The AODA’s Sphere of Protection in a Tree demonstrating the seven-element framework
Perhaps the first thing to think about in any system of spiritual or magical practice is the way in which a practice offers a framework to understand reality. These frameworks vary widely based on the spiritual tradition: some use a complex system of deities to map concepts to reality. Deities often have domains and represent certain aspects of reality (e.g the Horned God Cernunnos of Celtic Mythology can represent fertility, abundance, the land itself, and so forth). Other systems may have songs, stories, and dances to help explain the world. Other systems may recognize different kinds of energies and map them (such as the Jewish Kabbalah or Yggdrasil, the world tree, in Norse tradition, In AODA, our primary framework is a seven-element framework. The seven-element system is a highly adaptable and non-dogmatic framework that you can use for a variety of purposes, whether or not you belong to AODA. As an elemental framework, it works with a classification of energies present on the land to provide a framework for raising and drawing energy in particular ways, for rituals and more. Once you have an understanding of a system of representation like the seven elements, you can work with it in any myriad of ways to develop your own unique practices, adapt it to your local ecosystem, and so forth.
The seven elements include three aspects of spirit: spirit above, spirit below, and spirit within, as well as earth, air, fire, and water. Thus, in this post, I’ll explain the historical roots of this framework and some of its features. This post is really the precursor to next week’s post when I show how this kind of framework can be used to create any number of rituals and practices, including land healing and blessing. (As a reminder, since I became Grand Archdruid of AODA, I’m dedicating one post a month to AODA-specific practices!)
Understanding the Elements as a System of Representation and as Symbols
The first part of the seven-element framework is the four classical elements. The classical elements of earth, air, fire, and water or some similar equivalent were part of many ancient cultures including those of Ancient Greece, Persia, Babylonia, Tibet, and China. In ancient Persia around 600 BCE, the ancient philosopher Zarathustra (Zoroaster) seems to have originated–or at least, first written down–the four-element theory and described the four elements as “sacred” and “essential for the survival of all living beings and therefore should be venerated and kept free from any contamination.” The failure to keep these elements pure could anger the gods. If only the modern world had such wisdom!
As in the classic period, today, the elements can be seen both as physical things (e.g. the soil as earth, the fire as fire, water in a stream) as well as metaphysical. Thus, we can see the four elements represented in nature and in revival druid symbolism, but also emotionally and physically in the human body. For example, earth in the druid tradition is tied to the energy of the bear, trees, and stones on the physical landscape. We can see representations of the earth everywhere we look–in the mountains, the stones, the caves. Its also tied to the personality qualities of determination and perseverance, the physical bodily qualities of being strong or having a high constitution, and the metaphysical qualities of grounding and rootedness. If we were to trace the element of earth back to through traditional western herbalism, we’d also see earth connected to the melancholic temperament, which indicates a deeply reflective, introspective, and quiet individual. Thus, the element of earth as a concept gives us a system to help classify and categorize the worlds within and without. This kind of thing is quite useful when you want to call upon all of the above with a single word or symbol, as we do in the Sphere of Protection ritual and other such rituals in AODA. What I mean here is this: if I want to bring these qualities into my life, a simple thing I could do is trace the symbol of earth in the air each day (in AODA, it is a circle with a line pointing to the earth), carry a stone in my pocket, or lay down upon the earth.
What any elemental (or other) framework does, including AODA’s 7 element system, the Hebrew Kabbalistic Tree of Life, the Chinese 5 element system, and so on, is offer a way to represent the world. It offers a way to take the complexity of matter and spirit and put it into an accessible framework that can be worked, adapted, and understood. Elemental frameworks, such as the classic four elements work to create a more simple system to represent the complexities of reality. The elements are symbols. Symbols are simplified things (e.g. a word, an image) that stand-in for something else or represents it, usually a set of much more nuanced and complex concepts. Symbols help us interpret and understand the world, and offer us frameworks not only for meditation and ritual but also for daily life.
