There is a long tradition of metaphysical entities becoming manifest in our consensus reality as distinctive attributes of nature. They interact with the material world but they are never fully consolidated within it. They are deemed essential to the propagation of nature but their presence remains supernatural and beyond the bounds of relativistic inquiry. They are usually termed nature spirits, or sometimes elementals, and while they are frequently equated with the faeries of folklore there is a disparity between these classes of beings, which has, however, become increasingly enmeshed, to the point where they are often seen as the same thing. Are they the same thing? Are nature spirits faeries and vice versa? This post investigates the, sometimes complex, entanglements of these metaphysical entities beginning with the 16th-century progenitor of the concept of nature spirits: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, more often (and conveniently) known as Paracelsus.
Paracelsus and Nature Spirits
Paracelsus was born in 1494 in the district of Einsiedeln, in what is now Switzerland. He trained as a physician, specialising in chemistry, but also incorporated astrology into his practice (as did the majority of Renaissance physicians), and produced several volumes investigating what he called the alchemical catechism. In fact, he produced an enormous body of work (most of it published posthumously) ranging from philosophy to toxicological treatises, which had much influence on post-Renaissance thought, from medicine to spiritual traditions such as Rosicrucianism. While some of his philosophical works touch on the subject of metaphysical nature spirits, it is in the volume Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris, et Gigantibus etc. (1566) where he treats the subject in detail, and sets the blueprint for what were to be later termed elementals.
Paracelsus drew on Greek and Roman mythologies, which suggested the metaphysical world interacted with the physical world via the four Empedoclean elements of water, earth, air and fire. But his classification of the entities that made up the interaction went much further than his classical sources, and he designated particular attributes to them as well as new names. The title of the volume is somewhat misleading in this respect, probably due to the need of the publisher to apply classical appellations to attract an educated readership. In the body of the work Paracelsus consistently applies the following names to describe supernatural nature spirits, which were able to manifest within physical reality: Undines (water), Gnomes (earth), Sylphs (air) and Salamanders (fire). Each nature spirit was only able to operate within its own element, but their presence in these elements was essential to the continuation of the physical world. They were the underlying metaphysical reality, which enabled our own to exist. In order to make this palatable Paracelsus ascribed human-like characteristics to these entities: “They are witty, rich, clever, poor, dumb like we who are from Adam.” They were supernatural, with the ability to live in environments in which humans would not survive, but under the right circumstances (Paracelsus describes these circumstances as ‘when we see naturally’) they could interact with humanity and even form relationships with humans – an important point explored below. He was also keen to iterate that these beings were created by God as guardians of nature. Paracelsus was twice accused of sorcery for his beliefs (although never tried in an ecclesiastical court) and he was on thin ice when discussing entities that would customarily be seen by the 16th-century Church as nothing more than demons. So he encapsulated the nature spirits within a Christian epistemology, even though they had no doctrinal credence. He reinforced this by suggesting they had no souls and could only be redeemed by being brought into the human world and accepting Christianity. But the tenor of his thesis implies this was a cover to make his concept of an overriding spirituality to nature acceptable. Paracelsus was importing pagan metaphysics into a Christian world, but he was pragmatic enough to realise this needed to be coded to the prevailing 16th-century Christian worldview.
The Influence of Paracelsus on the Rosicrucian and Theosophical Movements
Most of Paracelsus’ alchemical works only gained traction after his death in 1541, as they began to be published from the 1560s. Perhaps most crucial was the influence of his ideas on the Rosicrucian Order, which originated between 1614-17 and promulgated a wide range of esoteric and occult mysticism, which followers claimed to be based on an ancient and hidden tradition. One of the core tenets of Rosicrucianism was that through alchemical techniques (including the purging of eyes with a Panacea) the unseen spiritual world could be made manifest in the material world to the benefit of humanity. The Rosicrucian spiritual world was made up from a range of ‘Nature Forces’, which existed in an extra dimension but which were fundamental to all life on earth. Among these were the metaphysical representatives of the Empedoclean elements, as described by Paracelsus. By the 18th century these ideas had seeped out from Rosicrucianism into general occultism, so that influential writers on alchemy such as George von Welling, felt able to use the exact terminology of Paracelsus to describe nature spirits who lived beside us unseen and non-physical, but were responsible for the propagation and wellbeing of the natural world in his Opus Magocabalisticum et Theosophicum (1719). Many of these concepts of elemental nature spirits were collected and expanded on by Max Heindel in his 1909 book The Rosicrucian Cosmo-Conception (with an annexed treatise Nature Spirits and Nature Forces), which contains perhaps the fullest description of the cosmology of nature spirits from a Rosicrucianesque perspective. His linguistic style rides on his Rosicrucian predecessors:
“With respect to the consciousness of the ELEMENTALS OR NATURE SPIRITS, it is quite correct to assume that they have what may be called a fourth dimensional consciousness, for in addition to the height, width, and depth which are the dimensions of space in the physical world, there is what we may call “thoroughness” in the ethers. With the etheric sight you may look into a mountain and if you have an etheric body such as the nature spirits possess, you may also walk through the hardest granite rock. It will offer no more obstruction than the air does to our progress here. But even among nature spirits there are different entities and a corresponding variation of consciousness. The bodies of the gnomes are made of the chemical ether principally and therefore they are of the earth earthy; that is, one never sees them fly about as do the sylphs. They can be burned in fire. They also grow old in a manner not so greatly different from human beings. The undines which live in the water and the sylphs of the air are also subject to mortality, but their bodies being composed of the life and light ethers respectively, make them much more enduring, so that while it is stated that the gnomes do not live more than a few hundred years, the undines and sylphs are said to live for thousands, and the salamanders whose bodies are principally built of the fourth ether are said to live many thousands of years. The CONSCIOUSNESS, which builds and ensouls these bodies, however, belongs to a number of divine hierarchs who are gaining additional experience in that manner; and the FORMS which are built of matter and thus ensouled have attained a degree of self-consciousness.”
