From time immemorial, human beings, both children and adults, have been seeing elemental beings and relating their encounters to those around them. These narratives, which went beyond the ordinary, have been preserved and handed down from generation to generation. Over time – and often with a lot of distortions – they became folktales and legends of various peoples.
They tell of peasants whom these elemental beings guide as to the best time to plant, of shepherds who are helped to find their lost herd or to watch over them, of miners being shown where to dig, of fishermen directed to where to spread their nets, of mountain dwellers and seamen who are warned of the imminent arrival of an avalanche or storm.
They also tell of elemental beings teaching people new ways to utilize what is found in their natural environment: where to find a spring, which medicinal plants to use in taking care of various ailments, how to forge metals, what clay to use to obtain better pottery, which vegetal fibres to use in weaving.
The main elemental beings described in these narratives are gnomes, giants, elves, sylphs, water sprites and, less often, salamanders.
The main task of these beings is not rescuing or advising human beings but to take care of Nature itself, that is, to form, bring it to life and to organise it. They are active in one aspect or another depending on their kind.
Gnomes work with everything relating to the soil, that is, earth, stones, and rocks. Giants form the mountains, valleys, and caves. Elves look after the growth of flowers and plants, while sylphs animate and direct winds, clouds and storms. Water is the sphere of activity of water sprites: springs, streams, rivers, lakes and seas. Salamanders are in charge of everything relating to fire: fireplaces, forges, volcanoes, “will-o’-the-wisps” and so on.
Folktales and legends
In the folktales and legends the elemental beings are described as having a height and a size adapted to their task. Gnomes are stocky and dense like the rocks and the earth; water sprites are fluid and supple like the liquid element, and the giants are large like the mountains and plains they shape.
But the elemental beings in contact with matter are not the only ones in existence. All the folktales and legends also describe different groups of elemental beings standing a little higher than these, directing and coordinating their activities; and higher still a smaller number of elemental beings of a superior kind who are at the top of the whole hierarchy. The latter were considered by various peoples as the most powerful and the highest, and as such were venerated as gods.
These are the well-known deities of Greek and Roman mythology: Zeus, the god of the sky and all meteorological phenomena; Hades, the god of the underworld; Poseidon, the god of the sea; Artemis, the goddess of the hunt; Demeter, the goddess of vegetation; Hephaestos, the god of fire and crafts; Aphrodite, the goddess of love, beauty and fertility. The unanimity and universality of these tales and legends is surprising. Human beings all over the world and through the ages have indeed come in contact with elemental beings.