Ostara – Element of Air

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles for the Wheel of the Year. This one first appeared in 2012.

We’ve been around the Wheel of the Year once together, so for the next iteration, I’m going to concentrate on the four Elements on the equinoxes and solstices and on four concepts that I see as fundamental to Wicca on the other Sabbats. For Ostara [1] we’ll start with the Element of Air.

I capitalize those words because I’m using them as proper nouns. The four Elements, as conceptualized by classical Greek philosophy, are not the same as the elements on the periodic table, and when I say Air, I’m not just talking about the stuff going in and out of your lungs. I’m referring to the archetype, the whole abstract concept which includes what you’re breathing, but it also includes the whirlwind and the summer breeze, the freezing breath of winter and the surprise of walking past lilacs in bloom.

And symbolically, the Element of Air represents even more than that. The four Elements can also be construed as broad categories with a wealth of symbolic meanings through what we call associations or correspondences. Most Wiccans, for example, cast a circle (or Circle, if you like) as part of their rituals. Each cardinal direction within that circle is associated with an Element. Correspondences differ – sometimes wildly – but I’m going to discuss the system that I use, which also happens to correspond to the one most commonly used. Just keep in mind that none of this is set in stone – or written on the wind. My associations are:

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

Now, since East (there’s those caps again) is where the sun rises, it’s associated with dawn, and also with springtime, as the “dawning” of the year. So Air also represents beginnings, a fresh start, and even “a fresh breath.” You’ll find that many of our cliches can be used to summarize these sorts of metaphorical connections; that doesn’t mean the connections are trite. To me, it’s an example of the way a lot of these metaphors are embedded very deeply in our culture and our thinking, as reflected in and mediated by language.

The Wheel of the Year and the circle also correspond. Each of the direction/Element pairings – called Quarters – is associated with one of the solstices or equinoxes, in my understanding. Yule is in the North, Ostara in the East, and so on. Then the other four Sabbats, often called cross-quarter days, take the positions in between. This makes Ostara the perfect time to reflect on the Element of Air.

Air is associated with travel and movement. Thinking back to the days before cars, this makes a great deal of sense; in Renaissance times, ships depended on the wind, and they were the major form of long-distance transportation. Even after that, steam power depended on using air pressure as a driving force.

In several mythologies, birds are the archetypal messengers of the gods, representing both this association with movement and the function of communication. And, after all, speech literally depends on air. Thus the realm of Air became the domain of language, and also of reasoning, deciding, judging, and other intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, this is where Air can start to get a bad rap.

While this understanding of the Elements does go all the way back to Greek philosophy, the current understanding of it was transmitted to us in the Western world mostly by way of the Golden Dawn. This esoteric organization, most active around the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, collected and organized much occult knowledge. They are also the origin of the most familiar design of the Tarot deck, which can give a negative impression about Air.

Tarot originated during the Italian Renaissance and is actually the precursor of the modern deck of playing cards. I’m not going to go into too much history here; the upshot is that in the early 1900s, members of the Golden Dawn designed and commissioned a particular Tarot deck, variously called the Rider-Waite or the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), which has been the basis for most subsequent decks in English-speaking countries.

A Tarot deck consists of 78 cards: four suits, with ten numbered cards and four Court cards in each suit, and twenty-two independent cards with their own sequence, which are now called the Major Arcana. As the deck transformed into modern playing cards, the Major Arcana were dropped, the Court cards reduced to three (jack, queen, king), and the symbols of the four suits became spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs.

In Tarot, the suits are Swords, Pentacles or Coins, Cups, and Staves, and the suit of Swords is most commonly associated with Air. [2] For various reasons, the Golden Dawn created images for these ten cards that included some of the most negative-seeming depictions in the deck. Now, Tarot images are complex things in and of themselves, and I’m not going to try to explain too much of that right here, so let me just say that some of the cards in the suit of Swords have basic interpretations such as depression and grief.