The natural inheritors of Paracelsus’ ideas and Rosicrucian alchemy were those involved in the Theosophist movement (founded in 1875). This movement suffered from various schisms during its early years, but its followers remained consistent in their mystical doctrine of the need to practice unmediated contact with nature, where divinity was to be found. Aspects of theosophy may perhaps be seen as contingent to Animism and panpsychism, where the natural world is deemed alive and conscious at every level. This ‘natural consciousness’ was responsible for the continued wellbeing of the biosphere and could be communicated with by humans when their consciousness was correctly attuned. Indeed, a main tenet of theosophy is that this communication is essential to the health of the natural world, and that the interaction point for humans is with the metaphysical representatives of nature: the elementals. The theosophical nature spirits/elementals are non-material but, as with Paracelsus’ alchemical catechism, they can manifest within consensus material reality when certain conditions are met.
One of the prime-disseminators of the theosophist nature spirit hypothesis was the Austrian Rudolf Steiner. In a series of lectures between 1908 and 1924 he outlined his hypothesis of how a range of supernatural entities (usually termed elementals) acted within nature and how a human observer might interact with them. This was dependent on altering consciousness. In this case the metaphysical technology was clairvoyance; an ability to perceive a non-material reality existing alongside, but in constant synergy with, the material world. Steiner attempted to explain the mechanics of clairvoyance, when a person must transform their usually passive thought forms into something more dynamic. In normal consciousness thoughts:
“… allow themselves to be connected and separated, to be formed and then dismissed. This life of thought must develop in the elemental world a step further. There a person is not in a position to deal with thoughts that are passive. If someone really succeeds in entering the world with his clairvoyant soul, it seems as though his thoughts were not things over which he has any command; they are living beings… You thrust your consciousness into a place, it seems, where you do not find thoughts that are like those in the physical world, but where they are living beings.” Rudolf Steiner, ‘Perception of the Elemental World’ (1913).
Steiner goes on to describe the specific elemental animating forces at work in the natural world when perceived clairvoyantly in what he calls the Supersensible World. The elementals in the Supersensible World exist as a range of beings, from devas, which are responsible for entire autonomous landscapes, through to the smaller nature spirits/elementals charged with the maintenance of local biosystems. Steiner uses Paracelsus’ terms for these elementals: Gnomes (earth), Undines (water), Sylphs (air) and Salamanders (fire), in order to integrate specific supernatural characters (who had clearly defined tasks relative to their element) into the natural world. He (and Theosophists in general) were integrating a 400-year old alchemical philosophy into a new way of interacting with nature; one that involved entities that could only be recognised through attaining an altered state of consciousness (clairvoyance).
Such Theosophist doctrines continue to the present day, sometimes morphing into occult philosophies and practices, which may view nature spirits as fundamental attributes to a worldview based on respect for nature and a connection to metaphysical belief systems. This is a broad church and includes a variety of pagan, animistic, mystic, esoteric and philosophical strains, but there remains in all a recognition of a force in nature, which can sometimes make itself known in the forms of recognisable supernatural entities. These forms still often manifest as the nature spirits described by Paracelsus, most particularly in the chthonic guise of gnomes and ephemeral air-borne sylphs. There is evidently a deep-set recognition of these entities in our cultural consciousness. But are they faeries? Are faeries and nature spirits part of the same cultural tradition and (more importantly) are they emanating from the same metaphysical place?
