Liber de Nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

In his 16th-century alchemical work Liber de Nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus, Paracelsus identified mythological beings as belonging to one of the four elements. Part of the Philosophia Magna, this book was first printed in 1566 after Paracelsus' death. He wrote the book to "describe the creatures that are outside the cognizance of the light of nature, how they are to be understood, what marvellous works God has created". He states that there is more bliss in describing these "divine objects" than in describing fencing, court etiquette, cavalry, and other worldly pursuits. The following is his archetypal being for each of the four elements:

The concept of elementals seems to have been conceived by Paracelsus in the 16th century, though he did not in fact use the term "elemental" or a German equivalent. He regarded them not so much as spirits but as beings between creatures and spirits, generally being invisible to mankind but having physical and commonly humanoid bodies, as well as eating, sleeping, and wearing clothes like humans. Paracelsus gave common names for the elemental types, as well as correct names, which he seems to have considered somewhat more proper, "recht namen". He also referred to them by purely German terms which are roughly equivalent to "water people," "mountain people," and so on, using all the different forms interchangeably. His fundamental classification scheme on the first page of Tractatus II of the Liber de Nymphis is based on where the elementals live, and he gives the following names:

Correct name (translated) Alternate name (Latin) Element in which it lives
Nymph Undina (undine) Water
Sylph Sylvestris (wild man) Air
Pygmy Gnomus (gnome) Earth
Salamander Vulcanus Fire

Of the names he used, gnomus, undina, and sylph are all thought to have appeared first in Paracelsus' works, though undina is a fairly obvious Latin derivative from the word unda meaning "wave."

In De Meteoris he referred to the elementals collectively as Sagani.

He noted that undines are similar to humans in size, while sylphs are rougher, coarser, longer, and stronger. Gnomes are short, while salamanders are long, narrow, and lean. The elementals are said to be able to move through their own elements as human beings move through air. Gnomes, for example, can move through rocks, walls, and soil. Sylphs are the closest to humans in his conception because they move through air like we do, while in fire they burn, in water they drown, and in earth, they get stuck. Paracelsus states that each one stays healthy in its particular "chaos," as he terms it, but dies in the others.

Paracelsus conceived human beings to be composed of three parts, an elemental body, a sidereal spirit, and an immortal divine soul. Elementals lacked this last part, the immortal soul. However, by marriage with a human being, the elemental and its offspring could gain a soul.




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