The Court cards, which are often interpreted as people involved in a particular situation, can also take the judging function of Air to an extreme; the Queen of Swords is frequently depicted or described as harsh, even shrewish. The King of Swords is stern and demanding; he’s a judge who won’t accept an excuse.

With all of this imagery going on, people who work with Tarot a lot, and especially with the RWS deck, can get kind of a negative impression of the Element of Air. There’s good reason to think that some of the seemingly negative imagery in this suit isn’t drawn directly from concepts about Air, but rather from other mythology that the Golden Dawn incorporated. Regardless, it’s important to remember that none of the Elements is exactly warm and cuddly: Fire isn’t meant to be played with, Water includes the tsunami and the flooding rains as well as the refreshing drink, and Earth by itself can be as barren and inhospitable as the depths of the desert.

And part of the complexity of Tarot is putting each image in context. While swords are meant for killing, not all blades are intended solely for destruction. Psychologically, the functions of judging, choosing, and deciding are absolutely necessary – when kept in balance.

This is why it’s hard to talk about each of the Elements alone. Part of what keeps the Elements in moderation is the way they exist in balance with each other. The spring weather includes the storms which help strip away the last of the dead leaves from last year and the gentle breezes that tease open the new buds. We need both, and the interplay of wind, water, and warmth that moves across the world is what allows for the variations and tempers the extremes.

With all of this in mind – the domain of Air – I invite you to enjoy this Ostara by finding a time when the weather is cooperative and maybe even a place where those sweet-smelling buds are opening. As you reflect on what air and Air mean to you, what roles they play in your life, and how you relate to this Element, take a deep, gentle breath. May it be the fresh start you need!

[1] In the Northern Hemisphere, the vernal equinox is approaching, which is Ostara, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the autumnal equinox, which is Mabon.

[2] This is a point of disagreement which I will address in greater detail in the Litha piece.

Ritual for problem-solving using the Seven of Swords

The Motherpeace drawing of the Seven of Swords card reminds me of a problem-solving exercise. The fox, an animal known for her cunning, uses the swords as tools to overcome a difficult obstacle in pursuit of her goal. (See the Motherpeace image of this card by selecting 7 of Swords from the drop-down menu.)

In this ritual, I suggest that you choose a situation where you need to overcome an obstacle. Think carefully about the steps you can take to make progress. The intention here is not to have the obstacle magically disappear, it’s to empower you to find your way over it with ingenuity. That may involve using some unexpected tools – like repurposing swords to make steps!

We will use the power of Air to invoke ingenuity for the steps you need to take. This ritual incorporates the nature of Air as words that we used for the Ace of Swords and the power of breath that we explored in the Two of Swords. You also have the option to incorporate another tool of Air such as incense or a feather if you like.

Ritual:

Set up your altar with paper and a pen, the Seven of Swords image, and incense or a feather if you want.

Cast the circle using your pen as a wand. Take a deep, even breath and ground and center.

Call the Quarters using these words or your own:

Air, fill my breath and words with the ingenuity I need to shape my intention. Hail and welcome, Air!

Fire, ignite my ideas with the energy I need to carry them out. Hail and welcome, Fire!

Water, flow through my intentions with the understanding I need to find my solutions. Hail and welcome, Water!

Earth, ground my intention with the strength I need to see it through. Hail and welcome, Earth!

Optionally, invoke Athena who grants inspiration and ingenuity to human beings, or another goddess who watches over Air and problem-solving:

Athena, the help of the crafty, I invoke you! Athena, you have ever been the advisor and mentor of those who solve problems using ingenuity and inventiveness. Athena, lend your aid to me at this time, in this place, with this work I undertake. Hail and welcome, Athena!

Use your pen and paper to describe the steps you will take to overcome the obstacle or solve the situation you have chosen. You may need to meditate on your intention for a little while, or it could come to you immediately. Your description could be a sketch depicting your next action, or a list of things you will do, or any kind of representation. Don’t concentrate on the obstacle or issue; keep your visualization focused on how you will solve the problem.

When you are satisfied with your visualization of your next steps, take a few deep breaths. If you will be using a tool (pen, feather, or incense) pick it up, and breathe over it. As you breathe in, gather the power of Air within you; as you breathe out, feel that power combine with Athena’s blessings.

