Elementals – The world of nature spirits, part II

Wiccan Rede * Summer 1987 by Morgana Sythove

Nature spirits, in a mythological setting are somewhat more easily defined into the various elemental kingdoms than the nature spirits we encounter in folklore. Quite often the nymphs of Greek mythology for example were part of the retinue surrounding a particular god or goddess. They were also seen as semi-divine beings that sometimes became the centre of a cult in their own right.

When we enter the world of folklore the picture is vastly different, or at least it feels to be. Mythology tends to feel much more a part of ancient history whilst folklore is a lot nearer to home. Most of us can immediately think of instances of surviving folkloristic customs. And of course there are examples of modern ‘traditions’ which could be classed as modern folklore. Quite often these traditions are a revival of an old custom and more often than not the old meaning has been forgotten (or in some cases Christianised). The celebrations and festivals are naturally but one aspect of folklore. There are  also the numerous tales of supernatural beings. It is certainly interesting to find out more about the local folklore in your own area and if you are lucky you may even come across someone who remembers the tales they were told as youngsters. Although there are many books dealing with folklore there is still much left to be discovered of this basically oral tradition.

One excellent book dealing with nature spirits in folklore is “The Fairies – in Tradition and Literature” by Kathleen M. Briggs. She writes that ‘the nature spirits are the rarest of all the fairies’. The form of fairy tradition to which she refers is more in keeping with the Slavonic nature spirits we heard of in the first part of this series. “The Cailleach Bheur, the Blue Hag of the Highlands, appears to be the personified spirit of Winter. She herds the deer, and fights Spring with her staff, with which she freezes the ground. When at length Spring comes, she throws her staff under a holly tree, under which green grass never grows”.

There were also mountain spirits such as the Welsh ‘Old Woman of the Mountains’. She was apparently one of the Gwyllion, the hill fairies of Wales and friends of the goats. And in Somerset there were also tree spirits, some of them very sinister. Coppices which spring from the trunks of felled trees are supposed to be haunted by the angry spirits of the trees and local people avoid them after sundown. Willows are said to walk after people in the darkness, muttering. Birch trees are even more dangerous for they are the tree of death. ‘The One with the White Hand’, a Somerset moorland spirit, was supposed to spring from a birch coppice. The boys at Taunton School had a tale of one who haunted the moors near Taunton. She would rise out of a scrub of birch and oak at twilight, and drift after benighted travellers so fast that they could not escape. Her clothes rustled as she moved like dead leaves, as she was as pale as a corpse, and her long white, skinny hand was like a blasted branch. If she touched a man’s head with it he went mad, but if she laid her hand over his heart he died, and the mark of a white hand was found over his heart. A brave man laid her in the end with a handful of salt.

These stories are reminiscent of the myths surrounding the dryads and in particular the individual tree spirits, the hamadryads of Greek mythology. It is noticeable that in many of the folklore tales man’s encounters with these spirits is more often than not a disastrous and even fatal meeting. Most accounts seem to have one thing in common – man’s trespassing into regions of which he knows very little. In the Greek and Slavonic myths we saw that man still had something of a reverence for these nature spirits and recognised the different ‘reality’ in which they existed. If nothing else they were beings to be aware of and feared. There was an inherent understanding of nature which made ancient man realise that the forces of nature had to be reckoned with. Any opposition would lead to his downfall since the nature spirits and ultimately nature herself was more powerful than man. His conclusion was to live in harmony with nature and revere the Earth Mother who would in turn insure a fruitful harvest and so nourish him. Our growing ignorance of this very basic fact has lead to a widening gap between the nature spirits and ourselves. This gap is unfortunately still widening because unlike our recent forefathers who were dimly aware of these forces and usually avoided their wrath, we are totally ignorant and not even slightly afraid of rebuke simply because we don’t, for the most part, even believe in their existence. This complete lack of awareness tends to make most of us think that ‘folklore’, ‘old wives tales’, etcetera, are completely fictitious and a product of fantasy-filled minds. Many of the stories of hobgoblins, the Land of Faery, etc., are placed in the same category as ‘fantasy’ or ‘science fiction’ or ‘occult fantasy’.

One might wonder why it has been necessary for this ‘drift’ of consciousness, the loss of the old clairvoyant powers, to happen. No doubt man’s evolution towards intellectual consciousness has played a role in this situation. His intuitive knowledge of the nature spirits disappeared, to a great extent, as ‘intellectuality’ provided answers. This process of ‘proving and answering’ is still very evident today. We only have to think of the situation in the so-called third world and the western ‘answer’ to agricultural problems.

