Mastering the Elements

excerpt from Wyrdwalkers: Techniques of Northern-Tradition Shamanism

Shamans and spirit-workers and even witches and magicians the world over, and throughout time, have learned to master the basic four elements in order to get things done. However, mastering them is much more than just doing a few spells, or contemplating the nature of each element, although that's a good way to start.

I should disclaimer, here, that mastering the elements is nothing like some Truncheons And Flagons game of creating "fire spells" and "water spells" and so forth. While there are legitimate uses for those, the kind of shamanic work that I was set to do by the spirits around mastering elements is very specific. I don't control them. I work with them, I have established a relationship with them, I call upon them, I have a deep understanding of them. It is likely circumscribed by my northern-tradition background (and foreground), and those of other traditions would likely be asked to do different things.

That said, here is the N-T Absolute Minimum Necessary To Master The Elements. The ones that are starred are ones that I am told would be necessary for any shaman; a shamanic practitioner would be wise to work on all of these, and any of the optional ones that they are able to do. I should emphasize that these are months and years of work. It has also been said that once you've mastered them, you simply start all over again learning them in a deeper way. That said, these are what I had to do for the first level. As of this writing, I've mastered two, and I'm still working on the other two. You can read more about mastering the elements in Wyrdwalkers, and also I have posed a little about my experience working with water.

Air Fire Water Earth

Mastering Air

winterwindUseful Gods/Spirits to call upon for help: If you're eclectic, Oya, the Morrigan, Athena, Hermes. If you're northern-tradition only, Thor, Gna, Kari the North Wind, or even the minor winds, faeries/alfar, storm-thurses.

*1. Breathwork. While you don't have to learn every obscure yogic breathing technique in existence, you should be able to alter your consciousness by breathing a specific way. You should be able to calm yourself, slow your heartbeat, and get yourself into a space for journeying through breath alone. You should be able to hold your breath for reasonable periods of time, with your body relaxed and your lungs empty. You should be able to breathe out pain.

*2. Breath magic. You should be able to imbue your breath with a certain sort of energy, and then blow it out onto something as a spell. Especially good for purification - blowing something clean. This is the first step before getting to...

*3. Singing, specifically spellsinging. This is a bardic technique whereby you use your voice as a conduit for specific magics. It takes time and practice, and you have to sing a lot. Your ability to sound great as a performer is not in question; I have recordings of many old shamans who are lousy singers and yet manage quite well to create power with their voices, and affect anyone who listens. If you're good enough, it can be heard through a recording, though of course it's most powerful in person. You should be able to write a spell in the form of a song, sing it, move power through your voice, and have it work.

*4. Weather magic. Although you don't need to have control of the weather, you need to understand it, and have worked with it. You need to be aware of the changing patterns of the weather, and to have affected it in some small way a few times. Smell is important here - predicting the weather by how the air smells. You need to be able to competently read the message on the coming wind with your nose, and your skin.

*5. The four winds. You need to have spoken with them, and with some of the minor winds. As I understand it, nobody ever has a strong relationship with all four winds. That would be too much power, and the winds - who hate the idea of being bound - won't have it. As long as one or more of them cannot be bound by you, they could free the others from whatever spell you were lobbing. So nobody ever gets full patronage of all four of them. That doesn't mean that people don't try; witness the Saami noiade's cap of the four winds. Most spirit-workers only work with one wind, a few with two or three. I've worked with three. The South Wind merely laughs at me and won't work with me. They all have different personalities. By the way, it may be that you have to master spellsinging before you can call the winds, because that's the way you get their attention.

*6. Shapeshifting to a bird form at least once, and having the experience of flying, in any world you want.

7. Learning to spin fiber, at least on a drop spindle. The importance of this did not become clear until later. I discovered that spinning my own thread was useful for about a million small magics. This seemed to be an "air" thing somehow, or part of the training for that element. You should not only be able to spin, but to spin "with intent", putting spellcraft into the string as you create it.

8. Learning to write articulately and well, and speak in front of an audience in a way that holds their attention and gets through to them. While this is more the part of the bard or skald, it is an important, though optional, part of mastering Air. It is useful for the shamanic practitioner as well, especially if you intend to teach, or do public ceremony for a community.

