The Elementals

‘The Woodland Fairy’
by M. T. (Penny) Ross (1881 – 1937 American)

One of the ways fairies have been described is as aligned with the elementals, earth, air, water and fire… and wood if one wants to include Chinese or Eastern thought. This description originated with one Paracelsus in the 16th century in his book ‘A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits’. In his time, he described the elements as related to fairies as Gnome (Pygmy) – being of earth, Undine (Nymph) – being of water, Sylph (Sylph) – being of air, Salamander (Salamander) – being of fire.

Though ‘formally’ introduced by Paracelsus by way of print, the concept of elements draws from much older traditions in mythology, religion and natural philosophy, and his description corresponds to the four Empedoclean elements of antiquity – earth, water, air, and fire, respectively, with the names changed to apply specifically to fairies.

In Paracelsus’ writings, he describes fairies as beings somewhere between spirit and creature or body, that they live unseen alongside humans and mimic many of their activities and lifestyles. He also adds commentary how the various alignments with each of the elements gives each fairy-type special abilities distinct to that element, for example gnomes of earth being able to move through solid rock, sylphs through air, salamanders in fire and so forth. He also added a religious aspect to his interpretation, saying fairies were ‘divine objects’ and ‘marvellous works’ created by God and part of the greater creation, but without souls.

For a much more thorough and researched read about Paracelsus, and commentary about his contribution, John Kruse has written an extensive article in his blog ‘British Fairies’. Being not much of a fan, he has named his article ‘Anti-Paracelsus – the man who messed up Faery?‘ but it is a good and reasoned writing. Regardless of opinion, Paracelsus did establish a base orientation which has been adopted by the general discussion about fairies, and extended that discussion into further considerations of fairies and their natures.

One aspect of that furthering of discussion is the idea of fairies as protectors of their aligned elemental environments, such as the undine guarding water spots and gnomes protecting earth and its mineral bounties, and similar. Another aspect is the considerations of fairies as literal manifestations of their elemental homes. The various kinds of water fairies are a good example of this, from mermaids to ashray to nymphs, or dryads as tree spirits, or the necessary co-existence of salamanders and fire, and similar.

As such, modern discussion recognizes a distinct and deep natural aspect to fairies, how they are a part of the natural world around them. As nature is made of all the elements, so fairies too, and all kinds with all different alignments, capabilities and magicks. One might even extend the discussion from Paracelsus from fairies being part spirit and part body, to fairies are part nature and part corporal manifestation, a concentration of energy of sorts, a transparent world alongside our more noisy, active and mechanical world. Fairies might be concieved as ‘nature taking form’, meeting us halfway.


Resources –

British Fairies Blog – John Kruse

Below I have added two videos which discuss fairies as elementals, which relates to the above discussion.