Ostara – Element of Air

I’m continuing to republish a series of articles for the Wheel of the Year. This one first appeared in 2012.

We’ve been around the Wheel of the Year once together, so for the next iteration, I’m going to concentrate on the four Elements on the equinoxes and solstices and on four concepts that I see as fundamental to Wicca on the other Sabbats. For Ostara [1] we’ll start with the Element of Air.

I capitalize those words because I’m using them as proper nouns. The four Elements, as conceptualized by classical Greek philosophy, are not the same as the elements on the periodic table, and when I say Air, I’m not just talking about the stuff going in and out of your lungs. I’m referring to the archetype, the whole abstract concept which includes what you’re breathing, but it also includes the whirlwind and the summer breeze, the freezing breath of winter and the surprise of walking past lilacs in bloom.

And symbolically, the Element of Air represents even more than that. The four Elements can also be construed as broad categories with a wealth of symbolic meanings through what we call associations or correspondences. Most Wiccans, for example, cast a circle (or Circle, if you like) as part of their rituals. Each cardinal direction within that circle is associated with an Element. Correspondences differ – sometimes wildly – but I’m going to discuss the system that I use, which also happens to correspond to the one most commonly used. Just keep in mind that none of this is set in stone – or written on the wind. My associations are:

East – Air
South – Fire
West – Water
North – Earth

Now, since East (there’s those caps again) is where the sun rises, it’s associated with dawn, and also with springtime, as the “dawning” of the year. So Air also represents beginnings, a fresh start, and even “a fresh breath.” You’ll find that many of our cliches can be used to summarize these sorts of metaphorical connections; that doesn’t mean the connections are trite. To me, it’s an example of the way a lot of these metaphors are embedded very deeply in our culture and our thinking, as reflected in and mediated by language.

The Wheel of the Year and the circle also correspond. Each of the direction/Element pairings – called Quarters – is associated with one of the solstices or equinoxes, in my understanding. Yule is in the North, Ostara in the East, and so on. Then the other four Sabbats, often called cross-quarter days, take the positions in between. This makes Ostara the perfect time to reflect on the Element of Air.

Air is associated with travel and movement. Thinking back to the days before cars, this makes a great deal of sense; in Renaissance times, ships depended on the wind, and they were the major form of long-distance transportation. Even after that, steam power depended on using air pressure as a driving force.

In several mythologies, birds are the archetypal messengers of the gods, representing both this association with movement and the function of communication. And, after all, speech literally depends on air. Thus the realm of Air became the domain of language, and also of reasoning, deciding, judging, and other intellectual pursuits. Unfortunately, this is where Air can start to get a bad rap.

While this understanding of the Elements does go all the way back to Greek philosophy, the current understanding of it was transmitted to us in the Western world mostly by way of the Golden Dawn. This esoteric organization, most active around the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s, collected and organized much occult knowledge. They are also the origin of the most familiar design of the Tarot deck, which can give a negative impression about Air.

Tarot originated during the Italian Renaissance and is actually the precursor of the modern deck of playing cards. I’m not going to go into too much history here; the upshot is that in the early 1900s, members of the Golden Dawn designed and commissioned a particular Tarot deck, variously called the Rider-Waite or the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS), which has been the basis for most subsequent decks in English-speaking countries.

A Tarot deck consists of 78 cards: four suits, with ten numbered cards and four Court cards in each suit, and twenty-two independent cards with their own sequence, which are now called the Major Arcana. As the deck transformed into modern playing cards, the Major Arcana were dropped, the Court cards reduced to three (jack, queen, king), and the symbols of the four suits became spades, diamonds, hearts, and clubs.

In Tarot, the suits are Swords, Pentacles or Coins, Cups, and Staves, and the suit of Swords is most commonly associated with Air. [2] For various reasons, the Golden Dawn created images for these ten cards that included some of the most negative-seeming depictions in the deck. Now, Tarot images are complex things in and of themselves, and I’m not going to try to explain too much of that right here, so let me just say that some of the cards in the suit of Swords have basic interpretations such as depression and grief.

The Court cards, which are often interpreted as people involved in a particular situation, can also take the judging function of Air to an extreme; the Queen of Swords is frequently depicted or described as harsh, even shrewish. The King of Swords is stern and demanding; he’s a judge who won’t accept an excuse.

With all of this imagery going on, people who work with Tarot a lot, and especially with the RWS deck, can get kind of a negative impression of the Element of Air. There’s good reason to think that some of the seemingly negative imagery in this suit isn’t drawn directly from concepts about Air, but rather from other mythology that the Golden Dawn incorporated. Regardless, it’s important to remember that none of the Elements is exactly warm and cuddly: Fire isn’t meant to be played with, Water includes the tsunami and the flooding rains as well as the refreshing drink, and Earth by itself can be as barren and inhospitable as the depths of the desert.

And part of the complexity of Tarot is putting each image in context. While swords are meant for killing, not all blades are intended solely for destruction. Psychologically, the functions of judging, choosing, and deciding are absolutely necessary – when kept in balance.

This is why it’s hard to talk about each of the Elements alone. Part of what keeps the Elements in moderation is the way they exist in balance with each other. The spring weather includes the storms which help strip away the last of the dead leaves from last year and the gentle breezes that tease open the new buds. We need both, and the interplay of wind, water, and warmth that moves across the world is what allows for the variations and tempers the extremes.

With all of this in mind – the domain of Air – I invite you to enjoy this Ostara by finding a time when the weather is cooperative and maybe even a place where those sweet-smelling buds are opening. As you reflect on what air and Air mean to you, what roles they play in your life, and how you relate to this Element, take a deep, gentle breath. May it be the fresh start you need!

[1] In the Northern Hemisphere, the vernal equinox is approaching, which is Ostara, while in the Southern Hemisphere, it’s the autumnal equinox, which is Mabon.

[2] This is a point of disagreement which I will address in greater detail in the Litha piece.


About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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