Elementals – The world of nature spirits, part IV

Wiccan Rede * Winter 1987 by Morgana Sythove

In part III of this series we looked at the elemental world through the eyes of the kabbalist. We also discussed ‘thought-forms’ and patch working. The kabalah is of course only one of a number of occult systems to be found in what we call the Western Magical Tradition. As we delve further into our western heritage it becomes more and more clear that although the ‘world of nature spirits’ is not something that we are consciously aware of (certainly not in our normal nine-to-five routine), it is a world which permeates our whole existence.

Quite regularly we discover, in various western systems, references to this elemental world – a world which envelops us in such a subtle way that it is hardly surprising that we have become unaware of the forces at work. These forces, as with homeopathic medicines, work on our etheric, or life body. In fact anyone working with homeopathy, or for example Bach-remedies, needs to be able to understand and to relate to these forces. In this sense the potions, essences and salves are a conglomerate of the work nature spirits have done in guiding plant, mineral and animal growth. Quite often amazing results can be achieved with a homeopatich medicine – even more amazing when we realise the dilutions that are used. What is actually happening when we use natural medicines? In effect we are using a tiny, microscopic, part of the essence of the particular plant etc. And yet as we know with genetic material the whole ‘blueprint’ of that plant is carried in that minuscule drop. Certain plants will have a greater affinity with one of the elements, for example the water or fire element. A good homepathic doctor will look at his patient’s whole constitution before prescribing a particular remedy in an attempt to correlate these affinities. (Treating like with like, which is basically what homepathy means). This correlation of affinities was discovered by Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843). W.B. Crow, in ‘The Occult Properties of Herbs and Plants’ writes that Hahnemann “whilst translation Cullen’s Mysteria Medica’ noted a number of medicines, called specifics, which acted only in certain diseases. One of these was Peruvian bark from Cinchona, a South American plant of the madder family which was, at the time, becoming very popular in the treatment of malaria. Being of an inquiring mind, Hahnemann tried this drug on himself, and found he had developed symptoms similar to those of malaria, even in detail. He then, with the aid of friends, experimented with a wide range of drugs and fount the same sort of thing”. Hahnemann’s discoveries became the basis of homeopathic practice, which in turn became the basis of anthroposophic medicine. Rudolf Steiner consistently argued that if one wants to discover the mysterious workings of nature and the cosmos it is necessary ‘to seek the spiritual directly in the physical world’. However a scientific approach which dissects and analyses without thought of the spiritual will inevitably fall short of discovering the subtleties of the very thing we call life. He argued that an occult science approach can help us to unravel these mysteries. In his lectures held in 1923 in Penmaenmawr (North Wales) he mentions a booklet which had just been published called ‘Physiological and Physical Proof of the Efficacy of the Smallest Entities’ by Dr. Kolisko. She had been researching the use of highly diluted solutions in homeopathic medicines. In this booklet she had shown how the smallest entities were the most effective. Steiner said: “By bringing physical substances in a highly diluted form, a way is opened into the spiritual”. The interesting point is however that Dr. Kolisko discovered that with certain dilutions there is a minimum of growth – with a higher dilution a maximum – then a return tot a minimum, back to a maximum. In effect she discovered a pattern of curves which illustrated a certain rhythm. Steiner: “Thus, in the remarkably conscientious tracing of the curves, one gains direct insight into a rhythm working gin every thin material – a rhythm that is indeed the expression of the spiritual. With human beings we can turn from the metabolic system to the rhythmical system; it is possible in nature, also to fin in a quite exact, scientific way, its rhythmical system.” He is also hopeful that “if the results of this research are estimated rightly, the laws of nature in future will no longer be sought only in the present atomistic way, by measuring and weighting, it will be recognised how in all material things there is a rhythm, and how in the rhythm of events in nature the rhythm of the cosmos is expressed.” Ultimately the path to the ‘spirit ‘ of things will reveal to us the now hidden secrets of life itself. Steiner himself also spoke of the elemental world and tried to give indications as to how spiritual beings in nature worked, and their importance in the ‘Cosmic Plan’. There is an excellent account of his theories, in English, in the book “Man as Symphony of the Creative World”(See bibliography for further details). I will also try to give a brief outline of the main point of his theory, especially since he is one of the few authors who has presented a complete picture of the workings of the elementals we know as gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamander. The elementals are particularly