The Elemental Tools
An excerpt from
What We Knew in the Night
What We Knew in the Night can be ordered here
In modern Witchcraft we find the four tools of Western occultism, which are the pentacle, the wand, the athame, and the chalice. As previously noted, they symbolize the four creative elements of earth (pentacle), air (wand), fire (athame), and water (chalice). Let’s begin with the earth tool, the pentacle.
In the magical arts we find the altar tool known as the pentacle. It represents the material realm as well as the element of earth, or more precisely the elemental force of earth. Traditionally, the pentacle is made of clay, stone, or metal. These materials come directly from the earth, which thereby links the tool with the elemental nature.
The origins of the pentacle may lie in primitive use of gourds, which in turn were displaced by wooden platters or flat rocks. We know, for example, in the ancient cult of Mithras that a platter was used as one of four ritual tools. The others were a cup, a wand, and a metal blade. A scourge and “sun whip” were also used in the cult, and collectively these tools resemble those appearing centuries later in Gardnerian Witchcraft.
The pentacle, in its connection to the element of earth, is a tool primarily used for the purpose of manifestation. In connection to this theme the tool is also used to make a declaration in terms of the magic or ritual work at hand. For example, once a ritual circle has been cast, the pentacle can be carried around its perimeter while declaring the circle to be set as a barrier, container, and protection.
The pentacle can also serve to open and close gateways or portals at the four directional quarters of the circle: north, east, south and west. In this usage the pentacle is held in the hands and pivoted like a door. Moving and swinging the pentacle away from you is an opening gesture, while moving it toward you is the gesture of closing. Focus on the sensation of a physical door opening or closing.
As an altar tool, the pentacle is often marked with the magical and sacred symbols of the group (or solitary practitioner). This serves to connect the material with the nonmaterial realms (the physical and the metaphysical). This embraces the concept of “as above, so below” in that the symbols unite what they represent in terms of earthly adherence. In other words, the symbols represent the spiritual markers of the group or individual, and reflect them into the ritual setting, and the mindset of the practitioners. One example is the pentacle that is often ascribed to Gardnerian Witchcraft.
In Gardnerian Witchcraft, a center star in the pentacle represents the four elements under the influence of the fifth element known as aether (spirit). This speaks to the power of manifestation in accord with personal will or desire. It signifies the pentacle as a tool whereby form is given and maintained. Above the star, from left to right, are the symbols of the degrees of initiation. These are the levels of attainment in understanding the ritual and magical arts. Near the lower tips of the star appear the symbol of the divine masculine (left) and the divine feminine (right). These unite the symbolism of the pentacle with the concept of fertility, which in turn allows for manifestation. Beneath the star appears the symbol of the kiss and the scourge, which denote passion and endurance. These are signs of devotion and dedication as well as catalysts to altered states of consciousness.
From a spiritual perspective, the pentacle is symbolic of the shield carried by the spiritual warrior. In this context it is sometimes called the shield of valor. The idea here is that personal ethics and knowing who you are provide the strength of character necessary to persevere on one’s path. Nothing can undo or take away a steadfast position that is built upon a strong and true foundation. In this sense the pentacle is an outward sign of the practitioner as an unconquerable guardian against all that is unbalanced, untruthful, and deconstructive.
The wand is among the most ancient tools used by ritualists and magicians of the past. It has a rich history that will be explored in this section. Ancient classical writings depict Witches such as Medea using a wand for magical purposes. Over the centuries the wand is depicted in relationship to the wizard and sorceress as well. Among the earliest mentions of wands we find that the wood used for them comes from the beech tree.
There is an archaic spiritual tradition associated with trees (and by extension with wands). It is connected to the sacred groves venerated by our ancestors. Tree worship was widespread among ancient people. Each grove contained a sacred tree that was the center of the cult. Its branches held special meaning, as is evidenced by ancient tales of the sacred bough. One example is the silver bough of northern European lore, which is connected to the faery realm. Another example is the golden bough of southern European lore, which is associated with the Underworld. In this lore the “needed thing” in order to successfully complete a quest is provided through magical means associated with a tree.
To carry a sacred bough was to wield the power of the force, entity, or deity within it. Therefore, it was considered essential to establish a personal rapport. In associated lore the priestess or priest trained in service to the inhabitant of the sacred tree. The years spent in this way came to represent the measurement of her or his devotion, service, alignment, and rapport. Once a period of time was served, the priestess/priest was allowed to take a branch from the tree. This branch became the staff, a sign of mastery and devotion.
The branch reflected the skill of the priestess/priest. It was cut to match the height of the individual plus the length from the inside of the elbow to the end of the tip of the middle finger. The former symbolized the experience of the priestess/priest, while the latter represented the service of the priestess/priest extended to others in the community. To extend, the arm moves forward from the elbow, stretching the hand outward. This is the inner symbolism and indicates one who is of the priestess Craft/ priest Craft. In this way the wand is the bridge to and from the Divine Spirit through the conduit of those in service.
According to old lore, when the one god came to displace the many, the Old Ways went into hiding. Over time the staff diminished into the wand, still retaining its symbolic connection to the sacred grove and to its divine nature. This is one of the reasons why the wand is traditionally made of wood, for this is the rootedness of its lineage. In contemporary wands, some practitioners choose to use wands made of metal, stone, or other substances.
