The elementary spirits, the so-called Elementals, are the unseen intelligences that inhabit the four basic elements of the material plane. The creatures of the air are known as sylphs; of the earth, gnomes; of fire, salamanders; and of water, the nymphs or undines. According to ancient tradition, before the Fall, Adam had complete control over these entities. After the Fall from Grace in the Garden of Eden, Adam lost his easy access to the elementals, but he was still able to command their obedience by means of certain incantations and spells. That same ancient tradition suggests that such communication with the unseen entities can be established by the sincere magician who seeks out the old spells. Others say that the ancient incantations are unnecessary. All that is required to gain the support of the elementals is to recognize their presence and powers and to live openly in a manner that indicates the magician is respectful, but unafraid, of the forces of nature.
The appearance of the elementals when discerned by the human eye is that of attractive males and beautiful females. Because they are created of the pure essences of their element, they may live for centuries; but because they were fashioned of terrestrial elements, their souls are not immortal, as are those of humans. If, however, an elemental should be joined in marriage to a human, their union can transform the creature's soul into a spirit that may enjoy eternal life. Some of the greatest figures of antiquity such as Zoroaster, Alexander, Merlin, and Hercules, were reported to have been the children of elementary spirits.
While most traditions hold the elementals, whether or not they are seen or unseen, to be friendly to humans and in general benignly disposed to providing assistance to righteous endeavors, some authorities warn that each of the four elements contains a number of mischief makers and entities that tend more toward the demonic than the angelic.
Wm. Michael Mott, author of Caverns, Cauldrons, and Concealed Creatures, issues a number of warnings pertinent to those humans who might be seriously considering dealing with sylphs, undines, salamanders, gnomes, and other entities:
Encounters with elemental beings are not all so charming. Elementals are notoriously capricious and unpredictable, and are usually indifferent at best, and dangerous at their worst. Theosophists, Rosicrucians, and Spiritualists tended to theorize that fairies are elementals, but are also spirits (existing on `another plane'); yet the Neoplatonists, and later the alchemists of the middle ages, believed them to be of a finer and more subtle type of matter, somewhere `between man and the angels.' They had flesh, after a fashion, and fleshly desires to go with it. The wizard Merlin (his name meaning `of the sea' or `of the water') was supposedly the result of the lust of an elemental for a human woman.
While there is traditionally some inter-relationship between the four types of elementals (sylphs, undines, salamanders, and gnomes), it seems that many fairy types of beings from Northern and Western Europe have a close relationship to the gnome (underworld) and undine (mermaid/merman) varieties. According to Reverend Robert Kirk (The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies, 1691), the fairies who abducted and later released him were composed of `congealed air,' or a finer type of matter. Yet, in defense of the spiritual aspect or theory, fairy associations and fairyland entrances were often with subterranean regions or necroploleis, such as barrows, tumuli, ruined hill-forts, mounds, and the like. Caves, wild gorges, and chasms also had the same types of fairy associations, however, as did crevices or cracks in rocks which were too narrow for human beings to enter.
Through the centuries, some have theorized that the fairies of the British Isles were fallen angels, the souls of the pagan or unbaptized dead, or the actual hidden descendants of races (or species?) of man which had been defeated by the Celts and driven into hiding, eventually beneath the ground. Here, after long ages, they often became diminutive in form and stature, due to cramped quarters, poor nutrition, and inbreeding. Walter Evans-Wentz reports an interesting belief (as expressed in The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries, 1911, pp. 166-67), held by David MacRitchie previously, who in his book The Testimony of Tradition (1890), noted the similarity between the word pixies, or pixys, and Picts, a Bronze-Age, pre-Celtic people whom he saw as non-Aryan (a possibility, at least before the coming of the Celts) and dwarf-like, the latter now known to be false.
But what might years of interbreeding in a subterranean environment do to the stature of a people, or isolated groups of survivors in hiding from taller, stronger invaders? The finding of apparent Neolithic dwarf remains-an entire tribe of dwarfs-in Switzerland in 1893, lent credence to the theory of ancient, pygmy races who had been driven into a slinking, clandestine, and eventually subterranean existence throughout Europe. To the Victorians, this led to the conclusion that dwarfism and midgetism were possibly due to the racial residue of Cro-Magnon types interbreeding with these ancient peoples, and that the fairies were simply natural and earlier forms of man. For a time, even the Spiritualists and Theosophists adopted this theory as their own. This didn't last, and soon these groups were back into the esoteric, elemental or devic (nature spirit) concepts.