concerned with the plant world. In the past, when man had an instinctive clairvoyance he would have been able to perceive these beings and it is this clairvoyance which is so necessary for the art of healing. When we look at the plant we know that it has roots which grow down into the earth. Surrounding these roots are the gnomes. “These rootspirits, are, so to say, a quite special earthfolk, invisible at first to the outer view, but in their effects so much more visible; for no root could develop if it were not for what is mediated between the root and the earth-realm by these remarkable rootspirits, which bring the mineral element of the earth into flux in order to conduct it to the roots of the plants. Naturally I refer the underlying spiritual process”. The rootspirits, or gnomes, consist entirely of sense in which perceiving and understanding are one. In a way they are simular to man because they can understadn. However they can perceive in such a direct fashion that human thought and logic is completely alien to them. In fact gnomes regard man as being stupid because they have to think things over. It is this direct perception which enables them to translate the cosmic ideas which flow from above. “The plant gathers the secrets of the universe, sinks them into the ground, and the gnomes take these secrets into themselves from what seeps down spiritually to them through the plants”. Although the gnomes live closely to the earth they are not part of the earth, and there is always a sense of antipathy towards the earth, which is expressed in their need to thrust the plants upwards, away from the earth. Having left the pure ‘moist earthly form’ the plant enters the sphere of the ‘moist-airy’. Here the water-spirits, or undines, are at work, particularly in the leaf formation. The undines, unlike the gnomes, have a dreamlike perception. They swim in the etheric element of water, and they too are sensitive to everything earthly.  They are in a constant condition of transformation, uniting and dispersing substance like a chemist. As a result of this transformation in the watery element the leaves are produced. In the domain of the ‘airy-warmth form’ the plant comes into contact with the sylphs. They are the light bearers weaving archetypal plant forms. Sylphs have a great affinity with birds as opposed tot the antipathy the gnomes feel towards amphibians, and the undines towards fish. With birds sylphs have a great sense of well being. The light which they convey to the plant is imbued with love and it is this force which works on the chemical forces provided by the undines. As a result of this union, the pollen is produced. Steiner points out that in materialistic science this would lead to fructification, but this is not so. “Fructification takes place in winter when seeds meet the ideal plant forms received by the gnomes.” It is the fire spirits, or salamanders, who carry the warmth into the seed. “Everywhere warmth is collected with the help of the stamens, and is carried by means of the pollen from the anthers to the seeds and sees vessels. And what is formed here in the seed bud is entirely the male element which comes from the cosmos. It is not a case of the seed vessel being female and the anther of the stamens being male. In no way does fructification occur in the blossom, but only the preforming of the male seed. The fructifying force is what the fire-spirits in the blossom take from the warmth of the world-all as the cosmic male seed, which is united with the female element. For plants the earth is the mother, the heavens the father.” And further he adds: “It is a colossal error to believe that the mother principle of the plant is in the seed-bud. The fact is that this is the male principle, which is drawn forth from the universe with the aid of fire-spirits. The mother comes from the cambium (cellular tissue) which spreads from the bark to the wood, and is carried down from above as ideal form. And what now results form the combined working of gnome activity and fire-spirits activity – this is the fructification. The gnomes are in fact, the spiritual midwives of plant-reproduction. Fructification takes place below in the earth during the winter when the seed comes into the earth and meets with the forms which the gnomes have received from the activities of the sylphs and undines, and now carry to where these forms can meet with fructifying seeds. ” I would like for a moment to diverge from Steiner and remind readers of an earlier part of this series, namely the discussion of the mysteries of the Kabeiroi, since there is an interesting parallel evident. C. Kerenyi suggested that the Kabeiroi represented the absolute male principle, the spirit of the Sun and the source of life in the seed. Although they were distinctly male deities they made up the retinue of the Great Mother, Demeter K

abeiria, and it was she who initiated this male (fire)spirit – an act of union which can only be paralleled to what we in the Craft would call the Great Rite, or the Hieros Gamos (sacred marriage) of Greek Mythology, or the process of fructification to which Steiner refers. In all events it is the culmination (the bearing of fruit) of a subtle interaction between earthly and cosmic forces. It is also a culmination of an ‘unconditional yielding’ to that which is and always will be. The God is sacrificed to the Great Mother, but the fertilised seed of their union will be carried forth.

