The Mana Spirits, also known as Elemental Spirits, are magical beings representative of the elements that make up the world. There are eight spirits in all:
- Wisp, the spirit of light
- Shade, the spirit of darkness
- Luna, the spirit of the moon
- Salamander, the spirit of fire
- Undine, the spirit of water
- Dryad, the spirit of wood
- Jinn, the spirit of wind
- Gnome, the spirit of earth
According to Seiken Densetsu 3, in her creation of the world, the Mana Goddess forged the Mana Sword and with it sealed the eight God-Beasts inside Mana Stones, which were then scattered across the world; the Elementals were charged with the duty of protecting the Stones. While each Elemental is a powerful spirit, being an embodiment has a drawback in that they can be physically harmed or limited, notably Jinn (Sylphid) in Seiken Densetsu 3 and Salamando in Secret of Mana. In the World History Encyclopedia featured in Legend of Mana, the Elementals are descended from the Mana Goddess, the embodiment of the creative and destructive forces of Mana, each being born from the light which formed the respective elements of Fa'Diel, the world of Mana.
There is a basic system of opposing elemental pairs in the games before Legend of Mana: Undine (water) and Salamando (fire); Gnome (earth) and Sylphid/Jinn (wind); Lumina/Wisp (light) and Shade (darkness); Dryad (nature) and Luna (celestial). The system works differently in Legend of Mana, with the four Western Elements in a circular relationship: Undine overcomes Salamander, who overcomes Gnome, who overcomes Jinn, who overcomes Undine, thus launching the cycle over again; while Wisp and Shade are opposites, and Aura (gold/metal) becomes the new opposite to Dryad (wood) (see Elements).
The general concept of using magic by summoning spirits bears a striking resemblance to the elven magic in Ryo Mizuno's Record of Lodoss War. The series' creators drew from various mythological sources for each of the eight elemental spirits, though the chief source of inspiration was clearly the writings of Paracelsus, a sixteenth-century physicist and alchemist who had some interesting theories on the occult side of nature. He thought that the very balance of life itself was controlled by four elemental sources: earth, air, fire and water. (Later, those in Paracelsus' tradition would add the fifth element, the matter that composed the heavens, either called ether, aether or quintessence. Though one could equate this substance with "Mana" in the games, it's a matter of some debate.)
One should note that Paracelsus did not invent the spirits, however. Much like the creators of Secret of Mana itself, Paracelsus simply drew upon the existing figures from various cultures' mythologies.
- Undine comes directly from the theories of Paracelsus, who posited that undines were water spirits who enjoyed stormy weather. The name comes from the Latin unda, meaning "wave." According to Paracelsus, however, undines looked more like mermaids and less generally fishy than Undine does. In folklore, undines could only get a soul by falling in love with and marrying a human. This romantic and tragic aspect has made undines a motif in certain works of literature, such as the novel Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué or subsequent operas by E.T.A. Hoffman and Albert Lortzing, and the fairy tale the "The Little Mermaid" by Hans Christian Andersen.
- The Gnome character comes from Germanic folklore, though his association with the earth elemental comes through Paracelsus, who posited that gnomes were the most powerful and most important of the elemental spirits. They appeared as short, old men who spent most of their days deep in the earth mining for treasure. In Paracelsus' original theories, gnomes were the only male elemental spirit; fire, air and water were all characteristically female.
- Though Salamando/Salamander is clearly male in the games, Paracelsus imagined the fire spirit as being female — and as a sort of supernatural extension of the common animal of the same name. Salamanders were seen to be immune to fire and could therefore tread through it without sustaining injury. In the symbolism of medieval heraldry, a salamander — depicted as a burning lizard — meant courage.
- The primary difference Squaresoft made in the formation of the Elemental Spirits in this series is the design for the elemental of wind and thunder. In Paracelsus' theories, these spirits were the sylphs, who may be familiar to those who played Final Fantasy IV - they are similar to fairies. In Secret of Mana, however, this element went to Jinn, a genie-like character inspired by Arabian folklore. Specifically, a "jinn" is a word referring to the entire class of spirits that includes genies. In the American translation of Secret of Mana, however, Jinn was called Sylphid. The term means "a diminuitive sylph". This name was dropped in favor of the Japanese one for translations of later games.
The following four spirits have no association with Paracelsus. However, just as Paracelsus imagined the elements working in opposing pairs — fire and water, wind and earth — so do the next four, generally. In a sense, Squaresoft merely expanded upon the elemental grid initially theorized by Paracelsus by incorporating theories from Chinese and Japanese alchemy.
- Wisp takes its name not from any theory of Paracelsus, but from a natural phenomenon known as the will o' the wisp. Also known as "fool's fire", will o' the wisp occurs when clouds of gas rise from damp surfaces — like a swamp or marsh — and spontaneously catch fire. The effect is ghostly but beautiful. In the American translation of Secret of Mana, Wisp was female and named Lumina. This name derives from the Latin lumen, meaning "light". Though light itself shows up in no historical table of elements, the "battle" between light and shadow is a theme repeated in many religious and secular stories.
- Despite his demonic looks, Shade comes from a rather common belief in the spirit world. Referring to ghosts, a shade can be any sort of otherwordly presence. Though darkness itself shows up in no historical table of elements, the "battle" between light and shadow is a theme repeated in many religious and secular stories. In Greek mythology people did not have souls but "shadows" which where the parts that went to the Underworld when the person died.
- Luna is associated with the moon, the heavens, gold and the manufactured (inorganic) world. Though the Romans had a moon goddess named Luna, this elemental spirit doesn't seem to be based on any mythological figure in particular; however, her celestial powers could be seen to represent the element of Heaven (Kū) in Japanese elementology. In Legend of Mana, Squaresoft changed Luna to Aura and her powers to Gold, which can be seen as a representation of "Metal" in Chinese alchemy, possibly in order to better balance the elemental grid, thus posing her as the antithesis of Dryad, the spirit of trees. Aura's name seems to come from a feminization of the Latin aurum, meaning "gold."
- Finally, Dryad emerges from Greek mythology. In ancient Greek culture, dryads were female nymphs who were spiritually connected to oak trees. These figures looked more like beautiful young women than the Dryad from this particular series, however. Whereas Secret of Mana referred to Dryad as the Mana spirit, Legend of Mana makes her the elemental spirit of trees, wood and plants in general. In Chinese alchemy, wood is another of the five primal elements.
- Secret of Mana: Undine, Gnome, Jinn, Salamander, Shade, Wisp, Luna, Dryad
- Sword of Mana: Wisp (Heroine), Salamander, Undine, Wisp (Hero), Gnome, Jinn, Luna, Dryad, Shade
- Heroes of Mana: Salamander, Gnome, Wisp, Dryad, Undine, Jinn, Luna, Shade