Working with the elements is one of those things that seems like it should be simple, yet challenges even practiced witches or pagans. What's simple can often be easily overlooked, or can lead us to just doing the same thing over and over. How do you keep your practice alive and work with very basic things in new ways?
We're going to discuss this in further blog posts, but for the moment we want to give a simple overview of how you might integrate the elements into your altar, in case you're just starting out and want some ideas. For simplicity, some people use a colored candle to represent each element, but this can be a big pain if you can't leave your altar set up. I've done my time trying to haul a tray of candles across the house to do a ritual! Another option is to use painted rocks, or a corresponding stone for each element. If you want to do something special for each element, though, here are some possibilities:
Earth -- many things can represent earth. You can use an inspiring piece of wood, a crystal skull, or even dirt. If you're going to use a natural item like wood or dirt, be careful not to invite unwanted elemental earth things like bugs or mold! You might want to contain dirt in a small jar, and if you collect wood pieces from outside then (safely) cook them in the oven to toast out the bugs.
Air -- Many people use incense or include air in its presence as that which allows a candle to burn. Burning incense lets you see the air as smoke moves through it, and can be more satisfying. Many people use a feather either to represent air in itself or doubling as a smudge fan.
Fire -- The most obvious way to integrate fire is with a candle. Even if you're not allowed to burn candles where you live, you can use a a battery-operated one as a representation. You can also just use a special matchbook and light a match to invoke the fire element and then extinguish it. Using a candle is a little tricky if you're only going to have it lit for a short period; wax has a memory, and if a candle is new you need to let the wax burn all the way to the edge or else you'll get a perpetual tunnel that make your candle pretty much unusable.
Water-- The simplest thing to use is, obviously, water. Putting water in a small covered container is a good way to make sure you don't spill it everywhere. You can also just put a few drops of water in a small bowl. If you don't want to have actual liquid on your altar, you can use a chalice or a special vessel to represent the element. You could also use a shell from the beach or a piece of seaweed, or something that reminds you of the ocean.
We'd love to hear what you do to include the elements on your altar!