A typical example – nomadic tribes in northern Africa are suddenly provided with a tap, giving them a constant supply of water. The need to move is taken away so they settle. Within a few years the cattle have eaten all the grass available in the arid conditions which because of the intensive grazing has ceased to grow. The herds have to be lead further away from the villages to be able to provide them with food, whilst the area surrounding the tap and the village is a barren desert. The women, who collect the fire wood every day, are also experiencing problems. All the available dead wood has gone so they have to look further a field for their only source of fuel. Suddenly it becomes painfully obvious why their forefathers were nomads. In this particular area it is the only way for a tribe to survive since their mobility allows nature, in these difficult conditions, to replenish the earth and thereby feed and provide fuel for the people. Before the tap arrived the tribe was used to a nomadic existence. It is quite possible that they believed they were nomadic, simply because their fathers and forefathers were nomadic before them. In other words, they were traditionally nomads; they may have even forgotten why. The intellectual intervention, however painful, may very well have made them conscious of the very necessity of adapting to surroundings and not trying to adapt surroundings to human needs.

Unfortunately it is the meddling of western technology which has provided this painful lesson, although westerners too are slowly realising the error of their ways. It is without doubt though that some of the destruction caused in the past is irreparable, no matter how much we try to redress the wrong. Simply planting trees to prevent further soil erosion will not bring back the lost soil.

There is also the question concerning the nature spirits, the guardians of the earth forces. In redressing the balance between an intellectual or intuitive approach we first have to ask ourselves what their task is, and secondly what consequences our wanton destruction has had on them. Only after answering these two questions can we even begin to help to restore something of Mother Nature’s balance on this planet.

Without pretending to fully understand the task of the elementals I think we can safely assume that they provide a conducive atmosphere in which all living things can grow. They form in effect the etheric body of the planet – the life force which acts as a link between the cosmos and earth. Without this life force there is simply no life. This constant interaction provides all the necessary states for continuation – the first creative spark, through the consolidation to be followed by a breaking down. This cycle is very similar to the Hindu trinity of Brahma (Creation), Vishnu (Preservation) and Shiva (Destruction). It is also the cycle of the seasons. Each of the elementals has its own particular function and as we saw in the Greek philosophy – harmony can only be achieved if each element is equally represented. As guardians the nature spirits provide the harmony necessary for the continuation of the living forces of the planet. Understanding this it is fairly easy to answer the second question. If something (or someone in this case) were to upset the balance, even unknowingly, then it wouldn’t take long before a great deal of mistrust would emerge. Some of the undoings have even lead to a complete annihilation of various aspects of nature spirits whereby it has been impossible for the remaining spirits to survive. We have names for killing individuals, masses of people, children etc. but as far as I know no single word exists for the murder of nature spirits and yet we must be guilty! Two thousand years of Christianity have supposedly taught us to ‘love our neighbour’ but we don’t seem to have heard much of ‘love thy nature spirits’. In fact I think it would be safe to say that the church as an institution has done very little to encourage our awareness of nature. Furthermore any form of pantheism was, and is, regarded as idolatrous, a sad situation for those who intuitively felt that nature displays many spiritual truths. No wonder that Western culture has little or no feeling for nature. It is certainly time that we tried to understand (intellectually) and feel (intuitively) what the natural forces around us are trying to teach us. Fortunately there is a growing awareness and hopefully it isn’t too late.

To a great extent we have already learnt that intellectual answers are not always the ‘right’ answers, even though this intellectual approach is still very evident. We have to dare to take the next step and try to add an intuitive feeling to our intellectual knowledge. As Marion said to me recently: “It’s a pity that scientists don’t really dare to explore the occult side and the occultists don’t dare to explore the scientific side”. If the occultists and scientists really did join forces and share their individual knowledge seriously then perhaps we would progress. Of course some scientists and occultists are comparing notes but it’s still not a widely accepted approach. Most of us though are not fully fledged scientists or occultists so what can we ‘mere mortals’ achieve?

As I said earlier about learning about one’s environment it is a good start – not only intellectually but also ‘feeling’ it. Does it ever feel heavy and oppressive, light and airy, tranquil, at peace or agitated? Is one (small) area decidedly different in atmosphere? Does a particular spot constantly have an adverse or beneficial effect on you? How do the seasons, climatic changes affect the area? Does a particular spot remind you of anywhere else or of a particular event?

This kind of ‘exercise’ can help you to get in tune with your surroundings and also help you to tune into other places a lot more quickly. If we are to regain the trust of the nature spirits then it is of vital importance to be able to feel various atmospheres and in a way be able to sense their predicament and situation. In this way we can try to establish a sympathetic attitude towards the forces working in nature.

Another way in which we can enrich our understanding is to learn more about methods and customs practiced by so-called ‘primitive’ peoples still populating the earth. As we saw with the North African nomads their approach to their surroundings are often more sympathetic to nature than some of our methods. As I pointed out earlier we may have the intellectual answers but they have the intuitive answers. We should now be looking and aiming for a synthesis of these two streams of knowledge.