Breathe in, pass your tool or your hand over your depiction, and breathe out, visualizing your problem-solving and saying “By the breath of one, so mote it be.

Repeat: By the breath of two, etc., to “By the breath of seven, so mote it be!

Thank Athena using these words or your own:

Athena, with breath and mind you inspire my ingenuity and empower my solutions, and for that I thank you. Wise goddess, go if you must, but stay if you will. Hail and farewell, Athena!

Thank and dismiss the quarters using these words or your own:

Earth, thank you for the strength to ground my intention. Hail and farewell, Earth!

Water, thank you for the understanding to create my solutions. Hail and farewell, Water!

Fire, thank you for the energy to put my intention into action. Hail and farewell, Fire!

Air, thank you for the ingenuity to craft my own solutions. Hail and farewell, Air!

Open the circle using your pen as a wand.

Ground yourself again. Start putting your intention into action as soon as possible.

Ritual for Balance using the Two of Swords

Ritual for balance using the breath and two of Swords

In this ritual we continue working with the suit of Swords, associated with Air, and thus with ideas, information, communication, and choices. The two of this suit is often described as signifying a choice between two alternative courses of action. That understanding can lead to too much of an emphasis on discarding one alternative in order to move forward. In this ritual we will focus instead on the idea of balance. In Swords, when the two represents balance, that can mean holding two ideas simultaneously, as in being able to see both sides of a debate, or it can simply mean appreciating different possibilities without feeling pressured to commit to one course of action too quickly.

For this ritual, we will use our breath to experience different parts of the Element of Air being in balance. If you have a particular choice that you need to make, you can use this ritual to help you assess both options fully, but here it is written simply to engage with the qualities of the Tarot card.

Safety note: I suggest two simple breathing exercises below which are very safe. As always, use your best judgment. If at any time you feel dizzy or are having difficulty breathing, stop the exercise, relax, and let your body return to its baseline.

Ritual:

Place the two of Swords card from your favorite Tarot deck on your altar.

As you cast your circle, begin to become aware of your breath. How is your inhale? Your exhale?

Call the quarters using these words or words of your own. As you do, pay attention to the way the words and the silence fit together:

Air, in your stillness and your movement, join me. Balance my mind.

Fire, in your warmth and your light, join me. Balance my actions.

Water, in your salt and your fresh, join me. Balance my heart.

Earth, in solid rock and friable soil, join me. Balance my body.

You may invoke a goddess or a pair of goddesses as appropriate to your specific situation. If you invoke a single goddess, invite two different aspects of her to be in balance, and to help you find balance in your spirit.

Settle into a comfortable position that you can maintain for a few minutes. If you wish to set an unobtrusive timer so that you do not meditate for too long, go ahead, but make it something that you can set and forget.

Gaze at the two of Swords card on your altar. If you have a specific situation that you need to bring into balance or that you are trying to understand both sides of before you make a choice, draw your mind to that situation and then describe it to the priestess in the card.

In keeping with the theme of this ritual, I offer you a choice of two different breathing exercises. You may start with one and go on to the other if you like.

Balanced breath

Gently bring your attention to your breath and begin counting the length of your inhalation and exhalation. Is one longer than the other? Slowly begin to make them both the same length. Change your breath by just one count at a time. For example, if you started out with your breath an inhale for three and an exhale for five, then move to inhale for four and an exhale for five, then to an inhale for five and an exhale for five. Remain here, or try to lengthen both your inhale and exhale to a count of six.

If you have a particular situation you are concentrating on, think about one aspect or choice on the inhale and another on the exhale. Can you keep your breathing even while doing so? If you want to go on to the next exercise, release your issue into the hands of the priestess in the card and solely work on your breath.

