Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (known as Paracelsus) was a German doctor, alchemist and astrologer. He was born near Zurich in 1493 and died in Salzburg in 1541. He is significant to those interested in fairylore for his theory of the spirits of the four elements.
What’s in a name?
Von Hohenheim was a vain and combative man. There was little in his nature to ingratiate himself with others: he was abusive, conceited and determined to break with tradition. Typical of this attitude is the fact that he called himself Paracelsus. Celsus was a respected Roman physician of the 1st century BC; von Hohenheim had declared himself ‘Greater than Celsus.’ In our field of fairylore one of the most respected and widely known figures is the author Katharine Briggs. Many readers will know her name and may very likely own one of her books- I started my own fairy investigations with a copy of her Dictionary of fairies. To act like Paracelsus, then, would for me to decide henceforth to call myself ‘Better than Briggs.’
I don’t have either the confidence or the effrontery of Paracelsus, but it tells us a lot about the man. He knew best- in everything- and previous authorities were worthless. In contrast, Katharine Briggs was an academic, a careful scholar who had a referenced source for everything she wrote, and I still constantly refer to her books. Nonetheless, we should recall that she was largely a collator of other people’s work (especially in her best-known books). I believe we should always use Briggs as our starting point but then proceed to the sources she drew upon rather than just quoting Briggs herself- and let’s not forget that these sources were folklore collections that were often, themselves, already second or third hand from the experiences described.
Katharine Mary Briggs
If there is one chink in Brigg’s intellectual armour, it is her friendship with and confidence in the Somerset folklorist Ruth Tongue. It is pretty widely accepted now that Tongue made up a good deal of her material. She got away with this because, of course, no-one could dispute whether or not she had interviewed some elderly farmer’s wife and for a long time no-one doubted that she had. In a sense, then, Tongue was much like Paracelsus- she created a mythology which many successors have taken seriously when it did not deserve that respect.
The four elementals
Back to the great Paracelsus. In his book On nymphs, sylphs, pygmies and salamanders and other spirits he set out his theories on the supernatural world (De nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteribus spiritibus, published 1566). He believed that the whole universe was endowed with life and that the intermediate state between the material and the non-material was peopled with real beings associated with the four elements.
Paracelsus was a good Catholic and he stressed the role of God in creating these ‘elementals.’ Part of the divine purpose had been to ensure that no part of the universe was void and without life, but Paracelsus felt there was more to it than that. The elementals have important functions to perform in the universe (as we’ll see in a little while); he believed that they were vitally necessary and had not been created in vain. In addition, they exist to prove the marvels of the works of God and Paracelsus therefore argued that our proper response to this is to study them very closely and to learn all that we can about them.
According to Paracelsus, there are four species of elemental . He used a variety of names for them, even in so short a book as De nymphis. There are the undines or nymphs of water, the sylphs (a word he invented- it may derive from Greek silphe, meaning grub, or be a contraction of sylvestris nymphi) of the air, the fiery salamanders or vulcani and the pygmies or gnomes of the earth (whom he also called the mountain mannikins). Once again, the word ‘gnome’ was apparently invented by Paracelsus. The name was derived by Paracelsus from Greek, either gnōmē (intelligence)- because the gnomes revealed information about hidden treasures- or ge nomos (earth dwelling). Nevertheless, they are Paracelsus’ invention and so, as Katherine Briggs wrote in the Dictionary of fairies, gnomes “belong rather to dead science than to folk tradition.”
Paracelsus went to great lengths to stress that these elementals that he imagined are not pure spirits. They are composite spirit-men, very similar in many ways to humans, but not descended from Adam and Eve. They are more like humans than beasts, but they are neither. They resemble us both physically and in their personalities.
The elementals’ flesh is more subtle than ours and can’t be grasped or bound; they can travel through solid objects. Nonetheless, in many respects they are people just like us. They need food, drink and clothing; they have children, they suffer diseases and other health complaints and, although long-lived, they will eventually die. The elementals walk about just as we do, albeit at much greater speeds. Like us they are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb or talkative. They make tools, they have government, they formulate laws. They rest and sleep like us; they have their night and day and their seasons. They are “queer and marvellous” creatures whose major difference to humans is that they have no souls. Nevertheless, Paracelsus rejected any idea that the elementals are devils or demons; they crave salvation and by marrying a human can receive a soul and thereby be saved.
