To Dare

The Element of Water in the Western Esoteric Traditions

Sorita d’Este


“For he hath given me certain knowledge of the things that are, namely,
to know how the world was made, and the operation of the elements.” [1]

The system of the four elements, Air, Fire, Water and Earth is a key foundation stone in the development of the Western Esoteric Tradition, and practices associated with it can still be found in almost all the modern traditions of magic and mysticism, including Alchemy, Gnosticism, Hermeticism, Ceremonial Magic, and Qabalah through to the Wiccan Tradition, Neo-Pagan Witchcraft and Druidry.

Its historical origins can be found two and a half thousand years ago in the writings of the ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles.  In the fifth century BCE in his Tetrasomia (Doctrine of the Four Elements), Empedocles expressed the view that the four elements were not only the building blocks of the universe, but also spiritual essences.  He equated the sources of the elements to Greek deities, thus attributing divine origins to the four elements.

“Now hear the fourfold Roots of everything:
Enlivening Hera, Aidoneus, bright Zeus,
And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears.” 2

It is important however to note that Empedocles did not call his four principles ‘elements’ (stoikheia), but rather he used the terms ‘roots’ (rhizai) and ’root-clumps’ (rhizômata).  Empedocles was an herbal magician or root cutter (rhizotomoi) and created his theory in the process of developing a doctrine of occult sympathies in plants. Notably, Empedocles’ ideas were echoed a couple of hundred years later by the Ptolemaic Egyptian high priest and historian Manetho who recorded deity attributions which seem to provide a bridge between the ideas of Empedocles and that of later esoteric traditions, when he wrote:

“The Egyptians say that Isis and Osiris are the Moon and the Sun; that Zeus is the name which they give to the all-pervading Spirit, Hephaestus to Fire, and Demeter to Earth.  Among the Egyptians the moist element is named Oceanus and their own river Nile; and to him they ascribed the origin of the Gods.  To Air, again, they give, it is said, the name of Athena.” [3]

Empedocles’ work was subsequently clarified and expanded on by many of the great philosophers and mystics whose work would subsequently influence the development of the western esoteric traditions through the centuries.  These philosophers, mystics and magicians included luminaries such as Aristotle, Plato, Athenagoras, Aristides, Philolaos, Eusebius, Philo and Josephus.

“Four phrases constitute and include all
that is required for the possession of High Magical Power.
To Know; To Dare; To Will; To Keep Silent.” [4]

The Four Directions

Today when we consider the four elements within western esotericism it is often in the context of the four directions, an idea which may have its origins in the writings of the Pythagorean philosopher Philolaos who wrote about the fourfold ordering of the elements in the context of the zodiacal circle.  His system divided the zodiac into a circle with an equal armed cross, the symbol now used in the western esoteric tradition to represent the planet Earth.  The Pythagoreans associated the elements with the natural cycle, tying the qualities of the elements to the seasons of plant growth.  Thus we see the process beginning with Moisture, the spring rains which encourage rapid growth, producing the green shoots as plants grow towards the sun.  This leads to the second phase of Warmth, where the summer sun encourages growth (through photosynthesis) to maturity.  The third phase is Dryness, the leaves of autumn and the stiffening of stems.  Finally the fourth phase is Cool, the chills of winter, death and retreat into the earth ready for the cycle to begin again.  The attribution of the four elements to the four cardinal points can also be found in the writings of the Greek spiritual alchemist Zosimos of Panopolis who attributed the elements to the four cardinal points in his classic third century CE work Upon the Letter Omega.

Interestingly, the attribution of the four elements to the four directions remained constant for many centuries, being as follows:

East – Fire
South – Air
West – Water
North – Earth

Those readers familiar with the attributions most popular within western esotericism today will notice that these attributions are different from those generally used today.  Yet examples of the above attributions can still be found in general use as recently as the late eighteenth century, as the following example from a Key of Solomon illustrates:

“the spirits created of fire are in the East
and those of the winds in the South.” [5]

Surprisingly the attribution of Fire to the South and Air to the East seems to originate with the nineteenth century occultist Eliphas Levi, whose work was hugely influential (yet often remains unaccredited) in the work of later magical societies, including that of the late nineteenth century Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.  It was the use of Levi’s attributions into the ceremonies of the Golden Dawn which would subsequently influence the attributions most often found in modern traditions, being:

East – Air
South – Fire
West – Water
North – Earth

Elemental Symbols


Before we consider the Element of Water in more detail, I feel it necessary to also briefly discuss the elemental symbols which are frequently used today to represent the elements.  When overlapped, they form a hexagram, a symbol which is used for the universe which is apt as the four elements are considered to be the building blocks of the physical world, as well as the spiritual realms.