The reasons you might to want to master such a system are numerous. For me, it helps me design effective and on-the-spot rituals and practices, design effective meditations, understand the ways my life may be in balance or out of it, and allows me to have a system of understanding in which to work as a druid.
The Four Elements
And so we begin with the four elements in AODA’s system, drawn from the broader druid revival and western antiquity. These are some of the classic meanings for each, but in AODA practice, we encourage individuals to adapt these meanings as they see fit.
Earth is the element tied to the north, to the dark moon, to the energy of winter and midnight. We find the earth physically in mountains, stones, trees, all of what classical writers would call “the firmament.” The energy of earth, manifesting metaphysically, offers grounding, stability, strength, and perseverance. Earth encourages us to be grounded and stable in our work. In the druid revival tradition, earth is often associated with the great bear, both manifested in the heavens as Ursa Major, but also on earth as a physical bear, who represents many of earth’s qualities.
Air is the element tied to the east, to the waxing moon, to the energy of spring and dawn. We find the air physically in the wind, the sky, the clouds, the rustle of the leaves as they blow in the breeze. The energy of air, manifesting metaphysically, offers us clarity, knowledge, wisdom, focus, and objectivity. Air encourages us to temper our emotions with reason, evidence, and clear thinking. In the druid revival tradition, air is associated with the hawk soaring in the air at dawn.
Fire is the element tied to the south, to the full moon, to the energy of summer and noon. We find the fire physically as a fire itself (such as that at a campsite or in your fireplace) but also in the combustion materials to create heat and energy (in the modern world, oil or electricity). The energy of fire, manifesting metaphysically, has to do with our inspiration, transformation, creativity, passions, and will—how we direct our lives and what we want to bring into manifestation. In the classical texts, fire is often closest to the divine as it is a transformative agent. In the druid revival tradition, fire is associated with the stag, often depicted in a summer forest.
Water element from the Plant Spirit Oracle
Water is the element tied to the west, to the waning moon, the energy of fall and the dusk. We find the water physically in rivers, lakes, oceans, springs, streams, storms, and even in our own bodies. The energy of water, manifesting metaphysically, offers us intuition, emotion, healing, wisdom, connection, particularly connection with nature and spirit, and flow. In the druid revival tradition, water is associated with the salmon of wisdom, originally coming from the Fenian cycle of Irish mythology, where the salmon who lived in the well of wisdom ate nine hazelnuts and was later caught by Finn, who cooked the salmon and had the wisdom transferred to him. We might then see the water as helping us have wisdom, which is the integration of the head/heart and subconscious/conscious mind.
What I’ve just shared are the meanings that are most common. But in AODA practice, we encourage druids to develop “wildcrafted” and ecoregional druidries. So a druid living in California might have a different interpretation of what these elements are on their landscape than one living in Pennsylvania. In fact, my own elemental animal interpretations are different based on the dominant animals in my landscape and I tie each of my elements to sacred trees. Each druid can thus adapt these basic meanings and directions as they see fit for their own wildcrafted and ecoregional druidry.
The Three Aspects of Spirit and the Three Currents
Drawing upon the earlier writings of the Greek writer Empedocles who introduced the four elements to the Ancient Greek World, Aristotle added a 5th element, Aether (spirit) to the four classical elements. The original four elements were considered four states of matter with the fifth being a connection to the metaphysical (that which is beyond the physical). In AODA, we recognize three aspects of spirit–above, below, and within. This distinction is certainly present in the druid revival (for example, see Trilithon, volume 1 for a druid revival text on the telluric current).
Spirit Above: The Solar Current
The Solar current is the energy—physical and metaphysical—that comes from the sun, our ultimate source of life. The solar current is magically associated with things in the sky: the heavens and birds: hawks, eagles, and roosters. Additionally, I have found that certain plants also can draw and radiate solar energy quote effectively—Dandelion (dominant in the spring); St. John’s Wort (dominant in at midsummer), and goldenrod (dominant in the fall) are three such plants. For Land healing or other earth-based work, we can use these specific solar plants when we need to light up dark places (energetically) and focus the solar current’s healing light.
