Over the past decade, I have circled with many different Wiccan groups. Most of them invoke Air to the East, Fire to the South, Water to the West, and Earth to the North. When asked why, they tend to talk about how their traditions came from England where the ocean was to the West, winds blew from the East and things like that. Although I acknowledge Wicca as the blending of High-Magick and Low-Magick, that explanation always seemed a little too Low-Magick for my tastes. Also, it didn't acknowledge the elements as I knew them.
After I became Wiccan, I devoted the first five years to establishing relationships with the elements where I really got to know them. As I worked with them, other truths revealed themselves. What I found was a system where everything works together to create the circle much more elegantly. I’m going to try and explain a bit of it.
Standing in an open plain, surrounded by the plains, the horizon seems to be the same distance in all directions. The horizon is a circle around us. Beyond the horizon is the rest of the world, an even larger circle. We divide the circle up by directions. So it is that the magickal circle we cast represents the world we know, and the world beyond.
The circle can also represent the day. To the East, we see the sun rise. To the South, we see the sun at it's highest. To the West, we see the sun set. To the North, we see the shadow of the noon-day sun.
Sunrise is when we come out of the darkness. About 45 minutes before the sun itself is visible, the first rays of light begin to peak over the Eastern horizon. Eventually we see the first glowing brilliance of the sun rising above the horizon. Soon, the whole of the sun is visible and casting shadows upon the world.
At mid-day, the sun is at its highest, directly to the South, casting shadows directly to the North. The heat of the sun is fully upon us from horizon to horizon.
At sunset, the sun touches the Western horizon, fluidly falls below, and within 45 minutes the last light has faded.
By midnight the world is as dark as it gets, people are mostly asleep and the world has a grounded stillness.
So it is that the magickal circle we cast represents the day. East represents sunrise. South represents mid-day. West represents sunset. North is the shadow time of midnight.
The day has much in common with the year. The winter solstice, the world is at its darkest as the sun recedes from the world of our horizons, as at midnight the sun is farthest from our horizons. At the spring equinox, the sun is again rising in the sky, and the first glimmers of life can be seen from horizon to horizon. Midsummer, the sun is at it's highest and warming our part of the world. Fall equinox, we experience the sun receding again. So it is that as the magickal circle represents the day, so it is that it also represents the year.
The North is not the Winter Solstice or midnight, but in our circle it represents these things. Beyond what the Directions are, there is that which they represent. The Watchtower of the North is the embodiment of all that which the North represents, including and beyond that which the North naturally is. The Watchtowers are the ideals of the directions from the point-of-view of the circle.
As the circle represents the day and the year, so too it represents life.
As the sun emerges, so too do we emerge into the world. So it is that the first stage of life is ruled over by the watchtower of the East. When we are first born, our brains are undeveloped. If they were developed, our heads would be too big to fit through the opening. Our brains continue growing for the next year, and then we spend the next many years filling it and learning, as our brains continue developing until the age of 25. This is why we spend the first part of our lives devoted to the first step of the witch's pyramid, "to know."
The next stage of life is to devote ourselves to a trade. We learn the trade, we perform the trade. We develop passions, the short term emotions which drive us. This part of the cycle is dedicated to the second step of the witch's pyramid, "to will," We work. We devote ourselves to our passionate pursuits. We work for as long as the sun gives us light to work by, and so this stage of life is associated with the watchtower of the South.
At some point we become parents, a part of life associated with "to dare" in the witch's pyramid. Ideally, this experience is surrounded by love. It is with love that the child is conceived, if for no other reason than the endorphins released during sex. Childbirth is marked and known by the water breaking. At the moment of birth, other hormones are released during natural childbirth which bonds the mother to the child. This is a stage of life associated with long-term emotions. But this has traditionally been a dangerous time where the mother, child, or both might die. Though there is light, there is the potential for darkness, and so it is that this stage of life is ruled over by the watchtower of the West.
Eventually, we grow old as grandparents, and retired from work. The midnight of our life. All light has left us. This is a stage of life associated with quiet thought. So it is that this stage of life is ruled over by the watchtower of the North, and corresponds to the last stage of the witch's pyramid, "to remain silent"
This circle embodies time and space as we experience it: the land we know, the land beyond, the day, the year, a lifetime. It is all a part of a circle which we refer to as “A time beyond time, in a place beyond place.” The fact that our circle embodies all of this is important because it is generally our hope that the work we are doing in the circle will have an impact beyond the confines of the area in which we cast the circle.
There are other ways of casting circles. Waiting for the bus during cold Minnesota winter mornings, I would sometimes cast a circle as a protective barrier against the cold to help keep me warm. I wasn’t attempting to extend my influence; I was attempting to create a barrier. That was a different circle for a different purpose.