The elements of Air and Fire are both represented by an upward pointing triangle, which represents their expansive (warm) nature.  The upward triangle also symbolises the male phallus.  The bar on the air triangle demonstrates that it is a denser element than fire. And Water and Earth are both represented by a downward pointing triangle, which represents their contractive (cool) nature.  The downward triangle symbolises the female pubic triangle (i.e. genitalia).  The bar on the earth triangle demonstrates that it is a denser element than water.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance a whole range of symbols were used to represent water, as can be seen in the following image (taken from Dictionary of Occult, Hermetic & Alchemical Sigils by Fred Gettings, 1981).   It is worth noting that Gettings emphasises the wavy lines used for water in ancient Egypt, which has been used as a convention for illustrations of water ever since.

“Sublime waters … which flow in their place, abundant waters which dwell together permanently in the great reservoir, children of the ocean which are seven, the waters are sublime, the waters are brilliantly pure, the waters glisten.” [6]

Another practice found in traditions such as Ceremonial Magic and Wicca, is that of using the pentagram to represent the four elements, which combine to create the fifth, that of Spirit.  Each point on the pentagram is thus attributed to one of the elements, with the topmost point being attributed to Spirit.

In practice these attributions are used in blessings and consecrations, as well as for creating sigils and talismans.  Most often the pentagram is traced, in a particular sequence, to evoke the power of a particular element.


These magical gestures are used repeatedly and builds up a power for the magician using it, as well as tapping into the energy already generated by it over the course of time by other magicians.  Magic is described as many things by many different people and at different times, I quite like the definition which was given by the American occultist Pascal B Randolph (1825-1875), whose writings would subsequently influence Aleister Crowley and many others, in his work Magia Sexualis he wrote saying that:

“Magick is a science. It is the only science which occupies itself, theoretically and practically, with the highest forces of nature, which are occult.”

In addition to the uses already named, another very important use for the elemental pentagrams are in practices where the Guardians of the Four Cardinal directions are invoked.  This practice is found in many traditions of Ceremonial Magic, and is also an essential part of traditions such as Wicca.  From these traditions it has filtered down into a number of other NeoPagan traditions, though the use of the elemental pentagrams has sometimes been discarded.  Their use is accompanied by visualisations, often the magician sees the pentagram forming as he traces it in the air in front of himself, sometimes in gold or in the appropriate elemental colour.  For Water this would be blue.

Elemental Landscape of Water

Another use is that of exploring the Elemental Landscapes.  These landscapes are essentially composed of features which epitomises the element it represents.  If you plan on working with the elements in your own magical practices, or wish to further explore the element of Water within your existing practices, a simple, yet effective practice to incorporate into a ceremony is to draw the elemental invoking pentagram of Water, seeing the lines form as beautiful bright blue as you trace it.  Then take a deep breath and trace the elemental symbol for Water in the centre of your pentagram, and allow yourself to enter into a meditative state during which you enter into the elemental landscape of Water.  This is most often seen as follows:

The Water landscape is a coastline.  A river runs over a cliff, forming a waterfall down into the sea below, which ebbs and flows with its tides.  On the beach below you can see rocks partially covered with seaweed waiting for the tide to come fully back in.  In the water you may see creatures like dolphins and whales, fish and seals, as well as mythical creatures like mermaids and sea goats.

Of course you may find that you encounter the landscape in a different way, this is fine and in fact possibly a sign that you are doing things correctly!

Understand the mutability of Water

The Element of Water can change state of being in a more tangible and noticeable form than any of the other elements.  A little exercise I like doing with individuals who are first seeking to understand the four elements is to get them to contemplate on each element in turn, with it physically present before them.  For the Element of Water I have often used the following contemplation, it is one which I have observed David Rankine using with some of his students:

For this meditation you need a bowl of water and an ice cube.
Place the bowl on the floor and sit comfortably gazing into it.  Add the ice cube and watch it float around on the surface as it slowly melts.  Consider how it moves and changes state, from solid to liquid, and contemplate the power of water in nature all around you, and how it exists as solid (ice), liquid (water) and gas (water vapour).  Spend a few minutes doing this, or until the ice cube melts.
When you have finished, record your thoughts and observations.