Mastering Fire

firelogsUseful Gods/Spirits to call upon for help: For eclectic folks, Brigid, Hephaestus, Shango, Hestia. For northern-tradition folks only, Logi, Loki, Surt, fire-etins.

*1. Heatwork, which the Tibetans refer to as tumo. This is the ability to raise the temperature of your body and make it warm at will. Your body's internal thermostat is in your third chakra, your center of "vili", and if you can figure out how to tweak it, you can wave heat out from that point. You should be able, when you aren't actively ill, to keep yourself warm by this means. It's very helpful on long vigils in the cold.

*2. Charging items with particular energies. You should be able to put a certain "flavor" of energy into an object.

*3. Learning about incense, about doing magic with burning plant matter. I started with mugwort, making my own recaning sticks. Learn how fire purifies things, how the burning corpse of a plant can become purified and purifying.

*4. Shapeshifting to a predator form of some kind. Hunting in that form. Making a kill and eating it.

5. Learn to use dance as a method of trancework. Create a power dance.

6. Learn how to use heat ordeals as purification, such as the sauna or stofa. Learn the full steam rite of our tradition (article coming eventually).

*7. Learning to make fire with some older method, a method of the ancestors. I chose tinder and flint, because I felt it was the easiest. Firebow or fire-twirl would also be acceptable - heck, they'd be even cooler. You are supposed to have special sacred tinder and flint. Ideally, to pass, you should be able to make fire with it yourself, and light your own homemade recaning incense with it, with no technological help, at least a few times.

Here's my chance to tell about my tinder-and-flint experience. I knew a year in advance that I was going to have to learn this, but I kept putting it off. My dear friend and Aelfwine, who I considered very much a father figure, promised me that he would teach me the art. I kept waffling, mostly because I had been told that I needed special sacred flint and steel. This was traditionally given to the novice shaman by their teacher, the proverbial old man or woman in the hut. I had none, and it just didn't feel right to go buy some, although I stared at them over the mail-order catalogs occasionally. I rather doubted the spirits' ability to come up with the right stuff, so I waited.

Then Aelfwine came down with leukemia and died. I was so sad about it that I put it off still further, because thinking about it reminded me of the chance that I'd lost. The spirits became impatient with me, it was the only required thing I hadn't done yet for Fire. Then one day I visited Aelfwine's family, whom I considered family as well. I mentioned to Tchipakkan that Aelfwine had promised to teach me firemaking, and she said that as his widow she was honor-bound to keep his promise for him. She got out her firemaking kit and showed me how to do it, warning me that I would end up destroying a lot of flints in the process of practicing it. I didn't manage to make fire that day, as it would take months of practice before I got it right.

Then she brought out the kit that had been Aelfwine's. It was a reproduction of a Dark- Age Saxon and/or Viking kit, with a hand-forged steel and a little toolkit handmade out of twisted copper, a copy of one found in a Viking burial, with tweezers to hold burning material, and an awl, a punch, and an ear-spoon. She held it out to me. " None of our children is interested in this," she said, "and he wouldn't have wanted it to go to waste. You take it and put it to good use." So I went home with my dead father-figure's kit, feeling foolish for having ever doubted. There is no way that the spirits could have come up with anything more sacred to me...and of course, Hela's way of sending me a special kit would be by way of a dead man. It is things like this that remind me that those I serve do care about me.

Mastering Water

waterflowUseful gods/spirits to call on for help: If you're eclectic, Yemaya, Poseidon, Mariamne, Oshun, Llyr, Tiamat. If you're northern-tradition only, Aegir, Ran, and the Nine Sisters, water-sprites, water- elementals such as mermaids.

I realize that Water takes many forms, and that for some people, such asking might be answered by the spirits of lakes and rivers and streams, of fresh water. Perhaps their lessons might even be different. (I would also strongly point out that this is just as valid and useful a way of learning about Water.) However, for me it apparently had to be the sea. Here is a fairly detailed account of my Lessons with Ran's Daughters.

I have not yet mastered Water. It's something I'm still working on, but I have also picked the brains of other spirit-workers to whom Water came naturally, although other elements may not have.

