Wiccans believe that the world constitutes five basic elements: spirit, plus the traditional physical elements of earth, fire, air and water.The pentagram, a five-pointed star inside a circle, represents the unity of these five elements, and it is one of the important symbols of Wicca. The pentagram, or in some cases the Wiccan herself, represents the element of spirit, which suffuses everything; the other four require more tangible symbols. A Wiccan has some choices in how to represent each of the four physical elements on an altar.
One of the most common ways to represent earth is with that everyday essential, salt. Salt has, since ancient times, carried deep cultural and symbolic meaning, having even been used as currency. Wiccan coven founder Azaz Cythrawl recommends gathering your own salt, which is easiest for Wiccans who live near the ocean. In addition to representing earth, salt is key to Wiccan purification rituals. Another way to represent earth on an altar is to use soil; this may be particularly appropriate to outdoor worship or rituals focused on fertility.
Candles, ubiquitous on altars of many faiths, are the most direct and popular way to represent fire on a Wiccan altar. If your ritual takes place outdoors, a larger blaze, such as a campfire or even a bonfire, may be appropriate, especially if the altar is set up to honor fire-based Sabbats like Imbolc or Beltane. When candles are used, their color is significant, suggesting the type of ritual or occasion involved.
Air takes many forms, so it is not surprising that Wiccans use a variety of symbols to represent this elusive but ever-present element. For instance, the altar may feature a bell, a fan or a feather, but the most common item is incense. The Wiccan may burn incense in a thurible, an incense burner of various shapes and sizes, or in a censer, which is an incense burner mounted on a chain so it can be swung, directing the scented smoke around the ritual space. The specific scents and herbs used in the incense carry a variety of symbolic meanings, but Wiccans are free to determine for themselves which of these associations are significant to them.
Water is the most directly literal of the elements on a Wiccan altar, because it does not require an item to symbolize it. It is also common to use wine on a Wiccan altar, depending on the specific symbolism required by the ritual. The vessels used include the stereotypical cauldron, a simple bowl, or a chalice, which is a stemmed cup. The material used in these vessels varies widely, depending on the visual appearance and symbolism the Wiccan prefers.
Because Wiccans believe that everything is connected, they use symbols that combine more than one element, like the pentagram. One example of a combined elemental symbol is salt water, commonly used in purification rituals. Wine combines features of earth as well as water, and a wooden wand may represent air, fire, or both. Wiccan Dale Hyde suggests that colored candles can actually represent all four elements, with red for fire, green or brown for earth, blue for water and yellow for air.
- Wicca for the Rest of Us: The Elements; Catherine Noble Beyer
- Witch Vox: The Tools of Witchcraft; Wren
- A Rainbow of Spirituality: Wiccan Ritual; Dale Hyde
- Encyclopedia of Food and Culture: Salt; Lawrence E. Armstrong
- Coven of Cythrawl: Postings, No. 435, The Meaning of Ritual in Working Magic; Azaz Cythrawl
- The Pagan Library: The Wiccan Sabbats, the Wheel of the Year; David Rankine and Sorita
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