I will not go into details of the four element concept and its relations with the quarters (directions) winds, etc. since, most of the eclectic pagan paths, follow this interpretation and there is plenty of information available, and the purpose of this blog is to cover the Celtic point of view, not the Greek one or any other.
The Celtic interpretation of the Universe was that it was formed in three basic realms, there’s also mention of them as the Three Legs of the Cauldron of the Universe.
The Cauldron called the universe is supported by the three legs of sea, sky and land. The Cauldron called the sea is supported by the three legs of water, moon and spirit. The Cauldron called the spirit is supported by the three legs called intent, plenty and emotion.
The approach is less abstract and more tangible. We can physically being in the three realms, and as a modern analogy, we can relate them to the three basic states of matter on which science has classified the physical reality. (Yes, I know that there is a fourth one, plasma, but that’s a recent discovery not known even by our fathers and just to make it clear, plasma is not fire)
I previously explain the associations of these realms and there we can find the importance of three (and odd numbers) by the Celts, whose cosmology find balance in the third part; there’s no concept of good/bad, male/female, etc, as in most of the religions, but there’s always a third one that brings balance to the opposites and “their continuous fight”. That’s why, when I address to my conception of The One, I said that I conceive it not as male or female, but neutral, as the result of the conjunction of the two concepts. Since there is not a Celtic myth of creation, as for example, with the Nordic (Viking) people, we can only imagine how they view that concept, and that is my personal interpretation based on the Celtic concept of balance.
The concept of elements, or an elemental system, near to the Greek one, is what we call the dhúile, there are from seven to eleven, elements, but most of the text speaks of nine. This elemental system is meant to be a way to understand the relation between the person and the cosmos and the other way around.
One of these elemental systems is:
Uaine (Plant Life, literally green)
Spéartha (the skies or Heaven)
Here we can see that these elements can be found in the realms, but are not limited to them, we can find fire in the sky, earth and ocean; as well as water in those three, etc. We are so used to classify everything under the Greek concept, that even is thought in the school (at least I first learn it on the primary school) that we tend to believe that all cultures refer to this elemental system, but the Celtic people, as others around the world, did not limit the elements to those four.
The elements where part of the realms, they are all interwoven and connected, much like a Celtic knot.
As far as I know, there’s no an agreement among the scholars about how many and which where the dhúile, but only an agreement that the ancient Celts, refer to them as the element of which the cosmos and the person is formed.
There are various texts when we can find this references, as for example in some text of Tailesin, as this:
I was made from the ninefold elements -
From fruit trees,
From paradisiacal fruit,
From primroses and hill flowers
From the blossoms of trees and bushes,
From the roots of the earth was I made,
From the broom and the nettle,
From the water of the ninth wave.
Math enchanted me before I was made immortal,
Gwydion created me with his magic wand.
From Emrys and Euryon,
From Mabon and Modron,
From five fifties of magicians like Math was I made -
Made by the master in his highest ecstasy -
By the wisest druids was I made before the world began,
And I know the star-knowledge from the beginning of Time.
Taliesin, Chief Bard of the Britons (circa 600 CE)
as found in the Cad Goddeu
Also, in the song of Amergin that you can find HERE in a previous post
Or this Incantation of the Celtic Lorica, attributed to St. Patrick, but that reflects a Druidic and pagan way of view the cosmos. (This was shared to us by Beith, thanks!)
I bind myself this day
With the power of heaven
With the light of the sun
the brightness of the moon
with the splendour of Fire,
the swiftness of lightning
the speed of the wind
the depth of the sea
with the stability of the earth
with the firmness of rock
Fire and water were important for the Celtic rituals, and cosmology, as previously stated. Fire was a transformation force, as it’s seen today by even the science when we need fire (or heat) to transform the matter from one state to the other, and to put into motion a lot of thermodynamic forces. The Celts were aware of this, but not limited to the physical reality, but also in the spiritual one. Fire transform and give us the Imbas (or Awen) the inspiration we need to that transformation.
As for water, it has a strong and obvious association with Muir, the Ocean, and that’s why this realm is also associated with the Other world. Mannanán Mac Lir was the keeper of the gate to the other world, the sacred wells were passages to that world, etc. So in bringing water to a ritual, we are bringing the otherwordly associations to us.
Now, regarding the directions, they were not limited to four (NSEW) but there are indications that were at least five, or even nine.
