Sylph: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Angela Gentry
Learn about sylphs - the mythological beings of air that originated at the hand of Paracelsus - through a comprehensive definition and lesson. Then, examine your growing knowledge with a quiz.

What are Sylphs?

Originating in the work of Paracelsus, an alchemist and Hermetic philosopher who lived in the early 16th century, sylphs are beings of air. Paracelsus recognized air as one of four base elements, with the other three being earth, fire, and water. In Paracelsus' view, each of the elements contained both an invisible aspect and a visible one.

Sylphs, then, were one of the invisible components of air. Descriptions differ on the gender of sylphs, but most accounts characterize them as graceful females akin to fairies.

Rendition of a Sylph

Background in Literature

It's difficult to couch these beings in mythology as there is no substantial myth tradition surrounding them. We do, however, see them in Hermetic literature. Also known as Hermetica, this branch of writing deals largely with philosophy, theology, and occult subjects, which do include overlap into mythology, astrology, and alchemy.

Loosely related to science, alchemy does embrace certain scientific principles, such as a willingness to be refuted by new evidence. However, alchemy does not technically fall under the branch of pure or modern science because it also embraces Hermetic principles involving mythology and spirituality.


This relates to Paracelsus' notion that the primary elements of the earth are two-fold: invisible and visible. We first see the appearance of the sylph in Western writings beyond Hermetic literature when we look at Alexander Pope's satirical poem, Rape of the Lock.

Exploiting the contrast between modern science and pseudo-science, Pope draws from alchemy and creates a satire, or a genre of literature where folly or vice is held up to ridicule, that uses Paracelsus' sylphs. In the poem, Pope mocks the ridiculousness of vanity in the Victorian age when the Baron attempts to steal a lock of hair from the protagonist, Belinda. The sylphs attempt to come to her aid by swarming the air in front of the scissors, but because of their own effervescent bodies, are unable to make a difference.

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