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Ariel and Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest

The sylphs, air spirits[1] or elementary beings of the air weave and work in the airy-warm, interspersed with light, in the movements of the clouds and the wind, from the finest breeze to the mighty storm. They also include various elves and the gigantic storm spirits. Their best-known representatives in poetry are the air spirit Ariel, who appears in Shakespeare's The Tempest and also appears in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust, as well as the elf king Oberon and the elf queen Titania from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Origin and Nature of the Sylphs

Sylphs are elementary beings that emerged from the hierarchy of the Angeloi (Lit.:GA 136, p. 64). They bring the light ether to the plant and, together with the undines, plasticise the primordial plant. After withering, this plant form "trickles" down into the earth, where it is perceived and preserved by the gnomes. This is the actual feminine of the plant.

The sylphs have an astral body, an etheric body, a physical body and another member that belongs to the third elementary kingdom.

The Sylphs and the Animal and Plant Kingdom

„Where animal and plant touch, there the sylphs work. The sylphs are bound to the element of air, they guide the bees to the flowers. Thus we owe almost all useful knowledge of beekeeping to the old traditions, and especially in beekeeping we can learn a lot from them. For what exists nowadays as science about bees is completely permeated with error, and the old wisdom, which has been propagated by tradition, is only disturbed by it. Science proves to be something useless. Only the old hand grips are useful, the origin of which is unknown, because at that time man used the spiritual world as a guide.“ (Lit.:GA 98, p. 91)

The Relation of the Sylphs to the Human Will

The sylphs are related to the human will:

„And likewise in the aeriform is contained a sum of elementary beings. All these beings, the more they approach the aeriform, lose more and more their longing for multiplicity. We have the feeling that even number is no longer of any help to us in reaching up to the aeriform. Unity is striven for more and more. Nevertheless, the elementary beings of the air live in a great diversity - and are related to the human will. Related to the human intellect, inwardly related, are the elementary beings of the solid, related to the human feeling are the elementary beings of the liquid, related to the human will are the elementary beings of the aeriform element.“ (Lit.:GA 211, p. 203ff)

The sylphs have a fine feeling for the subtlest movements of the air space, which they perceive as sounding, and are particularly attracted to the flight of birds. The sylphs mentally add the metabolic-limb system (cow) to the birds, which are actually all head. Sylphs are also found particularly where the animal and plant kingdoms touch each other, for example where bees buzz around flowers.

When the sylphs go beyond their sphere of activity in the plant world, they can swell to gigantic size and become storm giants.

Sylphs and Plant Poisons

Malignant sylphs carry what should only be in the upper air and heat regions down into the watery and earthly regions. As the heavenly spiritual-soulish, so to speak, "burns" the body, plant poisons are produced (e.g. belladonna).

„Again, the benign sylphs and fire-beings keep aloof from men and animals and occupy themselves with plant growth in the manner I have indicated; but there are malignant ones. These malignant ones carry above all that which should be only in the upper, in the air and heat regions, down into the watery and earthly regions.

If you now wish to study what happens when these sylph beings, for example, carry down from the upper regions into the lower regions of the watery and earthy element that which belongs up there, then look at belladonna. Belladonna is that plant which, in its blossom, has been kissed by the sylph, if I may so express myself, and which has thereby transformed what can be benign sap into the poisonous sap of belladonna.

There you have what may be called a shift of the sphere. Above, it is right for the sylphs to develop their embracing powers, as I described them earlier, where one is literally touched by the light - for that is what the bird world needs. But when it comes down, the sylph, and uses what it should use above, below in relation to the plant world, then a sharp plant poison is produced. Parasitic beings through gnomes and undines; through sylphs the poisons which are actually the celestial that has flowed too low to the earth. When man or certain animals eat belladonna, which looks like a cherry, only that it is hidden in the calyx inside - it is pressed down, you can still see it in the shape of the belladonna, which I have just described - when man or certain animals eat belladonna, they die from it. But look at thrushes and blackbirds: they sit on belladonna and get their best food in the world from it. What is in the belladonna belongs to their region.

It is a strange phenomenon that animals and men, who are actually earth-bound with their lower organs, take in as poison what is corrupted in the earth in the belladonna, but that such representative birds as the thrushes and blackbirds, who are therefore supposed to have in a spiritual way through the sylphs - and through the benign sylphs they also have it - that they can bear it, even if what is up there in their region is carried down. To them is nourishment what to the more earth-bound beings is poison.“ (Lit.:GA 230, p. 136f)

Vicious salamanders increase the poisonous effect in plants right into the seed (e.g. bitter almonds).

Encounter with the Sylphs in the Waking Dream

Man meets the sylphs in the waking dream, unmasked he would feel them like the sunlight spinning around him:

„When man has slept through the night, having had around him the astral sea, which forms itself in the most manifold undine form, and then wakes up and has the waking dream, then, if this waking dream did not again mask itself in life reminiscences or in symbols of inner organs, if he were to see the unmasked dream, he would face the world of the sylphs. But these sylphs would take on a strange shape for him. They would be as if the sun wanted to send something, but wanted to send something which actually affects man in a difficult way, which in a certain way puts man to sleep spiritually. We will hear why this is the case in a moment. Nevertheless, if man were to perceive the unmasked waking dream, he would see in it something like the fluttering in, the essential fluttering in of the light. He would feel it unpleasantly also for the reason that the limbs of these sylphs, as it were, spun around him, wafted around him. He would feel as if the light were attacking him from all sides, as if the light were something that attacked him, to which he was extraordinarily sensitive. Perhaps the human being would also feel this now and then like a caressing of the light. But in all these things I only want to indicate to you how this bearing, groping light actually approaches in the sylph form.“ (Lit.:GA 230, p. 133f)

Sylphs and the Breathing Process

„The clairvoyant sees other elementary spirits, beings who in turn stand on another stage of evolution. These beings fill the air which we inhale with every breath and which (without committing ourselves to chemical terms) we in turn exhale as a dead thing when it is consumed by us. For the ordinary perception, the inhaled air is the living air and the exhaled air is the death or killing air. Seen spiritually, however, the inhalation is the death of the elementary beings of the air, and with the exhalation they live again. Thus these beings pervade our whole organism, and from the very beginning they have collaborated in its formation.“ (Lit.:GA 265, p. 358f)


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References to the work of Rudolf Steiner follow Rudolf Steiner's Collected Works (CW or GA), Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach/Switzerland, unless otherwise stated.
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  1. The designation -ghosts' is strictly speaking not correct, since they do not have an independent I, thus no individuals spirit.