Across the magical traditions of the world we find evidence of a primordial practice of mapping and anchoring the spiritual realm to the physical landscape. For most, this act of hallowing space begins by defining and honoring the four cardinal directions, the sky above, and the underworld below. Through these a physical, mental, and spiritual center is established from which to perceive and experience the universe.
Elemental forces and totemic energies are then mapped onto these directions according to how initiates in the tradition experience and interact with the non-physical realities. Naturally, different systems arise according to the available lexicon of cultural symbols and stories of a people. In our western magical traditions we have adopted an elemental quarter system in which the four classical elements of Air, Fire, Earth and Water are mapped onto the four quarters of the compass. Which element is mapped to which quadrant depends on the individual tradition and can be a hotly debated topic.
In this post, we will examine four of the more common elemental quarter systems. These have various names, but for purposes of this discussion, we will resort to the following terminology: 1) Landscape Quarters, 2) Hermetic Quarters, 3) Astrological Quarters, and 4) Northern Quarters.
One of the major arguments against using the more established quarter systems is that they are only relevant to the area from where they originated. However, this is not entirely accurate. If this were the case we would find much more continuity in local traditions and much less variances amongst indigenous groups living in the same or similar landscapes. The Papyri Graecae Magicae for example contain a compilation of spells from a relatively small number of Graeco-Egyptian sources from hellenic Egypt, yet in these papyri we find many different modes of orientation depending on the the gods invoked and purpose of the magical working. Across the African and American continents, for example, we find neighboring tribes that use very different quarter systems despite sharing the same or very similar landscapes. Alternatively, we find the same quarter system shared across vastly different locations such as between southern England and central Egypt. As such, we must remain open to the possibility that some divisions of the spiritual landscape and orientation within contain traditional esoteric teachings beyond – and not dependent on – the perceivable geographic landscape.
Nonetheless, I do believe that there are systems intimately linked to the local geography and climate – by no means am I refuting this claim. However, I also believe that some of the more well known quarter systems pertain to certain universal symbolic teachings resulting from the interactions between earth and sky; interactions and patterns that are perceivable from any location on earth. These are not as geographic-specific as some claim and can therefore be applied anywhere given that the practitioner accounts for the north-south latitudinal differences between the hemispheres. (See Countermovement in Hermetic Magic)
Landscape Quarters is an umbrella term for those systems that are dictated by local geography and climate. These do not have set correspondences as they rely on the unique features of the physical and spiritual landscape surrounding the practitioner. Perhaps someone living in the northeast of the Canada may find that the spirits of water are strongest in the east emerging from the Atlantic ocean. Perhaps in another part of the world a prominent local mountain, forest, or lake sways the elemental compass in one direction or another and orients the quadrants accordingly. In a shamanic sense, this system relies entirely on the spirit of place to determine the web of interaction between the spiritual and physical landscape.
Not much needs to be said here, as it is a system that is wholly based on the practitioner’s personal relationship with the spirits of the land. The only requirement is to make contact with genii loci and let them reveal the elemental influences. A common practice to do this involves undertaking spirit journeys to the quadrants by visualizing portals in each of the four directions and projecting into them. The elementals met on this journey are identified as the rulers and guardians of the quadrant in question.
The Hermetic Quarters place the elemental powers of Air in the east, Fire in the south, Water the west, and Earth in the north. This system was widely popularized in the late 19th C. by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and has since been adopted by various ceremonial and Neopagan groups.
