Elementals: The Folklore of Paracelsus the Alchemist

During his lifetime Paracelsus (born as Theophrastus von Hohenheim) was primarily known to be a physician, as well as for his involvement and studies into occult sciences through his teacher Trithemius – who also taught Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa. Today he is known for both his alchemical and medical writings.

An almost lesser-known work today is his posthumously published work on Elementals called Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris et Gigantibus, etc (engl. A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits).

First published in 1566 it gives an explanation to folklore creatures and even some ancient gods and gives them a place within the divine hierarchy known as The Great Chain of Being. What differentiates Paracelsus’ approach to those folkloric spirits and creatures from other approaches of his time, is that he claims the view of Christianity – that those spirits are devils or demons – to be completely false. On the contrary, he proposes that they are part of God’s divine creation.

As the sick need the physician, the Christian his Redeemer, and all things their masters, so are the elemental creatures necessary in the scheme of life. They represent certain forces, fill their place in nature, and were not created without purpose.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 67.

“Hylas and the Nymphs” by John William Waterhouse

Neither Man nor Spirit

According to Paracelsus, while those beings are very similar to us humans, even appear like humans do and clothe themselves, they still differ in certain aspects, which makes them not human. One of those aspects is that those elemental beings are able to pass through solids, whereas we humans cannot.

Paracelsus explains:

There are two kinds of flesh, the flesh derived from Adam and the flesh that is not from Adam. The flesh of Adam is coarse, earthly flesh that is tangible and can be held and tied. The flesh not from Adam is subtle and cannot be bound or held because it is not derived from the earth. The flesh from Adam cannot pass through solids; it must have openings in order to pass through. The flesh not from Adam passes through solid substances and needs no door. Yet it is flesh, blood, and bone, and is as real as human flesh. There are two sources, two fathers, two origins.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 67.

It is safe to say that Paracelsus got the idea of Adam being made of earth straight from the Bible itself:

Then the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” Genesis 2:7 RSV.

Yet, Pracacelsus explains, they are not fully spirit either. Why? Because they eat, drink, get sick, and – most importantly – are mortal:

They have flesh, blood, and bone. They speak, eat, and drink; wander about and bear chil­dren. Yet they are not human, nor are they truly spirit. They are swift like spirits, yet in many ways resemble man. They partake of both spirit and matter, yet they are apart from both, being more like a conjunction of them, like a mixture of sour and sweet, or of colors blended. Man has a soul; the elemental has no spirit. Elementals are not like spirits, for they are mortal; but they are not like men, for they have no soul as man has. They are like animals which die; but they are above the animals, for they speak, laugh, and act like human beings, which is impossible to animals. Therefore, they are neither man nor beast.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 67-68.

That those elemental beings apparently lack the possession of a soul is not to be taken as something derogatory. It’s important to note that Paracelsus himself was Christian, through which he believed mankind to be redeemed through Christ in order to receive eternal life in Heaven. This is important to the context of Paracelsus when he speaks of the soul and mortality, which he elaborates on further:

Christ died for man to save the soul of man. He did not die for the elementals because these creatures were not derived from Adam.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 68.

Paracelsus also further elaborates on how elementals are able to reason and their similarities to humans, which he concludes with a sense of curiosity, awe and wonder:

Their food is as mans; they eat and enjoy themselves. They spin and weave, and make their own clothes. They reason. They are wise in government. Though subhuman, they think like human beings; but being soulless, they do not worship God nor try to serve him. They are guided by a com­bination of instinct and reason. As man is nearest to God in mind and faculties, so among the animals the elementals are the nearest to man. So they are called people. They are a peculiar and wonderful creation.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 69.

Beings of Fire, Water, Earth and Air

The elementals existing in each of the four elements differ from one another in person, character, species, and habitation, yet they all resemble man.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 70.

Paracelsus names several elemental beings for each element. For water he names nymphs or undines, for earth he names pygmies or gnomes, for fire, he names salamanders or vulcani, and lastly, for air, he names sylphs or slyvestres. According to him, they all live in their respective element, because:

Each elemental is created for its proper element. To the nymphs, the water is what air is to man. And as man wonders how the nymphs can live in the water, so do they wonder that man can live in the air. […] Each kind is healthy in its own element, but sickens and dies in other elements.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 70.

He elaborates on the similarities those beings have to humans, as well as how they differentiate from them. Those elementals are clothed, they eat and drink, they have their governments and laws, they work and labor and they can suffer illnesses just like humans can.

Then again, one of the major differences Paracelsus cites, is the following:

It follows that elementals are subject also to bodily ills. They have sicknesses, fevers, and so forth. Yet after death they are like animals, and will not be raised by God at the resurrection.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 72.

“Nymphs Listening to the Songs of Orpheus” by Charles Francois Jalabert

For the Soulless to gain a Soul

What the actual purpose of those beings actually is, is unknown even to Paracelsus himself. What he does elaborate on is what those beings do, when they show themselves to humans. One of the most common things the people of earth, air, and fire do, is to show hidden treasures and help mankind through abilities like prophecy.

One of the most important aspects to Paracelsus seems to be the offspring, which according to him can come from a human and elemental being – mostly nymphs:

Since the elementals resemble man except in one respect, that they do not possess an immortal soul, it can be understood that if a nymph should appear to a man and he marries her, she can live with him and bear children. These children then are endowed with a soul because one parent is from Adam, and the other has received the gift of soul and immortality, and become a human being by the sacrament of marriage and union with God and man.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 73.

To become “ensouled” as Paracelsus puts it, gives those elemental people or spirits freedom:

They have reason and knowledge, and realize the importance of becoming ensoulled through man, and in this way; gaining freedom and power, and union with God through their offspring.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 73.