That the elemental world, the world of nature spirits, is concerned with Life is of course very apparent from all the different sources that we have so far examined. How we, as ordinary humans, perceive this world is something else again. The kabbalist would argue that thought forms built up over the centuries form the basis of images which we see, i.e. That we tuning in to a particular astral image, in a similar way that we can tune in to a particular god form. Other people argue that nature spirits are made of a kind of etheric material, whilst the word ‘Deva’ (Sanskrit) means ‘shining one’ or ‘being of luminous light’. In ‘Fairies at Work and Play” Geoffrey Hodson gives a large number of descriptions of various nature spirits, including not only a physical description but also their character traits. The descriptions are based on his own observations in the ’20’s and were made, generally, in the North West of England.  He describes the gnome as ‘usually thin and lanky, grotesque in appearance…generally, though not always, a solitary. He gives the impression of extreme old age… his arms are too long for our sense of proportion, and, like his legs, are bent at the joints as if they had grown stiff with age. The complexion is very rough and coarse, the eyes are small and black, sloping slightly upwards at the sides… The true earth gnome is not a pleasant type of elemental; those met with in England have either been quite black or peat brown in colour, and though I have never incured their hostility their atmosphere is decidedly unpleasant.” Interestingly enough though, Hodson describes an experience he had with a tree gnome in which the gnome displayed two very different ‘faces’.  Whilst outside the tree (an ash tree) it assumed the characteristic gnome appearance but once it was inside the tree Hodson noticed a decided change in his own consciousness. “The trunk of the tree becomes transparent, with the gnome in the centre as in a glass case – with this difference, that the material of the surface is continued solidly through the tree; this etheric double of the tree is pale grey with a greenish tinge. The gnome seems to discard his traditional form when inside the tree. The trunk of the tree appears like a cylinder, which, without the presence of the gnome, would be of one colour – that of the vital forces of the tree; the presence of the gnome gives individuality to these forces, as they are strongly affected by this rate of vibration.” Only when the gnomes steps outside of the tree does it assume a denser body. Hodson believed that in a sense the gnome and tree where one. “It is as though the etheric double of the tree were used to form his body, so that when he leaves the tree its etheric double stretches.” The fairies which Hodson  describes bear a stricking contrast to the gnomes in that they are vividly beautiful with “eyes which are soft and dreamy in expression”. Their beauty is enhanced by an aura. He describes the aura of a female fairy as follows. “Her aura is noticeably alive and looks like a cloud, of soft, but radiant hues, through which shafts of dazzling light flash and radiate. The colours are far beyond any earthly colours in delicacy, ranging, through shades of soft luminous pale rose, pale soft green, lavender and misty blue, throughout which briljant lances of light are constantly passing”.  The undines, or water spirits, too are beautiful, and also seem to have an aura – sometimes of pale green or pink. The undines in contrast to the land fairies are entirely naked, with long hair flowing out behind them. On their heads they wear a garland which “is luminous and apparently forms part of there aura’. Some of the undines seem to be of a higher evolved plane. In one account Hodson describes an undine of incredible beauty, who is not only winged but radiates an aura of intense luminosity. “Over the head a powerful upward flow of force interpenetrates the aura in a fan shaped radiation. This appears to come from a point in the middle of the head, where there is a briljant golden centre, slightly below the level of the eyes and midway between them. To contact such a creature is an illumination, and I wish that I could find words to describe not only the splendour of her appearance but the wonderful feeling of exaltation and life incarnate that she gives. The place is vibrant with her life.” Undines are usually found in fresh water whilst the sea spirits, as one might guess, are found in a salt water environment. Rather like the gnomes they seem to change their form in different situations. And like the gnomes they too seem to want to avoid contact and when contact is made the feelings aroused are not wholly pleasant. Hodson feels that this feeling of unease  arises from the fact that the water spirits vibrate at a different level than humans. Like the water spirits of many mythological tales they can be very enticing towards man and it is usually fatal if one succumbs to their call. In effect our waking normal consciousness changes – we are ‘enchanted’. In our waking consciousness we are aware of ourselves as individuals – it is our ego which centres our