Knowledge in Nature, Knowledge of Nature: Paracelsus and the Elementals

Undine Rising from the Waters. Chauncey Bradley Ives, 1810-1894

Among Paracelsus’ collected works, few have presented as many problems to scholars as his Liber de Nymphis, Sylphis, Pygmaeis et Salamandris et de Caeteris Spiritibus. At the beginning of the 20th century it was considered by some to be a fake that did not even display a basic understanding of his philosophy. Others passed it over as “a charming little book” that may have some place as a precursor to Freudian psychology. In 1941 this ambivalent reception in the English-speaking world caused the historian Henry E. Sigerist to lament the lack of scholarship on elemental spirits in Paracelsus’ world view, yet Walter Pagel treated the subject only briefly in his skillful 1958 work Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance.

Despite this trend, there is indeed much to be said about the role of elemental spirits in Paracelsus’ understanding of nature. The crux of the matter rests in his microcosmic epistemology and the role that human nature played in dictating the contents of nature itself. Since he placed intelligence and the experience of natural phenomenon squarely in the realm of nature, as opposed to that of the divine, it made sense to incorporate natural, non-human intelligences in order to complete this microcosmic conception of the human being. In short, it was intelligences other than those possessed by human beings that justified our understanding of natural phenomenon.

There are several kinds of knowing in Paracelsus’ extant writings. In his Opus Paramirum he describes the two kinds of earthly knowledge as “that of experience and that of our own cleverness”. Experience is the teacher of the physician; the other is largely based on hearsay and hubris. The physician gains experience when “he plies the Vulcanic art in transmuting, forging, reducing, solving, perfecting with all the processing pertaining to such work”. This experience is what he calls the light of Nature, which allows all the things in the natural world to be discovered. It is not merely a method of understanding the visible world, but the only way that human beings can engage its deeper principles. Paracelsus was certain that the visible world was a secondary phenomenon. The invisible part of the world is more important and can only be discovered through the light of Nature, as he asserts in the Paramirum: “We men on earth, what do we know about phenomena without the light of Nature? It is the light of Nature that makes invisible things visible”.

In contrast, the light of wisdom was the kind of knowledge that was derived directly from God. The light of Nature is given by God as a gift which will allow humankind to achieve its own perfection. It is in this doctrine that Paracelsus is at his most  radical, for he claims that:  “God has created nothing in its final form”. He justifies this notion by his belief that: “[t]o every existing thing God has allotted a time to grow in, lest it ripen prematurely”. Yet at the same time as the light of Nature allows humankind to participate in the perfecting of existence, he nevertheless believes that divine knowledge is still fundamentally above it in a realm of its own. As he says:  “In matters eternal it is belief that makes all things visible, in matters corporeal it is the light of Nature that reveals all things invisible”. The eternal and divine can only be learned from God, while the perishable and earthly, those things capable of transformation, can be achieved by earthly beings through the light of Nature. The consequence of this is that this kind of knowing operates in a semi-independent relationship to divine wisdom, and this is why Paracelsus admits that medicines derived from the light of Nature work on pagans, even though the wisdom that made them potent was a manifestation of the Christian God.

The light of Nature operates in man because he is a microcosm of everything which is in nature. To understand this it is necessary to understand the way in which God created man, for, according to Paracelsus: “Each thing to be explained in the light of Nature must be related to the first Creation”. God created the world out of nothing, but he made man out of the world, or the limus terrae which he also calls the “flesh from Adam”. Since man was made from this limus terrae he contained the essence of all things, “from all creatures, all elements, all stars in heaven and earth, all properties, essences, and natures, that was extracted [from the world] which was most subtle and most excellent in all, and this was united into one mass”. Thus man was made as a microcosm, or little world. Paracelsus also calls him the “quintessence” because he is composed of the four elements, and yet is “beyond the four elements out of which he has been extracted as a nucleus”. In our discussion of elemental spirits, which are composed of only one element rather than the flesh from Adam, this microcosmic quality of man will have profound implications.

