The Four Essences

The four essences or elements are air, fire, water, and earth. These four comprise the circle of life and are four parts of a whole. Almost anything can be associated with or said to correspond with one of the essences of life.

"Traditional Essence

"Traditional" Nature

"Traditional" Color

"Traditional" Sign


Heat & Moisture

Sun Yellow


Heat & Dryness

Flame Red


Cold & Moisture

Ocean Blue


Cold & Dryness

Plant Green

These four essences represent the physical and sacred aspects of forces which brought about and maintain existence. This idea originated in the medieval belief that all things were comprised of four basic elements. Modem science now identifies at least 110 elements on the periodic table. Air isn't just air. According to modem science, it's comprised of a number of gases. Water isn't just water; it's a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Furthermore, H2O isn't j ust liquid; it's liquid (water), solid (ice), and gas (steam).

However, the four essences and their correspondences represent a poetic association of concepts and items with each other. These correspondences have been built up over time and are based on sundry traditions. Usually, the associations are obvious, such as blue assigned to water, but the association on reflection is still arbitrary. While many a ship is said to sail upon the "deep blue sea", the ocean does not universally appear blue. At various times and places, the sea water can have a greenish tint, or even brownish or dark grayish hue. Furthermore, pure rain water cupped in the hand is clear. Yet, most occidental people visualize the ocean and water in general as blue in their imagination.

The four essences or elements have been assigned to four compass directions, which poetically represent the four quarters of the world. These are the four points of the circle of life that unite to form a whole.

On the British Isles, it was noticed the Western wind brought "small fine rain" in the spring. Hence, one of the magickal traditions from that island attached the essence or element of water to the direction of West. As I noted before, the correspondences of the essences are arbitrary and poetic. The large chart, "Table of Correspondences," reads like a word association list in a psychology exercise. (see Table of Correspondences)

The correspondences listed there are representative of one Wiccan system. Other traditions will assign other directional and color associations. As no single set of correspondences is more "right" than another, the correspondences of this system serve as an example of how ideas and concepts may be associated.

Another example of associations connected with the four essences could be described as follows.

Air symbolizes intellect, awareness, the spoken word, imagination, illumination, and inspiration by the Muse. Its negative influences are indecision, air-head, empty thought, indifference, absent-mindedness, flitting, distraction, and the ability to be blown away by the wind.

Fire symbolizes power, passion, action, life, energy, creativity, spontaneity, and quick change. Its negative influence is combustion, destruction, consumption, volatile nature, hyperactivity, and burn-out.

Water symbolizes love, emotion, comfort, cleansing tears of joy as well as sadness, and intuition. Its negative influences are moodiness, melancholy, depression, wishy-washy nature, and being swept away by the flood storm of grief.

Earth symbolizes strength, solidity, patience, fortitude, endurance, and stability. Its negative influences are stagnation, laziness, stuck in the mud attitude, and dullness.

There is also a fifth essence or fifth element. The fifth essence is spirit. It is the "quintessence" of all elements, and is that which binds the other four essences of life together.

The Four Directions of the Magick Circle

The purpose of the ritual circle is to mark sacred space. The circle contains the power raised by participants--as a cup holds liquid. It also marks a safe place, a haven between the worlds where participants can make merry and worship the Old Gods.

The correspondences of the essences, elements, and compass directions playa part in the symbolism and construction of the circle. Thus any discussion of a contemporary interpretation of the four essences should touch on the four directions, their correspondences, and how these correspondences interact with the nature of the four essences.

The East represents the essences of air and is the region of intellect and illumination. As it is the place where the sun rises, it is the place of all beginnings. The casting of the

Wiccan circle begins in the East.

The South represents the essence of fire, and is the place of power. It is the seat of the noon day sun.

The West represents the essence of water, and is the direction of healing. It is the place where the sun sets.

The North represents the essences of earth. It is often viewed as the abode of the God and Goddess, thus the main altar, whether set at the edge or the center of a Wiccan circle, "faces" North. It is the place of strength and mystery, for the sun never comes to this quarter.


Once again, I will stress this is a poetical interpretation. All Wiccans know that the Earth, which is actually a planet, is the one moving around the Sun, which is actually a star. However, Wicca is a religion of perception and poetry. From our little point of view on the Earth, we perceive that the Sunrises daily in the East and sets in the West.

Due to our planet's axial tilt, it appears the Sun moves away from us in North America, traveling to the South each winter and returning to us in the summer. Many cultures have noted this phenomenon and have incorporated it into their world view--adapting it to their culture, space on the globe, and seasons. Four important points in the Sun's journey are marked as celestial events. The autumn equinox, falling sometime during September 20 to 23, and the spring equinox, falling between March 20 and 23, occur as the Sun crosses the equator, and night and day are of equal length. The winter solstice, falling sometime during December 20 to 23, occurs as the Sun touches its lowest point above the equator, the shortest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere. Falling between June 20 and 23, the summer solstice is when the sun reaches its highest point above the equator, the longest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere.

It is not an accident that the first clocks in Europe were made to mimic the movement of the sun on a sundial. Movement within the Wiccan circle is also generally clockwise, sunwise, deosil. The Sun's journey between the compass directions both daily and seasonally affects Wiccan perception of the four directions of the magick circle. In turn, these associations affect the perception of the four essences or elements which were assigned to those directions.

The daily cycle--dawn, noon, twilight, and night--corresponds to the solar cycle--spring equinox, summer solstice, autumn equinox, winter solstice--and the four seasons--spring, summer, fall, winter. These correspond to the cycle of life-- birth, growth, maturity, and death. Each is part of the whole--the cycles of life, the cycles of the universe.

The four essences, air, fire, water, and earth, are part of the whole. They are the building blocks of the cycles of life. This original concept of the four elements or essences of life does have relevance today. Until our species develops interstellar flight, all humans live or die on this planet.

Not only is our earth composed of rock/soil, water, air, and a molten, fiery core, we still need the air to breath, fire to warm us, water to drink, and soil to provide a home and substance. The associations or correspondences of the four essences, as I have said, are arbitrary and poetic. Poetry, however, often reveals truth. Starhawk eloquently wrote in a Samhain poem:

When we invoke the elements of air, fire, water, and earth,
We are saying we know what is necessary to sustain life
And we pledge ourselves to care for it and preserve it...

--Myth Woodling, 1990, 1992