November 28th, 2009



  • 02:47 I can't WAIT to hear the latest reports of people trampling each other to buy some crappy off-brand laptop! #
  • 03:07 Black Friday sales operate on the time-tested principle of Survival of the Assiest. #
  • 03:10 I was going to watch "Chica Booty Banger 2," but then I realized I hadn't seen the first one, so I'd probably be lost. #
  • 13:07 Here's wishing you the blackest of Black Fridays! #
  • 13:50 Today is Buy Nothing Day, which means tomorrow is Buy All the Stuff You Otherwise Would Have Bought Yesterday Day. #
  • 14:05 @KimBoekbinder Wasn't that a James Bond film? #
  • 16:50 @colleenanne No, it means you weren't participating in Buy Nothing Day, so the issue is irrelevant. #
  • 16:52 @eehouls Depends on whether you're a greedy bastard or a smug, self-righteous one. #
  • 16:53 @neilhimself Not Voltaire, then? #
  • 18:41 I feel rather accomplished for having sorted out my bookshelves, despite the fact that they really don't look much different. #
  • 18:42 Most of my books are in storage, s
    o it wasn't as difficult as it otherwise might have been. #
  • 18:46 @oz_diggs You mean your Chevy? #
  • 18:47 All my Oz books (well, most of them, anyway) are now on the shelves near my computer. That should make them easier to access. #
  • 18:48 Unfortunately, I had to stack them instead of shelving them normally. #
  • 19:08 @suicideblonde What about black humor, or black beans? #
  • 19:48 Interesting that the Shanower/Young "Land of Oz" keeps in Tip's bit about the grass and trees being purple, when they're obvi
    ously not. #
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Meet the Elementals

This week, I thought it might be fun to look at elementals, which are basically nature spirits. Many cultures believed in such beings, but the most famous classification is probably that determined by the sixteenth century physician and alchemist Phillip von Hohenheim, better known as Paracelsus. He was a believer in the four classical elements as known in Greece, India, and Japan. These, of course, were earth, fire, air, and water. There was sometimes also a fifth element added to the mix, but contrary to what Ted Turner and Captain Planet might have told you, it wasn't "heart." Rather, Aristotle decided that the fifth element was aether, also known as quintessence, an immutable substance from which the gods and the heavens are made. In Japanese thought, the fifth element was known as Void. The Chinese had slightly different classical elements, counting metal and wood but not air. These elements have, throughout history, been linked to everything from planets to months of the year. Since the discovery of actual elements, however, it seems that the classical elements are typically viewed symbolically rather than literally. Some sources suggest that Paracelsus associated each of the classical elements with a real atomic element (carbon for earth, hydrogen for water, oxygen for air, and for some reason nitrogen for fire), and he also proposed intelligent beings dwelling in each of these elements. His names for such creatures came from mythology, although he sometimes changed details from older descriptions of nature spirits. Earth was ruled by the gnomes, diminutive dwarfs from European folklore. The term "gnome" might have been original with Paracelsus, and probably derives from the Latin and Greek for "earth-dweller," although it was commonly believed at one point that it was connected to the term for knowledge. Undines are water spirits, the term being the French name for mermaids. Some legends had it that an undine had no soul unless it married a mortal, an idea that showed up from time to time in post-Christian folklore. I guess the idea is that it gives humans a certain amount of superiority over traditional immortals, since they can go to Heaven while the minor deities are stuck on Earth forever. That also presumably means they can't go to Hell either, but I'm not sure the myth writers addressed that. Fire elementals are salamanders, the association likely coming from how salamanders would hibernate in logs and scurry out to escape when the logs were set ablaze, giving the impression to a casual observer that the flames created them. They were also thought to be able to withstand heat because of their moist skin. We now know such tales are no more true than the ostrich hiding its head in the sand, but since the idea of a fire lizard is still intriguing, some modern fantasists think of the elemental as a completely different animal than the amphibian of that name. The air elementals are sylphs, and don't have as many mythological associations, but are generally regarded to be quite similar to winged fairies.

The idea of elementals has stuck around through the ages, and a Google search reveals that they're fairly popular within the neopagan movement. They're also often associated with the occult, and mystical philosophies like Theosophy incorporate beliefs in such beings. And, not surprisingly, they've also made their way into fantasy. In the days to come, I hope to discuss the use of characters associated with the classical elements in the Oz books and the video game world, and perhaps other media as well.

