Rethinking the Watchtowers: 13 Reasons Air Should Be in the North
It all started 20 years ago. I was 16 years old then, and a recent initiate to the religion of Wicca. Like most neophytes, I was eager to begin work on my Book of Shadows, the traditional manuscript liturgical book kept by most practicing Witches. I copied down rituals, spells, recipes, poems, and tables of correspondences from every source I could lay hands on. Those generally fell into two broad categories: published works, such as the many books available on Witchcraft and magic; and unpublished works, mainly other Witches' Books of Shadows.
Twenty years ago, most of us were 'traditional' enough to copy everything by hand. (Today, photocopying and even computer modem transfers are becoming de riguer.) Always, we were admonished to copy 'every dot and comma', making an exact transcription of the original, since any variation in the ceremony might cause major problems for the magician. Seldom, if ever, did anyone pause to consider where these rituals came from in the first place, or who composed them. Most of us, alas, did not know and did not care. It was enough just to follow the rubrics and do the rituals as prescribed.
But something brought me to an abrupt halt in my copying frenzy. I had dutifully copied rituals from different sources, and suddenly realized they contained conflicting elements. I found myself comparing the two versions, wondering which one was 'right', 'correct', 'authentic', 'original', 'older', etc. This gave rise to the more general questions about where a ritual came from in the first place. Who created it? Was it created by one person or many? Was it ever altered in transmission? If so, was it by accident or intent? Do we know? Is there ever any way to find out? How did a particular ritual get into a Coven's Book of Shadows? From another, older, Book of Shadows? Or from a published source? If so, where did the author of the published work get it?
I had barely scratched the surface, and yet I could already see that the questions being raised were very complex. (Now, all these years later, I am more convinced than ever of the daunting complexity of Neo-Pagan liturgical history. And I am equally convinced of the great importance of this topic for a thorough understanding of modern Witchcraft. It may well be a mare's nest, but imagine the value it will have to future Craft historians. And you are unconditionally guaranteed to see me fly into a passionate tirade whenever I'm confronted with such banal over-simplifications as 'Crowley is the REAL author of the Third Degree initiation,' or 'Everyone KNOWS Gardner INVENTED modern Witchcraft.')
The first time I noticed conflicting ritual elements was when I was invited as a guest to attend another Coven's esbat celebration. When the time came to 'invoke the Watchtowers' (a ritual salutation to the four directions), I was amazed to learn that this group associated the element of Earth with the North. My own Coven equated North with Air. How odd, I thought. Where'd they get that? The High Priestess told me it had been copied out of a number of published sources. Further, she said she had never seen it listed any other way. I raced home and began tearing books from my own library shelves. And sure enough! Practically every book I consulted gave the following associations as standard: North = Earth, East = Air, South = Fire, West = Water.
Then where the heck did I get the idea that Air belonged in the North? After much thought, I remembered having copied my own elemental/directional associations from another Witch's Book of Shadows, her Book representing (so she claimed) an old Welsh tradition. Perhaps I'd copied it down wrong? A quick long-distance phone call put my mind at ease on that score. (When I asked her where she'd gotten it, she said she THOUGHT it was from an even older Book of Shadows, but she wasn't certain.)
By now, I felt miffed that my own tradition seemed to be at variance with most published sources. Still, my own rituals didn't seem to be adversely affected. Nor were those of my fellow Coven members, all of whom put Air in the North. Further, over the years I had amassed lots of associations and correspondences that seemed to REQUIRE Air to be in the North. The very thought of Air in the East offended both my sense of reason and my gut-level mythic sensibilities. There are good REASONS to place Air in the North. And the whole mythological superstructure would collapse if Air were in the East, instead. If this is so, then why do most published sources place Earth in the North and Air in the East?
Suddenly, I felt sure I knew the reason! Somewhere along the line, someone had deliberately tampered with the information! Such tampering is a long and venerable practice within certain branches of magic. In Western culture, it is most typically seen among Hermetic, Cabalistic and 'ceremonial' magic lodges. It is common among such groups that, when publishing their rituals for public consumption, they will publish versions that are INCOMPLETE and/or deliberately ALTERED in some way from the authentic practice. This prevents someone who is NOT a member of the group from simply buying a book, and performing the rituals, without benefit of formal training. It is only when you are initiated into the lodge that you will be given the COMPLETE and/or CORRECTED versions of their rituals. This is how such groups guard their secrets. (And it is a telling postscript that many scholars now believe modern Witchcraft to have 'borrowed' its directional/elemental correspondences from ceremonial magic sources! What a laugh if this was Crowley's last best joke on his friend Gerald Gardner!)
