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Elves, mysterious and powerful, have been a popular subject of folklore and fiction for millennia.
They even appear differently from one story to the next: from the elves in William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Brothers Grimm’s The Elves and the Shoemaker to the various elves in the work of Hans Christian Andersen (The Elf Mound, Thumbelina, etc.) and to the ever-popular JRR Tolkien’s elves in Middle-Earth. Though in the twenty-first century elves are thought to belong only in fantasy, in eras gone by they were believed to be real.
Elves, like fairies, were thought to be able to shape-shift into any size or form. Sometimes they were tiny, winged creatures obsessed with flowers. Other times they were described as little, bearded, old men. Mostly, though, elf maidens were seen as young and beautiful. Seriously, why not gorgeous young men who look a little like Ian Somerhalder or Bradley James? Anyhow, they lived like their human counterparts in kingdoms found in forests, meadows, mountains, hollowed-out tree trunks and other magical places.
Elves seem to have come from Norse mythology, though they were incorporated to folklore alongside fairies in Shakespeare’s time and by the time that steam engines were all the rage they were nothing more than cute magical creatures in fairy tales.
Let’s look at what various sources say about the subject of elves.
In English literature of the Elizabethan era, elves became conflated with the fairies of Romance culture, so that the two terms began to be used interchangeably. German Romanticist writers were influenced by this notion of the ‘elf’, and reimported the English word elf in that context into the German language. In Scandinavia, probably through a process of euphemism, elves often came to be conflated with the beings called the huldra or huldufólk. Meanwhile, German folklore has tended to see the conflation of elves with dwarfs.
The “Christmas elves” of contemporary popular culture are of relatively recent tradition, popularized during the late nineteenth-century in the United States. Elves entered the twentieth-century high fantasy genre in the wake of works published by authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien, for which, see Elf (Middle-earth).
Post-medieval folk belief in Britain
Despite the decline in references to elves in England, beliefs in elves remained prominent in early modern Scotland, where elves appear in English-language sources in the early modern Scottish witchcraft trials. These produced many depositions by people who believed themselves to have been given healing powers or to know of people or animals made sick by elves. The similarities with Old English material, and particularly Wið færstice, are close. Elves were viewed as being supernaturally powerful people who lived invisibly alongside everyday rural people.
The noun elf-shot is first attested in a Scots poem, ‘Rowlis Cursing’ from around 1500, where ‘elf schot’ is listed among a range of curses to be inflicted on some chicken-thieves. It may not always have denoted an actual projectile as there is evidence that ‘shot’ could mean ‘a sharp pain’, but it and terms like elf-arrow(head) are sometimes used of neolithic arrow-heads, apparently thought to have been made by elves, and in a few witchcraft trials people attest that these were used in healing rituals, and occasionally alleged to be used by witches (and perhaps elves) to injure people and cattle. Compare with the following excerpt from a 1749–50 ode by William Collins:
There every herd, by sad experience, knows
How, winged with fate, their elf-shot arrows fly,
When the sick ewe her summer food forgoes,
Or, stretched on earth, the heart-smit heifers lie.
Old Norse texts
Scholars of Old Norse mythology now focus on references to elves in Old Norse poetry, particularly the Elder Edda. The only character explicitly identified as an elf in classical Eddaic poetry, if any, is Völundr, the protagonist of Völundarkviða. However, elves are frequently mentioned in the alliterating formulaic collocation Æsir ok Álfar (‘Æsir and elves’) and its variants. This shows a strong tradition of associating elves with the Æsir, or sometimes even of not distinguishing between the two groups. The collocation is paralleled in the Old English poem Wið færstice; in the Germanic personal name system; and in Skaldic verse the word elf is used in the same way as words for gods. Sigvatr Þórðarson’s skaldic travelogue Austrfaravísur, composed around 1020, mentions an álfablót (‘elves’ sacrifice’) in Edskogen in what is now southern Sweden. There does not seem to have been any clear-cut distinction between humans and gods; like the Æsir, then, elves were presumably thought of as being human(-like) and existing in opposition to the giants. Many commentators have also (or instead) argued for conceptual overlap between elves and dwarves in Old Norse mythology, which may fit with trends in the medieval German evidence.
There are hints that Freyr was associated with elves, particularly that Álfheimr (literally ‘elf-world’) is mentioned as being given to Freyr in Grímnismál. Because Snorri Sturluson identified Freyr as one of the Vanir when that word is rare in Eddaic verse, very rare in Skaldic verse, and is not generally thought to appear in other Germanic languages, it has long been suggested that álfar and Vanir are, more or less, different words for the same group of beings, and even that Snorri invented the Vanir. However, this is not uniformly accepted.
Medieval and early modern German texts
Main article: Alp (folklore)
Old High German alp is attested only in a small number of glosses and is defined by the Althochdeutsches Wörterbuch as a ‘nature-god or -demon, equated with the Fauns of Classical mytholology … regarded as eerie, ferocious beings … As the nightmare he messes around with women’. There is also evidence associating elves with illness, specifically epilepsy, and in the word Alpdruck (‘elf-oppression’) with the nightmare.
