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.

Elemental Dignities: a few examples

Considering the Elemental Dignities among three cards can show which cards are supporting and reinforcing and which cards have friction or conflict, adding new depth to a reading.

I wrote about using Elemental relationships between Tarot cards and astrological signs in the Weekly Tarot Zodiac entry for my women’s spirituality organization. Where the idea of Elemental Dignities really becomes useful, though, is when we’re working with three (or more) cards and the relationships between them.

For WTZ entries such as next week’s, instead of looking at the Elements of three different cards, I look at the Elements indicated by the Wild Card, the astrological sign, and the card drawn for that sign. Understanding the relationships between the Elemental Dignities of these three pieces helps me know how the current situation and the natural tendencies of a person’s sign are likely to interact with the wild card’s influence.

The Major Arcana cards don’t necessarily have an Element associated with them, but even there the Elements give me more context in which to read the Majors. For Aries, for example, the context of Fire and Earth guided me to read the card Awakening (Judgment) as suggesting certain kinds of renewal.

When all three pieces feature the same Element, that obviously means that Element is having a very powerful influence on the person’s life right now. It’s worthwhile to be cautious about this occurrence, though, as it can mean an over-abundance of that Element. My WTZ reading didn’t have any of these, but Virgo with the Hermit was close, so I included a reminder not to go too far into the Hermit’s withdrawal, suggesting instead that readers balance that with the “Explorer” part of the wild card.

When two pieces have one Element and the third piece is a friendly Element (remember, Water and Earth are friendly to each other, Air and Fire are friendly to each other), all the pieces are usually working fairly well together. For Cancer, a Water sign, to draw an Earth card in combination with the Earth wild card indicates that it should be fairly easy for Cancer to use her natural inclination to work with the experiences these cards portray.

When the three pieces are split between two Elements which are neutral to each other (Earth and Fire or Water and Air), there is a tendency for the “odd one out” to be downplayed or de-emphasized relative to the others. For Sagittarius, with the 5 of Earth and the wild card Explorer of Earth being neutral to the Fiery qualities of Sagittarius, I read that as two pieces of advice for Sagittarius individuals to try to limit their innate tendency to try to change things, suggesting instead that they work on remaining present with the situation they experience even while it is challenging or difficult.

There can also be a split between two Elements which are unfriendly to each other (Earth and Air or Water and Fire), which usually indicates friction or an inability to get different parts of a situation to work in harmony. The wild card for this week is an Earth card, and Taurus is an Earth sign, but Taurus drew the Elder of Air, which I interpreted as Taurus’s earthy tendencies creating difficulty moving into the role of a wise elder.

Elemental Dignities are especially interesting when the three pieces are from three different Elements. This means that among the three there will be pairs that are both friendly and unfriendly! For example, with the wild card Explorer of Earth, the Air sign Gemini drew the card Elder of Water. Here the Earth and Water are friendly, the Water and Air are neutral, and the Earth and Air are unfriendly.

These combinations hold fascinating potential. One of the first interpretations I try to apply to these situations is that one piece forms a “bridge” or “hinge” between the otherwise unfriendly pieces. In this case, the Elder of Water may mediate between Gemini’s Airy tendencies and the Explorer’s Earthy stolidity. Exactly how that mediation takes place depends heavily on the cards themselves; sometimes it can indicate that the one in the middle is being pulled in two different directions, and sometimes it can be a suggestion for a way forward to combine the best of both worlds. Either way, the idea of Elemental Dignities helps me connect the pieces when there are multiple Elements floating around in a particular reading.

For more information about Elemental Dignities and examples of three-card combinations, see the excellent resources at Tarot Eon.

Are Elemental Dignities something you use in your readings? How do you find them helpful? Would you like to learn more?

Elemental interactions in Tarot

The Weekly Tarot Zodiac is a feature of the Order of the White Moon, the Goddess-centric order that ordained me. The Weekly Tarot Zodiac entry that I wrote for this week is an example of how to use interactions between the Elements to give more depth to a reading.

I have been known to describe my Tarot style by saying that I read people as much as I read cards. Fundamentally, I use Tarot as a tool that gives me a beginning point for starting a kind of spiritual counseling session with an individual. In the Weekly Tarot Zodiac, I don’t have an individual to dialogue with as the reading develops; in fact, I don’t have a single individual in mind, but instead am trying to write something that will be helpful for as many different people as possible.