Babble on Blavatsky and Baum

As I mentioned in my last proper post, belief in elementals has persisted over the centuries, and one philosophical system that included such belief was Theosophy, an occult movement founded by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in the late nineteenth century. So what, exactly, did Theosophists believe? Well, I can't be entirely sure, as Blavatsky and her followers were apparently fond of the typical occult trick of making things seem mystical by writing about them in convoluted ways. At its heart, it seems to be a syncretic belief that all religions contain some truth, and many different cultures had Adepts who were skilled at discerning spiritual truths about the universe. It incorporates elements from many different religions, as well as folklore and philosophy. The great chain of being, multiple lives of souls, history being cyclical, and humans evolving from weird proto-human creatures were all parts of Theosophy; as were the lost continents of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Hyperborea. In other words, it was sort of a catch-all with some new ideas added in. Blavatsky believed in the consciousness of the entire universe, and the elementals were basically the conscious spiritual forms of various natural forces. She wrote, "Under the general designation of fairies, and fays, these spirits of the elements appear in the myths, fables, traditions, or poetry of all nations, ancient and modern. Their names are legion--peris, devs, djins, sylvans, satyrs, fauns, elves, dwarfs, trolls, norns, nisses, kobolds, brownies, necks, stromkarls, undines, nixies, goblins, ponkes, banshees, kelpies, pixies, moss people, good people, good neighbours, wild women, men of peace, white ladies--and many more. They have been seen, feared, blessed, banned, and invoked in every quarter of the globe and in every age. Shall we then concede that all who have met them were hallucinated?" Yeah, pretty much the same basic argument that the alien astronaut theorists use. "A lot of people have reported seeing kind of similar creatures, and you can't prove they AREN'T real!" It doesn't hold a lot of water (or undines, for that matter) when you get right down to it, but I can see the appeal.

One known member of the Theosophical Society was none other than my favorite author, L. Frank Baum, which is largely why this kind of thing interests me in the first place. There have been some studies on how Theosophical beliefs affected Baum's writing. Honestly, I think most of the references are more subtle than people like the compiler of said page prefer to think, but there are some significant similarities. Baum refers to Adepts in Glinda of Oz, and to the ancient Greek idea of demons being spiritual guides in The Master Key. And yes, the idea of elementals appears here and there as well, most prominently in Baum's own Nomes, described as "rock fairies" and "underground elves." The idea of underground creatures capturing humans, as occurred in many of Baum's own Nome stories (the royal family of Ev in Ozma, the Shaggy Man's brother in Tik-Tok, the King and Queen of Pingaree in Rinkitink), is a common one in fantasy, what with gnomes kidnapping a human girl in Zauberlinda the Wise Witch (a book that owes much of its style to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and which Baum himself quite possibly borrowed from in turn) and George MacDonald's princess-napping goblins. Still, I think the idea that Nomes are the keepers of rocks and gems ties Baum's creations in with the elemental concept. One of the first mentions of the Gnome King (Baum hadn't yet changed the spelling at this point) was in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, in which he's one member of a council of immortals that watches over various aspects of nature. This council also includes the Queen of the Water Sprites and the King of the Wind Demons, and later books set in the same expanded universe bring in sea and sky fairies, the former being the mermaids of the book simply called The Sea Fairies, and the latter including the Daughter of the Rainbow. It doesn't seem like he really involved fire fairies all that much, though. I believe The Annotated Wizard of Oz suggested a connection between Tititi-Hoochoo's subjects from Tik-Tok and fire, presumably based on the fact that the ruler's title is the Great Jinjin, and jinn are associated with fire. Aside from one of the maidens attending the Queen of Light being named Firelight, however, I don't really see this. Also perhaps somewhat telling is that one of Button-Bright's many middle names is Paracelsus.

If I remember correctly, the nasty Wizard of Oz from Wicked was a direct follower of Blavatsky, and was perhaps intended to highlight some of the less palatable aspects of Theosophy. Gregory Maguire's Wizard rules Oz as a Hitler-like dictator, and the superiority of the Aryan race was espoused by Blavatsky. She did not advocate genocide, instead assuming that the Aryans would simply be favored by natural selection, but Theosophy was cited as an influence on the founders of the much more blatantly racist Ariosophy. Blavatsky's teachings included something about the Aryans originating on Atlantis and eventually being replaced themselves by the sixth root race, a far cry from gassing Jews in concentration camps. In other words, I guess you could say it was an example of RACIAL thinking, but not necessarily RACIST thinking. Still not good, of course, but I have to suspect from the admittedly little I've read about her that Blavatsky wouldn't have actually supported the Wizard's systematic persecution of talking animals.