Paracelsus described his imaginary water, fire, mountain and wind people in detail. The undines look very like us, living in brooks and pools. The sylphs are crude, coarse, longer and stronger than we are; their food is like ours- the herbs of the woods which they inhabit. They are shy and fugitive. Gnomes are about half the size of humans, and build their houses under the earth. The vulcani are long, narrow and lean. They appear fiery and they melt and forge metals.
Paracelsus believed that the elementals are rational and ought to be treated with respect. We can enter into bargains with them and they may give us money. They do not mix with each other but live solely within their own elements; however, as the human world is compounded of all of the elements, they are able to interact with humans. The nymphs most resemble humans and are known to marry and interbreed with them. They have to be treated well, though, as if offended they will rapidly return to their own element. Likewise gnomes will serve people, providing them with money and knowledge and guiding them to rich resources, but they can deal out blows, too, and will disappear under their mountains at the least provocation.
The elementals have two vital functions, according to Paracelsus: they indicate and warn of future events, such as political and economic upheavals, and they act as guardians over nature. Specifically the nature spirits- especially the salamanders- make and protect “tremendous treasures in tremendous quantities.” They steadily reveal these to humans, thereby explaining why it is that we slowly discover new mineral sources and lodes of precious metal.
That’s a summary of De nymphis and I’ve probably already more devoted more space to Paracelsus’ ideas than they deserve, in the circumstances. Now, we’re all entitled to our fantasies, but the problems arise when people mistake them for scientific fact or for received wisdom. Both misconceptions have befallen Paracelsus. What may best be described as a speculation has matured into the status of a report from the otherworld.
Pixies and pygmies
Paracelsus’ ideas were widely disseminated, both through the reading of his work and through the thought of other thinkers who drew upon him. Amongst those who followed his fourfold classification of Faery were Eliphas Levy, Madame Blavatsky (founder of Theosophy), W. B. Yeats, Evans Wentz, Rudolf Steiner and Geoffrey Hodson.
Unorthodox and individual as his ideas were, Paracelsus’ four-fold division of nature took hold. Proof of this is to be found in our usage of the word gnome. He may have made it up, but on the continent it became associated with the dwarves of Teutonic and Scandinavian mythology and gradually came to act as an alternative label for them. Dwarf, gnome and goblin are now virtually interchangeable in everyday speech.
Just as he invented his own theories in medicine, Paracelsus invented his own folklore. Others added to this subsequently, Montfaucon de Villars (in Le comte de Gabalis, 1670) and Eliphas Levi being particular culprits and adding considerably to Paracelsus’ original fantasies from the Kabbalah.
Arthur Rackham, Undine, 1909
Paracelsus and folk tradition
Now, we already know that classical mythology had started to taint native beliefs as a result of the renaissance rediscovery of Greek and Roman legends. British fairies were regularly made synonymous with Mediterranean fauns and such like:
“You mountain nymphs which in the desarts reign/ Cease off your hasty chase of savage beasts…/ You driades and light-foot Satyri/ You gracious Fairies, which at even-tide,/ Your closets leave with heavenly beauty stored…” (The tragedy of Locrine, 1594); or,
“some are of fyre, and some of the ayre,/ Some watrye and some earthly, and some golden and fayre/ Some lyke unto sylver…” (The Buggbears, George Gascoigne, 1565)
Paracelsus only compounded this trend, but the real problem with his idea of the elementals is that it has next to no basis in folk tradition- nor, perhaps, should we expect it to do so, given Paracelsus’ addiction to rejecting received wisdom.
There are certainly some familiar elements in what he wrote. He’d spent a lot of time in mines and was doubtless aware of the spirit called the kobold in Germany and knocker in Cornwall; the gnome bears some considerable resemblance to these and fairies too have long been linked to buried treasure. His undine brides are very like the fairy wives of Welsh folk stories (and other myths).