The readings consist of a single Tarot card for each sign of the zodiac, plus a wild card. This simplicity is challenging: there are a lot of individual Tarot cards that are very ambiguous in their meaning. Even the ones that seem fairly clear-cut, such as the ten of Swords, have to be interpreted, as they provide only a snapshot or allusion to a particular situation. Is this something to seek out? Something to avoid? Something you’re currently experiencing? A course of action to take in order to avert an unwanted outcome? The inherent ambiguity is a significant strength of Tarot as a divination system; it allows it to be flexible and diverse enough to help almost any querent find a meaningful reflection of hir situation in the cards. Where the querent and reader interpret and apply the potential meanings is the magic of Tarot.

Without a personal interaction to engage that kind of meaning-making, I try to harness the combination of two different systems, specifically using the interactions between the Element of each particular sign and the Element of a Tarot card. The Element of a zodiac sign gives me clues about the qualities a person is likely to have: for example, the Water signs of Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces are likely to be deeply emotional (although each is different depending on the quality of the sign – cardinal, fixed, or mutable – which I hope to discuss more in the future).

When I compare the Element of the sign with the Element of the Tarot card, it gives me clues about whether the card is suggesting that a person should capitalize on hir natural tendencies or try to work in a different direction.

 

When the Element of a card matches the Element of the sign, that often means that a person should engage hir predisposition to work with that Element. In some cases, though, especially if the card seems to depict a negative situation or is reversed, it can mean an excess of that energy.

When the Elements fall into the pairings of Earth with Water or Air with Fire, they are closely aligned and will usually be easy to work with. I think of these as suggesting a gentle redirection of energy; a Water person might take hir natural emotional energy and ground more fully, while a Fire person might be getting a suggestion to direct hir intrinsic drive and action into some reflection or brainstorming. For example, when Gemini got the Two of Wands this week, I suggested moving from imagination (Air, Gemini) into action (Fire, Wands).

When the Elements fall in pairs of Earth with Fire or Water with Air, they are neutral towards each other. The tendencies of these Elements neither reinforce nor cancel out. They can indicate something that the person simply doesn’t think about or work with very much; it’s not a difficult or impossible way of viewing the world, just a less-used one. For example, when Libra got the Three of Cups this week, I suggested turning Libra’s tendency for thinking (Air) towards enjoyment and celebration (Water, Cups).

When the pairings of Earth with Air or Water with Fire occur, there can be real friction. The natures of these Elements are inimical to each other; it can be really difficult for a deeply emotional person to get up and actually take action, or for someone who spends all hir time in hir head to get down and ground. I think of these cards as direction to stop and reconsider: really challenge yourself to develop the qualities that are hardest for you to use. For example, when Aries got The Moon (which is associated with Water for me), I asked those individuals to engage with the deeper, less conscious feelings that they tend to leave behind in their drive for action.

Another challenge that arises with this method of interpretation is that the Major Arcana don’t have simple Element associations the way the cards of the four suits do. We can construct Elemental attributions – it’s easy to see the Sun as Fire and the Moon as Water – but these depend heavily on each person’s view of the cards and any other factors being considered. (In a Qabala-based system of understanding the cards, for example, the Sun and Moon might both be attributed to Air.) For these cards, I typically try to compare the overarching theme of the card with the sign’s Element and consider the same kinds of alliances and frictions that might occur: Taurus can run the risk of being too stable and grounded, so when the Lovers came up, I interpreted that in the context of flexibility and growth.

I hope this gives you some ideas of how to use Elemental interactions to build greater relationships between different Tarot cards or between the cards and any other Elemental system. In future posts, I hope to give more specific examples of working with the system of Elemental dignities between cards, so stay tuned.

NB: I capitalize Element when I am referring to the symbolic, metaphysical Elements of Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Spirit, to avoid confusion with the chemical elements (hydrogen, helium, etc.).

Packing up pinecones

Since the sun came out in force again today, I am more aware than ever of the approach of Imbolc. I’m moved to pack away the pine cones that have been my seasonal decorations since just before Yule.

pinecones

I haven’t decided what, if any, kinds of things I’ll add to my altar next. For the time being, I can’t help but think of it as a blank slate, appropriately open to inspiration as I prepare to honor my beloved Brigid, whose flame and well alike are an outpouring of creativity.