One indication of this five-fold division is reflected in the five provinces of Ireland - Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Connacht, Míde – that correspond to NSEW and centre, being the centre the place where the high king was crowned (Tara)
Another system speaks of nine directions
Faoi (Under, About)
Ior, Siar (West)
Air, Oithear (East)
Deas, Deis (South)
Os Cionn (Above)
The Greek system of directions is interlink with the winds, and their gods (Boreas, Eurus, Notus, Zephyrus), how ever, there’s no indication that the Celtic pantheon had such things as four wind gods, and the winds, as understood by the Celts, are lack of the attributes that the Greco-Roman tradition give. Wind was only a force of the air.
The Celtic people of the Islands, interact a lot with the sea and as sailors, they refer to the different currents that surround the islands. There are some text that speaks about 12 winds, four main, four sublevels and other four sub-sub-levels, how ever, it’s important to take into account that this texts were written by Christian monks that were influenced by the Christian and therefore Neo-platonic cosmology. Here Saltair na Rann (again, thanks to Beith translation)
45] Ri roordaig ocht ngaetha (The king had ordained eight winds)
torgaib cenlocht lanaeba, (raised without loss of full beauty)
cethri primgaetha cotngaib, (four chief winds..)
cethri fogaetha feochrai. (four subwinds...)
49] Cethri fogaetha aile, (four other subwinds)
rádit auctair ergnaide, (discerning authorities count)
bidhi an-arim fírchert (the correct number)
dogaethaib dagaeth deec.(of the winds is 12 winds)
53] Ri rodelb datha nangaeth (the king arranged the colours of the winds)
rosderb frisratha slanaeb, (he fixed them to [their] streams of grace/beauty)
iarclechtaib rith roratha , (following the customs of course [of] virtues)
combrechtaib cachilldatha. (with varieties/categories of every colour)
57] Ingel, incorcarda glan, (the White, the clean/pure purple)
inglass, induaine allmar, (the blue-grey, the mighty green)
inbuidi, inderg, derb dána, (the yellow, the red, a certain gift/offering)
nisgaib fergg frisodála. (they are not wrathful in their good assembly)
61] Indub, indliath, indalad, (The Black, the grey, the piebald/variegated)
intemen, inchiar chálad, (The dark/dusky/gloomy; the hard murky)
indodar, doirchi datha, (the dun, dark colours)
nidat soirchi sogabtha. (they are not bright or easily grasped)
65] Ri rosordaig oscachmaig (The king ordained them over every plain)
na ocht fogaetha feochrai, (the eight fierce/untamed subwinds)
rodelb cenditha, dín saeth, (He formed without faults, sheltering hardship/distress
cricha nacethri primgaeth. (the boundaries of the four main winds)
69] Anair incorcra glanbda, (From the East the pure purple)
andess ingel gle, amra, (From the South, the wonderful bright white)
atuaid indub gailbech, grach, (From the North, the tempestuous ugly/rough black)
niar indodur engach. (From the west, the noisy/shrieking Dun)
73] Inderg, inbuidi 'male, (the Red, the Yellow..)
eter gil ocus corcrai, (between the White and Purple)
indúani, inglass, croda lir, (the deep Green, the Blue-grey, valorous/crimson?)
eter huidir isglegil. (between the Dun and the bright white)
77] Indliath, inchiar, grainne anguir, (The Grey, the the Murky ugly, evil-painful?)
eter huidir iscirduib, (between the murky and the gloomy black)
intemen, indalad tair, (the dusky, the variegated easterly)
eter duib ocus corcair. (between the black and the purple)
81] Coir rocoraiged acruth, (Their form had been rightly arranged)
doronad an-orddugud, (their order had been made)
fogaessaib glessib cenchlith (under intelligent contrivances (or under 'bright widsoms')
iarsessib, iarsuidigthib. (after (ie in manner of/ in) ranks and placements)
85] Na da gaeth dec, tolaib tress, (The twelve winds, with wills/abundance of contention)
tair ocus tiar, tuaid istess, (East and West, North and South)
rii roscuibdig cotagaib, (the King who harmonized them
roscuibrig fo secht nglassaib. (harnesses them under seven fetters)
89] Ri dosnarbair iarsessaib (The King who bends/yields them in their ranks)
imthalmain con-ilglessaib, (around the world, with many-arrangements)
cach digaeth dib imglés ngle (each wind of them around a clear purpose)
isoengles foraib huile. (and One purpose over all of them)