The Correspondences of the Element of Water

All four the elements have both positive and negative qualities associated with them in a metaphysical context.  The positive qualities of Water include Compassion, Dreams, Emotions, Empathy, Nurturing, Psychism, Serenity, Sexuality, Sympathy and Trust.  The negative qualities being Deceit, Fear, Hatred, Jealousy, Sorrow, Spite and Treachery.  The axiom given to Water in western magic today is To Dare, which is a necessary ability for us to develop if we are to control our emotions, whilst also enabling us to push the boundaries of our own personal experience and learning.  All of which is important part of exploring the mysteries.

Water (aqua) is described by the alchemical acronym Aqua – Album Quæ Vehit Aurum, meaning “Which Bears the White Gold.”  The term white gold was used to describe liquid Mercury, also called the Water of the Philosophers.

There are multiple layers of symbolism and associations to explore when studying and exploring the element of Water, the following table of correspondences will provide the eager student with starting points for their own research and studies.  It includes references to some of the spiritual beings which are associated with this element, which is an area of study which falls outside the scope of this essay, but one which is essential to the study of western mysticism and magic.

The Life Giving Waters

The element of Water is the one which is most often associated with the primal creation, the origins of mankind and all life upon this Earth itself.  It permeates the creation myths of many cultures, and is a primordial and powerful symbol of life.  It is key in the Sumerian creation myth where the divine couple, Apsu and Tiamat, represents sweet water and salt water, the waters of the abyss.

The Egyptian Ogdoad, of four primal divine couples, likewise focused on the Nun or primal waters. This idea of the primal waters as the foundation of creation is also found in the work of Thales of Miletius, the seventh century BCE philosopher who is considered the first of the Greek philosophers.  The idea continues on in the work of many thinkers, including the thirteenth century Kabbalist Azriel of Gerona who eloquently described water as the primeval mother who gave birth to darkness.

A concept frequently found in the grimoires, which has its origins in the Qabalah is that of ‘Living Water’, which is water which has fallen as rain or which has been drawn from a natural source such as a spring, or from lakes, ponds and rivers.  It is pure water, as it has fallen from heaven.  The importance of living water continues through into instructions found in grimoires such as the Key of Solomon for the magician to bathe in a river or similar source of living water.  It may also be used for purifying ritual items, and in talismanic magick.  This is why dew is sometimes associated with the highest Sephira of Kether in Kabbalistic texts as living water.  This use of living water is also found in numerous native magical traditions in Europe and Britain which survive through to the modern day.

Water is a dichotomy.  Life began in the waters.  Water is vital for life, and like the element of Fire it can be both nurturing and destructive.  In the macrocosm Water surrounds us as rain, rivers, lakes and oceans, it covers most of the planet we live on and it makes up the bulk of our bodies.  The seas move in tides, reflecting our lives, which ebb and flow symbolically like the tides of the oceans. This struggle of water was expressed superbly by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus in the sixth century BCE when he wrote:

“The sea is the purest and foulest water: for fish drinkable and life-sustaining; for men undrinkable and deadly.” [7]

Of course, it is also true the other way around.  The pure water of a river or lake would be poison to sea creatures, whilst it is sustains man and many other creatures.

Water can be nurturing, the ‘waters of life’, or it can symbolise death, the journey beyond the physical into the unknown, which has always been represented as a journey over water.  The ancient Egyptian underworld, Amenti, was believed to be on the west of the river Nile, and the Celts saw the Isles of the Blessed (afterlife) as being in the west over the Atlantic Ocean.  Such worldviews show that the link between water and the direction of the west has been symbolically present for thousands of years.  Water additionally represents rebirth as well as death, and the compassion that comes from accepting inevitable change and encompassing it.

Working with the element of Water helps you to concentrate on harmonising your emotional being.  Water can help you to both enhance positive emotional states like compassion, serenity and nurturing, as well as transforming negative states like deceit, jealousy, spite and treachery.  Water can also help you focus on your subtle senses, developing your empathy and psychism, and working with your dreams.