In the meantime, I’ve tried sitting at a cold altar, and the results were interesting. By not having the presence of the Element concentrated in a specific representation – especially for Air and Fire – I was challenged to experience the presence of that Element in other ways. It made me recommit to strengthening my own internal connections with each Element.

I know that for myself I want to work on those connections in part to develop my ability to call the Quarters. Whether in individual work or group ritual, I find it easy to slip into concentrating on the words, and perhaps the actions, of calling, and to neglect the internal aspect of envisioning and connecting with the Element being called. Anybody else have that problem?

I had already thought about committing to a practice of concentrating on each Element for a week’s worth of meditations, and this experience has made me more determined to do so. I’ll start that after Imbolc, I think, in part because my habits for the new year are still settling in right now. One of the ways I’m going to approach that work will be to do concentrated visualization of all the different aspects of the Element that I can think of, hoping to build up a complex, many-layered composite of diverse experiences of air (the physical thing) that then transforms into a visualization of Air, the Element. I’m hoping that if I succeed in this diverse but unified visualization, it will become a sense of the “personality” of Air that I can tap into more easily in the future.

Have others done work like this? What did you find about it?

I did find that because the presence of Earth on my altar was the same as always, my attention was more drawn to it. As I go through these weeks, I’m definitely going to use the process of “highlighting” one Element on my altar as part of building up this visualization and tying it to my practice.

Hopefully I’ll have some interesting things to share as I go through this process. But that’s for after Imbolc. I don’t want to rush the Wheel; right now we’re still in the season of Earth (by my reckoning), and as we turn towards the Sabbat, I’m finding ways that Earth and I are opening and creating space for the newness that will come. Right now, it’s packing up pinecones. What is it for you?

Photo by the blogger; if you use it, please link back.

Caught in the allergen crossfire

One of the challenges of having a relationship with nature is relating to the parts that are challenging or downright inimical to humans. At the moment, I’m struggling with the worst bout of allergies that I’ve had in several years. I’m wondering if, among other things, the extremely mild winter here is partially responsible – in which case I probably have to put some of the blame back on humanity’s recklessness with fossil fuels – but regardless, it’s a visceral reminder that nature can be a real mother.

One of the ways that I’ve worked to improve my Quarter calls in ritual is to challenge myself to visualize the Element being called in multiple forms – and not just my favorite ones! I work to see Air as both the sweet wind bringing the scent of summer flowers and as the whirlwind, to see Water as the stuff I drink and as the overwhelming waves that buffet me to and fro.

Right now, I’m trying to do something like that by being glad that the plants are doing the Great Rite with such vigor, and all the while taking medication as needed and trying to adjust my schedule and expectations to cope with the effects. We have a tentative detente where I am something less than miserable and something more than slightly aware of the ways humans will never – and should never – completely control their environment.

How do you see nature in your work? How do you give homage to the parts of nature that are uncomfortable, or difficult, or challenging for you?

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.

Element Associations: an exercise

I’ve been reading some of Mary K. Greer’s excellent books on Tarot lately. One of my favorite things about Greer’s books is that she includes lots of interactive exercises for the reader. This can make just flipping through the books seem a bit flat and boring, but once I actually engage with the exercises and work through the books, actively reflecting on the concepts being introduced, I find that I’ve gained far more skill than I would have gained just by reading an author’s opinions on a topic. In that spirit, here is an exercise of my own to help you determine how you relate to the four classical Elements:

This can be done on a single sheet of paper, but it’s a little easier if you use four sheets of lined paper, one for each Element. Write the name of one Element (Earth, Air, Fire, Water) at the top of the sheet. Then set a timer for a short period, 30 seconds to a minute, and brainstorm words you associate with that Element. These can be nature words, sensations, sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures, emotional or psychological qualities, verbs, nouns, adjectives and adverbs, whatever comes to mind. Whenever you’re stymied, come back to the name of the Element at the top of the page. Write one on each line, and if you finish the page, start a second column. Repeat, with the same amount of time, for each Element.

