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Learn about sylphs – the mythological beings of air that originated at the hand of Paracelsus – through a comprehensive definition and lesson. Then, examine your growing knowledge with a quiz.

What are Sylphs?

Originating in the work of Paracelsus, an alchemist and Hermetic philosopher who lived in the early 16th century, sylphs are beings of air. Paracelsus recognized air as one of four base elements, with the other three being earth, fire, and water.

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In Paracelsus’ view, each of the elements contained both an invisible aspect and a visible one.Sylphs, then, were one of the invisible components of air. Descriptions differ on the gender of sylphs, but most accounts characterize them as graceful females akin to fairies.

Rendition of a Sylph

This relates to Paracelsus’ notion that the primary elements of the earth are two-fold: invisible and visible. We first see the appearance of the sylph in Western writings beyond Hermetic literature when we look at Alexander Pope’s satirical poem, Rape of the Lock.

Exploiting the contrast between modern science and pseudo-science, Pope draws from alchemy and creates a satire, or a genre of literature where folly or vice is held up to ridicule, that uses Paracelsus’ sylphs. In the poem, Pope mocks the ridiculousness of vanity in the Victorian age when the Baron attempts to steal a lock of hair from the protagonist, Belinda. The sylphs attempt to come to her aid by swarming the air in front of the scissors, but because of their own effervescent bodies, are unable to make a difference.

Relation to Other Beings

Despite the scarcity of literature that includes sylphs, they are, nonetheless, closely related to other magical or mythical beings. These include fairies, gnomes, pixies, salamanders, sprites, elves, nymphs, mermaids, fauns, dryads, and so on. Because of the invisible/visible duality of the primary elements in Hermetic literature, many of these beings belong respectively in the different elemental categories.

People during this age of evolving science and pseudo-science believed in these beings; moreover, they saw many of them as either a type of deity or those that commanded special powers. Thus, these beings crept into both local worship and myth.

Sylphs Study Guide

Sylphs are mythological beings of air
Paracelsus an alchemist and Hermetic philosopher; conceived of sylphs during the early 1500s
Sylphs mythological beings of air; closely related to fairies, gnomes, pixies, sprites, elves, nymphs, etc
Hermetica literature deals mainly with philosophy, theology, and occult subjects; overlaps mythology, astrology, and alchemy
Rape of the Lock satirical poem by Alexander Pope that features sylphs to illustrate the contrast between modern science and pseudoscience

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you’ll be ready to:

  • Define sylphs and identify their origin
  • Discuss the literary background of sylphs
  • Contrast modern science and pseudoscience

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