Elements: The DNA Of Magic

by Nate

[Magicians] seek after the virtues of the elementary world, through...the celestial world in the rays, and influences thereof, according to the rules of astrologers, and the doctrines of mathematicians, joining the celestial virtues to the [elementary]...through the sacred ceremonies of religions.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

DNA is formed of twisted pairs of chained nucleotides built on four distinct building blocks called nucleobases which, arranged in different combinations, describe all the many forms of life in the universe -as far as we can tell. The infinitesimally small, as it turns out, describes the incomprehensibly vast…

The “magical universe”, much like the physical one, is comprised of building blocks; base materials which, when arranged just so, can be made to represent nearly everything within that universe. As in the mundane world, these are referred to as “The Elements”; though in the magical sense there are only four elements and they have celestial, infernal, and earthly qualities simultaneously.

Elements are the “nucleobases” of magic’s DNA…in the sense that, like the nucleobases C, G, A, and T which compose the language of life, the elements compose the various arrangements of virtues (what we typically think of as significations).

As nucleobases are the language of DNA, and therefore life, the four elements are the language of magic, and therefore a divine language; used to describe how the diverse essences of the manifest world come together in perfect, stable harmony.

All substance, physical or immaterial, is comprised of the four elements in various portions and in various expressions. Agrippa discusses elements at length in the beginning of his Three Books Of Occult Philosophy, their virtues (as he calls them), and the nature of working with them in various ways.

In his analysis of the elements, Agrippa explores their qualities within each realm of creation (celestial, infernal, and earthly) and provides significations for each element and “tools” for their use in magic. Magic is, in many ways, a process of connecting the three realms in ritual: acting out an intention in the earthly sphere, petitioning celestial spirts to command chthonic ones.

It is extremely useful to conceive of magic as a metaphorical language for negotiating with the Other; the divine, celestials, sublunary spirits, the dead, or other expression thereof. And interpreting Agrippa through this lens turns his ruminating, run-on sentences into a veritable recipe for spellwork.

Elements & Significations

At the very beginning of Three Books of Occult Philosophy, Agrippa provides descriptions of the virtues of the four elements, which is to say their qualities, and how they combine and interact with one another to produce the increasingly complex compounds which proliferate the universe with form and function.

All form and function, however, are derived from these elemental qualities. In praxis this provides us with a diverse array of spellcrafting possibilities. It is the difference between being limited to primary colors or painting with an entire spectrum at your disposal.

First, and perhaps most practically useful, are Agrippa’s elemental significations:

Fire

  • Bright (yet occult/unknown)
  • Boundless
  • Invisible
  • Self-sufficient
  • Moveable
  • Yielding to all things that come next to it
  • Renewing
  • Guarding nature
  • Enlightened
  • Not comprehended by lights which are veiled
  • Clear
  • Parted
  • Leaping back
  • Binding upwards
  • Quick in motion
  • High
  • Raises motion
  • Comprehending others but not being comprehended
  • Not standing in need of another
  • Secretly increasing itself
  • Manifesting its greatness to things that receive it
  • Active
  • Powerful
  • Invisibly present in all things at once
  • Cannot be opposed
  • Reduces suddenly things into obedience
  • Incomprehensible
  • Impalpable
  • Not lessened
  • The mischievous part of nature
  • Capable of creation and destruction
  • Penetrates all things
  • Shining (light) in the heavens but in the infernal places dark and tormenting

Earth

  • Object & subject
  • Receptacle of all celestial rays
  • Contains the seeds and seminal virtues of things
  • Made fruitful by the other elements and the heavens
  • Brings forth all things of itself
  • Receives the abundance of all things
  • From it springs plants, animals, stones, and metals
  • Contains great secrets when purified by fire and washed of impurities
  • First matter of creation
  • Medicine that restores and preserves us

Water

  • No living thing exists without it
  • Seminary virtue (especially of animals)
  • Seeds must be soaked in water to germinate
  • No spiritual regeneration can be done without it
  • Important for religious observation
  • Generative
  • Nourishing
  • Swallows the earth
  • Quenches fire
  • Carried by the winds

Air

  • Vital spirit
  • Passes through all beings
  • Gives life and subsistence
  • Binding
  • Moving
  • Filling
  • A medium
  • A joining of the other elements
  • Receives influences of celestial bodies and communicates them to other elements
  • Carries things into the winds and brings them into the body
  • Sights and sounds are carried across it

These key words and phrases are clues to understanding the nature of each of the elements and how they can be worked with as metaphors in magic.

For example, the element Fire is said to be, “Shining (light) in the heavens but in the infernal places dark and tormenting”. In the celestial realm fire is representative of illumination. In the chthonic realm, of conflagration. And in the earthly realm, a combination of both. This means we can work the element of fire as easily to cause destruction as to bring enlightenment.

Such spells might look like a Mars talisman for destruction/war and a prayer candle to bring clarity, respectively.

Earth, on the other hand, is said to “[receive] the abundance of all things”, thus it may be beneficial to incorporate dirt from where you live into your prosperity spells (I know I will be!).

Of water, Agrippa says that it is “carried by the winds” and that “no spiritual regeneration can be done without it”. It’s not hard to see the outline of a formula for magical homeopathy between those words. This describes how water can be infused and imbibed or steamed and inhaled to bring blessed substances into the body. 

He also mentions that air “carries things into the winds and brings them into the body”, further validating this point.