Alternate nostril breathing

Bring your right hand to your face and put your index and middle finger between your eyebrows, on your third eye. Inhale, then press your thumb gently against your right nostril to close it and exhale to your same count through your left nostril. Inhale through your left nostril, then release your thumb and use your ring finger to close off your left nostril. Exhale through your right nostril, keeping your breath even. Inhale on the right, then release your left and use your thumb to close your right nostril. Repeat.

Shorter:

  • Use thumb.
  • Exhale left, inhale left.
  • Switch hand to use ring finger.
  • Exhale right, inhale right.
  • Switch hand to use thumb, repeat.

This will seem complicated at first. Practice makes it easier very quickly. The complicated nature is also useful because it absorbs your attention, so you’re less likely to be distracted.

Stay with this for two to five minutes. End with an exhalation through your right nostril.

When you are finished, release your breath and simply observe. What does it feel like now? How does it feel to be balanced?

Thank and dismiss the quarters with these or your own words:

Earth, thank you for helping me balance my body.

Water, thank you for helping me balance my heart.

Fire, thank you for helping me balance my actions.

Air, thank you for helping me balance my mind.

Open the circle and ground yourself. You may wish to journal about your meditation.

Ritual for Inspiration using the Ace of Swords

The full moon is coming up! As some of you may have noticed, this month’s full moon falls on Valentines. Let me take a moment to repeat my public service announcements about why you should not do “love spells” because they’re generally ethically contemptible and they also often go awry.

Ritual for inspiration

The ritual for inspiration centers on the Ace of Swords card from the Tarot. Swords are the suit associated with Air, which represents ideas, information, communication, and choices. Since aces represent the gift of a new infusion of that suit’s energy, for this ritual we’re going to call on the Muses to gift us with inspiration in the form of writing. We’ll use a pen instead of a sword – remember the old saying – and give ourselves an opportunity to express any and all ideas that come to us.

Specifically, for this ritual we’ll engage in free writing. You’ll need a pen or pencil that you like and can write with quickly and smoothly. Make sure you have plenty of ink or that you have a backup; the point is to keep writing, so you don’t want to be interrupted by breaking a pencil point or a pen running dry. You’ll also need plenty of blank paper. I suggest regular unlined printer paper, at least ten sheets or so. You’ll write more than you think, and you may start writing in larger handwriting in order to keep up with the speed of your thoughts. Don’t worry about how it looks, and don’t try to keep it neat, straight, or beautiful. Plan to do your writing in ritual space, so pre-position a book or lap desk to write on, along with a comfortable place to sit. You can use a desk or your altar, as long as there’s no computer on the desk to distract you, and you can sit comfortably. The focus is the writing!

You’ll also want to have a timer to encourage you to keep writing. You can use a regular kitchen timer or any kind of digital timer as long as it won’t distract you. You want to be able to keep writing until you hear the timer go off; you don’t want to be checking the timer or clock every few seconds, because that disrupts the flow of writing. Set the timer for two to five minutes.

Writing during this ritual is like brainstorming: nothing is out of bounds. You can write about your day, your dog, your dinner, or even start writing “I don’t know what to write…” as long as you keep going from there. Let go and let the words flow.

You may want to have the Ace of Swords from your favorite deck on your altar as a visual inspiration. You may also want to listen to the song “Musa venit carmine” by the Mediaeval Baebes and consider using that line as a chant to invoke the Muses:

Ritual:

Use your pen as a magical tool to cast your circle.

Call the Quarters using these words or your own:

Powers of the East, Element of Air, source of new beginnings, I call you to blow through me with inspiration. Hail and welcome!

Powers of the South, Element of Fire, our motive force, I call you to fuel the energy to engage my inspiration. Hail and welcome!

Powers of the West, Element of Water, feelings that run deep, I call you to flow through my inspiration. Hail and welcome!

Powers of the North, Element of Earth, our grounding and stability, I call you to help me capture a form of my inspiration. Hail and welcome!

Invoke the Muses. You might concentrate on the image of the Ace of Swords, and imagine the sword opening a pathway for the Muses to come to you. You might chant “Musa venit carmine,” meaning “The Muses inspire our song.” Or you might simply breathe deeply, engaging the Element of Air in your own body, and say:

Muses, goddesses of inspiration, breathe into my mind and into my pen

Then free write for two to five minutes!