I remember the first time I became aware of such deliberate ritual tampering. A friend of mine had been making a study of the so-called 'planetary squares', talismans that look like magic squares consisting of a grid of numbers in some cryptic order. There are seven such squares -- one for each of the 'old' planets. While making this study, he began coloring the grids (more for his own pleasure than anything else), making colorful mini-mosaics, using first two colors, then three, then four, and on up to the total number of squares in the grid. Six of the planetary squares yielded pleasing patterns of color. Then there was the Sun square! Against all expectation, the colors were a random jumble, with no patterns emerging. Thus, he began his quest for the CORRECTED Sun square. And I became convinced of the reality of ritual tampering.
1. Airts: This is perhaps the strongest argument. In Celtic countries, the four elemental/directional associations are referred to as the 'four airts'. And it is a known fact that this tradition associates Air with North. While it is true that some writers, familiar with ceremonial magic (like William Sharp and Doreen Valiente), have given 'tampered' versions of the airts, it is a telling point that folklorists working directly with native oral traditions (like Alexander Carmichael and F. Marion McNeil) invariably report the Air/North connection.
2. Parrallel Cultures: Although arguing from parallel cultures may not be as convincing, it is still instructive to examine other magical aboriginal cultures in the Western hemisphere. For example, the vast majority of Native American tribes (themselves no slouches in the area of magic!) place Air in the North, which they symbolize by the Eagle. (Aboriginal cultures lying south of the equator typically have different associations, for reasons I will discuss next.)
3. Geophysical: If one accepts the insular British origins of elemental directions, then one must imagine living in the British Isles. To the West is the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean (i.e. water). To the East, the bulk of the European land mass (earth). South has always been the direction of fire because, as one travels south (toward the equator), it gets warmer. Which leaves North as the region of air, home of the icy winds of winter. (These last two associations would be reversed for cultures in the southern hemisphere, for whom north is the direction of the warm equatorial region, and south is the land of ice.)
4. Hyperborian: In fact, an ancient name for the British Isles was 'Hyperboria', which literally means 'behind the north wind', thus associating north and wind (air) once more. The inhabitants were themselves called 'Hyperborians', and the phrase 'at the back of the north wind' (the title of one of George McDonald's faery romances) is still current. Of all the winds of the compass, it is unquestionably the north wind (Boreas), bringer of winter, which is perceived as the strongest and most influential (cf. Robert Grave's goddess fantasy 'Watch the North Wind Rise'). You don't hear too much about the other three cardinal winds.
5. Seasonal: Many occultists associate the four seasons with the four cardinal points, as well. Hence, winter = north, spring = east, summer = south, and autumn = west. (To be precise, it is the solstice and equinox points which align with the cardinal points.) Again, in most folklore, winter is associated with air and wind, as the icy blasts that usher in the season. In spring, it is the earth which arrests our attention, with its sudden riot of blooms and greenery. Again, south relates to summer, the hottest season (fire), and west relates to autumn.
6. Diurnal: Occultists also often associate the cardinal points of a single day to the four compass points. Thus, midnight = north, sunrise = east, noon = south, and sunset = west. (Please note that we are talking about TRUE midnight and TRUE noon here, the points halfway between sunset and sunrise, and between sunrise and sunset, respectively.) These associate nicely with the seasonal attributes just discussed. It is easy to see why sunrise should equate to east, and sunset to west. And, once again, from the perspective of the British Isles, the sun rises over land (earth) and sets over the ocean (water). South is related to noon because it is the moment of greatest heat (fire). Leaving the 'invisible' element of air to be associated with the sun's invisibility, at midnight.
7. Mythological: In Celtic mythology, north is invariably associated with air. The pre-Christian Irish gods and goddesses, the Tuatha De Danann, were 'airy' faeries (later versions came equipped with wings, relating them to sylphs). The Book of Conquests states their original home was in the north, 'at the back of the north wind'. And when they came to Ireland, they came in ships, THROUGH THE UPPER AIR (!), settling on the mountain tops. (It has always struck me as odd that some modern writers see mountains as a symbol of earth. The crucial symbolism of the mountain is its height, rising into the air, touching the sky. Virtually all Eastern traditions associate mountains, favorite abodes of gurus, with air. A CAVE would be a better symbol of earth than a mountain.) In Welsh mythology, too, Math the Ancient, chief god of Gwynedd (or NORTH Wales), is specifically associated with wind, which can carry people's thoughts to him.
8. Yin/Yang: Many occultists believe that the four elements have yin/yang connections. Both air and fire are seen as masculine, while earth and water are seen as feminine. If air is associated with the north point of the magic circle, and earth is east, then one achieves a yin/yang alternation as one circumnambulates the circle. As one passes the cardinal points of east, south, west, and north, one passes feminine, masculine, feminine, masculine energies. This alternating flux of plus/minus, push/pull, masculine/feminine, is the very pulse of the universe, considered of great importance by most occultists. That it was equally important to our ancestors is evidenced by standing stones in the British Isles. At sites like the Kennet Avenue of Braga, the tall, slender, masculine, phallic stones alternate precisely with the shorter, diamond-shaped yoni stones.
