|Behind the Scenes|
Sylphs are a species of humanoid air-elementals first described by the 16th century alchemist Paracelsus as one of the four elemental races - the other three being Gnomes (earth), Undines (water) and Salamanders (fire). Females of this race may be referred to as Sylphids or Sylphides.
Originally, they were described as taller, coarser and stronger than humans and were mostly derived from legends of "wild men" who inhabited the forests. In modern culture they're more commonly associated - or even equated - with Fairies, and thus tend to be depicted as more petite and delicate. Like Fairies, they may be represented as human-sized or smaller, and are often portrayed with wings.
According to Paracelsus, the elementals are material creatures, not unlike human beings, which need to eat and sleep. They're not made of the same corporeal substances as we are, but they're still not considered spirits either. Instead, they occupy an intermediate position between these two categories of beings: both spiritual and corporeal.
Each elemental race is able to move through and survive within their own element but not in others. As such, Gnomes move through, see through, breath and live within earth and solid rocks. The same applies to Undines in water and Salamanders in fire. And the Sylphs are the most human-like of the four because like humans, they live in, see through, breath and move through air.
The factor that distinguishes humans and elementals is that the human being is made of a body, a spirit and an immortal soul. The elementals have the body and the spirit but lack the soul, meaning that they cease to exist upon death. They may acquire a soul, however, if they marry a human being.
In popular culture
- Sylphids appear, along with the other elementals, in Alexander Pope's satirical poem "The Rape of Lock", where they're depicted as the spirits of deceased women.
- In the 1778 novel The Sylph by Georgiana Cavendish, the titular creature acts as a sort of guardian spirit to protect the heroine.
- The ballet La Sylphide, based on a 1822 story by Charles Nodier and originally choreographed in 1832 by Filippo Taglioni, is about a Sylphid who falls in love with a human.