Elementary Spirits
The unseen entities said to inhabit the four elements; they
are composed of the finest essence of each element. The creatures
of the air are called sylphs; of the earth, gnomes; of fire,
salamanders; and of water, nymphs or undines. The Abbé de
Villars (1635–ca. 1673) is often cited as an authority on the
subject, since he published a treatise entitled Comte de Gabalis
(1670), from which a good deal of what follows is drawn.
According to this work, before the Fall, the creatures of the
elements were subject to Adam in all things. By means of certain
performances this ancient communication may be restored,
and man may once more have at his command the elementary
spirits. The abbot gives a brief sketch of the nature of
these spirits.
The air, he says, is filled with a great number of sylphs, beings
of human form, somewhat fierce in appearance, but really
of a docile nature. They are interested in the sciences and are
subtle. They are officious toward the sages and hostile toward
the foolish and the ignorant. Their wives and daughters are of
a masculine type of beauty, such as that of the Amazons.
The seas and rivers are inhabited as well as the air, and the
beings dwelling there are designated undines, or nymphs, by
the sages. The female population much exceeds the male, the
women being so exceedingly beautiful that among the daughters
of men there is none to equal them.
The Earth is filled almost to the center with gnomes, beings
of small stature that guard subterranean treasure, minerals,
and precious stones. They are ingenious, friendly toward men,
and easy to command. They provide the children of the sages
with all the money they require, asking no other reward for
their services than the glory of performing them. The gnomides,
their wives, are small of stature but very good-looking,
and they dress very curiously.
As for the salamanders, the inhabitants of the region of fire,
they serve the philosophers, but are not overanxious for their
company. Their daughters and wives are rarely seen. Their
women are very beautiful, beyond all the other elementals,
since they dwell in a purer element. Their habits, mode of life,
manners, and laws are admirable, and their mental brillance is
even greater than their physical beauty. They know and religiously
adore the Supreme Being, but have no hope of eternal
enjoyment of him, since their souls are mortal. Being composed
of the purest parts of the elements wherein they dwell,
and having no contrary qualities, they can live for several centuries,
yet they are much troubled because of their mortal nature.
It was revealed to the philosophers, however, that an elementary
spirit could attain immortality by marrying a human
being. The children born of such unions are more noble and
heroic than the children of human men and women, and some
of the greatest figures of antiquity—Zoroaster, Alexander, Hercules,
and Merlin, to mention a few—are declared to have been
the children of elementary spirits.
The salamanders, the Comte de Gabalis goes on to say, are
composed of the most subtle particles of the sphere of fire, conglobated
and organized by the action of the Universal Fire, so
called because it is the principle of all the motions of nature.
The sylphs are composed of the purest atoms of the air; the
nymphs, of the most delicate particles of water; the gnomes, of
the finest essence of earth. Adam was in complete accord with
these creatures because, being composed of that which was purest
in the four elements, he contained in himself the perfections
of these four species and was their natural king. But since
by reason of his sin he was cast into the excrements of the elements,
there no longer existed the harmony between him, so
impure and gross, and these fine and ethereal substances.
The abbot goes on to give instructions on how this state of
things can be remedied and the ancient order restored. To attain
this end mankind must purify and exalt the element of fire
that is within all humans. All that is necessary is to concentrate
the fire of the world, by means of concave mirrors, in a globe
of glass. There will then be formed within the globe a solar
powder that, having purified itself from the mixture of other
elements, will become in a very short time a sovereign means
of exalting the fire within us and make us, so to speak, of an
igneous nature. Thereafter, the creatures of the fire will become
our inferiors, and, delighted at the restoration of mutual
harmony between themselves and the human race, they will
show toward man all the goodwill they have for their own kind.
Sylphs, gnomes, and nymphs are more familiar with humans
than are the salamanders, on account of their shorter
term of life, and it is therefore easier to get in touch with them.
To restore its dominion over the sylphs, gnomes, or nymphs,
the human race must close a glass full of air, earth, or water and
expose it to the sun for a month, after which its various elements
must be separated according to science. This process is
easiest in the case of water and earth. ‘‘Thus,’’ states the Comte,
‘‘without characters, without ceremonies, without barbarous
words, it is possible to rule absolutely over these peoples.’’
Other authorities prescribe other means of obtaining dominion
over the spirits of the elements. The occultist Éliphas
Lévi, for instance, stated that anyone desiring to subjugate the
elementals must first perform ‘‘the four trials of antique initiation,’’
but as the original trials are no longer known, similar
ones must be substituted. Thus, he who would control the
sylphs must walk fearlessly on the edge of a precipice; he who
would win the service of the salamanders must take his stand
in a burning building, and so on, the point of the ordeals being
that the man should show himself unafraid of the elements
whose inhabitants he desires to rule.
In medieval times the evocation and exorcism of elementary
spirits was practiced extensively, the crystal being a favorite
means of evoking them. The exorcism of earth was performed
by means of breathing, sprinkling water, burning incense, and
repeating a certain prayer to the gnomes. Air was exorcised by
breathing toward the four cardinal points and by reciting
prayers to the air spirits (sylphs). Casting salt, incense, sulphur,
camphor, and white resin into a fire was considered efficacious
in exorcising that element. In the case of water, breathing and
laying on of hands, repeating formulas, mixing salt and ashes
of incense, and other ceremonies were to be observed. In every
instance, a special consecration of the four elements was a primary
and essential part of the proceedings.