Solar energy, being directly tied to the sun, changes based on the position of the sun in the sky on a daily basis. That is, solar energy is different at noon than it is at dusk, dawn, or midnight. It also changes based on where the sun is in the wheel of the year; the energy of the sun is different on June 21st, the summer solstice than it is on the Winter Solstice on Dec 21st.)
Connected to the sun are the other solar bodies in our solar system and more broadly in the celestial heavens. In the Druid Magic Handbook, John Michael Greer notes that other planets in the solar system directly reflect the energy of the sun, so astrological influences can help us understand the current manifestation of the solar current at various present moments. This is all to say that solar energy is ever powerful, and ever-changing, in our lives.
Standing stone – bringing the solar into the telluric
We can see the solar current manifested differently in the world’s religions—Christianity, for example, is a very solar focused tradition. When you look at pictures of saints or Jesus, they are often accompanied by rays of light from heaven, god’s light shining down, even the halo of light around the head of a saint or Jesus. Buddhism, likewise, focuses on achieving “higher levels” of consciousness and being—these are all solar in nature. Any time that you hear things about ascension, the light of the sun, and so on, that’s the solar energy being connected to and being drawn upon. Part of the allure of these traditions, in some cases, is the idea of escapism—since the material earth is problematic and imperfect, we can ascend and go to more perfect realms. The problem with some of this thinking is that it separates the living earth from all things sacred or holy—I firmly believe that part of the reason that such pillaging of the planet is happening is because of the emphasis in dominant world religions on solar aspects as divine and earthy aspects as not. The earth, then, is seen only as a resource worth taking from.
Spirit Below: The Telluric Current
While the light of the sun comes down to earth, the Telluric current rises from the heat and energy of the earth itself. Ecologically, we have the molten core of the earth which drives the earth’s tectonic plates and thus, shapes the landmass on the surface. Tectonic plates and landmasses, along with the energy of the sun and the composition of the atmosphere, determine our climate. The great soil web of life, which contains millions of organisms in a single teaspoon of rich soil, also supports all life. Thus, we can see the importance of the biological aspects of the earth in the larger patterns of life on this planet.
The telluric current’s name comes from “Tellus,” a name for the ancient Roman goddess of the earth. She was also known as “terra mater” or Mother earth; later, this was a word in Latin “telluric” meaning “land, territory or earth.” These ancient connections, then, are present in the name itself, where the earth and her energy were often personified and worshipped as divine.
This telluric energy starts at the center of the earth and rises up, through the layers of the stone and molten flows, through the groundwater and underwater aquifers, through the minerals and layers of fossils, and into the crust of the earth. It takes its shape from what is on the surface: plants, trees, roads, rivers, valleys, rivers, and so on. As Greer notes in the Druid Magic Handbook, it is powerfully affected by underground sources of water (aquifers); springs and wells that come up from the land have very strong concentrations of telluric energy. This helps explain both why sacred wells, throughout the ages, have been such an important part of spiritual traditions in many parts of the world–and why we can use spring water for healing and energizing purposes. This also explains why fracking, which taints the underground waters themselves, is so horrifically bad.
As RJ Stewart notes in Earthlight, it is from the currents of the earth that the nutrients flow from the living earth into our bodies, regenerating them. It is from the telluric that you can find the light of transformation and regeneration. The telluric represents the dark places in the world, the energy found in caves and deep in the depths of our souls. The telluric energy sometimes is about confronting the shadows within ourselves and realizing that those are part of us too. It is about lived experience—the act of being—rather than rationalizing and talking about. In Lines Upon the Landscape, Pennick and Devereux sum this up nicely when they write, “For us, the sense of traveling through a dark and elemental landscape, pregnant with magical and spiritual forces, is no longer experienced. We have separated ourselves from the land and live within our own abstractions” (246). Take a minute to think about the word “dark” – in modern Western culture, it is immediately associated with evil (showing our strong solar bias). But darkness can be a place of rest, of quietude, of inner learning and knowing.