As Rudolf Steiner rightly pointed out, modern man has gone beyond nature. Our research has lead us to a sub-natural situation, in systematically breaking down the whole we have lost sight of the totality and in so doing we have forgotten the wonder and beauty of nature. Henry H. Presser in “Primitive Religions in India” states: ‘The primitive surmises that above nature there is a Super-Nature; the latter is an extension of the former. There is life in the visible, and in the invisible. As life dominates the earth, so life dominates the heavens. As there are more beings here, so it is continuous. There is no cleavage in the scheme. If life can happen or be here, it can happen to be there. Invisible beings have at least one trait in common with us men: they are alive. We call them by various names, which do not matter. As the earth is dominated by and controlled by life so also throughout the universe. The future belongs to life’.

He also adds: ‘Primitive man, then, in the context of Nature where appearances are not what they seem, and involved with the surge of Life, realises the Truth of the Supernatural within his focus of sensory and extra sensory perceptions. It is this Message that God is living that comes like a stream into the desert of urbanity. Primacy for belief recalls the classical view of the nature of truth. Reality corresponds with the fundamental religious dogma: God is.’

We may regard the primitive as simplistic and yet it is this very insight which we in the Craft would call intuition – a belief in the wisdom which has always been. It is this same type of insight which is characteristic of the elemental beings. In fact our mental sophistication can block the way to a meaningful communication with the elementals. In his book “Among the Gnomes” Franz Hartmann writes that ‘the majority of the gnomes… love plain, truthful and unsophisticated human beings, such as possess a soul in which the light of the immortal spirit may be perceived, and with these they are ready to associate; but with soulless beings, such as sophisticated, sceptical, arrogant, short-sighted and opinionated scientists, whose hearts are dead, and whose brains are swollen with the products of their own fancy, they will have nothing to do. To such they never show themselves, but love to play tricks upon them whenever they come with a view of invading their kingdom’.

The fact that gnomes or other sorts of elementals play tricks is a well known theme in much of folklore. Sometimes the trickery can be a harmless warning – on other occasions it can be fatal. The general message to be heard in these tales however is to be cautious when encountering such super natural beings and to avoid becoming involved. The problem seems to be the fact that we as human beings have a totally different view of what is right or wrong or assume that what we think is ‘good’ will be acceptable.

K.M. Briggs: ‘A tradition is still current that a fairy, or brownie, assisted the people there in thrashing their corn in olden times, and that, in token of their gratitude for his services, an article of dress was placed for his acceptance in the service of his nocturnal labours; but he, hurt and offended at the very offer of renumeration of any sort, quitted the place for ever, and in doing so is said to have uttered his regret in these lines; ‘Sin’ ye have gain me a harden ramp, Nae mair of your corn I will tramp’.

Perhaps this tale underlines the common human trait of assuming what is ‘best’ for another without even consulting the other party. However, despite our fumblings about with the elemental kingdoms and our attitudes towards the existence of nature spirits there may still be hope for us, especially when we hear about the experiences of people such as Eileen and Peter Caddy who founded the famous garden of Findhorn.

Paul Hawken retells of many of the experiences between Man, Devas and Nature Spirits in his book “The Magic of Findhorn”.

Roc (Roger Qgilvie Crombie) is often asked what is the use of Nature Spirits. They may exist, but do we really need them? Won’t plants grow anyway? From what Roc has learned, the answer to that question may be a qualitative one. Plants may grow, but they won’t grow well.

He adds: Nature Spirits are not the parents of plants, but their role is similar. The plants draw nourishment from the soil, air and water, interacting within a complex relationship of bacteria, micro-organisms, and animals. A child is nourished by foods which are usually given to him by his mother. But it has been observed that if you take children from their parents and put them into an institution with many other children where they receive nothing but their ‘needs’, namely food, clothing and shelter those children suffer emotional and spiritual deprivation.

In the same way, he adds, plants force grown are like the children in the orphanages. The Nature Spirits have withdrawn. And so we are witnessing a weakening of the plant life, an erosion of its ‘will’ to live.

The point the Nature Spirits insist upon to Roc is a rather extraordinary one. The energy which they channel into the plants is a ‘vital’ energy. In other words it is an energy which is necessary for life and as it is slowly withdrawn, it is withdrawn from man as well. Unless there is co-operation between man and plants, man destroys himself.

That this co-operation is possible and above all a fruitful one has been proved by the successes of the method incorporated at Findhorn. ‘It is important for the future of mankind that belief in the Nature Spirits and their god Pan is re-established and that they are seen in their true light and not misunderstood. These beings, in spite of the innumerable outrages man has committed against nature, are only too pleased to help him if he will seek for their co-operation. They must be believed in with complete sincerity and faith. They must never be taken for granted and should be given love and thanks for the work they do. With such co-operation, what could be achieved would seem miraculous to many.’


  • Paul Hawken: The Magic of Findhorn.
  • K.M. Briggs: The Fairies – in Tradition and Literature.
  • Henry H. Presler: Primitive Religion in India.
  • Franz Hartmann: Among the Gnomes.
  • Brian Branston: Lost Gods of Englanc
  • Janet & Colin Bord: The Secret Count