The use of a knife in ritual and magic is a very ancient practice. It is mentioned in pre-Christian literature and in books on magic and ritual over the following centuries. Traditionally, the blade is double-edged, and this symbolizes that it operates within material reality as well as nonmaterial reality. It is perhaps the most formidable tool at the practitioner’s command.
The traditional athame has a black handle, which represents the procreative state of existence from which all things issue forth. It is black because black is the presence of all colors mixed together. This symbolizes the ability to open any single aspect with blackness. Black is also the color of the night, and in this way the athame is connected to spirits of the night. Among the four ritual tools the athame is the most “forceful” or “commanding” in nature, and it is used when this type of energy is needed in ritual or magic.
As a tool associated with the elements, some systems assign the athame to air and others to fire. This is similar to the view of the wand. As a tool of fire, the athame is aligned to transformation, and as a tool of air it is connected to the personal will (and the mind). In the case of the latter, the athame is the “sword of discernment” in the hands of the spiritual warrior, and it serves to cut away illusion. The athame has power, as a blade, in material reality and nonmaterial reality. Its mystical presence is just as powerful as its physical one.
On the material plane, the athame is never used for physical carving, cutting, or any mundane act. In its place the boline, a white-handled knife, is used. It is also the traditional blade used for harvesting herbs.
The chalice represents the element of water. Its history as a ritual tool goes back to its origins as a shell or gourd, or even a carved wooden bowl. In the beginning it was likely used more as a simple vessel, but later in time it took on mystical connections. However, it was the foundational associations from early periods that established the chalice as a sacred altar tool. Before looking at the chalice as a ritual tool object, it will be helpful to reveal its deep spiritual, mystical, and magical connections. These can be found in the myths and legends of the pre-Christian Europeans of the Old World.
The water collected from sacred and magical sites has always been regarded as having special qualities and virtues. The vessel used to transport and contain it is likewise given power through contact with the water. All this shares a relationship with the mythos of the Holy Grail, which before its arrogation by Christianity was part of the goddess cult of Old Europe.
The oldest vessels constructed by humans and associated with a goddess are the basket and the cauldron. This is a stage in the development in ritual objects that are intentionally crafted as opposed to being natural objects found in nature. In their design we find the incorporation of symbolism along with myths and legends being connected to them as cult objects. In the case of the chalice, we find the connection back to the cauldron, which itself shares a sacred mythos (as does the cup in the Grail stories).
The cauldron symbolizes the womb of the goddess, the vessel of generation and regeneration. It is the life-giver and the receiver of life returned to its origin. The cauldron appears in many tales. In myth and legend, it brews potions, aids in the casting of spells, produces abundance or decline, and is a holy vessel for offerings to the powers of the night, and to the Great Goddess. Its main attribute is that of transformation, whether of a spiritual or physical nature. As a symbol of the goddess it can bestow wisdom, knowledge, and inspiration.
One example is found in the tale of the cauldron of Cerridwen. The basic story recounts how Cerridwen prepared a brew in her cauldron that was designed to impart enlightenment to her son. The potion had to brew for a year and a day, which symbolizes the process of enlightenment. The story goes that a character called Gwion accidentally tasted the brew, which angered the goddess. She pursued the offender in a lengthy chase, and both Cerridwen and Gwion transformed into a series of various cult animals during the chase.
In legend, the cauldron of Cerridwen was warmed by the breath of nine maidens and produced an elixir that conferred inspiration. This seems to reflect the earlier Greek influence of the nine muses who gave inspiration to humans. It is noteworthy that in line 27 of the Taliesin riddle (from the Celtic work The Tale of Taliesin) we find the words “I have obtained the muse from the Cauldron of Caridwen.” The muses freed mortals from the drudgery of physical reality and provided access to eternal truths.
In the Celtic legends Cerridwen’s cauldron is depicted with a ring of pearls around its rim. It was located in the realm of Annwn (the Underworld) and, according to Taliesin’s poem “The Spoils of Annwn,” the fire beneath it was kindled by the breath of nine maidens, and oracle speech issued forth from it. This is similar in nature to the association of the Greek muses who were connected to the Oracle at Delphi. What is of interest to us here is the association of the cauldron in the Underworld. Cerridwen was a moon goddess in Celtic mythology, and yet her cauldron appears in Annwn under the title of the cauldron of Pwyll, the lord of Annwn. To understand this connection, we must now look at the Grail Mysteries.
In Taliesin’s “The Spoils of Annwn,” we encounter a group of adventurers who descend into Annwn to recover the missing cauldron. They locate it in Caer Sidi or Caer Pedryan, the legendary four-cornered castle. This is sometimes also known as Castle Spiral. In symbolism the spiral was, among other things, a tomb symbol representing death and renewal. It is here in the center of the spiral, itself within the center of the castle, that the adventurers find the cauldron of Cerridwen.
The tale is representative of many Mystery teachings. One aspect concerns itself with the Lunar Mysteries. Here the missing cauldron of Cerridwen represents the waning of the moon and its disappearance for three days (prior to the return of the crescent in the night sky). To the ancients, this was a time of dread, for the moon was gone. It had to be retrieved from the Underworld, into which the moon seemingly descended each night. The quest to retrieve the cauldron of Cerridwen is a quest to retrieve the light of the moon. The cauldron is the source of that light and belongs to the goddess. All of this can be extended to the chalice.
Note: This excerpt is not contiguous with the excerpt in The Witches' Almanac Issue #39. Details for the Raven's book:
What We Knew in the Night
Reawakening the Heart of Witchcraft