After the timer goes off, keep writing to finish your current thought. Then breathe again, grounding yourself. How do you feel inside yourself after doing this? Excited? Drained? Something else?

Take a few minutes to go back through your writing and circle anything you may want to work with after ritual. Don’t try to reorganize it into a complete piece; just pull out the ideas, phrases, or words that represent ideas you should work with more in the coming month.

When you are finished, put your writing on your altar or in front of your altar and bow to the card, bow to the Muses, and bow to your writing, the product of their inspiration in you.

Muses, goddesses of inspiration, thank you for the fresh breath of these ideas.

Dismiss the Quarters using these words or your own:

Powers of the North, Element of Earth, I give thanks for your help recording my inspiration into a stable form. Go now with my thanks and praise. Hail and farewell!

Powers of the West, Element of Water, I give thanks for the deep swells of emotion that interact with my inspiration. Go now with my thanks and praise. Hail and farewell!

Powers of the South, Element of Fire, I give thanks for the energy that drives my inspiration. Go now with my thanks and praise. Hail and farewell!

Powers of the East, Element of Air, I give thanks for the fresh breath of inspiration and the words to express it. Go now with my thanks and praise. Hail and farewell!

Open your circle using your pen.

Ground yourself again.

Visualizations: Wind, Wheel of the Year, Desire

After all that heavy stuff this morning, I wanted to leave you with some visualizations my friend Grafton pointed out to me which I find absolutely amazingly beautiful and also spiritually meaningful to me. All of these come from HINT.FM, which is the collaboration of a couple of people very talented in both art and digital graphics. They’re doing some really amazing stuff, so if you like creative images, or you’ve read anything by Edward Tufte, you should check them out.

First up is a map of wind. You can look at the current wind patterns across the continental US, and you can also look back at different patterns that have occurred. I can’t say enough about how incredible this is. In one simple, lightly animated image, I can see the Rocky Mountains, I can feel the differential temperatures from Canada to Texas, I can grasp, in a totally nonverbal, visceral way, what not just wind but Wind, the Element of Air in action, is doing right now. I can see how my landbase fits into it, and also other places I’ve lived or loved.

Second is something called Flickr Flow, which actually tells us a lot about the Wheel of the Year. You’ve probably seen some of the representations that use icons to represent the way nature changes around the Wheel – a tree in four phases, or pumpkins at Samhain, snowflakes at Yule, lambs at Imbolc, etc. Well, this is sort of like that, except that it shows the Wheel emerging naturally from the random accumulation of photos on Flickr. The colors in photos change throughout the year: Winter is full of grays and blues, Spring has brilliant splashes of color, Summer is predominantly green, and Autumn’s leaf palette is more subdued. It’s a great example of how we all experience the tides of the Wheel, even if not in exactly the same ways, at the same times, or the same from year to year.

Finally, check out this image. When I first saw it, I thought it was a heat map, or an infrared image, where parts of the body that have lots of blood vessels close to the surface look brighter. Turns out it’s something like a map of desire: the “heat” is based loosely on how desirable people found certain areas of the human body. A lot of details are not explained on that page, and there’s probably a lot of interesting social construction of gender, women, desire, and so on wrapped up in it, but it’s still interesting to me how the results came out.

I think the creators made it look a bit like an infrared image deliberately, playing on the common metaphorical equation of desire with heat. I started to realize it’s not an infrared image when I started checking off major areas of the body with blood close to the surface: the face, lips and ears, are surprisingly dark, although they do get more attention than areas like, say, the forehead. The fingers, too, are almost wholly neglected, which I find odd: the spark of desire leaps between the gap of lovers’ fingers faster than a breath. Fingers and lips are instruments of desire and receivers of the same; perhaps that’s part of the difference between thinking about a person, a body, and an image on a screen. Regardless, as we approach the heat of Beltane fires, I encourage you to take a look at this image and reflect on it, and your own experiences of desire, whether sexual or other.