Gnomes, Elves, Gods of Antiquity ...
a universal knowledge
Everywhere in the world and through the ages, narratives tell of the existence of beings personifying the forces of Nature, such as sylphs, imps, and water sprites… What actually are these beings, called animistic beings, elemental beings, or spirits of nature? Are they products of human imagination or are they real?
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 utilise 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.
Universal knowledge of elemental beings
These beings have been described worldwide in similar terms, considered in connection with the same natural elements, and placed within a hierarchy at the summit of which there is not a single god but a group of gods.
Testimony to the existence of a dozen main gods is found not only in Greek, Roman or other European mythology, but is also found to varying degrees in Africa, Asia, and America.
Such conformity is amazing. Beyond the variations due to the differences of culture and environment, the conceptions and descriptions match in an astonishing manner. Where can this unanimity come from?
There are two hypotheses. The first one considers all the knowledge about elemental beings as a human invention that is propagated all over the globe. The second approach considers the fact that since so many peoples worldwide have believed in the existence of elemental beings and could depict them in a similar manner, it means that they all – no matter where they lived – saw the same thing and could thus describe a similar reality. There was therefore no transmission of an imagined conception but the development of a knowledge based on personally lived experiences.
Of these two hypotheses the first is the least plausible. It is a well-known fact that information transmitted by word of mouth and through intermediaries gets rapidly distorted. In addition, at the time when these transmissions were supposed to have taken place natural obstacles such as oceans, high mountain ranges, and deserts were almost insurmountable barriers. Besides, a very strong missionary zeal would have been necessary to propagate that knowledge all over the world.
A knowledge for all times
According to ethnologists and historians, one of the characteristics of peoples believing in the existence of elemental beings is precisely the absence of a missionary spirit.
The fact that the belief in the existence of elemental beings is uniformly spread, not only in space but also in time, gives more credence to the second hypothesis.
Indeed, this belief has been alive since the earliest human history. It begins with the worship of nature spirits, the traces of which are found in cave drawings dating over 25,000 years ago. It continues with the worship of ancient gods in Mesopotamia (5 BC), in China and Persia (4 BC), in ancient Greece and Rome, as well as with the Aztecs and Incas (14th/15th century AD), with North American Indians (17th/18th century AD), up to the present day when animistic beliefs are firmly rooted in a sizeable portion of the world’s population.
What an extraordinary long life for a belief considered erroneous and stemming from human imagination! Why not accept that these folktales and legends are founded on truth, that they were originally based on lived experiences and direct contact, and therefore that the elemental beings really exist?