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01 March, 2012

E is for the Elements

Most pagans are of course familiar with the classical Greek conception of the elements, which wound up in ceremonial magic and thence into Wicca. Earth, air, fire, water, and all that associated crud.

What is an element?

An element, according to a handy dictionary I have kicking around here, is "one of the fundamental or irreducible components making up a whole". The stuff that stuff is made out of, you know?

Dealing with the classical elements produces spiritual compounds that have particular traits. These are - both due to their ubiquity in magical language and their clear derivation from fairly straightforward bits of the observable world - particularly tangible and perceptible structures. They are arranged in a particular grid, which is also a structure of balances and oppositions: fire and water suspended between earth and air in a set of perpendiculars and negations, the properties defined in opposition to each other. There is a solidity to this set of checks and balances, which perhaps inspired the addition of a fifth element intended to correspond to the spiritual or animative world.

Consider, though, a different system, such as the Chinese five elements. There is no tidy pairwise opposition to be had in odd numbers. Instead, each element gives rise to another in an organic process, and each element likewise can be seen to destroy another. It becomes readily apparent why many translators say "phases" or "movements" rather than "elements"; these are part of a cosmic flow rather than compartmentalisable building blocks.

The elements you build from will inform and structure what can be built from them. It is the nature of a thing to reflect what it is built from, after all.

I don't do a lot of exoteric stuff with the concept of elements. It does not appear to have been a terribly significant thing for the ancient Egyptians, which means that when I stumble across people trying to wodge Egyptian thought into a Greek elemental system I mostly just kind of avoid; it's not generally a good translation.

However, I have done more than a little noodling at esoteric elements, and in this I draw from my favorite of the major Egyptian cosmogenetic myths, that of Khmun, better known as Hermopolis. The name "Khmun" meant "The City of the Eight", and it is those eight that I ponder when I want to ponder elements. They are:

Nun and Naunet: the formless primeval waters
Amun and Amaunet: the hidden and secret (also associated with the invisible air)
Kek and Kauket: the darkness
Heh and Hehet: the infinite and eternal

In some of my Craft training, it is said that there are titans who hold the boundaries of the cosmos, and here I perceive them: formlessness, secrecy, darkness, and boundlessness. These are things that can only be approached mystically, in a manner beyond what can be contained in the tangible and aware. These are the traits of the borderlands, the edges of things, the unknown, and the uncreated. They neither give rise to each other nor oppose each other; they are serpents and frogs in the realm outside where time and space were created by their inversion.

That which exists has form. It can be known. It can be illuminated. It is bounded, finite, and mortal. These are the inversions of the elements of the Ogdoad, the guardians of the mysteries at the edge of creation. At the first time, the titans touched and polarised and created being. But yet they remain, on the edge of the manifest, between us and the dissolving chaos beyond.

I find those an interesting set of edges to explore. What can you build with formlessness and form, with secrets and knowledge, with darkness and light, with infinity and that which can be measured?

These are my elements.

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