Philippus Aureolus Paracelus, a Swiss physician, chemist, and philosopher (1490 – 1541) is credited with the Doctrine of the Four Elements, from which early nineteenth-century occult practitioners drew the belief that an element (earth, air, fire and water) is not only physical but also contain a spiritual essence. Granted, ancient cultures around the world long before Paracelsus’ time believed in this same principle: however, the condemnation of the Christian church did its best to eradicate this belief for over a thousand years. Pliny (Rome, first century A.D.) Pythogoras (Greek, 582 – 500 B.C.), Aristotle (382 – 322 B.C.) and Manilius (there is debate whether he lived to the first or ninth century A.D.) were all saying basically the same thing. To have Paracelsus renew the idea and pass it around didn’t make him especially popular, therefore in the occult world he gets give gold stars.
Paracelsus defied physicians of his time by insisting that diseases were caused by agents that were external to the body and that they could be cured by using chemistry. Many of his remedies were based on the belief that “like cures like.” He could be called the father of homeopathy, which has become popular in alternative medical circles (which include practitioners of Witchcraft). Homeopathy stems from the idea that one should treat the underlying problem, rather than just try to cure the symptom by using natural ingredients, such as herbs. He was pooh-poohed by his peers because he included magick in his scholarly writings. Witches also believe that we need to treat the problem rather than concerning solely on the symptoms, but what does this have to do with the primary elements?
Almost everything in the Craft, from the tools we use to the herbs we employ to the sigils we design, zodiac associations and planetary alignments we follow; fire into the ancient and medieval elemental category of the primary elements. Manilius put it this way:
“And first the heaven, earth and liquid plain, the moon’s bright globe and stars titanian (bright white). A spirit fed within, spread through the whole and with the huge heap mixed infused a soul; hence man and beast and bird derive their strain and monsters floating in the marbled main; these seeds have fiery, vigor, and a birth, of heavenly race, but clogg’d with heavy earth.”
So, about 2,000 years ago, the Roman Manilius was trying to tell people that everything–animals, humans, stars, seas and earth–consisted of living energy. I realize that philosophy might not interest you, but then I’m sure there are those among you who will be delighted to discover that even though these old geezers are long gone, their ideas of magick, science and philosophy continue on, right into the lap of modern Witchcraft.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word element has a mysterious origin and is first found in Greek texts meaning “complex whole” or “a single unit made up of many parts.” From the ancient up to medieval times there were only four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and if you were occult-oriented the fifth was Spirit. Cornelius Agrippa called spirit the “quintessence.”
Today, although scientists list more than 100 chemical elements (with some being manmade), magickal people continue to rely on the five basic building blocks of medieval occultism—earth, air, fire, water and Spirit—using some of the additional elements of the modern age to support the original five, depending on the spell or ritual. For example, silver (an element/metal) is used in various spells, and is a symbol of the divine Goddess, feminine mysteries, and is associated with moon magick, dreaming and psychism. Gold, another element, stands for the God, male mysteries, success prosperity, general well-being and all magicks associated with the sun.