Emblemata 29 from Michael Maier's Atalanta fugiens, 1617

The elementals that Paracelsus describes in Liber de Nymphis are detailed in a startling array of relations. Water people are nymphs, who are also sometimes called undina, and when they produce monstrous offspring these are called sirens or monks. Air people are sylphs, and also go by the name sylvestres, whose monstrous offspring are giants. Likewise the mountain people are pygmies, also gnomi. When they give rise to monstrosities these beings are called dwarves. Near the end of the work Paracelsus also introduces mani into the list of names of non-monstrous mountain people. Fire people are salamanders, also called vulcani, whose monsters are will-o’-the-wisps.

Here Paracelsus makes it clear that he is using the popular names of the creatures he is attempting to describe, claiming: “The names have been given them by people who did not understand them”. This gives the reader an insight into how the following account of these fantastical creatures will differ from others. While it is evident that Paracelsus is using previous sources in mythology, folklore and religion, he is nevertheless presenting a new account of them. In this treatise he offers an expansion of his own philosophical system, and attempts to work out the nature of elementals on his own terms. This reworking is made more important because “in the Scriptures nothing special is written about these things, what to make of them or how to explore them”.

The elementals are beings who are half spirit and half man, capable of traversing through objects and traveling like spirits, but still subject to hunger and disease. Paracelsus maintains that they are people, but not the flesh from Adam, and thus do not possess an immortal soul. In this regard they are more like animals. However, they are to be treated well, and agreements made with them are binding, for “although they are beasts, they have all the reason of man, except the soul”. He makes it clear that these creatures live completely in the sphere of their respective elements. For example, everything that salamanders would regularly interact with, their food, cloths, sicknesses and cures, would all be manifestations of the fiery principle. In this regard each elemental world is a mirror of the actual one except not made from composite elements. This has the added effect that the different elementals do not have access to the worlds of the other three, yet they can all interact with our composite world. As Paracelsus writes: “Each has his special abode, but they appear to man, […] so that he may recognize and see how marvelous God is in his works, that He does not leave any element void and empty, without having great wonders in them”. This is because the composite world in which mankind lives intersects with the elemental worlds, whereas the elements themselves do not “mix”, since they are pure principles.

Paracelsus describes their position in the natural order to be that of signs and indicators of things to come, or as guardians of natural treasures. They also serve as a warning to man that God never had to populate the world with human beings, but could have done so with other intelligent entities. This warning is even more pronounced since, when monsters are born among the elementals, they foretell some coming catastrophe. Aside from this it seems as if the world they live in is totally separate from that of man, with the possible exception of serving mankind (as in the case of earth and fire people) or marrying them (as is the case with water and air people).

And yet just because they are signs of some divine wisdom does not place them outside of the natural world. As Paracelsus had already claimed in his Opus Paramirum: “If one was to regard such events as Christ’s resurrection [and the wonders of the Saints] as natural phenomena and signs, then Christ’s words ‘there will be great signs’ would be confirmed”. It is only people’s ignorance which causes them to see divine signs in nature as manifestations of the supernatural. Strangely, in this way there is no substantial difference between the resurrection of Christ and the existence of elemental spirits, for both are natural phenomenon which point the way to higher spiritual truths, but which themselves are still fundamentally natural. As Paracelsus continues: “if Christ had not talked of such signs, who would be so bold as to search so thoroughly for them in Nature? Who would not grasp the hub of Nature from whence these signs come?”

Despite the reason he gives for examining them, Paracelsus’ view that monsters are signs of coming catastrophe is not unique to the elemental spirits, nor can it fully explain his efforts to incorporate them into his understanding of the natural world. In his Astronomia Magna he had already laid down that: “Monsters are frequently born of birds, beasts, fish, worms, and even men, and these are a presage of a future calamity that will come upon man”. Elementals do not exist only to act as signs, however, but also serve as guardians of the unfolding of nature’s treasures.

