by John Michael Greer from from Chapter 2 of Druidry: A Green Way of Wisdom
©2003 by John Michael Greer. All rights reserved
Most people nowadays think of elements, if they think of them at all, in terms of modern chemistry. Scientific study of matter reveals ninety-two natural elements, each made of one kind of atom with a unique number of protons and electrons. Chemistry textbooks, discussing these discoveries, heap scorn on an older belief in four elements: fire, water, air and earth.
Yet the scorn is misplaced. Scientists in the eighteenth century took over the word “element” but changed its meaning, for the four elements of the older system weren’t elements at all in the same sense as hydrogen, boron, or manganese. They were basic categories of human experience with many applications. Anger, for example, was how fire expressed itself in the emotions, and summer was the fiery season. To gauge the difference between ancient and modern meanings of the word, you might try coming up with an emotion or a season for helium!
Another difference between the older and newer systems is that the newer system excludes all others, while the older one does not. There’s apparently only one way to sort out atoms by their atomic numbers, but elemental systems can be varied as needed to respond to different situations in the world of human experience. The four elements thus were often expanded with the addition of a fifth element called ether or spirit. Chinese philosophers used a different set of five elements: wood, metal, fire, water, and earth. Each of these systems has its strengths and weaknesses, and fits certain traditions of practice better than others. Many traditions, in turn, make use of more than one set of elemental symbols.
Druid Revival lore contains a system of its own, a set of three elements that first appears in Iolo Morganwg’s writings. Whether it’s an invention of Iolo’s or a surviving scrap of some older teaching is anyone’s guess, but the three elements have been part of Druid Revival teaching ever since his time. Their names are nwyfre, gwyar, and calas.
Nwyfre (pronounced “NOOiv-ruh”) is an old Welsh term meaning “sky” or “heaven.” As an element, nwyfre is the source of life and consciousness, and modern Druids often refer to it simply as the life force. Its image in nature is blue sky.
Gwyar (pronounced “GOO-yar”) literally means “blood” in old Welsh, but its more general meaning is “flow” or “fluidity.” As an element, gwyar is the source of change, motion, growth, and decay. Its image in nature is running water.
Calas (pronounced “CAH-lass”) comes from the same root as caled, Welsh for “hard,” and means “solidity.” As an element, calas is the source of form, differentiation, manifestation, and stability. Its image in nature is stone.
According to Druid philosophy, everything in the universe is made up of these three elements in some combination, with one element dominant. All are forms of primal substance, which is called manred. Manred has no characteristics of its own, except for the power to condense into calas, flow into gwyar or expand into nwyfre.
If you haven’t learned to think in elemental terms, it may take some work for you to get your mind around the three Druid elements. Take a moment to mull over some examples. The food on your dinner table is a good example. The calas element of dinner is the raw material: meat, grains, vegetables, fruit, and so on. The gwyar element is the cooking process that turns the raw material into the meal on the plate. The nwyfre element is the mental dimension: the selection of ingredients, the choice of recipes, and the skill and personality of the cook.
It’s not hard to think of other examples, but you may wonder what possible value such exercises have. The system of ninety-two natural elements (and the two dozen or so more artificially produced in the last century or so) has obvious powers. Chemists use this system to shape matter in a galaxy of ways, some helpful and others less so. Can anything as useful be done with the three elements of Iolo’s Druid philosophy, or for that matter with the four medieval or five Chinese elements?
Nwyfre, gwyar, and calas make poor guides to physics or chemistry, to be sure. Their usefulness lies elsewhere. Like other traditional elemental systems, the three Druid elements make sense of patterns throughout the universe of our experience. Tools for thinking, their power lies in their ability to point the mind toward insights and sidestep common mistakes.
Take the habit, almost universal nowadays, of thinking about the universe purely in terms of physical matter and energy. This works fairly well when applied in certain limited fields, but it works very badly when applied to human beings and other living things. Time and again, well-intentioned experts using the best tools science has to offer have tried to tackle problems outside the laboratory and failed abjectly. Rational architecture and urban planning, scientific agriculture and forestry, and innovative schemes for education and social reform often cause many more problems than they solve, and fail to yield the results predicted by theory.
Why? The theoreticians thought only of gwyar and calas, the elements of change and stability, expressed here as energy and matter. They left something out of the equation: nwyfre, the subtle element of life, feeling, and awareness. They forgot that any change they made would cause living things to respond creatively with unpredictable changes of their own.
