Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Four Elements

Elementals were derived from the classical Greek elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire by the physician and alchemist Paracelsus back in the 16th century. He described them as beings that occupied a position somewhere between man and spirit, in that they were physical beings, but had the ability to translocate themselves in the manner of spirits.

In fantasy role-playing games, elementals are typically animate forms of their respective element, while the Paracelsian nomenclatures (pigmy/gnome, nymph/undine, sylph, salamander) are used for related, but completely different types of beings. In addition, fantasy gaming has many other classes of elementals, paraelementals, quasielementals, and such, that I won't get into.


The earth elemental is also known as the Gnome, or Pigmy. Paracelsus characterizes them as malevolent beings, but also as creatures who treat others as they themselves are treated. Most gamers of course, recognize them as humanoid piles of boulders.

"...the element of the Gnomes is the earth, and they pass through rocks and walls and stones like a thought; for such things are to them as no greater obstacles than the air is to us ... the Pigmies are of the length of about two spans, but then can extend or elongate their forms until they appear like giants."

The Life of Philippus Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim

The three earth elementals are (left to right) from Grenadier (Monster Manuscript Vol.III 1503, MM21), TSR (AD&D 5602), and Shadow Corp (3057).

I haven't accumulated many earth elementals because I still haven't made up my mind on how they should appear. I think the Grenadier miniature would make an outstanding mud elemental. The TSR elemental has a sculpted look to its face which seems more appropriate for a golem than an elemental, but I do like the look of the Shadow Corp elemental.

An option that can be used to represent Paracelsian Gnomes are the Reaper Stone Zealots (Warlord 14572).

My miniatures are slightly modified (chin spikes removed), but I'm using them as a type of kobold, rather than as earth elementals.


The water elemental is also known as the Nymph or Undine. In the typical game setting, they appear as ambulatory waves. Paracelsus had a different take, and describes them as spiritual gold diggers who lingered near bodies of water in order to snag themselves a human mate.

"...those belonging to the element of water resemble human beings of either sex..."

The Life of Philippus Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim

Below are two large water elementals. The first one is a WoW CMG Crashing Wave Spirit (Spoils of War expansion), while the other is a DDM Large Water Elemental (Blood War #38).

I removed a lot of the paint on the Large Water Elemental with acetone, and I will do the same with the Crashing Wave Spirit, since the paint is just too opaque for my tastes. The wave action on the left arm of the Crashing Wave Spirit looks nice, but for the raised right arm, the large sheet under the arm doesn't quite look right.

Next are two medium water elementals. The one on the left is from The Legend of Drizzt Board Game, while the one on the right is from Heroscape (Champions of the Forgotten Realms expansion). Both of these elementals are the same as the DDM Medium Water Elemental, except they are made of translucent plastic instead of opaque plastic.

The last four water elementals are metal miniatures. They are (left to right) from WotC (WOC40098), Ral Partha (AD&D Monsters 11-427), Grenadier (Monster Manuscript Vol.III 1503, MM23), and Shadow Corp (3057).

Frankly, I like the plastic elementals because they are translucent, which approaches the appearance of water better than metal. I'm sure that fantastic water effects can be achieved with painting, but I don't have those skills.

One other miniature that I thought would make a great Undine is the Ral Partha Zaftig Maiden (Personalities and Things that go Bump in the Night 01-008).

I can see using the Dark Art to create one in transparent resin that would result in a great looking elemental. I have actually seen the Heritage Air Elemental (below) cast up in transparent turquoise resin, and it looked fantastic as well.


Air elementals are known as Sylphs or Sylvestres. The appearance of sylphs as slender female spirits comes from Alexander Pope, who characterizes them as an embodiment of post-mortem female vanity in his poem The Rape of the Lock.

                            "The light Coquettes in Sylphs aloft repair,
                            And sport and flutter in the Fields of Air."

                            – The Rape of the Lock

The first group of air elemental miniatures are modeled as personifications of the wind. From left to right, they are from Heritage (Dungeon Dwellers 1283), Citadel (C34 Elementals and Demons), TSR (AD&D 5602), and Ral Partha (Personalities and Things that go Bump in the Night 01-064).

The second group are more typical D&D style air elementals that appear as whirlwinds. From left to right, they are a Windfiend Fury (Savage Encounters #39), Shardstorm Vortex (Savage Encounters #32), and a Thunderblast Cyclone (Against the Giants #9).

Next are a mixed group of metal and plastic air elementals. From left to right, there are Ral Partha (AD&D Monsters 11-427) and Grenadier (Monster Manuscript Vol.III 1503, MM20) air elementals; Grenadier (Monsters 5002) and Shadow Corp (3057) wind elementals, and a DDM Air Mephit (Unhallowed #12).

To represent Paracelsian Sylphs, one option is to use Fenryll Fairies (FA14).

The fairies are not the best work coming from Fenryll, and the wings printed on acetate sheets had overly thick veins, but they are usable with 1/72 figures, so I can't complain too much.

Other miniatures that can be used as Sylphs include the Magister Militum Sprites (ELF07), and Foundry Fairies. These miniatures are smaller than the Fenryll Fairies, but will work quite well as delicate, airy creatures.

I think a neat effect could be achieved if one of the DDM air elementals were to be hollowed out, and a winged sprite was embedded in the center.

Other denizens of the Elemental Plane of Air include a pair of Ral Partha Djinn (Personalities and Things that go Bump in the Night 01-069), and a Grenadier Djinni (Monster Manuscript Vol.II 1502, MM15).


Fire elementals are known as Salamanders or Vulcani. It is the only elemental that is based on an actual creature, though the nature of the mythical Salamander is very different from that of the actual amphibian. Of course it goes without saying, that Trampier's illustration of the Salamander is how I see these creatures as appearing.

"...the Salamanders are long, lean, and dry ... Salamanders have been seen in the shapes of fiery balls, or tongues of fire running over the fields or appearing in houses."

The Life of Philippus Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim

The three fire elementals are (left to right) the DDM Huge Fire Elemental (War of the Dragon Queen #20), a WoW CMG Enraged Fire Spirit (Core Set), and a DDM Small Fire Elemental (War of the Dragon Queen #54). I particularly like that the beast form of the DDM elementals. To me, these are how salamanders appear when they materialize on the Prime Material Plane.

The next three fire elementals are metal figures. They are (left to right) from Reaper (Dark Heaven Legends 02251), Grenadier (Monster Manuscript Vol.III 1503, MM22), and Shadow Corp (3057).

Next are some other denizens of the Elemental Plane of Fire. A DDM Phoera (Blood War #21) on the left, and a pair of salamanders on the right. The first salamander is the Ral Partha Firekin (AD&D Monsters 11-489), while the smaller salamander is from the Broadsword Serpent Creatures set (M-06).

And from the City of Brass we have a Ral Partha Efreet (AD&D Monsters 11-454), and a Grenadier Efreeti (Monster Manuscript Vol.III 1503, MM19).

Again, I prefer plastic to metal for elementals because some neat effects can be created with the plastic miniatures. Here is the DDM Huge Fire Elemental sitting on a lighted base.


Paul´s Bods said...

Lovely post. The fairies I have added to my list along with the fire elementals. The one lit up is great!!
Nice scene of the rock monster from Galaxy Quest ;-D

EY said...

Hi Paul,

Glad to be of some help. Thanks for reading!

Celestial Elf said...

Interesting Post thank you :D
I thought you might enjoy my new machinima film
Narration Of The Gnome,
Bright Blessings ~