Tips on mastering Water, from Aleksa, a spirit-worker who's already done this one (thanks!):

*1. Go to a river where the water flows over lots of rocks. Watch it. For hours. Watch how it moves, how it flows, how it tumbles. Watch how it shifts, for no apparent reason. Then close your eyes and listen to it. Listen to its heartbeat and it's rhythm. Listen to how it plays over the rocks. Lay down on the rocks and let your hand fall into the water, let your hand rest on top of it, barely breaking the surface. Feel how it moves around your hand - how it flows, how it beats it and slides around it. Smell it in different moods and seasons; after a rain or sun. Then do this in various types of waters - lakes, rivers, streams, oceans, rain. Meet each one and feel its differences.

Then go to the Museum of Art and look at how artists have portrayed water - Edward Hopper, Monet, Turner, for example. How do they describe and depict the water? How is it different or the same as you felt it? What did they do right or wrong?

Do not attempt to grasp or hold water. Allow it to slide over you, to feel you and meet you. Yes, it sounds strange but, like meeting a dog, stand up to it and let it sniff you. Show no fear. The fact that it feels like it's slipping away from you is important - follow it. It's meant to slip away. I remember spending hours on end floating in water. Just.... floating. Listening to sounds filtered through it, feeling the sensation of being held by it, losing the sense of time and place, transcending. That's all part of water....

Other requirements, as I have discovered them and am working on them:

*2. Collect water from as many places as possible: From the ocean. From a lake. From a large, fast-moving river. From a lazy stream. From a well dug deep into the earth. From a swamp. From rainwater. From melted snow. From a sacred spring. From the place that you were born. (If you can't go to all these places, have friends bring or send you the water. I asked Aleksa, who lives within miles of the town where I was born, to bring me up a bottle from the water fountain in the hospital.) Put the waters together in bottles and keep them for sacred work. You will be told how to use them.

*3. Learn to swim, if you don't know how.

*4. Learn to cool yourself, with your inner water, so as to survive great heat.

*5. Part of the mystery of Water is the flow of chi in your body, and that of others. Learn to move the chi around in yourself, perhaps through yoga or tai chi or some other practice. Learn to follow and recognize the flow of chi in others, and when it is blocked. This will require looking at a lot of people's energies.

*6. Shapeshifting into something aquatic, to learn the water from underneath.

*7. Bloodwalking. (See Bloodwalking article, on how to do this.)

Mastering Earth

leavesUseful Gods and spirits to call on: Your Local Land-wight. The Earth Mother. The Green Man. The Hunter. Trees. Rocks. If you're Northern Tradition, Jord and Nerthus.

While I am still in the process of mastering Earth, I am further along on this than Water, and certainly far enough along to see what has to be done, with a clear end in sight. I am still making my way down that path, however.

*1. Develop a relationship with the land-wight on a particular piece of land. If you don't have land learn to develop casual and propitiatory friendships with local land-wights in preserved nature areas.

*2. Learn herbalism - not only medicinal uses but magical uses. Become a competent herbalist, and be able to speak to the spirit of every plant that you work with. This means learning them carefully, personally, one by one, and can take years. But you need to be able to prescribe not just from the proven medical usage of a plant, but from its spirit-usage as well.

*3. Learn the rest of the shapeshifting, and I mean all the rest of it. As many animal forms as will speak to you, as you can work with. Develop a good relationship with each of their spirits.

*4. Learning about rocks. Not fancy crystals, rocks, learning their magical properties, etc. Actually, fancy crystals are included in this, but start with "ordinary" stones. Learn to talk to stone spirits.

*5. Food - using it with your body. Food is sacred. Develop a relationship with your food, and how your body processes it. Learn to tell what food your body wants and needs, and which it will merely process, and which it dislikes. Learn to feel the energies in food, beyond the simple nutrients, and use them.

*6. Learn about fertility magic - how to stimulate a seed into growing, how to give fertility energy to the earth, how to grow things. Learn to grow things, well. Learn also about the rot energy of the compost heap - touch it, work with it. Rot energy is important to a shaman; we have to learn how to deal with it when we deal with illness.

7. Develop a relationship with the spirits of your ancestors, if they are still around (some may have moved on) and if you are meant to have a connection with them. To find out if this is the case, a Soul Map reading will tell you about your Kinfylgja connection.

8. Learn sex magic, if that is your path. Learn how to use your flesh and your sexual energy as a tool to achieve trance states.