There are fewer traditions that work primarily with the telluric currents—the Underworld tradition (see R. J. Stewart’s line of books as an example) is one such tradition. Many forms of shamanism, where the practitioner is going down into the depths of the earth or their own consciousness to seek allies and assistance is also telluric in nature. These traditions are frequently concerned with transforming the here and now, and seeing the earth as sacred, understanding the sacred soil upon which life depends. It’s also unfortunate because, throughout history, many telluric-based religions that were indigenous and earth-based were essentially wiped out by solar ones.
Elemental Wheel – Traditional Elemental Animals in the Druid Tradition (Artwork by yours truly, Dana O’Driscoll)
Spirit Within: Awakening the Lunar Current
A third current—the lunar current–can be created by consciously bringing the solar current and the telluric current together in union. As Greer writes in the Druid Magic Handbook “When the lunar current awakens in an individual, it awakens the inner sense and unfolds into enlightenment. When it awakens in the land, it brings healing, fertility, and plenty” (p. 30).
We can see ancient humans’ deep knowledge of the three currents and their interaction reflected in the ancient ley lines upon the landscape—for example in Cuzco, Peru, which means “navel of the earth” had at its center, the Inca Temple of the Sun. It was here in the Inca temple that the Coricancha (the emperor) sat at the heart of the temple; radiating the light of the sun outward from this temple like a sunburst was a large web of straight lines reaching into the countryside (Lines upon the Landscape, Pennick and Devereux, 251). On the other side of the world, we see the same principles at play in China, where the Chinese emperor sat on his throne in the center of the Imperial Palace (the “Purple Forbidden City”), centered on the imperial road and with gates leading outward to the four directions (Pennick and Devereux, 251). In these, and in other ancient civilizations, the rulers, associated with the sun or considering themselves as “sun gods” or “sons of heaven” radiated via these “transmission lines” to bring the solar energy down and radiate it outward to bless the manifestation of the telluric. In both cases, the ruler was the personal awakening that third current and sending it out for the bounty and health of the land.
The lunar current also helps us resolve the binary created by the telluric and solar currents—it shows us that unification is possible and art of awakening the lunar current can be part of our healing arts in magical practice. To return to our opening discussion of “energy”; the Nwyfre flows from the awakening of this third current, through the alchemical synthesis and transformation of the other two into the third. We can see this unification present also in the works of Jung–the unconscious (represented by the telluric) and the conscious (represented by the solar) come into unison to create a more complete and whole person when unified (a process Jung calls individuation).
Adapting the Seven Element Framework to Your Practice
If you are drawn to this framework or are a member of AODA, you might find it helpful to start mapping out your own understanding of these elements in your life and in your local landscape and building a seven-element mandala of ideas, experiences, and themes. You can do this in many ways and, over time, you can layer many different meanings and understandings into your elemental mandalas. This practice can take time to understand and requires some interaction and observation with the earth around you. You can use the attached graphic to the left (click on the graphic for a full-size version) to help you map out the different relationships if you’d like.
Seven Element Framework Graphical Representation
Here are some of the many ways you can think about building your own:
- What local animals to you represent each of the seven elements?
- What local herbs to you represent each of the seven elements?
- What local trees to you represent each of the seven elements?
- See if you can identify local features that mark the elements and directions where you live: a mountain to the north, a river to the west, and so on (this practice may also have you switching directions–e.g. if you live on the east coast, the largest body of water is to the east, not
- the west!)
- What emotions tie to each of these elements?
- Can you develop a movement for each of these elements?
- If you practice bardic arts, you might consider developing a poem, painting, carving, photograph, or any other practice
- Can you make a physical representation of this framework on an altar or in your landscape?
