TELL US A STORY
The Four Elementals
Their Activity in a Living Teaching
The Class 1 children wondered why the small lump of rock was taking pride of place in the classroom. This is until the teacher introduced it – him! – ; Basil Basalt. He (the teacher) explained that for this Four Elementals (or ‘Fairy Story’ main lesson, Basil was there in a consultancy role – a kind of brains trust – in case help was needed to confirm some arcane nature or nature-spirit fact; or even to correct the teacher’s grammar. (To the teacher’s irritation, when describing people gravitating to the mountains, Basil corrected him, stating that gravity can’t go up!) Over the next three weeks the children would get to know Basil – a kind of stand-alone rock puppet – very well indeed.
In fact only they seemed to be able to interpret his lumps and bumps as parted hair, funny ears, beady white quartz pebble eyes, and round mouth. To present a living, imaginative main lesson on the Four Elementals the teacher would require quite a lot of background information on which to base his story and descriptive (this is a science lesson) content. The following exposition is hoped to be found helpful in this regard.
However, the first resource must be Rudolf Steiner’s teaching of the spirit in nature in general, and his lecture series Symphony of the Creative World in particular. This book is surely one of the most insightful and beautiful documents ever published.
But we should also look further afield; stories of the Four Elementals are ubiquitous in almost all cultures, but being in Australia I will begin, as an example, with an old aboriginal ‘fairy’ story, one based almost exclusively on the activity of various rock spirits. It was told around campfires, in its various forms (no folk tales are carved in stone, as it were), in the Blue Mountains area west of Sydney – a spectacularly ‘rocky’ region. Wherever on e taches one must first determine which of the Elementals are strongly active, and which less so.
As well as the powerful mineral nature, the Blue Mountains are renowned for the clear and bracing air and light. They have traditionally been an area of sanatoria for TB sufferers, who found healing in the rarified atmosphere. Hence the Air Elementals are especially active. It is also a fire land. In fact it is regarded as the most incendiary area in the world, with all plant life having evolved to survive regular burning. So Fire Elementals regularly make their presence felt in bushfires right across the region. But what of the water element?
Well, this is the least active of the four, with the liquid Elementals assisting the water that falls as rain to either soak straight through the tine sandy soils, or fun straight off the rocks to the deep valleys below. There is almost no permanent standing water, in the form of lakes and the like, in the whole region. Stories of the area should reflect this strong rock, air, fire and weak water four-fold reality. Anyway, to the story:
Tyawan was an aboriginal magic man with a magic bone. Each day he would take his three beautiful 12-year-old daughters down into the valley to hunt and collect. However, the girls could only go part way due to a much-feared rock spirit who dwelt in a cave nearby, and if roused could extract a terrible price.
One day after their father had disappeared into the valley below one of the girls was startled by a large centipede scuttling across the rock shelf behind which they hid. So she threw a stone at it, which missed, but crashed down the hill, waking the rock spirit. He quickly determined the source of the disturbance, and give chase to the three sisters.
Luckily Tyawan heard the commotion and rushed back to save them. This he did in the nick of time by turning them into stone with his magic bone (a wand in other cultures). Alas, in the furor, he lost the bone in the thick leaf litter. The rock spirit returned to his cave leaving Tyawan alone with his three now igneous daughters. Without the bone he could not return them to living flesh. These today are the famous Three Sisters at Echo Point at Katoomba.
To better search for the missing bone, the despairing father turned himself into a Superb Lyrebird. This is a creature much better adapted to scratching through leaf litter than a human. Eons later he searches still, his ringing call being heard from rainforest gullies throughout the region.
Apart from a beautiful tale, there are many strands of spiritual reality braided into its rich imagery. The twelfth year is when Rudolf Steiner recommends the teaching of two iconic main lessons, Human Anatomy, based primarily on the skeleton (‘human geology’), and Geology (‘world skeleton’).
Many eurythmists also recommend introducing tone eurythmy, based on the skeleton as a sound board, for Class 6. So we have a tale of stone, bone and the tone beautifully woven together within the world of the Elementals.
The lyrebird, one of the few birds named after a specific musical instruments, is the most perfect exponent of sound in the natural world; one example being its unchallenged primacy as a mimic. This remarkable avians’ range of bird calls is not only wide, but incredibly true to the original.
The age of the three sisters is significant, known due to the fact that if they were much older than twelve, they would be ‘married’ – usually to the oldest members of the tribe!
Steiner describes the teaching of geology in the twelfth year as coinciding with a new ossification of the skeleton prior to puberty. How the content sings in harmony with the inner process – such wisdom! Due to the banquet of spiritual knowledge provided to the Steiner teacher, similar laminates of higher reality can enrich his or her own story imagery.
The Elementals work through the four elements, imbuing the latter with living power of various kinds, whether form, function, or life processes, even. Both the Elementals and the elements descended from higher worlds, in their current state of being at least, in old Atlantis. Seven-year-olds are enjoying their ‘Atlantean’ year.
If fact, with their large heads, small limbs and dreamy disposition these Class 1 children can be fairly described as little Atlanteans – moving, as they are, from a more spirit-imbued pineal consciousness to a matter-bound pituitary one.