Faeries vs Nature Spirits
There is certainly an ontological gap between the faeries found in folklore and the elemental nature spirits described by Paracelsus, Theosophists and modern occultism. While traditional folkloric faeries are often found in natural surroundings, they do not appear to be propagators of nature. The faeries can be kind to humans, and sometimes require our help, but their role is more often ambivalent or even malicious. While nature spirits are sometimes held responsible for adverse weather events or vegetation failure, they are usually deemed benign benefactors of the natural environment – either equivocal to humanity or in lockstep with us; at least those of us who respect and believe in them.
But the differences are perhaps more cultural semantics than epistemological. Paracelsus relates several (allegoric) stories of Undines being enabled to leave their water element in order to marry humans. These trysts always end badly, which put them in the same category as the folklore of lake faeries, where a supernatural entity used to existing in a watery environment is persuaded to join with a mortal, only for the relationship to end when a taboo is broken. Undines are humanoids – lake faeries are humanoids. The stories told about their behaviour contain the same motifs and the ontological gap between them seems narrow. Likewise, gnomic entities have long since become mainstays of faerie folklore, as described by John McVan: “Following their conception in Renaissance alchemical theory, gnomes became a popular subject of 18th-century fairy tales and romanticism, their traits often changing to suit the needs of the writer but their short stature and close association with the earth and underground generally remaining consistent.” While a theosophical viewpoint may see gnomes as an anthropomorphised agent of the natural environment (in this case the elements of earth and minerals), their generally consistent appearance and behaviour through a long time period makes them appear much the same as the descriptions of many folkloric faeries. Their archaic clothing, diminutive stature, a tendency to distrust humans, and their proclivity for living in underground environments are all indistinguishable from recognised faerie appearance, behaviour and story motifs.
Perhaps most interesting are the sylphs. As nature spirits, described by Paracelsus, they are aerial entities responsible for pollination and the cultivation of vegetation as it transitions from earth to air. Their form finds description in Robert Kirk’s The Secret Commonwealth, written 150 years after Paracelsus, where Kirk attempts to convey the ability of faeries to move through the air: “Their chamælion-lyke bodies swim in the air near the Earth.” Neither Paracelsus nor Kirk suggested these entities had wings, but from the 18th century (perhaps earlier) the imagery of faeries with wings took hold in both literature and art until by the late 19th century a flying sylph or faerie were indistinguishable and accepted as one and the same thing. Once JM Barrie introduced Tinkerbell into the cultural zeitgeist in his 1911 novel Peter and Wendy, aerial, winged faeries became the predominant form of the phenomenon. Barrie even describes Tinkerbell as a sylph. This had much cultural influence. Whatever the metaphysical components of the elemental sylphs and flying faeries, through the 20th century they were culturally integrated as the same thing. This cultural integration is important; because however we may attempt to differentiate faeries from nature spirits (in all their forms), they appear to be coming from the same place; a place that can be tapped into and experienced when certain conditions are met within our consciousness. Whether folkloric characters or alchemical manifestations they are supernatural entities that somehow find their way into our consensus reality and are culturally coded accordingly. They have done this for a very long time, and our conception of them as a phenomenon has perhaps evolved to a stage where now semantic differentiation and classification is less important than discovering the source of their existence and how (in true alchemical convention) their apparently non-physical forms can interact with the physical world.
A Modern Perspective
In the 2017 Fairy Census conducted by the Fairy Investigation Society, the most common explanation of respondents (of those who offered an explanation) to their experiences of interacting with faeries was that they were some form of nature spirit. There is not a single example of these respondents questioning their encounter as anything but a faerie experience, even though their descriptions tally more with nature elementals rather than folkloric faeries. This suggests, at least in popular culture, that numinous experiences with supernatural humanoid entities have come to be considered, to a majority extent, faerie encounters. And in many reports the entities could be straight out of either a traditional folkloric anecdote or a theosophist description of an elemental, as in report #18, from a woman who was in her teens during a family holiday in Cornwall, UK, in the 1970s:
“I was walking a few steps ahead of my mum and sisters… when I saw a gnome sitting by the side of the path. It was so unexpected; I think I remember feeling scared – or wondering if I was seeing things or going mad? I took another couple of steps and I saw his nut brown wizened face in detail. He was cheekily grinning at me. He had a mossy brown beard and dark brown shining eyes; he was wearing a peaked hat (brown) and a shiny jacket and trousers in shades of brown and ochre. I’d say he was about twelve- to fourteen-inches tall. I (literally) could not believe my eyes. I was even too amazed (dumbstruck is apt here) to turn around and tell my family to ‘look at the gnome’ by the path. Then the gnome cocked his head (again, cheekily), turned his back on me and kind of changed/melted (transmogrified?) into an old tree stump.”
