A rather vast percentage of the questions posted on the forums seems to consist of wondering as to what one's element is. The simple fact of the matter is that the idea that we all have one element that we are tied to, and through which we gain some sort of special affinity toward magic is largely a misunderstanding of the traditional concepts.
What are the elements?
The elements are the four core concepts that were used in medieval alchemy, science, and magical study to define all that exists within the physical world. Indeed, this is where the Periodic Table of Elements -- which defines the most basic building blocks of all matter in modern science -- gets its name. You see, each of the four elements was perceived as just that; one of the basic building blocks from which all matter was composed. Everything in medieval science and alchemy was described through this, and perceived as being composed of one or more of the four elements, as educated men tried to understand the world around them. This was adapted by those who studied the metaphysical, as science, faith, and magick were not yet viewed as subjects that were divided.
This is the reason you see different points of view in modern practice, where some people include "Spirit" or "The Divine" as an element and others do not. Originally, the spiritual powers were viewed as separate from the elements because it was not of physical origin. It was not necessarily viewed as a building block of matter, or part of the physical world, but as an outside influence. As such, "Spirit" or "The Divine" (however you choose to view it) will not be included in this discussion.
Similarly, in modern concepts you also see many individuals including things like "Shadow" or "Ice" as elements unto themselves. This is simple lack of understanding. The original concept of the elements readily included these ideas within the Four, and ideas like Shadow and Ice were viewed as more complex than the four basic elements and thus not included. For example, shadow is simply the absence of the light that is born of Fire. Ice, on the other hand, is the element of Water that is wholly absent the influence of the element of Fire. Thus such more abstract concepts are not the basic building blocks that exist, but the creation of the influences of the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. As such, most who have educated themselves in an understanding of magical practice scoff at the idea that something like "Shadow" could be an element, and these more modern concepts will also be wholly excluded from this discussion.
For further explanation of the core nature of the Elements, I highly suggest reading chapters III and IV of Henry Cornelius Agrippa's Three Books of Occult Philosophy, which is the oft-forgotten corner stone of nearly all western magical traditions.
Defining each element
So now that we understand The Elements as a whole, what does each element represent? What sphere of influence is each element considered to have? Let's examine each more closely. Please note that, again, my description of each is heavily influenced by the work of Agrippa's Three Books.
The Element of Fire
Fire, as one might imagine, is the source of all light and warmth. And yet, when it is not burning in the way that we most frequently picture it, its presence is invisible. That is to say that as Fire lends to us the warmth of our body heat, a flickering flame is not present - it is merely an invisible presence, providing the heat that helps sustain life.
Fire too is without bound, unless such is imposed upon it by another element, such as the cooling touch of water or the rigid and stifling presence of earth, or the absence of the air that it needs to fuel its heat. When left unchecked, it always spreads. And in this, it can consume and devour, even as when given a more controlled presence through the influence of the other elements it sustains, and makes life itself possible. In nature, thus, we find it as part of everything, as you can see how the influence of such warmth and light impact all that exists with only a little philosophical consideration.
And so the element of Fire possesses both a baneful and beneficial qualities. It gives life to all things, and makes all that grows and blossoms and lives fruitful. It is the very spark of life. However when given over to its own consumption, it destroys everything, even itself. And when it has become snuffed, there is only cold darkness.
In magical practice, we can look to fire to provide these concepts and influences within our workings. We can use fire to provide warmth to better understand the positive emotions, and to give aid to our healings. We can use it as an influence to aid us in change, for as the heat of fire can make water into steam or rock into magma, in our magical practice it can elevate, alter, and consume emotion and thought. In more baneful practice, the element of fire can be used for destruction, where as in nature it will greedily burn away at that to which it is subjected, stopping only when we implement another force to stop its growth or when it has consumed all of its fuel, and there is nothing left to burn.
The Element of Earth
Earth, as Agrippa asserts, is the "basis and foundation of all of the elements... (the) object, subject, and receptacle of all celestial rays and influences... (and) in it are contained the seeds, and seminal virtues of all things; and therefore it is said to be animal, vegetable, and mineral."
So what does this mean?
Quite simply, Earth is the element that is, simply, all matter. It gives everything form, providing the very basis of existence. From it all things spring, and in turn it, itself, can be influenced by all things. By itself, it is simply a blank slate. It is a building block, but barren and rigid and unmoving But if you lend to it the light and heat born of Fire life can then begin to grow. If you stir it with wind, or wet it with water, it can be shaped and molded, becoming a thing that is ever shifting and ever growing.
This is vividly displayed in how the desert, blasted clean and pure by heat and light, can still produce life with but the slightest influence of water, and with the harsh presence of winds becomes a shifting thing, always transforming itself with new dunes and landscapes. It can also, similarly be seen in the opposite example of the rain forest, where earth provides the foundation for a vast array of unfathomable, varied life. It provides the structure in which trees grow enormous. It provides the structure that makes the trees solid and strong. And while the ground beneath them grows infertile, it provides the form that is influenced by all other elements life within the layer upon layer of plant and animal life to create a vast ecosystem so very opposite the deserts.
Magically, these means that the element of Earth can be used to provide a foundation for anything that we want to last. It can provide the basis for anything that we want to blossom and change when impacted by any other influence. Earth, within magical practice, forms the perfect point of focus for balance, centering, and serenity, as it is at the core of all things. And as it is the element from which all growth springs, it can be used to encourage spiritual, mental, and emotional growth that we guide through other influences. This can make it wonderfully useful in healing as well, providing a method of exerting balance, restoration, and encouraging natural mending.