The pituitary, being an apples shaped gland, is a mirror of the Eden event in human evolution – the ‘genesis’, indeed, of Atlantis. When humanity rediscovers its spiritual origins, Tyawan may find his bone, and the Three Sisters many become human once more!
The Four Elementals have always been known to a more spirit-aware humanity, but it was Paracelsus, the 16th century Swiss father of modern medicine, who formalized their names as Gnomes, Undines, Sylphs and Salamanders. These relate to the four elements of earth, water, air and fire respectively.
The word gnome is etymologically related to ‘know’; they are ‘gnolege’ beings. Undine is associated with the movement of the liquid element as in ‘undulate’. Sylphs are woodland beings, akin ‘sylvan’. And the Salamanders are named after a drowsy amphibian, the only similarity between the two being their comet-like form (big head, diminishing body), and flame-like collar.
The Greek names for the four are probably more accurate (their perception being older, hence clearer). Rock spirits are ‘Oriades’, mountain or rock beings; water elementals are Neriads; air spirits, the only ones consistent with Paracelsus, are Dryads – ‘tree beings’; and finally the fire elementals are Meliades, ‘honey spirits’. This last reflects Steiner’s description of the Salamanders working in concert with the bees in the reproductive process of plants, accompanying them on their foraging. They even, to spirit perception oat least, look like them, little balls of power, as they are. The bees are also instructive in illustrating how the Elementals express through creatures of the natural world, in its simplified form, through the respective four parts of the day. The Sylphs wake us up in the morning through the dawn chorus of the bird world; the early-rising lyrebird (and rooster!) being a ‘superb’ example.
The Salamanders are more active in the middle of the day, expressing through the bees and other nectar-loving insects. Every school should have beehives, so that the children can experience Meliad magic first hand. The Gnomes are evident rather through the carapaced (like them) insects such as crickets and cicadas (and centipedes!)
Finally the Undines keep us serenaded at night with the (again like them) frog chorus. From this we see that Sylphs and Salamanders are essentially Sun beings, with the denser Gnomes and Undines more at home in moonlight.
There is also a seasonal cycle of Elemental activity, with Gnomes loving winter most, Sylphs spring, Salamanders summer, Undines rather being autumn emphatic.
The four are also an objective expression of the four temperaments, based, like the Elementals, on the etheric body. Meliades are of course choleric, the fire temperament, Dryads are sanguine, Neriads phlegmatic; and grumpy old Oriades melancholic (mostly in the positive sense of the word!).
Even the world has it four temperaments, in the form of weather generally, and the ‘four winds’ (and the four cloud types) in particular. Cyclones and other destructive winds are obviously choleric, with strong Salamander activity; the Sylphs express through variable winds, the Undines in perennial breezes.
And the Gnomes? The melancholic winds are obviously the doldrums; or no wind at all! The vernacular even expresses it as “I’m feeling in the doldrums”.
Even countries seem to single out one or other favorite Elemental. Northern Europe loves its Gnomes (Trolls, et al!); England its Fairies (an epithet of sylphdom) at the bottom of the garden; while Persia (meaning ‘fire land’) abounds with tales of fire birds, phoenixes and the like. For the country of Undines, we travel to mystic India, a word derived from the aforementioned ‘undulate’, with its great river culture.
The Elementals are ego-less, hence have no morality. After all, for example, they are part of the process of both providing water for the thirsty – and drowning people in it!
As such, they are actually unaware of their own being, and can only be self-reflective by listening to stories about themselves. Hence they gather eagerly in an invisible circle surrounding the children when stories of their nature and exploits are told in this Four Elements and many other lessons to young children.
That being said, they are all repositories of illimitable knowledge, mainly of processes, of anything outside themselves, in the God-created world.
They may even be present in the Class 10 Organic Chemistry main lesson, where the molecular structure of the four elements, in which they are intimately active, are described.
The molecules of the mineral element pack like children’s blocks, as in ice – true gnomic forms. The liquid element, when the ice melts, is more laminal, with layers of molecules sliding against each other in perennial movement (or would like to!). Gaseous molecules dart all over the place, and are even more widely dispersed. Finally the warmth element, which as any scientist knows has no molecules at all. Hence they discount the fourth as an element at all. But Rudolf Steiner’s assertion of a fourth state of being has been confirmed with the discovery of plasma. This enigmatic ‘substance’ might not contain molecules as such, but it contains something. This is seen as a comet-like streak of immense speed which lightens up the screen for a nanosecond, revealing itself only in where it has been, rather that what it is!
The Elementals are generally more active in pristine rather than, say, city environments. This is made clear in an anecdote in my book Rudolf Steiner – Journey of the Grail Knight, a Biography. Here it describes The Master having a direct confrontation with a nature spirit of unidentified ilk (most probably a Gnome, being in Austria, as it was).
And what of Basil? Well, at the conclusion of the lesson he asked to be put out into the rack garden next to the classroom. Here, he said, he could catch up with some old friends – some he hadn’t seen for a couple of eons! – as well as join the invisible Four Elementals audience at storytime!
Rudolf Steiner tells us that anthropomorphism is not only healthy for small
children, but essential for their later moral unfolding.
Meet Great Gritty Granite, who lives in northern NSW.