In every situation, all three elements need to be taken into account. They can be used almost as a checklist. What is the thing you’re considering, what does it do, and what does it mean? What will stay the same, what will change, and what will respond to the change with changes of its own? This sort of thinking is one of the secrets of the Druid elements.
Table of Druid elements
|Level of Being||Spirit||Energy||Matter|
|Level of World||Overworld||Underworld||Midworld|
|Realm of Midworld||Sky||Sea||Land|
|Part of Self||Mind||Life||Body|
|Part of Time||Future||Present||Past|
|Station of Sun||Summer||Spring/Fall||Winter|
|Station of Moon||Full||Half||New|
|Druid Tool||Wand||Cauldron||Crane Bag|
|Branch of Druidry||Druid||Bard||Ovate
The three elements make a particularly useful tool for thinking in today’s world, because of a habit of mind deeply entrenched in modern culture. Many people nowadays divide up every situation into two and only two factors. This by itself isn’t necessarily a problem, but very often the two factors get portrayed as absolute opposites with no common ground uniting them, and this leads to trouble. Worse trouble comes when the opposites get moral labels, as though one is completely good and the other absolute evil. Think of political and religious squabbles in recent decades and you’ll find more examples than you can count, each one full of this sort of twofold thinking: those who are not with us are against us, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem, and so on endlessly.
Back in the nineteenth century, schools of esoteric philosophy closely allied with French Druidry worked out ways to overcome this habit of twofold thinking. In these systems any division into two is called a binary, or more fully an unresolved binary. Binaries make useful tools for thinking when you need to focus on differences, but they produce a distorted picture unless they’re balanced by something else. The opposite distortion comes from a unary, a view of the situation that sees only one factor, and focuses attention exclusively on equalities.
The first number that guides thinking into balanced patterns is the number three. Divisions into three are called ternaries. Every ternary, according to this teaching, consists of two things opposed to each other, and a third that connects them together. Thinking in ternaries pays attention to differences that divide and equalities that unite. While it’s not foolproof, ternary thinking thus sidesteps some common pitfalls in the way of clear understanding.
Problems that can’t be solved in binary thinking often find ready solutions once a third factor comes into play. Finding the third factor was therefore a common training exercise in some esoteric traditions. Students would be set binaries from philosophy, politics, and daily life, and asked to find the third position that resolved the binary. In this way they also learned to see how the two sides of a binary support each other, define each other, and need each other.
Ternary thinking has limitations of its own, which can be escaped by using other numbers to think with. Every number between one and thirteen, according to some Druid systems, has its own logic and usefulness. Yet the logic of the ternary has a special meaning to the modern Druid. It helps counter the pervasive binary thinking of modern culture, and also resonates powerfully with the symbolism and teachings of the Druid Revival. There’s a deeper connection still, for ternaries appear again and again in traditional Celtic myths, legends, and folklore. It’s not an accident that Welsh and Irish bards assembled their lore in the form of triads, or that love triangles, triple quests, and threefold deaths provide the framework for so many Celtic tales.
In modern industrial culture, two rather than three predominates. This may be why so many people nowadays turn to Celtic traditions to help bring their lives into harmony in a world in crisis. Ternary thinking solves problems created by too much reliance on binaries, and for this reason cultures with threefold patterns offer glimpses of a more balanced way of life to those caught in a harshly dualistic society.
Yet this can become a trap if the relationship between binary and ternary is treated as a binary. Drawing a binary distinction between modern society and some other culture, picturing them as irreconcilable opposites and labeling them with moral labels, falls back into the binary thoughtways of the modern world. For this reason, while threefold symbolism plays a very important part in today’s Druid traditions, few rely on it exclusively.
Instead, many different numbers form the warp and weft of the fabric of modern Druidry, and in fact the same part of Barddas that introduces the three elements also discusses the more common system of five elements: nwyfre becomes spirit, gwyar becomes water, and calas becomes earth, with air and fire added to the set to round it out. Many modern Druid orders use this set of five preferentially, and in some areas (such as the healing arts) it has important advantages; the AODA uses the five element system as a primary teaching tool. In a broader sense, every number has lessons to teach, and different degrees and traditions within Druidry focus on the numbers that express their particular way of working with the world of living Nature.