In “Chapter XXIII: The Elements and Their Inhabitants,” Manly P. Hall discusses the beings that are said to inhabit invisible realms associated with the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water.
Just as visible Nature is populated by an infinite number of living creatures, so, according to Paracelsus, the invisible, spiritual counterpart of visible Nature (composed of the tenuous principles of the visible elements) is inhabited by a host of peculiar beings, to whom he has given the name elementals, and which have later been termed the Nature spirits. Paracelsus divided these people of the elements into four distinct groups, which he called gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders. He taught that they were really living entities, many resembling human beings in shape, and inhabiting worlds of their own, unknown to man because his undeveloped senses were incapable of functioning beyond the limitations of the grosser elements.
The association of the beings to the elements are as follows:
- Gnomes inhabit the elemental sphere of earth
- Undines inhabit the elemental sphere of water
- Sylphs inhabit the elemental sphere of air
- Salamanders inhabit the elemental sphere of fire
It is important to note that these elemental spheres are not the elements we find in our physical world, but exist beyond our perceived reality. This is why elementals can only be perceived when humans are in states of heightened or altered consciousness.
Many of us have been introduced to these elementals through literature and the arts. Hall mentions a few examples.
Literature has also perpetuated the concept of Nature spirits. The mischievous Puck of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; the elementals of Alexander Pope’s Rosicrucian poem, The Rape of the Lock; the mysterious creatures of Lord Lytton’s Zanoni; James Barrie’s immortal Tinker Bell; and the famous bowlers that Rip Van Winkle encountered in the Catskill Mountains, are well-known characters to students of literature. The folklore and mythology of all peoples abound in legends concerning these mysterious little figures who haunt old castles, guard treasures in the depths of the earth, and build their homes under the spreading protection of toadstools. Fairies are the delight of childhood, and most children give them up with reluctance. Not so very long ago the greatest minds of the world believed in the existence of fairies, and it is still an open question as to whether Plato, Socrates, and Iamblichus were wrong when they avowed their reality.
It would be about 25 years later than when Manly P. Hall wrote this text that J.R.R. Tolkien would publish his famous trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. This would become the quintessential example of elementals in modern literature and a source of inspiration for generations. It would appear that interest in elemental beings has not waned, but increased.
I suppose the best way to end this post is to quote Gandalf from The Fellowship of the Ring as he describes how astounding he finds the earth elementals: “Hobbits really are amazing creatures, as I have said before. You can learn all that there is to know about their ways in a month, and yet after a hundred years they can still surprise you at a pinch.”