Nature Spirits or Elementals, according to theosophy, have bodies composed of the finer kinds of matter. There are countless hosts of them, divided into seven classes, which allowing for two unmanifested, belong to the ether, air, fire, water, and earth,—the last four being called by the Kabalists, sylphs, salamanders, undines, and gnomes respectively; and at the head of each class is a deva or inferior god. Nature spirits work in unsuspected ways, sometimes lending their aid to human beings in the form of certain faculties, and those in the astral world are engaged in the creation of form out of the matter which the outpouring of the Logos has quickened, hence it is they who form minerals, flowers, and so on. These nature spirits of the astral worlds of course have bodies of astral matter, and they frequently from mischievous or other impulses, change the appearance of these bodies. They are just without the powers of ordinary vision, and many people of more acute vision can see them, while the action of drugs also may make them visible.
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 civilizations of Greece, Rome, Egypt, China, and India believed implicitly in satyrs, sprites, and goblins. They peopled the sea with mermaids, the rivers and fountains with nymphs, the air with fairies, the fire with Lares and Penates, and the earth with fauns, dryads, and hamadryads. These Nature spirits were held in the highest esteem, and propitiatory offerings were made to them. Occasionally, as the result of atmospheric conditions or the peculiar sensitiveness of the devotee, they became visible. Many authors wrote concerning them in terms which signify that they had actually beheld these inhabitants of Nature's finer realms. A number of authorities are of the opinion that many of the gods worshiped by the pagans were elementals, for some of these invisibles were believed to be of commanding stature and magnificent deportment.
The idea once held, that the invisible elements surrounding and interpenetrating the earth were peopled with living, intelligent beings, may seem ridiculous to the prosaic mind of today. This doctrine, however, has found favor with some of the greatest intellects of the world. The sylphs of Facius Cardin, the philosopher of Milan; the salamander seen by Benvenuto Cellini; the pan of St. Anthony; and le petit homme rouge (the little red man, or gnome) of Napoleon Bonaparte, have found their places in the pages of history.
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.
These earth spirits allegedly work in an element so close in vibratory rate to the material earth that they have immense power over its rocks and flora, and also over the mineral elements in the animal and human kingdoms. Some, like the pygmies, work with the stones, gems, and metals, and are supposed to be the guardians of hidden treasures. They live in caves, far down in what the Scandinavians called the Land of the Nibelungen. In Wagner's wonderful opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungen, Alberich makes himself King of the Pygmies and forces these little creatures to gather for him the treasures concealed beneath the surface of the earth.
Besides the pygmies there are other gnomes, who are called tree and forest sprites. To this group belong the sylvestres, satyrs, pans, dryads, hamadryads, durdalis, elves, brownies, and little old men of the woods. Paracelsus states that the gnomes build houses of substances resembling in their constituencies alabaster, marble, and cement, but the true nature of these materials is unknown, having no counterpart in physical nature. Some families of gnomes gather in communities, while others are indigenous to the substances with and in which they work. For example, the hamadryads live and die with the plants or trees of which they are a part. Every shrub and flower is said to have its own Nature spirit, which often uses the physical body of the plant as its habitation. The ancient philosophers, recognizing the principle of intelligence manifesting itself in every department of Nature alike, believed that the quality of natural selection exhibited by creatures not possessing organized mentalities expressed in reality the decisions of the Nature spirits themselves.
The gnomes are of various sizes--most of them much smaller than human beings, though some of them have the power of changing their stature at will. This is the result of the extreme mobility of the element in which they function.
Not all authorities agree concerning the amiable disposition of the gnomes. Many state that they are of a tricky and malicious nature, difficult to manage, and treacherous. Writers agree, however, that when their confidence is won they are faithful and true.
The earth spirits meet at certain times of the year in great conclaves, as Shakespeare suggests in his Midsummer Night's Dream, where the elementals all gather to rejoice in the beauty and harmony of Nature and the prospects of an excellent harvest. The gnomes are ruled over by a king, whom they greatly love and revere. His name is Gob; hence his subjects are often called goblins. Mediæval mystics gave a corner of creation (one of the cardinal points) to each of the four kingdoms of Nature spirits, and because of their earthy character the gnomes were assigned to the North--the place recognized by the ancients as the source of darkness and death. One of the four main divisions of human disposition was also assigned to the gnomes, and because so many of them dwelt in the darkness of caves and the gloom of forests their temperament was said to be melancholy, gloomy, and despondent. By this it is not meant that they themselves are of such disposition, but rather that they have special control over elements of similar consistency.
The gnomes marry and have families, and the female gnomes are called gnomides. Some wear clothing woven of the element in which they live. In other instances their garments are part of themselves and grow with them, like the fur of animals. The gnomes are said to have insatiable appetites, and to spend a great part of the rime eating, but they earn their food by diligent and conscientious
The type of gnome most frequently seen is the brownie, or elf, a mischievous and grotesque little creature from twelve to eighteen inches high, usually dressed in green or russet brown. Most of them appear as very aged, often with long white beards, and their figures are inclined to rotundity. They can be seen scampering out of holes in the stumps of trees and sometimes they vanish by actually dissolving into the tree itself.
Most of them are of a miserly temperament, fond of storing things away in secret places. There is abundant evidence of the fact that small children often see the gnomes, inasmuch as their contact with the material side of Nature is not yet complete and they still function more or less consciously in the invisible worlds.