9. Generator: This argument flows out of the previous one. Practicing magicians often think of the magic circle as a kind of psychic generator. Witches in particular like to perform circle dances to 'raise the cone of power'. Hand in hand, and alternating man and woman, they dance clockwise (deosil) around the circle, moving faster and faster until the power is released. This model has an uncanny resemblance to an electrical generator, as man and woman alternately pass each of the four 'poles' of the magic circle. These poles themselves MUST alternate between plus and minus if power is to be raised. This means that if the masculine fire is in the south, then the masculine air MUST be in the north. If the feminine water is in the west, then the feminine earth MUST be in the east. If any adjacent pair were switched, the generator would stop dead.
10. Masculine/Feminine Axis: When you look at a typical map, north (the cardinal direction) is at the top. Any north-south road is a vertical line, and any east-west road is a horizontal line. Likewise, a 'map' of a magic circle makes the vertical north-south axis masculine (with air and fire), while the horizontal east-west axis is feminine (earth and water). This makes logical sense. When we look at the horizon of the earth, we see a horizontal line. Water also seeks a horizontal plane. Feminine elements, considered 'passive', have a natural tendency to 'lay down'. Fire, on the other hand, always assumes an erect or vertical position. Air, too, can rise upward, as earth and water cannot. Masculine elements, being 'active', have a natural tendency to 'stand up'.
11. Altar Tools: In modern Witchcraft, there are four principal altar tools, the same four tools shown on the Tarot card, the Magician. They also correspond to the four Tarot suits, the four ancient treasures of Ireland, and the four 'hallows' of Arthurian legend. And, like the four elements, two of them are feminine and two of them are masculine. The pentacle is a shallow dish inscribed with a pentagram, representing earth, and is here placed in the east. The womb-shaped chalice, symbolizing water, is placed in the west. They form the horizontal feminine axis. The phallic-shaped wand, representing fire, is placed in the south. And the equally phallic-shaped athame is placed in the north. They form the vertical masculine axis. (The gender associations of cup and blade are especially emphasized in the ritual blessing of wine.)
12. Axis Symbolism: In nearly every culture, the vertical line is a symbol of yang, or masculine energy. The horizontal line is yin, feminine energy. When the vertical masculine line penetrates the horizontal feminine line, forming the ancient Pagan symbol of the equal-armed cross, it becomes a symbol of life, and life-force. Place a circle around it or on it, and you have a circle-cross or 'Celtic' cross, symbol of everlasting life. (Please note the importance of the EQUAL-armed cross. If one arm is longer or shorter, then the four elements are out of balance. The Christian or 'Roman' cross, for example, has an extended southern arm. And many historians have commented on Christianity's excess of 'fire' or zeal. Some versions actually show a shortened northern arm, indicating a dearth of 'air' or intellectual qualities.)
13. Astrological: The astrological year is divided into four equal quadrants, each beginning at a solstice or equinox. And each quadrant is governed by one of the four elements. Which element can be discovered by examining the exact MID-POINT of the quadrant. For example, the first quadrant, beginning at the winter solstice (north) is governed by air, which rules 15 degrees Aquarius, symbolized by the Man or Spirit. The second quadrant, beginning at the spring equinox (east) is governed by earth, which rules 15 degrees Taurus, the Bull. The third quadrant, beginning at the summer solstice (south) is governed by fire, which rules 15 degrees Leo, the Lion. And the fourth quadrant, beginning at the fall equinox (west) is governed by water, which rules 15 degrees Scorpio, here symbolized by the Eagle. Thus, north, east, south and west correspond to air, earth, fire, and water, and to man, bull, lion, and eagle, respectively. If the last four symbols seem familiar, it is because they represent the four elemental power points of the astrological year, and their symbols appear in the four corners of the Tarot cards, the World and the Wheel of Fortune. (The same figures were later adopted by Christians as symbols of the four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.)
If those are the arguments in favor of Air-in-the-North, where are the counter-arguments in favor of Earth-in-the-North? Surprisingly, I've heard very few. The most common by far is 'But we've always done it this way.' Not too convincing. However, no matter HOW persuasive my arguments may be, many have countered that magic doesn't lend itself to rational arguments. It's what FEELS right that counts. True. And there's no denying that many practitioners do just fine with earth in the north. Granted. Still, if they've never tried it the other way, how would they really know?
My challenge to my fellow practitioners then is this: give Air-in-the-North a shot. Just try it on for size. See what it feels like. And not for just a single ritual. It'll take several tries just to overcome your habitual ritual mindset. And nothing is as habitual as ritual! So in order to give this a fair shake, you'll have to do a whole series of rituals with air in the north. And go into it with an open mind. Like all magic, if you decide ahead of time it won't work, it won't. Then, once you've tried it, compare it to your old method. Ask yourself what's different, if it worked any better, and why or why not. And let me know. I'd enjoy hearing about your experiences.
by Mike Nichols