Elemental Air: Sylphs

I’ve talked about all of Paracelus‘ elemental spirits (Undines, Gnomes, Salamanders) except for one, so now it’s time to cover Sylphs, the Air Elementals.

First off, no one’s ever seen one. Paracelus said they were invisible. This hasn’t stopped people from describing them. In the Eighteenth Century, the Abbé de Villars, in his Comte de Gabelais, said they are fierce-looking, but docile–if you’re a smart person. Dumb humans, they can’t stand.

Besides that, Sylphs are slippery spirits, so we don’t really know anything about them. They seem to have a strong connection with the Undines, but neither one of them will talk about it.

The Wordsworth Dictionary of Phrase and Fable says that chaste humans become Sylphs when they die, but in my opinion, they got that from a misreading of the very tongue-in-cheek epic poem by Alexander Pope, the Rape of the Lock.

Melville Faeries
The Book of Faeries: A Guide to the World of Elves, Pixies, Goblins, and Other Magic Spirits

by Francis Melville


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sylph

Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock

Elemental Fire: Salamanders

Paracelsus, a Medieval alchemist, identified four magical creatures that symbolized the elements that make up our world: air, fire, water, and earth. Today’s DotW brings you one of them.

When is a salamander not a salamander?

Some of us know salamanders as crawly amphibians that look sort of like geckos, but are actually more related to frogs than reptiles.

Salamander, the amphibious kind

Salamander, the amphibious kind

But if you watch the Food Network, as much as I do, you know that sometimes chefs refer to a type of broiler often used to melt cheese as a ‘salamander.’

Salamander, the cooking kind

Salamander, the cooking kind

So how did a cold-blooded amphibian get to be associated with something so hot? The answer lies in some interesting history.

Let’s say you’re a medieval farmer. Remember that you don’t have any education at all, no training in logic. You can’t even read. On your way home after a hard day in the field, you grab a log off the pile for the fire. When you throw it in, it looks perfectly normal. The next time you turn around, there are a pair of beady eyes looking back at you from the flames. There’s a little creature sitting on the log, completely unburned.

The sight is terrifying. It wasn’t there before–where did it come from? Why isn’t it burned? It must be a kind of tiny dragon, with the ability to withstand fire!

Well, today, armed with our logic, living in a world where we jump to magic as a last resort, we might figure out that the creature lived in the log. It hid when we picked up the log, and came out only because it was getting too hot in its hiding place.

But the study of natural history wasn’t a strong point for your peasant back then, so stories of the magic of these creatures grew. In fact, it grew to the point where the salamander took on mythical proportions, with the ability not just to withstand fire, but to cause it.

Salamander -- the magical kind

Salamander, the magical kind

Famous alchemists and magicians, like Paracelsus, began to think of the salamander as an elemental creature of fire. In Jewish folklore, it was said that smearing yourself with the blood of one would give you immunity to flames. But the mythical salamander seemed to diverge from the natural one, to the point where it was said you could make a salamander by burning a fire in the same place for seven years.

Sources

The Book of Faeries
The Book of Faeries: A Guide to the World of Elves, Pixies, Goblins, and Other Magic Spirits

by Francis Melville


http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salamander_(legendary_creature)

Elemental Earth: Gnomes

Paracelsus, a Medieval alchemist, identified four magical creatures that symbolized the elements that make up our world: air, fire, water, and earth. Today’s DotW brings you one of them.

In 2008, a French man was arrested for stealing garden gnomes. By the time he was caught, he had accumulated a donsy (Yes, that’s the collective noun for them. Look it up) of 170 gnomes.

Gnomes have gotten a bad rap. There’s more to them than silly-looking bits of statuary. Just about the only thing that Gnomes have in common with garden Gnomes is that they are both small creatures with a connection to the Earth.

According to Paracelsus, gnomes are one of the four kinds of creatures that represent the fundamental building blocks of our natural world: the elementals. Gnomes represent the most core element–Earth. The other three are:

  • Salamanders (Fire)
  • Undines (Water)
  • Sylphs (Air)

In their original form, Gnomes are more like what we think of as Dwarves, more likely to mine for gold than to stand around in pointy red hats. Personally, I wonder if there’s a connection between that distinctive cap and Redcap, who we talked about earlier.

In the Middle Ages, Gnomes were depicted as small, old men, usually with a hunched back. They lived underground and a Gnome named Gob ruled as their king.

The females of the species are called Gnomides.

In the Eighteenth Century, the Abbé de Villars, in his Comte de Gabelais, claimed that Gnomes are docile creatures, willing to serve human magicians, in particular giving them all the gold they needed.

While garden Gnomes might just seem like a whimsical addition to a rose patch, the theory behind them might actually go back to a pagan idea that they also helped out with things that grow. So maybe instead of just kitsch, garden Gnomes are actually a form of sympathetic magic, calling on earth spirits to bless the garden. Ever think of that one, huh?

Sources

Elemental Water: Undine/Ondine

Paracelsus, a Medieval alchemist, identified four magical creatures that symbolized the elements that make up our world: air, fire, water, and earth. Today’s DotW brings you one of them.

An undine or ondine is a beautiful female water nymph, an elemental spirit that lives in water, and in a symbolic way, represents the spirit/idea of water. Phillip von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, was the first to identify elementals, in his works about alchemy. The concept of the undine is Germanic in origin.

Friedrich Heinrich Karl La Motte-Fouqué wrote the first novel about an undine in 1812, appropriately titled “Undine.” Also, that was the name of our water elemental heroine.

In Undine, the water nymph heroine meets and falls in love with a noble knight, who promises that his every waking breath will be a promise of loyalty and faithfulness to her. Well, that sounded pretty good to Undine, so she married the guy and had his baby. (In fairness, he’d been pretty clear about the fact that he’d had a thing for another woman, name of Bertalda, before they met.)

As a water nymph, Undine was soulless, ageless, and beautiful. As a wife, she grew a soul, which of course brought her no end of trouble. She had to make a noble sacrifice to protect her husband. She had to go back to living under the waves, but her husband assumed she was dead. She could protect him so long as he kept faithful to his promise.

And then he broke his promise by marrying Bertalda.

Though she still loved him, Undine was forced to kill him for his faithlessness. She had to come back through the well that Bertalda uncovered and kiss him to death (his request).

I know this sounds pretty dumb, but the book’s good–much better than described here. Check it out on Google Books.

Sources

A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits
A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits

by Carol K. Mack, Dinah Mack

Undine, Or The Water Spirit, a Romance
Friedrich Heinrich Karl La Motte-Fouqué
Published by J. Miller, 1881