Monday, November 28, 2011

On elves, gnomes, dragons and fairies

Paracelsus was one of the pioneers of the scientific method in medicine and one of the promoters to abandon the Hippocratic and scholastic theory of the four humours to introduce chemical remedies and surgery as the base of modern medicine. But not all his ideas were so “scientific”. Paracelsus authored many books about magic and alchemy, in a time when these disciplines went hand in hand with chemistry and other natural sciences. One of his most curios books published in 1566 (25 years after his death) is A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies and Salamanders and on Other Spirits, describing all kinds of magic and hidden creatures which are supposed to live in our planet. “Nobody should wonder that there are such creatures. For God is miraculous in his works which he often lets appear miraculously." These are his words in the first chapter of this book.
Therefore, believing in impossible creatures is not exclusive to pre-scientific or anti-logic thought, as some of the most significant scientists believed in such creatures to a major or lesser extend. Just to give an example, Isaac Newton, one of the undoubtedly greatest scientists of all times, urged the Royal Society to sponsor an expedition to the Swiss Alps to study dragons, which were supposed to inhabit those mountains by that time. It was not an eccentricity: since Johann Jakob Scheuchzer published his study about his expeditions in the Alps, many scientists around Europe did believe that dragons and other prehistoric creatures existed.
We all seem to know pretty well where to set the limits between reality and superstition. Believing in creatures is all in the past, when these ideas were so widespread that even wise men believed. Today, we may think that there are just some gullible or uncultured people who believe in those things, especially in far-away cultures. But this is not true: today there are many people defending the existence of magic beings. For instance, a 1995 survey in Iceland revealed that 70% of Icelanders believed in the existence of “hidden people”, that is elves, gnomes and other mythological creatures of Iceland. The other 30% stood for 23% who was not sure, 1% who would not answer and only 6% who denied the existence of hidden elves in Iceland. There are many other similar surveys with similar results in this country because elves are a significant element of Icelandic folklore. To the point that the Ministry of Transports in Iceland appointed a person in charge to check that the layout of new roads would not disturb elves, avoiding their traditional inhabiting spots… as if the US government had a department on Bigfoot.
Therefore, it is not easy to see the limits between real and superstition, especially if you do believe in unreal things. But how can you realise that you believe in unreal things? The Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal, when talking about dragons in the Alps, exposed this dilemma: "If Newton, the most privileged brain of all human beings, believed in dragons, I may well believe in other kinds of dragons unconsciously".


  1. Paracelsus:
  2. The Four Temperaments theory:
  3. Paracelsus’ Four Treaties, including A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits:
  4. Scheuchzer’s trips in the Alps searching for dragons:
  5. Surveys about elves in Iceland:
  6. A research documentary film about the invisible world of Jean Michel Roux, who spent some years studying Icelanders’ believe in elves and other supernatural creatures:
  7. About the Spanish writer Fernando Arrabal:


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