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Re-Thinking The Watchtowers Or 13 Reasons Air Should Be In The North


Mike Nichols




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on Witchcraft and magic; and unpublished works, mainly other Witches'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



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.




All that remains, then, is for me to assemble all the arguments in

favor of the Air-in-the-North model, which I have now come to believe

is the CORRECTED system of correspondences. The remainder of this

article will be devoted to those arguments, each with its own name

and number:


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. PARALLEL 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. HYPERBOREAN: 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 MacDonald'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 circumambulates 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.



Document Copyright 1986, 1998 by Mike Nichols

This document can be re-published only as long as no information is

lost or changed, credit is given to the author, and it is provided or

used without cost to others.


Other uses of this document must be approved in writing by Mike