What are elementals?
Elementals are based on an ancient theory that matter is composed from 4 elements: fire, water, air, earth. Next, this theory mixed with a belief that every object is inhabited by spirits or demons. Thus, in medieval mythology, gnomes were earth elementals, sylphs air, salamanders fire and undines water.
The elements that make elementals
Empedocles, a Greek scientist and philosopher who lived in Sicily in the 5th century BC, came up with the idea that all objects are composed of various combinations of fire, air, earth, and water.
Plato and Aristotle both agreed with the theory, and most Europeans believed it until the 17th century. Modern occultists have given the theory a new meaning, saying that the four traditional elements represent the four forms in which energy can be found: as gas (air), electricity (fire), solid (earth), or liquid (water).
The four elements theory supported the alchemists’ claim that gold could be produced artificially by finding the correct combination of elements.
These elements were also important in the medical field because they were combined with the philosophy of the four “humors,” invented by the famous Greek doctor Hippocrates and introduced to medieval Europe by Galen, the great Roman physician of the 2nd century AD.
The humors, which got their name from the Latin word for “moisture” (humor), were the four fluids in the body.
The way each man’s four humors mixed together determined his temperament and physical appearance. Fire was linked to yellow bile and the choleric (or bilious) personality; air was an element of blood and the sanguine disposition; earth to black bile and the melancholic temperament; and water to phlegm and the phlegmatic personality.
If there were such a thing as a perfect man, he would have a perfect balance of the four humors and temperaments. Unbalanced humors were thought to be the primary cause of illnesses of all kinds.
Excessive phlegm causes colds; too much yellow bile caused jaundice; and someone with too much blood would need to be bled often. Cholera was named after the choleric temperament and the idea that it came from yellow bile.
Different writers and artists had very unique philosophies about the symbolic meaning of each element. Most of the time, earth and water were seen as passive, negative, and feminine, while fire and air were seen as energetic, optimistic, and masculine.
Gaston Bachelard, a French writer, summed up the qualities of the elements like this:
In short, the element of fire is often linked to energy, cleansing, change, passion, and desire.
Air is linked to breath, spirit, and speech. It is also linked to flight, which frees us from being tied to the ground.
Earth is connected with the solid and useful, with the body, with sadness and despair since life on earth is so much worse than life in heaven, with the dead being laid to rest in the earth and hell being under the earth, but also with wealth and material success because the harvest grows in the fields of the earth.
Water is the source of everything, from the primordial waters of the nothingness before the world was created to “the deep” in Genesis, the unconscious depths of the human psyche, unsolvable mysteries, and women.
Elementals: a combination of elements with spirits & demons
Ancient cultures believed that everything in nature was inhabited by spirits, and they could be found in every tree, creek, rock, and cloud.
Once the theory of the four elements was embraced, there were four types of spirits that ended up embodying them. These spirits were called “elementals” many years later.
Generally, gnomes were thought to be earth elementals, undines water ones, while air elementals took the form of sylphs and finally salamanders were the most common fire elementals.
These elementals are small spirits of nature that humans can’t see but are real and live inside the four elements.
How the elementals looked in mythology
Neoplatonists, who were disciples of a school of philosophy that began in Alexandria in the 3rd century AD, are thought to have been the first thinkers to link the elements to spirits. These philosophers had a comprehensive theory of demons. They thought that both good and bad demons inhabited the universe and were the focus of religious and magical rituals.
Plato had a great impact on Neoplatonist philosophy. It was Plato who developed the religious and mystical ideas Empedocles used in his doctrine of the four elements, so it was easy for Neoplatonists to connect demons to the elements.
These demons and spirits, who may have been given the term “elementals” for the first time in the 15th century, are only briefly mentioned by ancient Greek writers.
For a truly thorough explanation of each elemental, one must read the works of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombast von Hohenheim, a physician, alchemist, traveler, and mystic who lived in the 1600s and is known to history as Paracelsus.
He came up with the word “gnome” and probably a lot of the stories about elementals, too. However, he may have also been influenced by legends and superstitions he heard while traveling through many countries, such as Sweden, Russia, and maybe even India.
Paracelsus said that a person is made up of three parts: the spiritual and godly part, the soulful and astral part, and finally the visible and terrestrial part. These three components, or elements, that compose a person are universal.
However, while man is made up of all three elements, there are other beings that only exist in one of the elements. Various types of beings are at home in different elements. For example, gnomes can see and breathe in the earth just as easily as undines and sylphs can in water and air, respectively.
Man himself, it seems, would be an elemental spirit of Nature if not for the divine component in him.
