Statue of woman
Undine Rising From the Waters, by Chauncey Bradley Ives
Source: Wikimedia Commons

An elemental is a type of primitive being, spiritual entity, or demon from the pagan past, perhaps the manifestation of a race memory. Elementals inhabit one of the four classical Platonic elements: earth, fire, water and air.[a]The 5th-century BC Greek philosopher Empedocles was the first to suggest that everything is made up of different combinations of the four classical elements, but Plato developed the mystical themes.[1] and are usually associated with a single place, such as the kelpiesShape-shifting water spirit inhabiting the lochs and pools of Scotland. of the Scottish lochs, or the naiads of Greek myth.[2] They are able to manifest themselves of their own volition, or can be summoned by elemental masters.

The 16th-century alchemist Philipus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (1493–1541), better known by his adopted name of Paracelsus,[b]The name Paracelsus means “greater than Celsus”, Aulus Cornelius Celsus, a first-century Roman authority on medicine.[3] provided the first extensive account of elementals in his De Nymphis, Sylphis, Pygmaeis et Salamandris (c. 1566). In it he identifies four kinds of beings: pygmies (also called gnomi), nymphs (udina), sylphs (sylvestres), and salamanders (vulcani), each of them inhabiting the element to which it is attuned – earth, water, air and fire respectively.[4]


Paracelsus believed that each type of elemental exists exclusively in only one of the classical elements, and keeps strictly to its own element. For Paracelsus, the elementals occupy a position somewhere between man and the pure spirits; they have flesh and blood just like humans, and are mortal, but they have no souls, although undinesUndines (or ondines) are a category of imaginary elemental beings associated with water, first named in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus. Similar creatures are found in classical literature, particularly Ovid's Metamorphoses. – an elemental being of water – can acquire one by marriage with a human.[5]

How much Paracelsus was drawing on legend in his categorisation of elementals, and how much he invented, is open to speculation. But what is certain is that the lore of elementals as they are understood today comes directly from him.[5]




Allen, Judy. Fantasy Encyclopedia. Kingfisher Books, 2005.
Clarke, Roger. A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof. Ebook, Penguin, 2012.
Nikiel, J. “Elemental.” The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters, Online, Ashgate Publishing, 2014.
Phillips, David. “Elementals.” The Seasons: Nature Rites and Traditions, Cavendish Square Publishing, 2014, pp. 25–28.