Sylph (also called sylphid) is a mythological creature in the Western tradition. The term originates in Paracelsus, who describes sylphs as invisible beings of the air, his elementals of air. There is no substantial mythos associated with them.

Ancient China

In ancient China, as Buddhism was just beginning to take hold, another more shamanistic religion (though not thought of in this way in the west) Taoism held teachings that Sylphs were elemental Devas that could help highly advanced practitioners who had awakened their consciousness or siddhis. References to this can be found within the recently translated Medical Chi Gong texts of Dr. Jerry Alan Johnson. Between the 1st and 2nd century A.D.when Buddhism was still migrating to China, it was in strong competition with the more ancient doctrines of the Yellow Emperor and Lao Tzu. During this time the doctrine of the Sylph (Shen Hsien) was still held in high regard. Sylphs are mentioned in various literature regarding the early histories of China and it seems highly probable that highly developed mythos did exist within ancient Taoist teachings yet such sources have not yet been translated into English.

Alchemy and literature

As alchemy in the West derived from Paracelsus, alchemists and related movements, such as Rosicrucianism, continued to speak of sylphs in their hermetic literature.

The first mainstream western discussion of sylphs comes with Alexander Pope. In Rape of the Lock, Pope satirizes French Rosicrucian and alchemical writings when he invents a theory to explain the sylph. In a parody of heroic poetry and the "dark" and "mysterious" literature of pseudo-science, and in particular the sometimes esoterically Classical heroic poetry of the 18th century in England and France, Pope pretends to have a new alchemy, in which the sylph is the mystically, chemically condensed humors of peevish women. In Pope's poem, women who are full of spleen and vanity turn into sylphs when they die because their spirits are too full of dark vapors to ascend to the skies. Belinda, the heroine of Pope's poem, is attended by a small army of sylphs, who foster her vanity and guard her beauty. This is a parody of Paracelsus, inasmuch as Pope imitates the earnest pseudo-science of alchemy to explain the seriousness with which vain women approach the dressing room. In a slight parody of the divine battle in John Milton's Paradise Lost, when the Baron of the poem attempts to cut a lock of Belinda's hair, the sylphs interpose their airy bodies between the blades of the scissors (to no effect whatsoever). The chief sylph in "The Rape of the Lock" has the same name as Prospero's servant in Shakespeare's The Tempest: Ariel.

Fairy link

Because of their association with the ballet La Sylphide, where sylphs are identified with fairies and the medieval legends of fairyland, as well as a confusion with other "airy spirits" (e.g. in William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream), a slender girl may be referred to as a "sylph".

"Sylph" has passed into general language as a term for minor spirits, elementals, or faeries of the air. Fantasy authors will sometimes employ sylphs in their fiction. Sylphs could create giant artistic clouds in the skies with their airy wings.

In popular culture


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