In his Astronomia Magna Paracelsus had already laid down that: “God does not want His secrets to be [merely] visible; it is His will that they become manifest and knowable through the works of man who has been created in order to make them visible”. This promise of mankind’s knowledge unfolding into nature is again echoed in the concluding paragraphs of Liber de Nymphis in which Paracelsus enumerates a cause for the spirits which is still unknown, but will become manifest at the end of days. The elemental’s secret cause is likewise manifest in their second role in the unfolding of natural knowledge, for as Paracelsus describes: “God has set guardians over nature, for all things, and he left nothing unguarded”. This task in part falls to the nature spirits, who make and protect what Paracelsus calls “tremendous treasures, in tremendous quantities”. These treasures “are guarded by [the nature spirits], are kept hidden and secret so that they may not be found until the time for it has come”.

These treasures could be seen as mineral wealth, as Paracelsus attests to in the case of the mountain people, but there is also a sense that they are more than that, and have a larger part to play in the unfolding of nature. In the treaties we see him write that: “Everything must come out, creature, nature, spirit, evil and good, outside and inside, and all arts, and all doctrines, teachings and what has been created”. It seems, then, far more likely that the treasures to which Paracelsus is referring are not merely precious metals in the traditional sense, but the power and knowledge present in the elements themselves, which also happen to be present within the metals. This would be in accordance with Paracelsus’ view of the invisible virtues of natural objects, as well as with his firm belief in mankind’s growth into perfection. From this it can be inferred that there is another reason why Paracelsus may have strove to incorporate elementals into his philosophy that encapsulates all of these roles. This is their necessary existence in nature for the completion of the microcosm that is man.

In this regard the elementals’ great natural intelligence must be considered. Paracelsus consistently attributes to the elemental spirits an almost limitless wealth of knowledge. In Liber de Nymphis, he says of them that: “They also know all future affairs, present affairs and the past, which are not apparent but are hidden”. In his Concerning the Nature of Things he describes “giants, pigmies, and other marvelous people, who are the instruments of great things, […] and know all secret and hidden matters”. This consistency is important, since in some ways Paracelsus’ treatment of the spirits is inconsistent. This is particularly evident in regards to what creatures he accepts as being either elemental or monstrosity and their means of generation. In the Astronomia Magna they make an appearance as Inanimatum and some creatures he will later classify as monsters are described as elementals. Here Paracelsus also writes that they are spontaneously generated, rather than born from a man and woman of their kind as he does later in Liber de Nymphis. In his Concerning the Nature of Things the elementals are likewise claimed to be produced by the homunculus, rather than being born. Despite this, throughout his various treatments the concept of their great intelligence remains constant.

This intelligence is largely based on the relationship between the elemental spirits and the natural world. Hall states that “in the

Consider the head "in nature" behind the figure of Paracelsus

case of elemental spirits, soul [spirit] and body are not differentiated because these creatures have not been individualized as man has been”. This puts them in a more immediate relationship with the light of Nature, since they are only composed of a natural body and heavenly (astral) spirit, both of which are fully in the domain of nature. Pagel observes that this demonstrates the ambivalent condition of man in nature. As he says: “[Man] has ‘bought’ his freedom and mastery of the elements at the price of detachment and ignorance – remaining far below the ‘wisdom, art, [and] activity’ of these intermediate beings”. Even though man is a microcosm, having a reflection of all things within him, his very completeness leads him to follow the slow unfolding of the light of Nature itself, rather than having the knowledge inborn within him. Unlike the elementals, which are purely composed of the corruptible elements, humankind also has an immortal soul, which enables their freedom, but separates them from the immediacy of nature.