Air, he says, is “a medium”, “giving life and subsistence”, and that it “receives influences of celestial bodies and communicates them to the other elements”. Squint a little and you can see how this explains the purpose and process of suffumigating talismans with incense and herbs; providing a medium for the ensoulment of physical materia.

Burning a substance converts it from the physical to the liminal as smoke and ash, neither fully something nor quite nothing. Two examples come to mind…

  • Burn a petition or sigil to “launch” it and you’re using fire to convert your intention into “air” which “passes through all beings” including the celestial ones which respond to your prayers. 
  • Converting (non-toxic) herbs into smoke heightens the attunement of any ritual, “filling” the space with diffused sympathetic materia.

Magic is a metaphorical language…so these significations provide a wider vocabulary for practitioners to use to communicate their intentions.

Elements & The Soul

Agrippa divides the soul into four parts and assigns each to an element, in this manner: Fire to Understanding, Air to Reason, Water to Imagination, and Earth to Senses.

This suggests that we might be better off leveraging candle spells than suffumigation, or Solar vs Mercurial magic, when beckoning the kind of deep understanding which surpasses intellectual aims. If clarity is what you seek, light a candle and pray. If you’re lost and need to find your way, illuminate the darkness using the element of fire.

A good soak in a tub filled with lunar herbs and essential oils might be just the thing to infuse fresh ideas into a creative project, or to help you dream productively.

And what better time than when the Moon is in Taurus, an earth sign where the moon is exalted, to focus on self-care; with your inner light shining on sensual, earthly matters?

Change yourself for the better and the universe will often change with you, providing both the resources you need and the outcome you seek as naturally as it provides rain to seeds lying dormant in the earth.

Working on yourself by working with the elements adds a folksy layer of physicality to the type of workings that too often end up being simple prayers and meditations. There is something potent about bringing ritual into the physical realm and there is no better map for this metaphorical territory than a rich, multivalent appreciation of the elements.

Elements & Celestials

Thus far I’ve spoken about the elements in a purely metaphorical sense -in how to work with them in their pure ideal form, as concepts- and there are great depths there to plumb…but the elements’ earthly forms are as potent as they are unpredictable and capricious.

One does not simply conjure elementals…

…not unless one wants a fire, a flood, wind damage, or cracks in their foundation. Elementals are more purpose than intelligence; more cause than effect.

I have found that one can calm their dispositions with respectful offerings and petitions, as long as the requests are inconsequential (rain here not there, no tornadoes this way please, etc.) but more specific ends must be met with the assistance of the appropriate celestial authority.

The form therefore, and virtue of things comes first from the idea, then from the ruling...intelligences, then from the aspects of the heavens disposing, and lastly from the tempers of the elements disposed...These kinds of operations therefore are performed in these inferior things by [physical] forms, and in the heavens by disposing virtues, in intelligences by mediating rules, in the original cause by ideas, and exemplary forms, all which must of necessity agree in the execution of the effect, and virtue of every thing.

Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa

Authority in the western magical tradition is a current of spirit which flows from the headwaters of the divine down through the celestial spheres, gathered and focused by the luminaries (particularly the moon), and made manifest here in the earthly realm.

Swimming back upstream from earthly to heavenly, we first encounter the celestials “disposing virtues” and then their intelligences “mediating rules”. 

This suggests two interesting things:

  • Agrippa places the intelligences above the celestial spirits (e.g. angels administering unruly spirits)
  • Manifesting physical change means appealing to the celestial to affect the elemental.

As magicians calling on elemental forces it is best to dutifully follow this formula from source to intelligence to celestial to produce elemental effects.

This formula is plain to see in the invocations of grimoires, such as this Invocation Of Mercury from the Picatrix:

I conjure you in the first place, by the Lord, the God of Greatness, who is the master of the firmament and of the great and high realm. I conjure you by Him to favorably receive my request...It is why I conjure you by Arquyl, the Angel that God has placed with you to...pay attention to my supplications and to carry them out. I ask you to help me of your spirit...so that you assist me by your aid to grasp that which I do not know, to comprehend that which I do not comprehend and to see that which I do not see.

Picatrix, Book III, Chapter 7, translated by Nigel Jackson

Divine, intelligence, spirit, effect (element)…that’s the recipe for making the immaterial, material. All that remains is to determine the nature of the virtues you need expressed and the appropriate celestial intelligence and spirit for the job.

There seems to be a spirit for nearly everything…from finding buried treasure in the earth, to growing crops, to keeping away -or attracting- pests and pestilence. Each is elemental in nature and ruled by a celestial spirit and intelligence. 

Elements & Ritual

Putting all of this into praxis is simple. I’ve outlined three modalities for working with elements; as metaphors in ritual, as spiritual medicines, and as the gears in greater celestial machinations.

Summon material wealth by conjuring saturnine spirits with coins and precious stones on your altar but only after you’ve prayed over jovian candles to increase your capacity for prosperity.

Turn a calming bath into spiritual healing with oils, herbs, and a well-timed prayer. Seal your pacts in suffumigation to bind them firmly. Plant (metaphorical) seeds for your future in the earth and nourish them with water to watch them grow.

Elements are the building blocks of the magical world or, more aptly, the symbols of a divine creative language. Expanding our vocabulary in this language allows us to articulate our intentions more clearly; to tell better stories in collaboration with the divine.

Despite Agrippa’s significant contributions, mapping the magical genome is a still an ongoing project and the elements represent far more than elementary magic. From the small to the vast, immaterial to the material, as above so below.

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