Undines & the Elementals of Water

The concept of ‘elementals’ is often quite misunderstood and, within modern magical traditions have become confused with a number of other concepts, including thought-forms and elementaries.  When using the term I refer to the beings that are associated with a particular element, these are Sylphs for Air, Salamandars for Fire, Undines for Water and Gnomes for Earth.  The concept of Water elementals is a very ancient one, Heraclitus wrote about it in the 6th century BCE saying:

“There are certain Water Elementals whom Orpheus calls Nereides,
dwelling in the more elevated exhalations of Water,
such as appear in damp, cloudy Air, whose bodies are sometimes seen
(as Zoroaster taught) by more acute eyes,
especially in Persia and Africa.” [8]

The name ‘undine’ which we use for the elementals of Water is derived from the Latin word unda, meaning ‘wave’.  In appearance Undines are said to appear with the same stature as a woman and are described as always appearing with moisture in their presence, which may manifest in many different ways such as for example, a sweat or a humid atmosphere.  They are sometimes (incorrectly) referred to as ‘Ondines’, which is a similar sounding name of a specific water nymph in German mythology, whereas ‘Undines’ refer to the whole class of being .  Undines were particularly noted for marrying humans and bearing children to their husbands, in fact of all the elemental beings they are the most likely to engage in this pursuit!  Unfortunately, this inclination of theirs also frequently encapsulates their most tragic natures, as it seems to inevitably end in disaster.

One such example can be found in the hugely popular story of Melusine who was described in the late fourteenth century tale of Mélusine de Lusignan [9].   Melusine can be seen as the archetypal fairy wife, and appears in different versions of the story as half fish, serpent or dragon – all clearly illustrating her watery nature.  She marries a man called Remond, who became the Conte de Poitiers, but with the caveat that on each and every Saturday he would allow her complete privacy.  Melusine brings Remond great prosperity, she builds the fortress at Lusignan for him with great speed and ease, so much so that it appears to be by magic.  Remond fails in this promise he made to Melusine after a visit by his brother who evokes feelings of jealousy in him about what Melusine does on a Saturday.  As a result, he waits until the next Saturday and bursts in on her, finding her in a bath of water in her elemental shape and at once realises her true nature.  She then leaves in a dramatic gesture, with Remond regretting his actions and mourning for her the rest of his life.  She does make appearances to visit her children and subsequent generations of her downline, who are said to include the Kings of Cyprus, Armenia, Bohemia and the Duke of Luxembourg, as well as of course the Lord of Lusignan.

Reflecting on the tendency for female undines to marry male humans, De Villars comments, saying:

“The ancient Sages called this race of people Undines or Nymphs.
There are very few males among them but a great number of females;
their beauty is extreme, and the daughters of men
are not to be compared to them.” [10]

As can be seen in this quote, Undines are also known as Nymphs a term which links back to a huge range of beings in the ancient world, Nymphs being particular popular in the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome, as well as in the Romano-Celtic world.

Living Water Meditation

The following meditation is taken from the book Practical Elemental Magick (Avalonia, 2009) which I co-authored with David Rankine.  It is a very simple, but useful practice to perform on a regular basis in order to explore the symbolism and qualities of the element of Water, especially if you are able to perform it as a regular outdoor practice by a stream or other natural body of water.

‘Living Water’ (mayim hayim) is water which has fallen from the sky bringing the purity of heaven with it, and has not been drawn from its source by pipes or a human hand.  Living water is found in lakes, ponds, rivers and springs, and may be collected as dew by leaving a bowl out overnight during the appropriate seasons.  By the definition this is not something that would really fit with acid rain in a big city, which would not perhaps be living water in the same way as was originally meant.  However if you can go and visit a suitable site in the countryside and collect water from a spring or overnight dew, you can use it for magickal work and meditation.  To gather water not by hand, put a bowl in the water so it is filled by the water, and then extricate it, so it has not strictly speaking been gathered by a human hand.  If you do go to a spring, then that is a preferable site for the following meditation, rather than at home.
Sit next to the water (be it a pool, spring, bowl, etc) and watch the surface of the water.  Consider how this water is living water, which has been transformed into vapour, and possibly also into ice.  It has experienced many changes of state, and will experience more, for water is a medium of transformation, going through change and also creating change.
Place your face as close as you conveniently (and safely) can to the water and say your magickal name over the surface of the water.  (This is an old Qabalistic practice, of only speaking words of power over water, probably based on Genesis 1:2).  Watch the surface of the water to see if it is moved by your breath, and see the small ripples spread, showing how a simple act can have repercussions which continue for a long time afterwards.
As you gaze at the water, you feel its still, mirror-like surface calm you, and you recall how the practice of hydromancy, or water divination, was used in ancient times to see spiritual creatures and other places.  As you look at the living water, you start to be aware that it is also a gateway of possibility.  Allow yourself to see any visions which may unfold, but if they do not, be aware that some of the living water is evaporating and surrounding you as you gaze.  Dip a fingertip into the water and anoint your brow with the water.  Repeat this for your eyelids, and then drop a drop of the water into your mouth.  Be aware of the power contained within even the smallest drop of water, and how it can be used to purify and also open doorways for you.

