Guest Blogger: Laura Bickle
The winner of Laura's book is: Cherie J! Congrats, Cherie! Send me your contact info and I'll pass it along to Laura. Thanks to everyone who participated.
The ancient Greeks theorized that the world was composed of four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. They developed the idea that each element was tied to a corresponding set of nature spirits called daemons. Socrates himself was said to have been inspired by such a guardian daemon, who he spoke to for much of his adult life. Plato notes:
"For after death, as they say the daemon of each individual, to whom he belonged in life, leads him to a certain place in which the dead are gathered together, whence after judgment has been given they pass into the world below, following the guide, who is appointed to conduct them from this world to the other: and when they have received their due and remained their time, another guide brings them back again after many revolutions of ages." (Phaedo 107d)
Centuries later, the alchemist Paracelsus classified elemental spirits into four categories:
-Undines, corresponding to the element of water. Ancient philosophers believed that every body of water, even every fountain, had its own undine. As water was considered to be the element of the emotions, they were nearly always described as female nymph-like creatures or mermaids.
-Sylphs, avatars of the element of air, were associated with the intellect and ideas. They were often described as what modern storytellers would think of as fairies or angels.
-Gnomes, tied to the element of earth. These were variously described as elf-like beings, dryads, and satyrs. They were concerned with pragmatic matters, with the woods and wealth of the harvest.
-Salamanders, corresponding to the element of fire. Salamanders were considered to be the most unpredictable and destructive of the elementals, tied to the fires of creation. Philosophers suggested that the salamander took the shape of the familiar amphibian…probably because salamanders that dwelled in felled logs came crawling out when the logs were burned. Pliny the Elder described the salamander as: “an animal like a lizard in shape and with a body starred all over” (The Natural History).
In developing EMBERS, I was fascinated by the idea of a salamander familiar. My heroine, Anya, is an arson investigator and a medium searching for a serial arsonist in Detroit. Like the guardian daemons of Plato’s era, Sparky the salamander defends Anya from malicious spirits – when he’s not chewing on her cell phone or shorting out the microwave. I wanted to capture a bit of the wildness of the classical salamander into his behavior.
Overall, I found the idea of a human-elemental partnership intriguing. Since the time of Socrates conversing with his daemon, the idea of an elemental familiar has persisted. I suspect that ancient and modern peoples have all yearned for a bit of the same thing: a connection with nature. It’s no wonder that, in an increasingly urbanized and mechanized society, there’s a visceral desire to bond with something as primal and ancient as the four elements.