However, for most magickal workings, I am attempting to extend influence, and so I want a circle which does that by its nature. That is an advantage of viewing the circle as embodying time and space as we experience it. This circle creates a connection to all the things I wish to influence by its nature. Personally, I find that to be handy.
Now that we have cast our circle, the next step is to bring in the elements. These are generally called in the cardinal directions, and relate to the directions as described above.
So far to the North, we have found the quiet times. These are the times which allow us to feel grounded. Caves in the Earth are dark and quiet, reminding us of midnight and "to remain silent", and thus the Earth is associated with the watchtower of the North.
So far we have linked to the South, the heat of the mid-day, the summer, the work, the passions. These are the fiery aspects of the circle, and so it is that the element of Fire is associated with the watchtower of the South.
To the East we have the birth of new life, with its first breath in this world. We associate the East with learning, A thought is intangible. It cannot be seen, weighed, or held in your hand. It's like air, and so it is associated with the element of air, "to know" in the witch's pyramid, and thus the watchtower of the East.
To the West we relate the depth of long term emotions, the mother’s water breaking. Water is the element of depth. So it is that we look to the watchtower of the West for the element of Water
However, a bowl of water is not emotional. A candle flame is doesn't care about passion. The air has no idea. Air is primarily a mixture of nitrogen, oxygen and argon. This is not the air we are invoking. We are invoking the ideal of air and all that which it can represent, the totality of the correspondences, an essence, a spirit. So it is that the invocation ought not be of air, but of the elemental of Air. The elemental of Air is the embodiment of all that which air can represent, and (in the system described here) resides in the watchtower of the East, and as such represents all that which the East can embody, although the elemental of air is separate from the watchtower of the East.
Two centuries ago when these invocations were being refined, these elementals were viewed as demons, because it was demons which the ceremonial magicians commanded to do their will, and they invoked the elementals to aid in performing their rituals. Calling the elementals was always the intent of the ritual. I do not personally view them as demons, but rather as other. I am comfortable with that which is characterized as other. They can be powerful allies. We should respect them, but there is no point in fearing them.
When I invoke water, I am not invoking the molecular combination of hydrogen and oxygen. I am invoking the elemental energies of Water in its full embodiment. Water, the most ancient mirror, and scrying devise, and thus the element of insight. Because of water, most of the topography of this planet has not been explored, and thus it is the element of mysteries and secrets. Water is released at the moment of childbirth, when the bonds of love are established between the mother and the child, and thus it is the element of deep long-term emotions. The element of that which flows, and thus the element of poetic speech, blood, and certain fighting techniques. With water we associated the creatures which swim and live in water. Water can reduce rocks to sand. Water can take a landscape and create the Grand Canyon. Water can crush, and water can soothe. These are the elemental aspects of water, and so it is the elemental of Water which I invoke.
When I invoke Earth, I am invoking neither dirt nor the entire planet. I am invoking the elemental energies of Earth in its full embodiment. Earth represents that quiet grounded part of ourselves. It is the darkness of the cave. Our foundations are in Earth. It is the plants and creatures of the Earth. It is our home. For much of human history, we were under a feudal system in which land equaled money, and so money is linked with Earth. The Earth nourishes us with its bounty, but it can also shake us to our core. These are the elemental aspects of Earth, and so it is the elemental of Earth which I invoke.
hen I invoke Air, I am not invoking nitrogen, oxygen and argon. I am invoking the elemental energies of Air in its full embodiment. This is not the Air we breathe, but the breath we take. As the life of a child is marked by their first breath, air is often associated with beginnings. We associate air with the intangible process of thinking, learning, and ideas. With Air we associate the creatures that fly. Air creates the hills of our landscape. Air can be the gentle breeze which fills our sails and gives us motion, or it can be the tornado which rips us apart. These are the elemental aspects of Air, and so it is the elemental of Air which I invoke.
When I invoke Fire, I am not invoking the exothermic reaction in which chemicals are rapidly combined with oxygen. I am invoking the elemental energies of Fire in its full embodiment. As Air represents the breath we take, so Fire has the ability to take our breath away. It is the initial spark of love, or the spark of anger. It is the fiery passions; the short term emotions. We experience fire on a primal level. It is the effort that heats us up and makes us sweat. Fire warms our house and cooks our food, but it can also reduce all we are to ashes. These are the elemental aspects of Fire, and so it is the elemental of Fire which I invoke.
With that, I feel that the elements are woven into the circle in a system which I find to be somewhat elegant, and not at all dependent on which way the wind blows.