An elemental is a mythic being that is described in occult and alchemical works from around the time of the European Renaissance and particularly elaborated in the 16th-century works of Paracelsus.
According to Paracelsus and his subsequent followers, there are four categories of elementals, which are gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders.
These correspond to the four Empedoclean elements of antiquity: earth, water, air, and fire, respectively. Terms employed for beings associated with alchemical elements vary by source and gloss.
The Paracelsian concept of elementals draws from several much older traditions in mythology and religion.
The elements of earth, water, air, and fire, were classed as the fundamental building blocks of nature. This system prevailed in the Classical world and was highly influential in medieval natural philosophy. Although Paracelsus uses these foundations and the popular preexisting names of elemental creatures, he is doing so to present new ideas that expand on his own philosophical system.
The homunculus is another example of a Paracelsian idea with roots in earlier alchemical, scientific, and folklore traditions.
In his 16th-century alchemical work Liber de Nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus, Paracelsus identified mythological beings as belonging to one of the four elements. Part of the Philosophia Magna, this book was first printed in 1566 after Paracelsus’ death.
He wrote the book to “describe the creatures that are outside the cognizance of the light of nature, how they are to be understood, what marvelous works God has created“. He states that there is more bliss in describing these “divine objects” than in describing fencing, court etiquette, cavalry, and otherworldly pursuits.
The following is his archetypal being for each of the four elements:
- Gnome, being of earth
- Undine, being of water
- Sylph, being of air
- Salamander, being of fire
The concept of elementals seems to have been conceived by Paracelsus in the 16th century, though he did not, in fact, use the term “elemental” or a German equivalent.
He regarded them not so much as spirits but as beings between creatures and spirits, generally being invisible to mankind but having physical and commonly humanoid bodies, as well as eating, sleeping, and wearing clothes like humans. Paracelsus gave common names for the elemental types, as well as correct names, which he seems to have considered somewhat more proper, “Recht namen“.
He also referred to them by purely German terms which are roughly equivalent to “water people,” “mountain people,” and so on, using all the different forms interchangeably.
Other authors and beliefs
In his influential De Occulta Philosophia, published in 1531-33, several decades before the publication of Paracelsus’ Philosophia Magna, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa also wrote of four classes of spirits corresponding to the four elements. However, he did not give special names for the classes:
“In like manner they distribute these into more orders, so as some are fiery, some watery, some aerial, some terrestrial.”
Agrippa did however give an extensive list of various mythological beings of this type, although without clarifying which belongs to which elemental class. Like Paracelsus, he did not use the term “elemental spirit” per se.
A 1670 French satire of occult philosophy, Comte de Gabalis, was prominent in popularizing Paracelsus’ theory of elementals. It particularly focused on the idea of elemental marriage discussed by Paracelsus.
In the book, the titular “Count of Kabbalah” explains that members of his order (to which Paracelsus is said to belong) refrain from marriage to human beings in order to retain their freedom to bestow souls upon elementals.
Comte de Gabalis used the terms sylphide and gnomide to refer to female sylphs and gnomes (often “sylphid” and “gnomid” in English translations). Male nymphs (the term used instead of the Paracelsian “undine”) are said to be rare, while female salamanders are rarely seen.
The Rosicrucians claimed to be able to see such elemental spirits. To be admitted to their society, it was previously necessary for the eyes to be purged with the Panacea or “Universal Medicine,” a legendary alchemical substance with miraculous curative powers.
As well, glass globes would be prepared with one of the four elements and for one month exposed to beams of sunlight. With these steps, the initiated would see innumerable beings immediately. These beings, known as elementals, were said to be longer-lived than men but ceased to exist upon death.
However, if the elemental were to wed a mortal, they would become immortal. This exception seemed to work in reverse when it came to immortals, though, for if an elemental were to wed an immortal being, the immortal would gain the mortality of the elemental. One of the conditions of joining the Rosicrucians however, was a vow of chastity in hopes of marrying an elemental.
Comparison with Jainism
In Jainism, there is a superficially similar concept within its general cosmology, the ekendriya jiva, “one-sensed beings” with bodies (kaya) that are composed of a single element, albeit with a 5-element system (earth, water, air, fire, and plant), but these beings are actual physical objects and phenomena such as rocks, rain, fires and so on which are endowed with souls.
In the Paracelsian concept, elementals are conceived more as supernatural humanoid beings which are much like human beings except for lacking souls.
This is quite the opposite from the Jain conception which rather than positing soulless elementals is positing that physical objects have some type of soul and that what is commonly considered inanimate objects have this particular type of soul.
In contemporary times there are those who study and practice rituals to invoke elementals. These include Wiccans and followers of nature-based religions.