An aspect of witchcraft I've always appreciated is how easy it is to use practical items to increase spiritual awareness. Witches first look to nature and its components for inspiration and assistance, then use that inspiration to guide us to create specific tools. Those tools in turn create a specific personal connection to those parts of nature that support and enhance our magic. In doing so we intertwine ourselves with nature, making positive outcomes for our work even more likely.
There is an old saying in the craft: "A witch can work magic standing naked in the desert." In other words, a witch needs no tools other than themself to work magic. We are each made up of the four elements that form the building blocks of creation: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. It is a perspective I fundamentally agree with; however, doing so seems terribly hard. Why do that to yourself? It's like going gardening naked; you can do it, breaking the earth with your heels, drawing furrows with your bare hands, etc. … these things are possible. But isn't gardening so much easier with tools both to protect yourself and to facilitate the work that you're doing? What's true for gardeners is even more true for witches, and even more so for those of you who are creating a new spiritual practice.
Choosing tools starts with a bit of contemplation about what makes up the building blocks of nature. For this, we turn to the ancient philosophers, primarily Aristotle. He posited that all matter is made up of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. "But wait!," you may exclaim, "We know about matter now, about atoms and molecules, the periodic table, and more!" Yes, we do. The Aristotelian model is a tool in itself—rather than having to wrap your head around the complete makeup of everything you are working with, you substitute the classical elements as a shorthand. When you think of "fire," you are talking about the various methods of generating heat energy (burning fuel, generating friction, and so on). This is a great example of a tool!
Finding Your Associations
You will want to get to know the element on its own terms. If it is water, for example, you might go to a body of water and spend time there (although even a bathtub can work!). Immerse yourself. Examine it with all your senses—sight, sound, taste, feel, and smell. Pay attention both to your physical senses and your emotional responses and do whatever seems best to connect with the element. What does it evoke within you (memories, contemplation, images, etc.)? Be specific and comprehensive. Every detail, each idea is worth tracking. And for heaven's sake, take notes! So many people do the work but then fail to record it, relying on their memory. As has been demonstrated many times throughout the years, people often have an inflated sense of their ability to remember things; make a notebook one of the first tools you gather. Repeat this with each element in turn. (I admit, fire is the most difficult to immerse oneself in. You might try creating different kinds of fire—perhaps indoor candle burning, wood in a fireplace, wood in an outside grill—with different kinds of materials. Paper, wax, wood, etc.)
When you feel you have connected as much as possible with the elements, look at the information you gathered. Make your choices as to what each element represents for you. Some elements will have the same (or similar) qualities or associations, so it is rarely an easy, cut-and-dried process. For me, fire can be comforting, but I associate the sensation of comfort more with earth. It's not that you can't use the same association for both elements, but the purpose of this whole exercise is to have clear distinctions between the elements. To continue the example, if you think "comfort" and then both fire and water flicker into your mind, alternating back and forth, you might need to set "comfort" aside from consideration at all, since you won't be able to rely on it bringing a particular element to mind.
Choosing Your Tools
Water is classically poured into a goblet, but might also be a picture of the ocean, a waterfall, or a lake. Some stones are associated with water, and a shell might be just the right object for you. If you live near water, it's entirely possible that you have some very specific associations that other people would never consider—maybe a rubber duck from those charity races held on some rivers? It might be nonsense to most people, but if an association exists for you, that's what matters here.
Earth could be invited to your altar with a small dish of soil, perhaps from a sacred place. Stones are typical representatives for earth, but images of mountains, farmland, or rock formations could stand in. At its simplest, a carefully placed bit of salt also is perfect.
Air is classically represented by incense. A feather is a lovely representation, as are light-colored scarves or images of expansive views. A blown-glass sphere would be unusual, and beautiful.
Some tools can be incredibly flexible. For some witches, a sort of metal pot, called a cauldron, is the traditional choice for earth as it is made from iron or fired clay, but you'll also see it representing water (which it can hold) or even fire (which can burn safely within it). As with the "comfort" example that I used earlier, just make sure you know what you mean by it.
Of course, the specific circumstances of your life can also play a part in choosing your tools. Perhaps you aren't comfortable or safe in displaying overt elemental imagery because of where you live or with whom. Leaning into decorative options like colored scarves, "pretty" stones, and so on offers a subtle reference in situations. Even photos from your normal life could be put on display if they conjure the imagery for which you're looking. Fireworks displays, beach vacations, a bouquet of flowers… the possibilities are literally endless.
Part of preparing for my retirement involved storing my decades-old altar and traveling for an extended period. I lived out of a suitcase, so everything I had with me had to be light in weight, but also durable. There was no use in bringing my favorite glass chalice because it wouldn't make it through the first checked-bag scenario! A box of incense with a flat ceramic holder tucked in the corner stood in for air (and doubled to quickly purify any space I was in). A petrified shell became my water symbol. A box of birthday candles provided fire, and a piece of quartz crystal represented the earth. If my ritual called for a specific Deity, my phone provided the appropriate images. All of this was packed into a tiny bundle that served all my ritual needs no matter where I found myself. And unlike some ritual implements, like an athame, they elicited nary a question from airport security. While I missed all of the objects I'd collected over the years, I never felt that my sacred space lacked strength. The primary purpose of any tool is to do its job; if an object does that for you, it's a tool and you can use it.
Lisa McSherry is an author, priestess, and world traveler. As the leader of JaguarMoon Coven, she has been teaching the basics of witchcraft since 2000. She is also the author of Magickal Connections: Creating a Healthy and ...