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.