From the watchtowers of Wicca to the the Pentagram rituals of Ceremonial Magick, this is the most common mapping of the elements to quadrants in western traditions today. While critics of this system write it off as a modern invention of lodge magicians, there appears to be a precedent for this system amongst the Dogon tribe of West Africa and also in the Graeco-Egyptian magical papyri. An invocation to the various forms of the sun god in PGM II. 64-183 provides a tantalizing glimpse into how some magicians in late antiquity may have understood the elemental quadrants:
… even as you have upon the northern parts the figure of an infant child seated upon a lotus, O rising one, O you of many names, SESENGENBARPHARANGÊS, on the southern parts you have the shape of the sacred falcon, through which you send fiery heat into the air, which becomes LERTHEXANAX; in the parts to towards the west you have the shape of a crocodile, with he tail of a snake, from which you send out rains and snows; inthe parts toward the east you have [the form of] a winged dragon, a diadem fashioned of air…
PGM II. 106-113
This may not be a smoking gun, but the attributions are quite suggestive and coincide with the Hermetic Quarters. The south is Fire represented by a falcon with “fiery heat”; the west is Water with a crocodile-snake who sends “rains and snows”; and in the east, we find a dragon “fashioned of Air.” The north is questionable as it depicts a figure of the child Harpocrates seated upon the lotus flower, but given the attributes of the other directions it is reasonable to assume this as a symbol of the element of earth, or -more accurately- of the sun being reborn in the earth.
Indeed, these quarters are very closely related to the path of the sun and to the mythical narrative of the slain and reborn god. The east is the place of sunrise, birth, life and the first breath of Air. The south is the quadrant of power and Fire where the midday sun burns the brightest and hottest prior to being extinguished and dying in the western realm of Water. Over the course of the night, the sun or Solar hero journeys through the underworld beneath the Earth in the northern quadrant and at dawn is again reborn in the east. This mythic narrative is of extreme importance in traditions that employ the Hermetic Quarters, and the casting of the circle in a clockwise manner- or sunwise – is a ritual reenactment of this storyline. Of course, the core symbolism of the Hermetic Quarters can be applied to the Southern Hemisphere by flipping the north-south axis and drawing the circle counterclockwise.
After the Hermetic Quarters, the next most common system in western traditions is the Astrological Quarters. This was published by Henry Cornelius Agrippa in his seminal Four Books of Occult Philosophy in 1531 and is prevalent in freemasonic symbolism and in the rituals of ceremonial magic dealing with the macrocosm and planetary energies. This quarter system is also found in the textual magical traditions of the Solomonic grimoires. From Agrippa to the later grimoires such as the Cyprianic Clavis Inferni and the Magical Calendar the system of attributing each of the quadrant spirit kings to an element follows the Astrological Quarters.
The quadrants in this system correspond to the elemental attribute of the constellations. While the correspondences of Water in the north, Fire in the east, Earth in the south, and Air in the west hold true on the vernal equinox for the past Astrological age of Aires (c. 2150 BCE – 1 AD) and the future age of Sagittarius; the animal and sign correspondences very clearly reference the Age of Leo (c. 10500 BCE – 8000 BCE). The lion (Leo), eagle (Scorpio), man (Aquarius) and bull (Taurus) are perennial symbols in western esoteric traditions from the World card of the Tarot to the banners of Freemasonry and the oft quoted vision of Ezekiel’s chariot.
Then I looked, and behold, a whirlwind was coming out of the north, a great cloud with raging fire engulfing itself; and brightness was all around it and radiating out of its midst like the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire. Also from within it came the likeness of four living creatures….As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle.
These constellations speak to the primordial Golden Age of Leo. A mythic age that is intimately linked to a time when the gods walked upon the earth and the spiritual awakening of neolithic man.
For most western practitioners and occultists, the compass layout of Northern Quarters will at first appear quite odd. This system has only really gained popularity amongst the traditional witchcraft groups inspired by the Cochrane letters such as The Clan of Tubal Cain, 1734, and The Roebuck. The elemental directions are Air in the north, Fire in the east, Earth in the south, and Water in the west.
There is an underlying beauty and logic to this arrangement that deserves a deeper examination. First, despite it being primarily known as the “Northern Quarters”, as with the other quarter systems it can just as easily be applied to the southern hemisphere by flipping the north-south axis. It is in fact a polar system since the focus is the celestial pole around which all the stars in the night sky rotate. (See Countermovement in Hermetic Magic)
The polar axis between the northern celestial pole (NCP) and the southern celestial pole (SCP) composes the axis mundi of the ritual space linking the celestial, terrestrial and chthonic realms. Traditions that employ these quarters tend to emphasize the shamanic journeying – or witch flight – of the practitioner along this axis to the various spirit realms during the ritual.
