The belief in the existence of sub-mundane spirits was universal among the peoples of the ancient world. Primitive religious orders included in their rituals elaborate formulas for the propitiation of elementals and demons.
Among the Chinese, there were gods of roads and gateways, spirits that watched over rice and silk, and household gods for whom offerings of food were duly prepared. The Shinto faith of Japan is a worship of nature and natural forces; this religion abounds in fables and beliefs about elementals, spirits that live in the air and trees, and take upon themselves the form of foxes. India has its devas; the Persians, devs; the Arabs, their peris. Among the Nordic people, there was the race of the Nibelungs, the dwarfs who guarded the great treasures which had been accumulated by the Nibelungen people since the formation of the earth. The Irish believe in their “little people.” There is a tradition that Ireland was originally entirely populated by elementals, and that these little beings retired into the bogs and fens when human beings came and usurped their empire. The American Indians had their “little Indians,” their “cave Indians,” and their “water tribes,” whom they both feared and honored.
It was among the Greeks and Romans, however, that the worship of the sub-mundanes was idealized as an integral part of a scholarly, philosophic paganism. Each stream, pool, and tree had its nymph or dryad. There were satyrs in the forest, hamadryads in the glens, and pans down in the reed by the river. There were lares and penates, a whole world of invisibles, some playful and capricious, others stern and solemn; serving man, and others trying to ensnare him in magic and sorcery. There were temples for the nymphs, altars to the dryads, a general respect for all those mysterious people who, according to the words of Socrates, “live along the shored of the air as men live along the shores of the sea.”
Paganism ceased in Europe in the closing years of the eighth century. Boethius had written his Consolation of Philosophy. And had been gathered to the gods of high Olympus. Christianity, a faith both persuasive and militant, had silenced the voice of great Pan, and was marching triumphantly toward the conquest of Europe. The old pagan lore vanished, to remain in comparative obscurity until the coming of one man who became the interpreter of the whole pagan world, its philosophy, science, and magic. That man was Theophrastus of Hohenheim, who took the name Paracelsus because he declared that he was greater than the Roman philosopher Celsus.
Paracelsus was a man of strange and stormy moods. He broke all the scientific traditions of his day by publishing learned works in German, the language of his people, rather than in the traditional Latin. He outraged his contemporaries by burning the books of Galen and Avicenna before a class of students at the University of Basel.
Paracelsus believed that knowledge should be sought everywhere, and that education should not be limited by the narrow privileges of scholasticism. He trudged up and down Europe, studying with gypsies, so-called witches, faith healers, herbalists, and all who claimed to possess any knowledge of the healing arts. Asked on one occasion why he had thus departed from the medical tradition of his time, Paracelsus replied: “He who would understand the Book of Nature must walk its pages with his feet.”
The principal teacher of Paracelsus was the mysterious adept Solomon Trismosin. It was from Trismosin that Paracelsus secured his knowledge of alchemical experiments. It is said that he finally accomplished the “stone” while in Constantinople.
The origin of his doctrine concerning nature spirits is obscure. He may have gained his information from the Arabs, who had elaborate teachings about these people. He may have gained it from the witches and gypsies whom he knew. Be that as it may, he was the first to write a complete treatise on the subject, and his statements have become the source of innumerable works by later authors who merely have built upon his imagery.
All Europe became more or less affected by the mania for witch-burning. The subject of elementary spirits seems to have given way to the more popular works on demonology and witchcraft. The comparatively harmless and gentle nature spirits had little place in a scheme which attributed all metaphysical activities to the influence of the devil. Tens of thousands of people were burned at the stake before Europe emerged from its demon frenzy and settled down to the more gentle literary pursuits.
About the year 1670, the Abbe de Villars published a work entitled The Comte de Gabalis. This was translated into English ten years later, and “printed for B.M., Printer to the Cabalistical Society of the Sages, at the Sign of the Rosy Crucian.” This book, which explains “the extravagant mysteries of the Cabalists in five pleasant discourses,” caused a considerable stir. Some took the work to be merely fiction; others conceived a more profound meaning. It was even intimated that the Abbe had exposed some of the most profound secrets of Rosicrucianism. This belief gained ground when de Villars was assassinated, presumably as the result of his literary efforts.
The book introduces to the reader a mysterious man who spoke French with the accent of authority, and who gave his name as the Comte de Gabalis. This name is derived, of course, from Cabalis with one letter changed. The Comte claimed to be on the most intimate terms with the elemental beings whose live and customs he describes, frequently in the exact words of Paracelsus, but with embelishments such as are natural to the French mind. The hypothetical Comte develops the Paracelsian theory to explain the birth of man, heroes as the result of the union of human beings and elementals. He names Merlin the British mystic, as an example, again cribbing, from Paracelsus.
Alexander Pope borrowed material from the Comte de Gabalis for his heroicomical poem, The Rape of the Lock. In a letter Pope writes: “The Rosicrucians are a people I must bring you acquainted with. The best account I know of them is in a French book called Le Comte de Gabalis, which, both in its size and its style, is so like a novel, that many of the fair sex have read it for one by mistake. According to these gentlemen, the four elements are inhabited by spirits, which they call Sylphs, Gnomes, Nymphs, and Salamanders.” Unfortunately The Rape of the Lock does not add much to the general store of information on the subject of elementals except in one respect. In the first canto, Pope implies that various kinds of human beings, after death, become elementals as:
“The graver prude sinks downward to a Gnome,
In search of mischief still on earth to roam.”
This opinion seems to be original with the poet, for Paracelsus clearly states that the elementals are a kingdom apart, of different stuff from man.
In this modern time, the mind turns naturally from the metaphysical to the physical. We no longer believe in the reality of the nature spirits, but in spite of our unbelief, we have not and cannot actually disprove their existence. It seems that there must be some substance behind a belief that has flourished in every civilization of the world and in every age of time. Science acknowledges that many mysterious and intelligent operations are constantly taking place in nature, yet the scientist can offer no complete explanation for a great number of these mysteries. It may be that unbelief is a defense mechanism against superstition, but Lord Bacon said on one occasion: “There is nothing more superstitious than to be without a superstition.”
The essay by Paracelsus on elementary beings is in the complete edition of his works, of which we have the edition of 1618. It appears among several short essays on various subjects. Paracelsus was a wastrel with words, as were most of his contemporaries. We have therefore eliminated some of the useless verbiage and repetition, but reproduce herewith for the first time in English his complete essay on the nature spirits.
As a number of books have appeared in modern times, some of them of a highly extravagant nature, dealing with this curious subject, it appears timely to present the most authentic work available on the subject, written by a scientist whose achievements are acknowledged and whose contributions to medicine have conferred upon him imortality and universal approval.