Marriage between Man and Nymph

If a man has a nymph for a wife, she must be kept away from water, or she may vanish; nor must he offend her upon or near water.

One of the most interesting concepts found in Paracelsus’ view on those elementals, is the marriage between a nymph and a human. He describes the marriage to a nymph, which sounds like it is taken straight from folklore:

If a nymph is married to a man, and they happen to be in a boat and he offends her, she will throw herself overboard and disappear. She might as well be dead for him; he never will see her again Yet she is not dead, and he still is wedded to her. He cannot lawfully take another wife, for he is not divorced. He is bound to her for eternity, though she has departed from husband and children. If the man should nevertheless take another wife, the nymph will kill him, which has happened many times.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 75.

Paracelsus then goes on to share an example of such a marriage:

There is one story recorded in history about a nymph of Stauffenberg. In her tempting beauty she seated herself by the wayside, awaiting the passing of the lord of Stauffenberg, whom she had chosen for herself. So-called theologians say that this is but the devil’s work, though they do not rightly know who or what the devil really is. But the wise theologian knows better.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 76.

It’s important to note here, that Paracelsus claims theologians to be in error, who claim that nymphs are part of the devil’s work. He did not see nymphs or Elementals as something evil but as a creation of God.

Paracelsus then elaborates on the story of the nymph married to Stauffenberg:

This nymph who was married to the lord of Stauffenberg, lived happily with him until he conceived the idea that she was some form of the devil. He then cast her out, broke his vow, and took another wife. On the wedding day, the nymph gave him a warning, and on the third day thereafter, he was dead. ” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 76.

We can see that Paracelsus viewed Stauffenberg to be at fault here – the lord started to believe the nymph to be demonic, which according to Paracelsus is absolute nonsense, and went on to take another wife; which Paracelsus interprets as Stauffenberg being the adulterer, who wronged the woman – the nymph – he was married to.

Paracelsus concludes this story with:

The nymph was avenged and the adulterer punished.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 76.

Of marriages between nymphs and humans, Paracelsus writes very highly:

Such happenings, of course, are not common— that a man should take a nymph to wife. When it does happen, it is for the purpose that man should become aware of the wonder-works of God.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 76.

“Tannhäuser und Venus” by Otto Knille

Venus

Paracelsus describes Venus as the greatest and most famous nymph, who would reside in the realm of man in her Venusburg (probably Venusberg):

The nymphs have a place where they can congregate and where they can meet human beings. Most of the nymphs are feminine, and they are eager to find and attract mortals. For that reason they chose a place astride of their own clement, but in the natural element of man where it is possible that such meet­ings can take place. This place is called Venusburg.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 75.

This “Venusberg” makes an appearance in European folklore and legends since the Middle Ages. One of the most famous legends is a story revolving around the minnesinger Tannhäuser, who finds the Venusberg and becomes obsessed with worshipping Venus, who presides there.

Paracelsus writes:

She[Venus] has chosen for her abode a lovely pool which is partly under a mountain. From there she built an ascending tunnel up to a cave where she could meet and ensnare humans in a myste­rious way. Many wonderful and unbelievable stories have been told about these things. So strange, indeed, are these tales that they might almost be considered parables and symbologies.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 76.

Other Elementals

Besides nymphs, pygmies, sylphs, and salamanders, Paracelsus also lists other beings which reside in their respective elements. Additional to the elemental beings mentioned he also names sirens, dwarfs, and giants as elemental beings, which he calls misbirths. Because of their rarity, however, Paracelsus puts forth that there is a special purpose for them since they all – despite them being “monsters” of elementals – have gifts given by God:

The giants come from the forest people; the dwarfs fromji the gnomes. Both are monsters and misbirths. These monster creations are as rare among elementals as they are among hu­man beings. When such a birth occurs, God has again some special purpose in mind.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 77.

Of sirens, he writes:

They are more on the surface of the water than under it. They resemble misshapen human beings. These are monsters and miscreations born of two nymphs, just as mon­strosities often are born of human beings. They become outcasts from the nether water-world and cannot multiply. They are variously gifted. Some sing, others make strange noises on reeds. God indeed has made many wonderful creatures.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 75.

Furthermore, he also mentions “melosinae”, which probably means “Melusine”. However, he paints them in a rather negative light compared to the other beings he discusses:

It is well to be careful how men associate with the melosinae, for it is said that they are under the domination of the devil, who can change them the same as witches into cats, dogs, monkeys, and so forth.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 76.

It should be noted that what Paracelsus describes as nymphs and the folk tale of Scotland surrounding Melusine, the daughter of a fairy and King Elinas of Albany (modern-day Scotland) overlap more than his own description of “melosinae” and the Scottish folktale.

Conclusion

Overall this little work of Paracelsus almost reads like a fairy-tale treatise on mythological creatures. His approach to those elementals being part of God’s creation is not only unusual – it’s also very un-Christian for his time. This is what makes this work special for folklore within a Christian, Abrahamic, or just monotheistic context.

I highly encourage anyone, who is interested in European folklore to read this little treatise by Paracelsus. It is a very fun and short read!

Paracelsus concludes his work with:

I commend what I have written according to the truth of God to God, who will reveal the light of each according to how he let it shine in this world.” Paracelsus on Elementals, in “Paracelsus” by Manly P. Hall, p. 77.

Literature

I. The Bible RSV.

II. “Paracelsus. His Mystical and Medical Philosophy” by Manly P. Hall. Free PDF. “A Book of Nymphs…” by Paracelsus starts at the 69th PDF page.

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