The elementals themselves are a kind of middle ground between people and pure spirits. They have flesh, blood, and bones, produce children, eat, and sleep. Viewed from this perspective and considering how their bodies are put together, they are like people. They can move as fast as spirits, though.
The elementals can be touched by sickness and death, so they are not immortal. On the other hand, they can’t be held captive. Fire and water don’t hurt them either. They may even resemble humans in appearance, speech, and mannerisms, but Paracelsus claims they “are incapable of spiritual growth.”
They can think and talk like humans, but they don’t have souls in the spiritual or eternal sense. “This may seem strange and unbelievable,” says Paracelsus, “but Nature’s powers aren’t limited by man’s understanding of them, and God’s wisdom is beyond our comprehension.”
He goes on to say that the undines or nymphs reside in the water, the gnomes or pygmies inhabit the earth, the sylphs or sylvestres live in the air, and the salamanders or vulcans live in fire.
The four categories of elementals don’t mix with one another. Each creature sticks to its own element. For example, water is to undines what air is to us.
“If we’re surprised that they’re in the water, they might be surprised that we’re in the air,” he said.
As earth elements, gnomes can walk right through boulders and stones, just like humans can walk through the air, and salamanders can do the same thing through fire.
The sylphs are most like humans because they would drown in water, suffocate in dirt, and burn in fire.
Each element is transparent to the spirits that live in it. For example, the gnomes can see the sun shining through rocks.
Undines can marry humans, but other element do not
The undines look and are the same size as people. The gnomes are about a foot and a half tall, but they are able to expand to be much larger if they choose. The sylphs and undines are friendly to humans, while salamanders don’t allow humans to approach them, but neither do they come near humans. Gnomes, on the other hand, are usually malevolent towards humans.
Overall, Paracelsus tells his readers, “the elementals don’t like arrogant and opinionated people, like dogmatists, inquisitive skeptics, drunkards, and gluttons, and they most certainly don’t like rude and confrontational people of any kind.”
Based on what we know about Paracelsus’s life, it seems likely that this was a list of behaviors he personally disliked. But, he continues, “the elementals prefer natural men, who are straightforward and childlike, innocent and honest, and the less conceit and deceit there is in a man, the simpler it will be for the elementals to approach them.”
Each elemental type has its own culture, language, and even forms of government. They also possess their own homes or palaces—at least the gnomes and undines do. People don’t know what these special materials are, but they are “as different from the materials we know as a spider’s web is from our linen.”
Undines, says Paracelsus, can take on human form, attire, and behavior and even enter romantic relationships with men; this idea inspired Friedrich de la Motte Fouque’s delightful romance novel Undine. Some men have even been welcomed into elemental communities.
However, elemental spirits of the earth, air, and fire rarely enter marriage with a human being, even though they can form emotional attachments to them. It’s important to keep in mind that these entities are not mere wisps of nothingness. Their presence may be subtler than humans’, true, but just like us, they have their own flesh and blood.
In a book just about undines, Paracelsus gives more information about them.
If a man marries an undine and she leaves him, he shouldn’t marry someone else because the marriage hasn’t ended yet. If he ignores this warning and marries another woman, he will soon die.
If a man and an undine get married, their children will be human because the man will give them a human soul. Through her union with a human, the undine also gets the seed of immortality. But “as an undine who isn’t joined to a man dies like an animal, so will a man who isn’t united to God.”
Paracelsus ends by giving a warning. If a man has an undine for a wife, he should be careful not to upset her when she is near water because she might desire to return to her elemental home.
Similarly, if a man employs a gnome as a servant, he must be loyal to him and says: “if you do your duty to him, he will do his duty to you.”
Paracelsus’s creativity and originality seem to have been crucial in the development of the elementals; while he may have been inspired by existing concepts, he almost certainly contributed his own unique beliefs and theories.
The elementals still have a hold on people’s imaginations. At least one modern play was inspired by undines, while gnomes, sylphs, and fire salamanders have appeared in many books, films, and video games.
Modern occultists also try to summon “artificial elementals” by focusing their minds and willpower. These are cruel, dangerous beings that look like toads or snakes and are invisible to most people, but they are very real to the victim who is attacked or to a clairvoyant.
- Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bibleby Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst
- Dictionnaire infernalby Collin de Plancy
- Demon dictionaryby Kimberly Daniels
- The History Of Witchcraft And Demonologyby Montague Summers
- Malleus maleficarum by Heinrich Kraemer
- The encyclopedia of demons and demonology by Rosemary Guiley
- Dictionary of gods and goddesses, devils and demons by Manfred Lurker
- Devils, demons, death, and damnation by Ernst Lehner
- Man, Myth & Magic The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Mythologyby Richard Cavendish
- Demons and elementalsby John Gatehouse
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