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Internet Book of Shadows, (Various Authors), [1999], at

                                   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 categories: 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           unpublished works, mainly other Witches' Books of Shadows.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 "traditional" 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 
           modern Witchcraft.") 

                         Last amended June 11, 1989  --  Page NEXTRECORD 


                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 
           associations 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 tradition 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? 

                         Last amended June 11, 1989  --  Page NEXTRECORD 


                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 yielded 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 referred 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. 

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                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 equatorial region, and south is the 
           land of ice.) 
                4. HYPERBOREAN: In fact, an ancient name for the British 
           Isles was "Hyperboria", which literally 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 perspective 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. 

                         Last amended June 11, 1989  --  Page NEXTRECORD 


              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 equipped 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 
           circumambulates 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. 

                         Last amended June 11, 1989  --  Page NEXTRECORD 


                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 
           horizontal 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, always 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 associations 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 
           intellectual qualities.) 

                         Last amended June 11, 1989  --  Page NEXTRECORD 


                13. ASTROLOGICAL: The astrological year is divided into 
           four equal quadrants, each beginning at a solstice or equinox. 
           And each quadrant 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, symbolized 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 

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