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Nature Spirits, Mythology and Elemental Beings

Nature spirits exist in nearly every culture on earth. They take the form of both positive helpers and mischievous sprites of all kinds. There is debate about whether these nature spirits possess souls. Marriage to a mortal is believed to grant them a soul, but to shorten their physical lifespan. This article includes the four elemental beings that correspond with the classical Western elements: fire, air, water and earth. 

Nature Spirits: Salamanders and Fire

Salamanders of the Fire Element

River of Fire by Kathleen Karlsen

According to Paracelsus, salamanders embody the fire element. Paracelsus (1493-1541), a Swiss German physician and alchemist during the German renaissance, believed that nature spirits are associated with the four classical elements: fire, air, water and earth. Credited as the father of toxicology, Paracelsus was a well-respected scientist who first described nature spirits as a fundamental part of science.

Medieval Theories About Fire Spirits

Other Medieval theorists described the salamander as lizard-shaped and about a foot long. They are purported to glow and to be immune to crawling through fire. Fiery salamanders might be seen in the shape of balls of fire, tongues of fire, or felt through the burning of incense or other combustible materials.

Salamanders are the strongest and most powerful of the four classes of elemental beings. Their ruler is a Djin or jinn, a kind of fiery genie. Without salamanders, all forms of warmth or fire would cease to exist. Salamanders vary in size and appearance. They are usually thought to be long and lean like the flames of fire.

The Origin of Fiery Salamanders

Some think the connection between fire and salamanders is practical: physical salamanders tend to hibernate under rotting logs. When these logs are placed on a fire, the salamanders appear to emerge from the flames. In mystical lore, fiery salamanders are thought to be non-physical beings that control the element of fire.

Salamanders can be commanded by humans to assist in increasing or dampening the element of fire as needed. When fiery salamanders they are out of control, forest fires and other forms of destruction by fire can occur. Salamanders are an expression of intensity. They are associated with spiritual fire as well as physical ardor. They can be dangerous to humans if not handled or respected properly.

Nature Spirits: Sylphs of the Air

Sylphs of the Air Wind Painting

A Beautiful Wind by Kathleen Karlsen

Sylphs are mythological creatures referred to as elementals of the air. These elements of the air are sometimes depicted as cloud beings. Sylphs are also associated with angels and may be a part of their origins. Sylphs are often thought to live in high altitudes such as high peaks and mountains. They serve a protective function to preserve the purity of nature. Paracelsus believed that sylphs are “rougher, coarser, taller, and stronger than humans” (from Liber de Nymphis).

Characteristics of Sylphs and Fairies

Paracelsus further described sylphs as expressions of ascendant energy: beautiful and harmonious, sublime, normally invisible, sublime, and highly intellectual. Their eyes are like hawks, possessing the ability to see from great distances. Sylphs can be appealed to in all situations where wind has gotten out of control. They are burdened by air pollution and avoid places with contaminated air.

The Connection Between Sylphs and Fairies

Others believe that sylphs are a branch of the sidhe, a metaphysical race known in ancient Ireland and comparable to fairies, elves, leprechauns and the like. Their association with the air gives them the ability to control the weather. Although they resemble humans, they also have a pair of huge, feathered wings on their backs. Sylphs are thought to rule the world of dreams.

The oldest written records of fairies were from Gervase of Tilbury in the 13th century. Fairies were not always beautiful to look at or possessed of elevated personalities. Some thought that they were somewhere between the realm of angels and devils. Many types of magical creatures were labelled as fairies. 

Fairies were not always thought to have wings like sylphs. They were originally believed to fly through pure magic. Tiny fairies associated with gardens and flower have appeared in artwork for centuries, but less often in folklore.

Author's Story About Fairies

Although I haven’t seen fairies myself, my mother has heard them singing. Her side of the family is nearly 100% Irish. My father is also half Irish. They have taken 4 or 5 trips to Ireland and one to Scotland, sometimes staying for many weeks.
My mother is particularly devoted to visiting ancient sacred sites. One time they were far off the road in a farmer’s field at the location of a small dolmen. My grandparents (from the Irish side) were traveling with them, and they decided to have a picnic at the site. 
My mother heard the fairies singing while they were there, but did not say anything to the others who were less inclined to such things. When they’d finished eating, they got back in the car.
My grandmother turned to my mom and said, “Where were the school children that I heard singing?” My mother said, “Oh! You heard them, too!” As far as my mother was concerned, that confirmed the presence of the fairies! 

Nature Spirits: Undines and Water

Undines of the Water Element

The One Wave by Kathleen Karlsen

Undines are the spirits of water, sometimes referred to as nymphs. Undines can live in both fresh and salt water. They love to play in the spray of waterfalls and in mountain streams. They closely resemble humans in size but may also be smaller depending on the body of water that they inhabit. The name “undine” comes from the Latin word “unda” meaning wave or water. Some view mermaids as a kind of undine of the ocean.

Undines and the Emotions

Water represents the emotions. In the case of undines, they are believed to possess a refined nature that exemplifies love, beauty and grace. Undines are usually depicted as female, just as gnomes (see below) are usually shown as male, even though both of these types of nature spirits exist in male and female form.

Relationships Between Humans and Undines

Relationships between nature spirits and humans are also legendary. These are usually between a female undine and a male human. For example, a romance book written by Friedrich de la Motte in 1811 was the inspiration for the modern tale of The Little Mermaid. Learn more about mermaids in our article on Nature Symbols.

Nature Symbols: Gnomes of the Earth

Gnomes of the Earth Element

Growth by Kathleen Karlsen

Gnomes are earth dwellers who often work with minerals, stones, flowers, greenery, gems, and metals. They are said to be the guardians of hidden treasures. Gnomes are also said to be caretakers of shrubs, trees, gardens, and fields. Gnomes are healers of the earth and of humans. For example, gnomes are thought to help help mend broken bones.

The Origin of Gnomes

The name “gnome” is possibly derived from the Greek word “genomus” meaning an “earth dweller.” Some gnomes are believed to live in caves beneath the surface of the earth. The appearance of gnomes may change based on the part of the earth that they tend. Gnomes caring for poisonous shrubs, for example, may be small and ugly. Those caring for large, beautiful trees may be much larger and more attractive. Typically, gnomes are smaller than humans.

Gnome Statue

Gnome Statue by Andrew Karlsen

The Personality of Gnomes

The personality of gnomes also varies widely. They may be friendly or malicious. However, even the treacherous ones will be helpful once they have been befriended. Female gnomes are called gnomides. Elves are a common alternate form of gnomes. Elves may live in houses or barns rather than in direct contact with the earth. All forms of gnomes are purported to be both stubborn and brave. In their best forms, their deepest desire is to transform the physical world and nature into something of great value and beauty. 

Author and Artist Kathleen Karlsen

Kathleen Karlsen is a musician, artist, writer and speaker. She is the author of two books (Flower Symbols and Vocal Medicine) and over 200 articles. Kathleen, her husband Andrew and their five children live in Bozeman, Montana. More about Kathleen Karlsen.

Kathleen Karlsen Video Resources Thumbnail

Books by Kathleen Karlsen

Vocal Medicine reveals Kathleen’s personal journey and years of research into mantras, chanting and kirtan.  Explore the chakras and the impact of sound in every area of your life. 

Flower Symbols features fascinating information about the folklore of the world’s most beloved flowers. This book is a perfect gift for every flower lover in your life! 

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