idea of the 4 (5) elements is a cultural construct from a narrow range of Indo-European cultures. And by that I mean mostly Greek. Even the Celts didn't use that system. The objective universe isn't divided into four or five key energies, it's just a human way of cataloguing things. 

 

This means that the elemental spirits are essentially different from the spirits of objective phenomena, for example land deities. Mount Such-and-Such is there whether you're Greek, Celtic or Chinese, and maybe its spirit will talk to you. The the Element of Air? Not the same.

 

Based on that, elementals are either (a) some other kind of spirits, maybe nature spirits, willing to put up with our tiny tinted goggles or (b) human thought-forms, more like a long established egregore than a natural spirit.

 

That doesn't make a big difference from the point of view of magical practice - they still respond to those who work with them - but it does mean that if you want to redefine them as mixes of elements or say there's 8 kinds instead of 4 (or anything else), they probably will just roll with it.

DarkArckana
DarkArckana

I think the real problem with the four elemental model is the fact that knowledge of it has been distorted. The elemental model is designed to be apart of an entire system. It comes from Alchemy, which does include all of the observations you pointed out in regards to one element being present within the other. In the origins of the model, they are given specific attributes and are not considered "pure". This is outlined in both the works of Agrippa as well as Francis Barrett's "The Magus". In terms of emotions and gravity, those are also covered under the Hermetic principles. In the original school, emotions are not an element, but are considered to also take on the attributes of the elements. We even associate emotions to their elements in modern culture, such as "anger" with "fire" etc. The elements are not limiting once you learn enough about them from the right sources. They're the opposite of limiting, they encompass everything. They're like the Yin/Yang model, which may be simple but can apply to the interactions of almost every form of seeming opposites and are actually applied to the four elemental model itself (Active elements: Fire and Air Passive Elements: Air and Water). In any case, I don't think modelling the elements and elementals into a four and five element model, as long as you maintain the understanding that every other element is a but a transmutation or an amalgamation of these base four. In other words, the four elemental model is a fractal model.

Faoladh
Faoladh

My current thinking is that the classical elements represent the mind/matter interactions of the perceptible universe, projected onto a framework in which all things perceptible are a form of matter (so, fire is the spiritual force, air the mental, water and earth the physical stages of matter in perfect parallel to the mental ones). As a result, I don't have time for a "fifth element", which is, to me, what the elements are before they erupt into the perceptible universe and gain form. Gravity (to pick your example of another element) seems to me a physical manifestation of the Erotic force, not an element in itself (though, no doubt, there are elemental-like entities associated with it). Your examples of emotional forces are, to me, variations of fire, and sound a variation of air.

Magicexperiment
Magicexperiment moderator

 @DarkArckana I acknowledge that people have attributed emotions to elements but its an arbitrary attribution. I've found it very useful to work with emotions as elements in and of themselves without attributing them to a physical force such as fire.

Magicexperiment
Magicexperiment moderator

 @FaoladhEach person is entitled to their own model when it comes to such things. The real question is if the experience of the territory yields results consistent with the expressed goals of the model.

DarkArckana
DarkArckana

 @Magicexperiment I can understand. It's much different approach than our modern thinking. It has its roots in the Principle of Correspondence, "As Above, So Below", which, all mystic babbling aside means that all reality applies on the same principles. The principles may apply in a  different way in mind than in matter, but they are observable and present nonetheless. It certainly requires a paradigm shift, that someone like myself who is a physical alchemist as well as a sculptor would benefit from. Not everyone is interested in making those two subjects a major part of their central practice, despite how interesting they may be as side interests. Everyone should do what they feel works best for them, however, that doesn't mean that the categorization of elements or the system they're apart of is flawed. =)

Faoladh
Faoladh

 @Magicexperiment Precisely so. That's why I don't know how this sort of discussion can take place between "traditions". On the one hand, we are discussing some very universal ideas, but on the other we are talking about them in language that is particular to our various "traditions". For instance, as DarkArckana up there notes, the characteristics of the four classical elements are particular to European alchemy (and it's not like there aren't variant streams of language involved there, what with the different Green Dragons and Red Kings and whatnot!), and the same conditions might be conceptualized, and subsequently used, differently elsewhere (the Chinese system he alludes to is a useful parallel). All we can do is say "this is how I conceptualize this wordless thing, go ahead and translate that into your framework". We can have discussions of the principles underlying our conceptual frameworks - in this case, of what the elements represent (I tried to do that), but not a statement of "this way is wrong". There's a reason that magic is called an "art".

DarkArckana
DarkArckana

 @Faoladh  @Magicexperiment Even the elementals themselves have their roots in Alchemy. The first elementals mentioned in terms of historical records go are Slyph, Gnome, Undine and Salamander. They were mentioned by Paracelsus and have no religious origins. I love the Chinese Model of Earth, Air, Water, Wood and Metal. That one is actually much less ambiguous. They're metaphors for how Magikal forces interact.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] recent post on Elementals generated some critiques from people who pushed for a more traditional model of elemental magic. I [...]