For practitioners in the northern hemisphere, the northern celestial pole is above the horizon in the sky and thus applies to the least dense element of Air and the celestial realm. Conversely, the southern celestial pole is deep below the southern horizon and corresponds to the most dense element of Earth and the chthonic underworld. As mentioned previously, the elemental correspondences of this axis would simply be flipped in the southern hemisphere maintaining the symbolism of the system.
In this quarter system, the rising active element of Fire is in the east where all celestial bodies rise, and the passive flowing element of Water is west where stars and planets set. Whereas the north-south axis establishes the spiritual-spatial dimensions of Earth and sky(Air), the east-west axis denotes the initiatic journey and the mysteries of life/light (Fire) and death/dark (Water).
Occasionally, those employing this system will opt for the alliteration of Sky, Sun, Stone and Sea in lieu of the classical Air, Fire, Earth and Water to distinguish their quarter system from the so called “classical” elemental systems of the Hermetic and Astrological quarters. However, and somewhat ironically, unlike the “classical” systems the Northern Quarters maintain the inter-relationship between the Aristotelian sensible qualities of the elements. Fire is between Air and Earth, Air is between Fire and Water, Water is between Air and Earth, and Earth is between Water and Fire. This ordering ensures that the sensible qualities of hot, dry, cold and wet can be allocated properly between the cardinal directions as seen in the diagram to the left. Fire is hot and dry, Air is hot and wet, Water is wet and cold, and Earth is cold and dry.
I hope I have provided a decent – albeit brief- overview of some of the more common elemental quarter systems in western traditions. I have at one point or another used all these systems with success and the explanations I have posted here derive primarily from my own experiences. For me at least, each system has resulted in a new perspective of the spiritual landscape and a deeper understanding of the interplay between earth and sky.
A generalization that can be made is that both the Hermetic & Astrological Quarters are very much focused on the sun and its apparent journey either across the local sky or across the zodiac. This reveals a concern with cyclic time manifested in the daily solar cycle as well as the precessional cycle of the astrological ages. It speaks to the mythic narrative of the Solar Hero and the initiatic journey of life, death and rebirth. The Hermetic and Astrological systems can and do work together as in the Golden Dawn Pentagram and Hexagram rituals where initiates are taught to distinguish between the two systems as different ontological levels of ritual experience (microcosmic & macrocosmic).
On the other hand, the Northern Quarters are more nocturnal with a clear focus on the celestial pole and the north-south axis as opposed to east-west. The importance is on the polar axis connecting the celestial, terrestrial and chthonic realms and the journey of the practitioner along this axis. This is in stark contrast to most traditions using the Hermetic and Astrological Quarters, as their focus on evoking spirits into the terrestrial plane with the ritualist remaining firmly grounded within their circle. Another major difference is that those employing the Northern Quarters will generally favor the north as the primary direction for work as opposed to the east.
The Northern Quarters are definitely unique and a radical departure from the others. This system requires a fundamental shift in perspective and orientation and will be at odds with nearly all the written material regarding elements and directionality. There is, however, an undeniable elegance and dynamic quality to the system that I find very appealing as the elements naturally flow into each other and the polarities are balanced across the north-south and east-west axis.
I recommend that a beginning practitioner choose a system and stick to it for at least a year, consistency is the key to success. Switching systems entails changing perspectives and if we do it too frequently without ever fully rooting ourselves into one system or another we will completely loose sight of the bigger picture. With that said, I firmly believe that our paths unfold before us and the spirits will guide us to the best system to use for our specific journey. Sometimes they lead us towards change and experimentation. When they do we should embrace the journey even when it challenges us to re-orient our perspective, for doing so can lead to unexpected and profound revelations.