As his four elementals are partly derived from classical myth, and partly from his own imagination, the difficulty for many subsequent writers has been fitting his ideas in with conventionally recognised fairy tribes. This has often proved an inevitable and considerable challenge and the result frequently is the incorporation into family-trees of strangers and aliens who just don’t belong there. Gnomes are one example of this. As I’ve just said, some similarities can be detected with Germanic dwarves, but in Britain- other than the very localised ‘knockers-‘ there’s really nothing similar. The Anglo-Saxon word for dwarf, dweorg, was able to mutate into derrick, denoting a West Country sort of pixy, precisely because there was no need for anything resembling a dwarf as such.
The ‘undine’ is something like a mermaid and vaguely resembles a meremaid such as Jenny Green-teeth, but in truth it’s only the fact that they all live in water that unites them. As for salamanders, there’s honestly nothing remotely like them in British fairy-lore. The result is that many authors have to rope in Greek nymphs and nereids, rusalkas and any other types they can in order to provide examples of Paracelsus’ four forms.
Charles M Russell, Wood nymph
The achievement of On nymphs etc is that later readers took it too seriously. It has been treated as a scientific study by a respected Renaissance authority and many have felt that it has to be given the respect due to such a seminal text and incorporated into existing fairy belief. In fact, in trying to accommodate it with traditional fairy-lore, the tendency has been for Paracelsus’ fantasies to obscure the original material. Many writers have agonised over fitting elementals and elves together, to the detriment of the latter.
Geoffrey Hodson in Fairies at work and play is an example of this. He offers us multiple categories of faery beings, including elves, brownies, mannikins (a term he may have borrowed from Paracelsus), the four elementals and devas (borrowed from Hindu belief through Theosophy). He tries to be scientific and taxonomic, but his list is pretty confusing. In fact, in modern fairy belief there’s considerable confusion over the exact nature of fairies and I suspect that a lot of this is due to the attempts to incorporate Paracelsus’ categories.
Many contemporary writers feel obliged to try to offer their readers some sort of classification of fairy kind and struggle to find a scheme that includes both brownies, pixies and the four elementals. They won’t sit together satisfactorily- and this is, of course, because Paracelsus dreamed up his classification with very little reference to tradition (well, German, Northern European tradition: he obviously knew his classical mythology). It’s very easy to find modern guides to faery which are primarily structured around the four elementals (works by Cassandra Eason, Edain McCoy, Ted Andrews, Dora Kunz, Harmonia Saille, Victoria Hunt and Emily Carding might all be cited). Readers are offered detailed analyses of the four classes along with procedures, spells and rituals for contacting and working with them. I’ve even seen ‘water babies’ suggested as a form of beach fairy found playing in the surf, which appears to be promoting Charles Kingsley‘s story far above its station to the status of authentic folklore source.
Praise for Paracelsus?
Is there anything good to say about the book De nymphis? It’s certainly a good and convincing read, it’s true, but there may be a more substantive benefit.
One aspect of Paracelsus’ description will strike a chord with many: that’s his vision of elementals as guardians of nature. As we have faced increasing environmental degradation, this role for the fairies has been deliberately promoted. For many writers, it is close to being their principle function. As a single example, Rae Beth in The way into faerie describes how the fairies’ dancing keeps “the whole web of Nature in balance and harmony.” This focus upon ecosystems and natural processes cannot be faulted.
However, in the process (and I particularly blame the Theosophists here) the identification of fairies with the elementals and with finer workings of botany and biochemistry has tended to diminish them until they’re not much more than molecules and minerals moving through the xylem and phloem. This trend may have been initiated, however unwittingly, by Paracelsus, but it’s diverged even from his ideas. He was quite clear that the elementals are people, just like us, with their moods and aspirations, whereas some more recent writing has stripped them of this individuality.
Modern scientific thinking makes us want to order and arrange things logically and neatly and the writing of Paracelsus provides an apparent starting point for doing this. The thing is, though, a great deal of it’s nonsense, and I think we should all be a lot happier if we just ditched it and stuck to the observation and experience of tradition.
I discuss Paracelsus work and its impact at greater length in my books Fayerie, on Tudor and Stuart faerylore, and in my study Nymphology.