As stated, it was thought possible for a human being to confer
immortality on an elementary spirit through marriage. This
does not always occur, however. Sometimes the reverse is the
case, and the elementals share their mortality with their human
mate. In literature, at all events, countless stories relate how
men have risked and lost their immortality by marrying a sylph
or an undine. According to the Comte de Gabalis, however, it
would seem to be a matter of choice whether a man confers his
immortality on his ethereal partner or whether he partakes of
her mortal nature, for it suggests that those who have not been
predestined to eternal happiness would do well to marry an elemental
and thus spare themselves an eternity of woe.
Not every authority has painted so attractive a picture of the
creatures of the elements as has the Abbé de Villars. Some have
contended that there are innumerable degrees among these
beings, the highest resembling the lower angels, while the lowest
may often be mistaken for demons, which they are not. Not
only do multitudinous variations of form and disposition characterize
the elementals of this planet, the other planets and the
stars are also the abode of countless hosts of elementary spirits,
differing from those of our world perhaps more than the latter
differ from one another.
All the forms of beasts, insects, and reptiles, as well as
strange combinations of the shapes of different animals, may
be taken by the lower elementals of Earth. The inhabitants of
each element have their peculiar virtues and vices that serve to
distinguish them. The sylphs are capricious and inconstant, but
agile and active; the undines, jealous and cold, but observant;
Elementary Spirits Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
the salamanders, hot and hasty, but energetic and strong; and
the gnomes, greedy of gold and treasures, but nevertheless
hardworking, good-tempered, and patient. Anyone who would
seek dominion over any of these must practice their virtues but
carefully avoid their faults, thus conquering them, as it were, on
their own ground.
Each species can dwell only in its own proper element. Thus
a sylph may not invade the sphere of a salamander, or vice
versa, while both would be decidedly out of their element in the
regions of the nymphs or the gnomes. Four rulers have been
set over the four species—Gob, ruler of the gnomes; Paralda,
of the sylphs; Djin, of the salamanders; and Necksa, of the
nymphs. The dwellers in each element are assigned a point of
the compass, which is where their special kingdom lies. To the
gnomes is given the north, to the salamanders, the south, to the
sylphs, the east, and to the undines, the west. The gnomes influence
those of a melancholic disposition, because they dwell
in the gloom of subterranean caverns. The salamanders have
an effect on those of sanguine temperament, because their
home is in the fire. The undines influence the phlegmatic, and
the sylphs those of a bilious temperament. Although the elementals
are invisible to human eyes, they may on occasion become
visible to those who invoke them, to the sages and philosophers,
and even to the multitude.
It is said that in the reign of King Pépin, Zedekias, a ninthcentury
physician, suggested to the sylphs that they should appear
to men, whereupon the air was seen to be full of them,
sometimes ranged in battle, or in an aerial army. It was said by
the people that they were sorcerers—an opinion to which Charlemagne
and his son Louis the Débonnaire subscribed, the latter
at least imposing heavy penalties on the supposed sorcerers.
To witness the admirable institutions of the sylphs, certain men
were raised up in the air, and while descending were seen by
their fellowmen on Earth. The latter regarded them as stragglers
of the aerial army of sorcerers and thought that they had
come to poison the fruits and fountains. These unfortunate
persons were thereupon put to death, along with many others
suspected of ties to the sorcerers.
The nature of these spirits was collated in the Comte de Gabalis
with the oracles of antiquity, and even with the classic pantheons
of Greece and Rome. Pan, for example, was the first and
oldest of the nymphs, and the news of his death, communicated
by the people of the air to the inhabitants of the waters, was
proclaimed by them in a voice that was heard sounding over all
the rivers of Italy—‘‘The great Pan is dead!’’
The scholar of occultism and mysticism A. E. Waite considered
the ‘‘angels’’ evoked in medieval magic, as well as the
‘‘devils’’ of the witchcraft sabbat, to be higher or lower elementals.
Others see in the brownies and domestic spirits of folklore
some resemblance to the subjugated elementary spirits. Even
the familiar poltergeist, when not clearly identified as the spirit
of a deceased person, may be regarded as an elemental. Spiritualists
believe that elementals occasionally manifest as mischievous
or evil spirits at séances.
Although the book Comte de Gabalis is probably an imaginative
or allegorical work, it brings together preexisting legends
of elementary spirits in an entertaining and philosophical format.
Barrett, Francis. The Magus. London Lackington, Allen,
1801. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books, 1967.
De Villars, l’Abbé de Montfaucon. Comte de Gabalis. 1670.
Reprint, New York Macoy Publishing and Masonic Supply,
Lévi, Éliphas. Transcendental Magic. London Redway, 1896.
Reprint, New York Samuel Weiser, 1970.
Waite, Arthur Edward. The Book of Black Magic and of Pacts
Including the Mysteries of Goëtic Theurgy, Sorcery, and Infernal Necromancy.
London George Redway, 1898. Revised as The Book
of Ceremonial Magic. New Hyde Park, N.Y. University Books,

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