As you line up your four pieces of paper side-by-side, how do your lists compare? Is one noticeably longer? Shorter? Are they all about the same? Did you become more adept at brainstorming as you got used to it, so that each list is a little longer?

Now go through your lists and note how each item makes you feel: for terms with positive associations, put a plus sign, and for terms with negative associations, a minus sign. Some things will be neutral, but don’t take too long on each one, and don’t worry about how you “ought” to feel about a particular association; go with your gut instinct. If you aren’t a strong swimmer, “waves” might be a negative one, whereas for a surfer who paddled as soon as he could walk, it could be very positive. The point is to get at what you feel with each term.

Now reassess your lists in terms of how many pluses and minuses are on each. Is one of them longer, but full of minuses? Is your longest list mostly positive? What about the shortest? Which list is most nearly equal in terms of pluses and minuses?

Each of us has personal associations with the Elements. These can be informed by theoretical approaches that give us long lists of correspondences based on abstract theory, but our personal experiences can override correspondences, and can particularly give emotional color to how we perceive an element. Personally, I had a hard time getting in touch with Air, because I associated my experiences of it with wind, and especially cold wind, which I find very painful. This aversion to my mental and emotional visualization of Air made it hard for me to appreciate the Element’s positive qualities, and hard to do strong invocations, which led to difficulty balancing my approach to ritual and magic.

Brainstorming or free-associating can be both a tool for approaching a concept and a measure of how comfortable we are with it. When asked to brainstorm on a topic we feel comfortable with, the associations flow freely, giving us long lists, while ideas we have tended to shy away from, even unconsciously, leave us grasping for words just out of reach. True, sometimes we’ll have long lists of reasons we don’t like a particular thing. (I have plenty of associations with, say, spiders, but they’re all emotionally negative!) Rating the emotional appeal of each term can give you insight into why a particular list is shorter or longer, and whether that has to do with your internal filters, preferences, or preconceived notions that push you into greater or lesser affinity with a given Element.

Take a look, also, at how each list is slanted towards internal (emotional or psychological) associations and external (nature words, actions), and which words are abstract and which concrete. An Element with which you are uncomfortable might be one that you relate to mostly in the abstract. This can be either a symptom or a cause; either way, it means you might benefit from some additional interaction with that Element, especially in concrete, experiential ways that can help you form positive associations. For me, remembering a time with positive emotions that I was suddenly struck by the scent of pine resin baked out of the trees around me by a warm spring sun helped me put my relationship with Air on a whole different footing.

If you feel like this exercise shows you areas you could work on, try doing additional brainstorming around the Element that gave you the shortest list, and also the one with the most minuses on it, if those were different. Search your own memories for better associations you can form: as in my example, a good place to start is with an experience in nature that you enjoyed and that is in some way related to the Element. Brainstorm words to describe the experience, both external and internal. If you can’t find a positive experience, see if you can imagine one, or better yet, make it happen. Sensory memories with powerful emotional connections can make lasting impressions, so if you need to, make a date to do something you know you’ll enjoy, and maybe let the Element change your impression of it.

This exercise is one you can repeat, so keep some notes about it in your journal. You and the Elements just might surprise each other as your relationships grow and change.

Seasons shifting: 6 Dec, low sun and high winds

Oddly enough, now that it’s almost the winter solstice, the sun is making a bigger impact on me whenever I drive my partner to work in the mornings. The sun is so low in the sky at that time of the morning that it creates a lot of glare. It’s actually kind of dangerous in a couple spots, and I no longer laugh when I hear that traffic is slow around the Beltway at a particular area “because of sunlight.”

The wind, however, is the major manifestation of winter so far. I used to link Air with the North and Winter.* In part, that was because I wasn’t very comfortable with the Element Air. I had a bad ear infection one winter that was made much worse by any cold wind, so I learned to associate wind with cold and with serious pain. I couldn’t match that with the positive, life-affirming feelings of Spring, so I interpreted Earth as being the fertile ground and liked those two that way. As I’ve gotten to know the Elements better, I’ve been able to understand and even to prefer the traditional associations, but days like today remind me of my initial feelings.

*I capitalize the Wiccan concepts to distinguish from the regular use and meaning. Thus, I breathe air, which has the element oxygen in it, but when I call the Element Air, it’s in the East.