As an example of how this might work, in the photos earlier in this article, I shared one such bardic/artistic representation of my own. Earlier this year, I was asked to create a set of large elemental banners for the upcoming MAGUS 2020 gathering, which is primarily an OBOD gathering, so they were looking for elemental four-quarter banners. I was asked to do them with an herbal/plant theme. Thus, I spent some time sketching and meditating on what local herbs would be appropriate (and put them into the seven elemental framework, even though I was only painting the first four for the gathering!) I came up with the following list of herbs based on my own understanding, observation, and attunement with the local region and made several shifts and revisions during the development process. Here’s my list:
- Air/East/Spring Equinox: Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). Dandelion is excellent for east because she grows in the spring, she has a yellow flower, she is a dominant plant upon the landscape offering food and medicine, and when she goes into seed, she “takes to the air”.
- Fire/South/Summer Solstice: Monarda / Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) Monarda here in this region blooms a firey red, bright pink, or light purple in the heat of the summer, usually throughout July. This medicinal herb is also a very spicy plant–if you eat a leaf, you will have a spicy sensation. It also helps fight illness and is a native plant here. I could think of no better plant for fire/south because of both when monarda blooms and monarda’s firey physical nature.
- Water/West/Fall Equinox: Cattail (Typha latifolia). Cattail is another native plant here in our bioregion, and a very important one from an ecological perspective, as it helps cleanse and keep our waterways clear. Like the other plants here, Cattail is a perennial plant, but it is most dominant in the fall as it grows its seed head (which is where it gets the name “cattail”. Cattail is a water cleansing and water-loving plant often found on the edges of lakes and swamps. It was perfect for the west!
- Earth/North/Winter Solstice: Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). Wintergreen is another native perennial plant here, and while it has its green, waxy, and minty-tasting leaves year-round, by the winter solstice it is producing bright red berries that are flavorful and delicious. Wintergreen stays green through the winter months.
- Spirit Above: Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Milkweed offers such abundance, including four separate harvests for food, during the year, that I think it’s an excellent plant for spirit above. Part of this is that it has a “spirit” quality as it slowly opens its pods as the season progresses and releases the delightful seed fluffs to the wind. On a beautiful fall day here, you will see thousands of them in the air, offering a very ethereal quality. It has an enduring nature–there is some form of milkweed always on our landscape, whether it be the beautiful golden pods in the deep winter months to the shoots in the spring.
- Spirit Below. Ghost pipe (monotropa uniflora). Another plant imbued with spirit, ghost pipe is a parasitic plant that feeds on dead plant matter (and thus, does not have chlorophyll, giving it a “ghostly” appearance). Part of why I selected this plant for spirit below is that has tremendous medicinal virtues associated with grounding–this plant is often used for people who need to come back from a bad experience (mental, alcohol/drug-induced or otherwise) and it helps them bring their way back to a place of stability–in a way that no other plant does. It also has an enduring nature; even through all seasons
- Spirit within. Sage (Salvia officinalis). The uses of sage for spiritual purposes can be found in many cultures worldwide (it truly may be a “global” herb as far as spiritual practices are concerned). Sages are found throughout the world, and certainly, here in my own ecosystem, where they are perennial, easy to grow, and abundant. Sage has a long history of spiritual use in the druid tradition, and certainly, it burns beautifully, connecting matter with spirit, and serving as a connecting herb. It has the quality of bringing mind, body, and spirit into the same place.
This is only one set of interpretations of the seven-element system, but I hope this example shows you how you might adapt this system to your own local ecosystem and understanding. Next week, we’ll continue with the adaptations and work with the seven-element system, as I’ll further illustrate these concepts and how they can work together for land blessing and other kinds of rituals!
 Ruddiman, William F., ed. Tectonic uplift and climate change. Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.
 ch, Jeff, and Wayne Lewis. Teaming with microbes. Workman Publishing Company, 2010.
 Habashi, Fathi. “Zoroaster and the theory of four elements.” Bulletin for the History of Chemistry 25, no. 2 (2000): 109-115.
 Nagy, Joseph Falaky. “Fenian Cycle.” The Encyclopedia of Medieval Literature in Britain (2017): 1-5.