consciousness. When we come into contact with the elemental world our sense of time for example becomes very different. There are numerous accounts of adventures in Fairyland where once the individual returns to the ‘normal’ world, if ever, suddenly realises that a great length of time has passed, even though the ‘time’ spent in Fairyland was very short, a day or two perhaps. If we examine the above descriptions given by Hodson of a couple of nature spirits we must surely be struck by the references he makes to the etheric quality of these beings. Their ability to tune into their surroundings, to change their form and the vitality their presence offers seems to indicate that we are experiencing a part, if not the whole of what we could call the Life Force. In a nutshell I don’t think we would be fa wrong if we were to say that the totality of nature spirits form the etheric, life body of the earth. And as our etheric body determines our general levels of vitality, so too does the earth’s etheric body influence  the vitality of the growth processes. We of course are nourished by the bounties of Mother Earth and in this sense are also directly influenced by the Earth’s etheric body. This is stating the case in a somewhat simplistic fashion because the big question arises ‘Are the etheric bodies of man an the earth the same?’ Are we in fact talking of similar substances or are there vital differences? William Bloom has written, in a slim but extremely illuminating booklet, “Deva’s, Fairies and Angels – a Modern Approach” that there is a difference between what he calls ‘devic’ and ‘atomic’ essence. He believes that there are two parallel life streams “the thrust of one them is based is atomic matter – mineral, plant, animal and human. The thrust of the other is based in devic essence.” The distinguishing feature between the two streams is the nature of the consciousness which is incarnate in their bodies. The devic hierarchy he suggest, could be as follows: elementals, elves, cherubim, angels, archangels. “Like the atomic life-stream, the devic life-stream has a natural hierarchy of expanding consciousness and awareness. In the atomic life-stream, consciousness and awareness expand from the relatively simple awareness of, for example, a rock, to the complex multidimensional awareness of the human psyche. There is a similarly wide spectrum of difference manifest in the consciousness of the device life-stream. For the sake of clarity in language, one might generally say that when devas reach that stage of self-awareness which parallels the human stage on the atomic hierarchy, they become known as angels.” And just as the atomic life-stream is ever evolving, so too is the devic life stream. “Moreover of course, the evolution of both streams can pass and transcend the stage of human awareness.” But what is the nature of consciousness which distinguished the two life-streams? We have already seen that Steiner indicated that for example gnomes in their spirit nature “are entirely sense, and it is a sense which is at the same time understanding.” Bloom writes: “Devic essence ‘knows’ and provides the pattern by which atomic electricity can manifest in form. At all levels of live, devic life does the knowing and bridging – while atomic life does the creative doing.” The vital difference lies in the fact that devic essence is “by its very nature expanded and naturally cosmically aware” whilst atomic essence “is by its very nature focussed and limited.” He adds: “Devic consciousness is not bound by form, but envelops and enfolds it. Atomic awareness is limited by the form it is incarnate and seeks to expand awareness beyond its form… the human being… seeks to expand consciousness, in order to transmute and to transcend the limitations of incarnation. Devic consciousness, however, is always aware of its cosmic environment and seeks to become more aware of that which it enfolds and envelopes.” In order to clarify these differences Bloom has given us the following phrases.  “Devic essence is bridging and Expressive. Atomic matter is electric and dynamic. The Dynamism of atomic matter can only manifest in form if it is expressed by devic essence. Atomic matter provides the impulse and thrust for manifestation. Devic essence provides the matrix for manifestation. The atomic stream of evolution – minerals, plants, animals and humans – is oriented to doing. The devic stream of evolution – gnomes, fairies, angels, archangels – is oriented to being. The atomic stream seems colour and hears sound. The devic stream sees sound and hears colour. The atomic stream is seeking expansion. The devic stream is seeking focus. The atomic stream is becoming aware of unfoldment. The devic stream is becoming focussed on creation.”

In our next part we will be looking more closely at the etheric quality of the world of nature spirits and Bloom’s theories on devic and atomic stream.


  • W.B. Crow: The Occult Properties of Herbs and Plants.
  • R. Steiner: The evolution of Consciousness. = Man as Symphony of the Creative Word.
  • C. Hodson: Fairies at Work and at Play.
  • W. Boom: Devas, Fairies and Angels.