With its ability to exist in different states, and it association with the emotions, dreams, the unconscious, the otherworld and the lower astral realms, water may be seen in many ways as the most challenging of the elements.  From a drop of rain to a tsunami, the power of water to bring change is ever-present, and it is how we deal with that change which measures whether we harness the tide or are blown about like driftwood.  For a magician in the western esoteric traditions, the emphasis is on going with the tides, or learning to control them, and to do this we need to come to terms with water and accept it as a major part of our being.

References:

[1] The Wisdom of Solomon 7:17, C4th CE.

[2] Tetrasomia, Empedocles, C5th BCE.

[3] Manetho, Aegyptica Fragment 83, Waddell (trans), C2nd BCE.

[4] Transcendental Magic by Eliphas Levi

[5] Key of Solomon (various MSS).

[6] Babylonian Hymn to the Waters, given in Chaldean Magic, Lenormant.

[7] Fragments, Heraclitus, C6th BCE.

[8] Chaldean Oracles of Zoroaster, No.77.

[9] Mélusine de Lusignan, Jean d’Arras, 1393

[10] Le Comte de Gabalis, de Villars, 1670.

Further Reading:

Ashe, Steven (ed), The Testament of Solomon & The Wisdom of Solomon, 2008, Glastonbury Books, Glastonbury
De Villars, Monfaucon, The Count de Gabalis, 1714 (English translation of the 1670 French work), B.Lintott & E. Curll, London
Gettings, Fred, Dictionary of Occult, Hermetic & Alchemical Sigils, 1981, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London
Huggens, Kim, From a Drop of Water, 2009, Avalonia, London
Kingsley, Peter, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic; Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition, 1995, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Kirk, G. S., Raven, J. E. & Schofield, M., The Presocratic Philosophers, 1983, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Lenormant, Francois, Chaldean Magic: Its Origin and Development, 1999 (first published 1878), Red Wheel Weiser, Maine
Levi, Eliphas, Transcendental Magic, 1979, Rider & Co, London
Randolph, Pascal B., Magia Sexualis, 1987 (first published in French as Eulis in 1876), Ediz Mediterranee, Rome
Rankine, David & d’Este, Sorita, Practical Elemental Magick, 2009, Avalonia, London
Rankine, David & d’Este, Sorita, Practical Planetary Magick, 2007, Avalonia, London
Rankine, David & d’Este, Sorita, Practical Qabalistic Magick, 2009, Avalonia, London
Rankine, David & d’Este, Sorita, Wicca Magickal Beginnings, 2008, Avalonia, London

Sorita d’Este

Sorita d’Este

Biography:

Sorita d’Este (UK) is an esoteric researcher and the author of more than 18 books on the topic of magic, mythology and spirituality; including Practical Elemental Magick, Hekate Liminal Rites, Visions of the Cailleach and The Isles of the Many Gods (co-authored with David Rankine).  She can be described as many things, Stubborn Wild Woman and Gnostic Theurgist, wielder of the sword of Solomon and the Torch of Hekate probably sums it up – though she is not entirely comfortable with “spiritual labels” because they create artificial boundaries, which inhibits choice, instead she she prefers to journey her spiritual life with the four winds, under the Moon, Sun and Stars and go wherever she is guided to.  You can find out more at www.sorita.co.uk

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20 Responses

  1. Fr. AMI says:

    Tank you, Sr. Sorita d’Este, for a clear exposition of the directions of the elements and the variations of them also.

    If you allow me, I have one more variation of the elements and directions based on the greek classification and found used in Societas Misraim.

    East: Air
    South: Fire
    West: Earth
    North: Water

    So, there are even more variations 😀

    Agape et Gnosis!

    Fr. AMI

  2. This actually answered my dilemma, thank you!

  3. Leo Traits says:

    Its nice to find a blog that has something valuable to say. Ive enjoyed reading it, have also added to my rss feed – thanks!

  4. 網頁設計 says:

    hooray. your writings on theater and writing much missed!

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