Ever since the four classical elements of the Western world were created in Greece, humanity has been fascinated with them. People have always enjoyed separating things into various categories, and so have been dividing things into the four elemental categories for a long time. For instance, many people associate the element of fire with the summer and the element of earth with the winter. In his 16th-century alchemical book, Liber de Nymphis, sylphis, pygmaeis et salamandris et de caeteris spiritibus, a man named Paracelsus described four mythological creatures as belonging to the four elements.
Earth Elementals: Gnomes
The Elemental of Earth is the gnome, or gnomus in Latin. Paracelsus got the word gnomus from the Latin word genemos, which literally meant “earth-dweller”. Paracelsus described gnomes as short little wrinkly men with beards. They were supposed to be antisocial towards humans, capable of moving as easily through the earth as humans could the air, and were two spans tall. A span is the space between your thumb and forefinger when your hand is completely extended.
Water Elementals: Undines
The Elementals of Water are undines, or undina in Latin. Paracelsus got the word undina from the Latin word unda, meaning “wave”. Undines are always described as female and are usually equated with water nymphs, like naiads and nereids. Undines are also described as not having a human soul. As a result, it was said that many undines married humans. They lived much shorter lives, but got an immortal soul. In some stories, the offspring of a human and undine would be a human born with a “watermark”, which needed to be kept wet to prevent it from being painful. Undines were said to move through the water as easily as humans moved through the air.
Air Elementals: Sylphs
The Elementals of Air are sylphs, or sylvestris in Latin. Sylvestris was the Latin word for “wild man”, and many people believe that the word was mixed with the word nympha (“nymph”), to create the word sylph. According to Paracelsus’ original descriptions, sylphs were taller than humans, not to mention rougher and coarser. However, they were the most similar to us in the fact that they move through the air, like us, not through one of the other three elements. Sylphs eventually came to be viewed more like small, winged, mischievous wind fairies.
Fire Elementals: Salamanders
The Elementals of Fire are salamanders, or vulcanus in Latin. Vulcanus comes from the name of the Roman god of fire and the forge, Vulcan (Hephaestus was the Greek version of the same god). Salamanders were lizard-like and were described as moving through fire as easily as humans move through air. Many people believe that the reason that salamanders were associated with fire was that they actually came running out of fires. Essentially, salamanders would hibernate in the winter, and would often fall asleep in safe places like piles of logs. When people went to burn wood from their woodpiles in the winter, they’d see salamanders scrambling out of the fire as they awoke.