Rethinking 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 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such as the many books available on Witchcraft and magic; and unpublished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.")


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