Conversely, however, using Earth within your magical practice can also influence something to be too rigid. When there is too much of an influence of Earth, growth can stagnate. It can prevent change and stifle the influences of the other elements, and otherwise be a stubborn, immobile force.
The Element of Water
While Earth provides the foundation of all life, and Fire provides the warmth necessary for its sustenance, Water, like all of the elements, is fundamentally necessary for the existence of all living things. Indeed, it is suggested in the Theory of evolution that animal life began in the water, adapting and growing as other influences exerted themselves until the first animal took its first steps on to land.
Similarly, as life began with water, its continued existence requires it to sustain and repair. When there is a drought, all things wither and grow frail, and when there is brief rainfall in the desert it is wondrous how many things emerge, grow, and flourish before the waters dry up.
Water can also be found in all living things, plant or animal. It provides the glue, or vessel, through which all other elements and influences can interact with one another - much like the blood cell of the body brings the nutrients and oxygen that all other systems of the body require to live.
However, like all of the other elements, water is baron and unable to support the existence of life by itself. When it rains too much, and earth is diffused by flooding, crops wither, rot, and die. When water is without the influence of Fire, it is cold and lifeless, unable to support anything but the most basic bacteria and single cell life forms - and even that is only possible due to the fact that heat and warmth is never, wholly absent in truth. Water can also snuff out the warmth of Fire, or prevent it from spreading, just as it can drown Earth.
Magically, it is small wonder then that water is seen both as a carrier for other influences, and an element that is tremendously helpful in any sort of spiritual healing that one undertakes. That is to say that water can be viewed as the life blood of one's magical practice, allowing you to use it to feed any working with the other influences that we wish to assert. In healing practices, it can thus be used with earth to encourage regeneration of the mind and spirit. And when combined with the cleansing Light and warmth of fire, it can be used most readily to aid in cleansing something of all other spiritual influences.
Just as the other elements, Water can also have a negative influence. It can drown out the efforts of all other influences, and as in nature it can cause something to wither, rot, and decay on a spiritual level.
The Element of Air
Last but not least, we come upon the Element of Air. Just like we have witnessed with all of the other elements, the influence of Air is a part of just about everything in existence, and one of the fundamental blocks of life. All things living, even those that dwell in water, require some gas or vapor to maintain their existence. Beyond providing sustenance for all life, Air is also the element that fills the spaces between all other things.
As such, it is traditionally held as the element through which the Celestial bodies exert their influence. For example, through air, do the sun's rays reach earth and provide its warmth. Air, in turn, traps these rays, keeping the warmth provided by the sun from escaping into space, and allowing life to exist on the planet. Similarly, Air is considered the medium for all other ways. Through it the light of Fire can travel. Through it, sound waves travel allowing speech. Through it, radio waves travel allowing long distance communication.
Agrippa also suggests that in the element of Air we find the remaining impression of all things that have taken place. This is because air takes unto itself the influences of all things it witnesses. Or, more simply, just as air can allow Light to pass through it, so can air allow for more spiritual concepts and instinctive sensations to pass through it, such as the sensation that one is being watched, or a "bad feeling" before something bad happens. Perhaps due to its ties to communication, Air is also considered the element of which thoughts are composed, and through which dreams of all varieties are conceived.
Thus, in spiritual practice, Air is a powerful aid in numerous practices. The element can be used to assist in communicating with spirits, or visualization. It can be used to enhance understanding - or to open one's self up to instinct, empathy, and the perception of thought and emotion. And, as Air is the medium through which all things move, it can be used to create a connection between the physical and the spiritual, making it useful for those seeking a greater spiritual awareness, those who seek to astral project, and those who seek other similar goals.
The limits of elemental magic
I'm sure that some are wondering at this point why, in a discussion of elemental magic, no attention has been given to how each element may be explored to give one control over physical reality. Why, for example, do I not touch upon how to use the element of fire to create shadows with the absence of light or to manipulate the flame of a candle?
Because, quite simply, this is not possible.
This was not the purpose of the study of the elements in metaphysical sciences or alchemy, by and large. The elements were studied to present a deeper understanding of the physical world, and through this develop a deeper understanding of the spiritual. Outside of using such understanding to attempt to physically manipulate through scientific efforts, only those who were mad, only Charlatans seeking to prey upon the gullible, and only those who were ignorant of the true nature of the spiritual practices of magic and the physical studies of the sciences have ever claimed that elemental magic could cause physical changes.
Where such is found in grimoires and books of philosophy that were otherwise taken seriously, we are encountering not true and honest magical study but content intended to distract from the true purpose of each work, or the wild conjecture that resulted of the medieval pseudo-science that slowly evolved into modern day innovation.
But what is my element?
And that brings us back to the frequent question: "What is my element?" Well, quite simply, you are all of the elements. As each description of the elements fully explains, nearly everything in the world is composed of each of the elements to one degree or another. This is why these concepts were called the Elements . They are the core building blocks of life and physical reality as described by the medieval world.
You are not composed of just one, and you are not linked in some special way to a particular element over any of the others. Your personality, however my lead you to find one element or another with which you can relate far better than the others. This, naturally, means that you will be able to work with its concepts better than others might be able to. What it should mean, more importantly, is that it provides you with a solid place to begin your further understanding.
By possessing this natural understanding of one, you should explore deeper and better understand all of the elements. By doing this you not only improve your magical study, but you will develop a better understanding of yourself and the world around you.