This is the point at which the distinction between the light of wisdom and the light of Nature becomes crucial. While Paracelsus fully acknowledges the primacy of the light of wisdom, it expresses itself in part through the largely self contained properties of nature. The distinction of the two realms is a recurring motif in most of his writings. Thus it is in his Liber Prologi in Vitam Beatam that he tells us the saint works through God alone, but the magus works through nature. In his Opus Paramirum he again reminds his readers that there are two distinct kinds of reason, one from the Holy Ghost and one from nature. While these two kinds of knowledge are not mutually exclusive, natural wisdom being a path to religious wisdom, they have two fundamentally different ways of expressing themselves in the world. That which can be learned and experienced in nature has as its first source nature itself, while that which can be learned about the divine must come from the divine in the form of saints or Scripture.

Intelligence, either rational or experiential, is in nature, because it is other than man’s soul. Thus, since man is a microcosm of nature, and “Nature is the world and all it contains”, it follows that this man-like intelligence must be found in other parts of the natural world. These intelligences would not have a soul, which is fundamentally beyond the elements, but must nevertheless exist for man’s knowledge to be possible as a natural phenomenon. In order for man to be able to learn anything from the light of Nature, there must first be other intelligences within nature itself. These spirits reflect every facet of human existence in its purely natural form and are a vital component of the microcosmic world of man that makes natural knowledge itself possible. Like everything else in the natural world, however, they also serve a religious function in their role as signs and omens, as well as in their duty as guardians of nature’s unfolding to mankind.

The elemental spirits, while going by conventional titles, are largely of Paracelsus’ own creation. The reasoning he gives, that they act as signs and guardians of the unfolding of nature, is only half sufficient to understand their importance to his larger worldview. In the case of signs, monsters of any kind act to serve the same functions as monsters produced from the elementals, and they seem to exemplify the same prophetic role as comets. In their function as guardians of natural treasures, the elementals are participating in the unfolding of nature. Yet even here little thought is given to why this process should be guided by the intermediary intelligences of the spirits, rather than being immanent in nature itself. They are a reminder that God could put in the world other intelligences aside from man, and it is their very otherness, yet intelligence and all pervasiveness which is their defining characteristic in the Paracelsian corpus. They occupy every perishable element with natural intelligence which likewise allows man to have knowledge of every element. This is their implicit, but fundamental position in Paracelsus’ thought. Since man is seen as a microcosm of nature, and intelligence itself is a part of nature, there must be other intelligences in nature whose intelligence mankind shares. More than this, in order for mankind to have knowledge of the various elements it is necessary that each should have a man-like intelligence occupying it as a precondition of human knowledge.

English scholars would therefore be wise to give more consideration to the seemingly whimsical incorporation of the elementals into Paracelsus’ system of thought, for they are just as much a logical necessity of his world view as are the elements themselves or the microcosm. It is a view that we have perhaps lost touch with, given our contemporary insistence on the uniqueness and importance of the human intelligence in natural law. Despite this it is a view which, for Paracelsus, provided the possibility of human knowledge itself, and which lifted up, by degrees, the concealing veil around the natural world until the end of days, when each thing would be perfectly understood in light of the wisdom of God.

J.D. Mylius’ Opus medico-chymicum, 1618

For More Information:

Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Debus, Allen G. The Chemical Philosophy: Paracelsian Science and Medicine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. New York: Dover Publications, 2002.

Hall, Manly Palmer. The Mystical and Medical Philosophy of Paracelsus. Los Angeles: Philosophical Research Society, 1964.

Pagel, Walter. Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance. New York: Karger, 1982.

Pachter, Henry M. Magic into Science: The Story of Paracelsus. New York: Schuman, 1951.

Stoddart, Anna M. The Life of Paracelsus, Theophrastus von Hohenheim. London: J. Murray, 1911.

Von Hohenheim, Theophrastus. Four Treaties of Theophrastus von Hohenheim called Paracelsus. Ed. Henry E. Sigerist. Trans. C. Lilian Temkin, George Rosen, Gregory Zilboorg and Henry E. Sigerist. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

________. The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Paracelsus the Great. Ed. and Trans. Arthur Edward Waite. Montana: Kessinger Publishing Company, 1910.

