Rethinking the Watchtowers RE-THINKING THE WATCHTOWERS or 13 Reasons Air should be in the North ======================================= by Mike Nichols copyright 1989 by Mike Nichols (fondly dedicated to Kathy Whitworth) INTRODUCTION 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fell into two broad catagories: published works, such as the many books available on Witchcraft and magic; and unpublished works, mainly other Witches’ Books of Shadows.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 “traditonal” 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.”) CONFLICTING TRADITIONS 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 assoications 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 traditon 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? RITUAL TAMPERING 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 yeilded 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.
———— text missing ———— 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 equiped 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 circumnambulates 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 stones. 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. 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 horizonatal 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, alway 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”.