An American woman, who experienced faerie beings while on a student exchange visit in Sussex, UK, articulated an important view of what these entities might be, which correlates with many of the respondents, while also bringing some Eastern mysticism to the table:
“[Fairies are] nature spirits. [Fairies] could be tulpas that manifest with group consciousness. When you dwell on them in thought, they will manifest. They are protectors of the earth and remind us that there is more to our plane of existence than just physical.” (Report #128).
To ‘dwell on them in thought’ mirrors the intentionality of Paracelsus’ alchemy, Rosicrucian ideas and Steiner’s brand of theosophy. The thought can, of course, only originate in human consciousness – consciousness that is culturally coded and, when altered from its usual view of consensus reality, may tap into non-usual states. The entities that consciousness experiences in these states will, nevertheless, be informed by personal and cultural memory. Many of the census reports describe winged faeries. As discussed, this particular faerie/elemental archetype has become deeply embedded in our culture for well over a hundred years, even though it has no folkloric precedence and does not adhere to any historic epistemological classification of nature spirits. But for over a century, winged, Tinkerbell-like, faeries have become a dynamic cultural trope. When, for whatever reason, a person becomes able to see or interact with non-physical entities, there appears to be a good chance they may experience faeries/nature spirits as the winged sylphs so ubiquitous in our culture.
If we accept these types of testimonies as genuine experiences with something supernatural it would seem as if what is being manifested in these encounters is from a collective experience. Carl Jung’s theory of a Collective Unconscious is a starting point for understanding that perhaps these numinous encounters with supernatural entities are actually individual human consciousnesses plugging into the totality of human existence. The totality is represented by archetypes, which are present in many fairy-tales, but which also appear in dreams and altered states of consciousness, where the individual is in the presence of the collective. The (non-physical) entities residing in the collective (un)consciousness make themselves known as faeries or nature spirits depending on the cultural expectations of the experiencer. They might be the ambivalent characters of folklore, benign propagators of nature, or winged Tinkerbells. Their appearance and purpose will depend on the observer and their particular cultural, psychological, philosophical and spiritual backdrop.
Jung’s Collective Unconscious is adapted and expanded in the theory of Morphogenetic Fields propounded by the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake. This is a theory of formative causation in nature:
“Over the course of fifteen years of research on plant development, I came to the conclusion that for understanding the development of plants, their morphogenesis, genes and gene products are not enough. Morphogenesis also depends on organising fields. The same arguments apply to the development of animals. Since the 1920s many developmental biologists have proposed that biological organisation depends on fields, variously called biological fields, or developmental fields, or positional fields, or morphogenetic fields.”
Sheldrake’s description of this organising principle behind the natural world is issued in the language of biochemistry, but in effect, what he postulates is an overall lifeforce acting as (what he terms) the memory of nature: human, animal, vegetable and mineral. This memory may be what manifests itself in anthropogenic form as faeries or nature spirits when we are in a state of consciousness to experience it via our cultural lenses. Sheldrake’s theorem finds resonance in animism and panpsychism (where everything is alive with consciousness) as well as a wide diaspora of environmental spiritual movements and occultism. But his idea of a metaphysical memory takes things one step further. It allows for the prospect of us remembering the collective of existence. When this remembering happens, we are liable to enter a state of consciousness where reside a myriad of entities, who we encounter in forms to suit our cultural and psychological expectations. They may be gnarled faeries dressed up in 18th-century garb and beckoning us to dance with them in a circle, elementals ensuring the propagation of the soil and flora, or fluttering Tinkerbells. They may have even morphed into grey aliens to meet our sci-fi sensibilities. But whatever they are, they would appear to be coming from the same place, deep inside our collective consciousness and nature’s memory – places we seem to be able to tap into when circumstances allow. Faeries and nature spirits may or may not be the same phenomenon, but they are both non-physical entities, and so it is perhaps logical to attempt to understand them via the only non-physical thing we know to exist definitively: consciousness.
Edmund Siderius provides a detailed assessment of Paracelsus’ incorporation of nature spirits into his philosophical/alchemical writings in his 2011 article: Knowledge in Nature, Knowledge of Nature: Paracelsus and the Elementals.
The cover image is by Fi Bowman, and was produced for the book Mermaids, Sylphs, Gnomes, and Salamanders: Dialogues with the Kings and Queens of Nature by William R Mistele.