________. Paracelsus: Essential Readings. Ed. And Trans. Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1999.

5 thoughts on “Knowledge in Nature, Knowledge of Nature: Paracelsus and the Elementals

  1. Very comprehensive!

    Question: did you see any explanation as to _why_ an elemental would produce a monstrous offspring? Or why one would be spontaneously generated? Can elementals have a fall from grace too? Or bad karma?

    ps. I really appreciated the bit about dual reason-spirit and nature. I can’t help but notice the similarity to the pagan/Christian conflict. Could this line of thought be indicative of an internal struggle within Paracelsus as well? I know he was fairly outspoken in his commendation of the witches but…maybe he struggled too.

  2. Dear Susana,

    Glad you enjoyed this one!

    Causality in Paracelsus is sometimes difficult to pin down, since on the one hand there is the sense that monstrous offspring of every kind are “caused” by the impending disaster of which they were an omen. Symbolism itself, in this sense, can be a kind of causality because of the associative and Christian world-view in which he operated.

    However, Paracelsus was also a classically trained physician, and probably encountered Aristotle’s account of the generation of monstrosities in which they were natural accidents caused by the improper instantiation of the form of the species into the matter that composed them. Aristotle had a whole zoo of causes explaining the appearance of phenomena, of which the final cause, or teleological cause, was of some importance, and I have the feeling that this too played into Paracelsus’ understanding.

    Elementals couldn’t fall from grace because they never had grace to begin with, for Paracelsus considered them to be fundamentally finite beings who possessed spirit and body, but no eternal soul. I’m still a little unclear about how through the christian right of marriage they could get one from their human partner, but that was the only case I know of in this tradition in which things were otherwise. This was part of a tradition in Europe that leads up to the little mermaid, who likewise, in the original Hans Christian Andersen version was bereft of a soul and in some scholarly accounts simply dissolves into base matter at the end of the story.

    As to Paracelsus’ Pagan/Christian conflict, he certainly considered himself a christian, though many during his own time considered what he called Christianity to be steeped in pagan heresies. I think it was more a question of a struggle about what was “true” religion, rather than over a contemporary notion of paganism and Christianity. Several of his contemporaries, in fact, called him the “Martin Luther of Medicine” both for his iconoclastic relationship to medical authority as well as his heterodox religious beliefs. Interestingly, he knew of these charges and responded by saying that he really didn’t know what this Martin Luther fellow was about, but the same hypocrites and fools that wanted to burn him also wanted to burn Martin Luther, and that this, at least, spoke in his favour.


    • “I think it was more a question of a struggle about what was “true” religion, rather than over a contemporary notion of paganism and Christianity.”

      Very nicely put! Thanks…

  3. mefaustopheles says:

    one of the key scenes was the gallery of venus under the hartz mountains in rural germany, where she and her handmaidens were bedding the locals, because paracelsus admitted that nobody had a clue as to what was going on with all of the natural magic effects these beings can produce…finally, the bombastic one was stymied completely

    maybe the reason was that since the venuses/nymphs can intermarry with humans, they were after genetic material for halfbreeding offspring

    also, paracelsus mentioned a stauffenberg of noble blood marrying a nymph he found sitting by the wayside, and that he left her after she freaked him out, and after he married a mortal, the nymph appeared through the ceiling at the wedding feast and caused him to drop dead on the spot

    could this faustenburg be related to the historical character played by tom cruise in “the valkyrie”

    also, when the hitlerian reich wanted to breed ubermenschen, were they perhaps referring finding nymphs and sylphs to marry to the ss cadre officers, much as they encouraged them to have bastard babies with women in the countries that were conquered, to improve the stock, but with the natural powers of the elementals being brought into uberplay?

  4. […] energy in ritual or magic is common, the use of elemental spirits is sometimes overlooked. It was the alchemist Paracelsus in the 16th century that first made mention of elemental spirits. He named […]

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