Symbolic correspondences are almost never arbitrary, especially in magical or religious context, but they sure can seem like it! This is especially true if you are new to a system, or if you don’t understand the history and context of the symbolism involved.
One example is directions and elements. It is core to many pagan traditions that each element is associated with a particular direction, and those direction-element symbolic associations can be central to ritual setup. The reasons for these particular direction-elemental associations are not immediately apparent to the vast majority of people, so instead of understanding why the associations exist, it is often treated as arbitrary and rote memorized.
Symbolic associations are central to human cognition, communication, and understanding of the world. This is true whether you consciously realize it or not. We communicate through words and symbols (alphabets, characters, logos, signs, etc.), which can seem extremely arbitrary if you don’t understand the context. Language is collections of sounds or scribbles that we understand to represent various things, but if you don’t understand the language someone else is speaking, it is probably going to sound a lot like arbitrary gibberish.
Yet, despite the amazing array of languages used by humans throughout our existence, the conscious thoughts of most people are composed in the languages they are fluent in, including visual languages like sign language. There is no particular language or symbology inherent to our biology. Instead, the building blocks for the foundations of our ability to communicate are learned, usually from birth.
Symbols have meaning because we, consciously or not, understand that something which is inherently abstract (like a sound, letter, character, or rune), can have the meaning of something else entirely. These symbols are not static, but instead their meanings change over time as culture and language shift, and as our collective understanding of things change.
It’s Not Arbitrary
Let’s look at the swastika. Like most relatively simple drawings humans can make, it has a very long history in many different cultures. For most of that history, and across many cultures, it had very positive associations with health, luck, success, and divinity.
Then in the 1930’s it was co-opted by white supremacist fascists, who waved it as a banner while committing genocide. They twisted those positive meanings by applying those well wishes only to themselves, and turning it into a symbol of hate and murder towards anyone they considered “other”. The symbolism of hate became so dominant that today, not even a century later, it is a primary symbol of white supremacy, and a lot of people don’t realize it ever had another meaning.
There are people who want to “reclaim” the swastika as a positive symbol, but at this point in time that’s not possible because it is still very actively used as a symbol for hate. If you see a swastika spray-painted on a street corner, you know it was done by someone who wishes misery and death on anyone who isn’t white, heteronormative, and fully abled. It’s not even a question. Displaying a swastika as a “reclaimed” symbol only serves to shelter and excuse and facilitate the massively more common use as a hate symbol.
The development of the swastika as a positive symbol was very organic. Historians and archaeologists can say when we have evidence that it first appeared or became common in different places, but they can’t point to a particular person or event as the origination of the symbol. I say “organic” because that development was slow and grew over time within various cultures. It wasn’t random, and the initial uses were likely inspired by the shapes in the world around the people who first drew it.
We can point to the specific point in time when it became a hate symbol. It was a very deliberate choice by the Nazis to emphasize themselves as the only rightful recipients of the boons associated with the swastika. This created a new association of Us vs. Them, which was further emphasized by mass genocide against many different groups of people, cementing an overriding association with the physical acts committed under it.
The pentagram is an example of a symbol that is being successfully reclaimed, but much of that reclaiming is possible because it was never widely used to promote evil acts, despite assertions to the contrary. Like the swastika, the pentagram is a very old symbol which is found in many disparate cultures across human history. In Europe, it was generally a positive symbol with rich associations in religious and mystical practices, with known codified meanings dating back at least to Hellenistic Greece.
Unlike the swastika, the pentagram was (and is) said to be used by evil people for evil acts, but aside from small isolated incidents, it never has actually been used in that way. There is a huge difference between saying something is a certain way, and it being used in that way. Even the use of the swastika by the Nazis might have been but a blip in its history, if not for the mass genocide and ongoing use as a hate symbol.
Context matters. History matters. They both inform the current associations of the symbols we use, and in what ways we can consciously manipulate those associations, especially in a public context.
There are a lot of symbolic associations in pagan and magical practice which are often taken for granted. One such association is directions and elements. Another is gender and elements.
I mention these two in particular because they don’t make sense to a lot of modern practitioners, myself included. Rather than having any foundation in modern culture or experience, they are based in European traditions of ceremonial magic, which in turn drew on older esoteric traditions going all the way back to Hellenistic Greece.
We can point to a particular Greek philosopher, Empedocles, who wrote about the elements we commonly use in modern paganism and magical practice. Among other things, he associated each with a particular god or goddess: Earth-Hera, Air-Zeus, Fire-Hades, Water-Nestis (Persephone). As is discussed in this article, those associations had more to do with the overall traits of the deities in question, and their marital relationships, than whether they were male or female. However, over time (and departure from the religious systems of those pantheons), the deeper meanings were lost and the correspondences simplified to Earth-Female, Air-Male, Fire-Male, Water-Female.
Other ancient Greek philosophers suggested other deity associations (Fire-Ares, Water-Aphrodite is a common one I’ve seen). These would have had a similar depth in the context of their time and religious culture, but later mostly just reinforced the idea of each element being associated with a particular gender.
In the modern context, that leads to correspondence lists which place a gender with each element, completely out of context from the deeper meanings from which those correspondences came. This can be confusing and even jarring if you are like me and find aggressive gendering very off-putting. And I know I’m not alone on that, because it is a very common question, and it can be difficult for even dedicated newbies to rote memorize what is supposed to go with what.
For my part, understanding the history of the correspondence means that I can find depth of meaning by corresponding elements with particular deities. However, it reinforces my feeling that it is inappropriate to make a hard association between particular genders and particular elements. I see all elements in all genders, and all genders (or no genders) in all elements, so artificial partitioning creates unnecessary limitations.
Elemental correspondences with directions can be a similar sticking point. Again, the origin of those correspondences is very distant from our modern context, leading to rote memorization. I see all elements in all directions, and despite my best efforts when I was a newbie, I never could memorize or effectively make use of such correspondences.
Not All Correspondences Are Useful
An excellent litmus test for the usefulness of correspondences is simply asking, “Does this make sense?”
If your answer is “Yes”, then it is probably a solid correspondence you can easily use in your personal practice.
If your answer is “No”, then your next question is, “Why does that correspondence exist?”
This one can be harder. You might be able to get your answer with a few simple web searches, or it might require some real research involving libraries and academic texts. If you want to use a correspondence that doesn’t make sense to you, doing that research might be key to your ability to integrate that correspondence into your personal symbology, and then be able to use it effectively in your personal practice.
If you don’t like the correspondence, or worse, it is counter to your personal understandings of the symbols you are using, then you are completely valid in ignoring, or even reversing, that correspondence in your personal practice.
Personal symbology and associations can be literally anything, because they are based in personal experience and understanding. They can even go wildly against the symbolic associations understood by the majority of people. Those meanings are important, and profoundly powerful in personal practice. This is particularly true in magical areas like sigil work, wards, and banishing. When the symbols and their useful correspondences are understood viscerally by the practitioner, they will come from a place of core power.
It is possible to create arbitrary associations and correspondences in your personal symbology, but I don’t recommend it. Arbitrary meanings will never have the depth and richness of correspondences based in knowledge and understanding, and they definitely won’t have meaning to anyone else if you ever want to share them.
Instead, I encourage you to look at the correspondences and associations you use every day, and seek to bring them fully into conscious understanding. Explore the depth and richness that is there, because those correspondences didn’t spring forth arbitrarily out of history. Instead, delve into it, seek to fully understand it, and then either embrace it into your personal symbology, or let it go in favor of something else that does add depth and richness to your understanding.