RE-THINKING THE WATCHTOWERS
13 Reasons Air should be in the North
by Mike Nichols
copyright 1989 by Mike Nichols
(fondly dedicated to Kathy Whitworth)
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 catagories: 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unpublished works, mainly other Witches' Books of Shadows.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 "traditonal" enough to
copy everything by hand. (Today, photocopying and even computer
modem transfers are becoming de rigueur.) 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
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
assoications 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 traditon 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 yeilded 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 refered 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.
Marian McNeill) 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 equitorial region, and south is the
land of ice.)
4. HYPERBORIAN: In fact, an ancient name for the British
Isles was "Hyperboria", which litterally 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 prespective 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 equiped 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
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
horizonatal 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, alway 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 asrociations of cup
and blade are especially emphasized in the ritual blessing of
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
13. ASTROLOGICAL: The astrological year is divided into
four equal quadrants, each beginning at a solstice or equinox.
And each quandrant 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, sybolized 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