As the gnomes were limited in their function to the elements of the earth, so the undines (a name given to the family of water elementals) function in the invisible, spiritual essence called humid (or liquid) ether. In its vibratory rate this is close to the element water, and so the undines are able to control, to a great degree, the course and function of this fluid in Nature. Beauty seems to be the keynote of the water spirits. Wherever we find them pictured in art or sculpture, they abound in symmetry and grace. Controlling the water element--which has always been a feminine symbol--it is natural that the water spirits should most often be symbolized as female.
There are many groups of undines. Some inhabit waterfalls, where they can be seen in the spray; others are indigenous to swiftly moving rivers; some have their habitat in dripping, oozing fens or marshes; while other groups dwell in clear mountain lakes. According to the philosophers of antiquity, every fountain had its nymph; every ocean wave its oceanid. The water spirits were known under such names as oreades, nereides, limoniades, naiades, water sprites, sea maids, mermaids, and potamides. Often the water nymphs derived their names from the streams, lakes, or seas in which they dwelt.
In describing them, the ancients agreed on certain salient features: nearly all the undines closely resembled human beings in appearance and size, though the ones inhabiting small streams and fountains were of correspondingly lesser proportions, and t was believed that these water spirits were occasionally capable of assuming the appearance of normal human beings and actually associating with men and women. There are many legends about these spirits and their adoption by the families of fishermen, but in nearly every case the undines heard the call of the waters and returned to the realm of Neptune, the King of the Sea.
The third group of elementals is the salamanders, or spirits of fire, who live in that attenuated, spiritual ether which is the invisible fire element of Nature. Without them material fire cannot exist; a match cannot be struck nor will flint and steel give off their spark without the assistance of a salamander, who immediately appears (so the mediæval mystics believed), evoked by friction. Man is unable to communicate successfully with the salamanders, owing to the fiery element in which they dwell, for everything is resolved to ashes that comes into their presence. By specially prepared compounds of herbs and perfumes the philosophers of the ancient world manufactured many kinds of incense. When incense was burned, the vapors which arose were especially suitable as a medium for the expression of these elementals, who, by borrowing the ethereal effluvium from the incense smoke, were able to make their presence felt.
The salamanders are as varied in their grouping and arrangement as either the undines or the gnomes. There are many families of them, differing in appearance, size, and dignity. Sometimes the salamanders were visible as small balls of light. Paracelsus says: "Salamanders have been seen in the shapes of fiery balls, or tongues of fire, running over the fields or peering in houses." (Philosophia Occulta, translated by Franz Hartmann.)
Mediæval investigators of the Nature spirits were of the opinion that the most common form of salamander was lizard-like in shape, a foot or more in length, and visible as a glowing Urodela, twisting and crawling in the midst of the fire. Another group was described as huge flaming giants in flowing robes, protected with sheets of fiery armor.
While the sages said that the fourth class of elementals, or sylphs, lived in the element of air, they meant by this not the natural atmosphere of the earth, but the invisible, intangible, spiritual medium--an ethereal substance similar in composition to our atmosphere, but far more subtle.
In the last: discourse of Socrates, as preserved by Plato in his Phædo, the condemned philosopher says:
"And upon the earth are animals and men, some in a middle region, others (elementals] dwelling about the air as we dwell about the sea; others in islands which the air flows round, near the continent; and in a word, the air is used by them as the water and the sea are by us, and the ether is to them what the air is to us. More over, the temperament of their seasons is such that they have no disease [Paracelsus disputes this], and live much longer than we do, and have sight and bearing and smell, and all the other senses, in far greater perfection, in the same degree that air is purer than water or the ether than air. Also they have temples and sacred places in which the gods really dwell, and they hear their voices and receive their answers, and are conscious of them and hold converse with them, and they see the sun, moon, and stars as they really are, and their other blessedness is of a piece with this." While the sylphs were believed to live among the clouds and in the surrounding air, their true home was upon the tops of mountains.
To the sylphs the ancients gave the labor of modeling the snowflakes and gathering clouds. This latter they accomplished with the cooperation of the undines who supplied the moisture. The winds were their particular vehicle and the ancients referred to them as the spirits of the air. They are the highest of all the elementals, their native element being the highest in vibratory rate. They live hundreds of years, often attaining to a thousand years and never seeming to grow old. The leader of the sylphs is called Paralda, who is said to dwell on the highest mountain of the earth. The female sylphs were called sylphids.
It is believed that the sylphs, salamanders, and nymphs had much to do with the oracles of the ancients; that in fact they were the ones who spoke from the depths of the earth and from the air above. The sylphs sometimes assume human form, but apparently for only short periods of time. Their size varies, but in the majority of cases they are no larger than human beings and often considerably smaller. It is said that the sylphs have accepted human beings into their communities and have permitted them to live there for a considerable period; in fact, Paracelsus wrote of such an incident, but of course it could not have occurred while the human stranger was in his physical body. By some, the Muses of the Greeks are believed to have been sylphs, for these spirits are said to gather around the mind of the dreamer, the poet, and the artist, and inspire him with their intimate knowledge of the beauties and workings of Nature. To the sylphs were given the eastern corner of creation. Their temperament is mirthful, changeable, and eccentric. The peculiar qualities common to men of genius are supposedly the result of the cooperation of sylphs, whose aid also brings with it the sylphic inconsistency. The sylphs labor with the gases of the human body and indirectly with the nervous system, where their inconstancy is again apparent. They have no fixed domicile, but wander about from place to place--elemental nomads, invisible but ever-present powers in the intelligent activity of the universe.
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