Accordingly, elves appear in Middle German most often associated with deception or bewildering people ‘in a phrase that occurs so often it would appear to be proverbial: “die elben/der alp trieget mich” (the elves/elf is/are deceiving me)’ and are often associated with the mare. Elves appear as a threatening, even demonic, force widely in later medieval prayers. The most famous is the fourteenth-century Münchener Nachtsegen, a prayer to be said at night, which includes the lines:
|alb vnde ł elbelin
Ir sult nich beng’ bliben hin
albes svestir vn vatir
Ir sult uz varen obir dē gatir
albes mutir trute vn mar
Ir sult uz zu dē virste varē
Noc mich dy mare druche
Noc mich dy trute zciche
Noc mich dy mare rite
Noc mich dy mare bescrite
Alb mit diner crummen nasen
Ich vorbithe dir aneblasen
|elf, or also little elf,
you shall remain no longer (reading lenger)
elf’s sister and father,
you shall go out over the gate;
you shall go out to the roof-ridge!
Let the mare not oppress me,
let the trute not ?pinch me (reading zücke),
let the mare not ride me,
let the mare not mount me!
Elf with your crooked nose,
I forbid you to blow on [people]
From around the Late Middle Ages, the word elf began to be used in English as a term loosely synonymous with the French loan-word fairy; in elite culture, at least, it also became associated with diminutive supernatural beings like Puck, hobgoblins, Robin Goodfellow, the English and Scots brownie, and the Northumbrian English hob. In Elizabethan England, Edmund Spenser‘s Faerie Queene (1590-) used ‘fairy’ and ‘elf’ interchangeably of human-sized beings, but they are complex imaginary and allegorical figures; his aetiology of the ‘Elfe’ and ‘Elfin kynd’ as being made and quickened by Prometheus is entirely his invention.
William Shakespeare also imagined elves as little people. He apparently considered elves and fairies to be the same race. In a speech in Romeo and Juliet (1592) an ‘elf-lock’ (tangled hair) is not caused by an elf as such, but Queen Mab, who is referred to as ‘the fairies’ midwife‘. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the elves are almost as small as insects.[dubious – discuss] The influence of Shakespeare and Michael Drayton made the use of elf and fairy for very small beings the norm, and had a lasting effect seen in fairy tales about elves collected in the modern period
English and German literary traditions both influenced the British Victorian image of elves, which appeared in illustrations as tiny men and women with pointed ears and stocking caps. An example is Andrew Lang‘s fairy tale Princess Nobody (1884), illustrated by Richard Doyle, where fairies are tiny people with butterfly wings, whereas elves are tiny people with red stocking caps. These conceptions remained prominent in twentieth-century children’s literature, for example Enid Blyton‘s The Faraway Tree series, and were influenced by German Romantic literature. Accordingly, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Die Wichtelmänner (literally ‘the little men’), the title protagonists are two tiny naked men who help a shoemaker in his work. Even though Wichtelmänner are akin to beings such as kobolds, dwarves and brownies, the tale was translated into English by Margaret Hunt in 1884 as The Elves and the Shoemaker. This shows how the meanings of elf had changed, and was in itself influential: the usage is echoed, for example, in the house-elf of J. K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter stories. In his turn, J. R. R. Tolkien recommended using the older German form Elb in his Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings (1967) and Elb, Elben was consequently introduced in the 1972 German translation of The Lord of the Rings, having a role in repopularising the form in German.
In Denmark and Sweden, the elves appear as beings distinct from the vetter, even though the border between them is diffuse. The insect-winged fairies in Celtic mythology are often called älvor in modern Swedish or alfer in Danish, although the more formal translation is feer. In a similar vein, the alf found in the fairy tale The Elf of the Rose by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen is so tiny that he can have a rose blossom for home, and has ‘wings that reached from his shoulders to his feet’. Yet Andersen also wrote about elvere in The Elfin Hill. The elves in this story are more alike those of traditional Danish folklore, who were beautiful females, living in hills and boulders, capable of dancing a man to death. Like the huldra in Norway and Sweden, they are hollow when seen from the back.
The elves of Norse mythology have survived into folklore mainly as females, living in hills and mounds of stones. The Swedish älvor, (sing. älva) were stunningly beautiful girls who lived in the forest with an elven king. In Romantic art and literature, elves are typically pictured as fair-haired, white-clad, and (like most creatures in the Scandinavian folklore) nasty when offended. In folk-stories, they often play the role of disease-spirits. The most common, though also most harmless case was various irritating skin rashes, which were called älvablåst (elven blow) and could be cured by a forceful counter-blow (a handy pair of bellows was most useful for this purpose). Skålgropar, a particular kind of petroglyph found in Scandinavia, were known in older times as älvkvarnar (elven mills), pointing to their believed usage. One could appease the elves by offering them a treat (preferably butter) placed into an elven mill.
Elves are quite popular in modern fiction. Most of them look like the elves in The Lord of the Rings (see below), but a few are quite different. In JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series house-elves are enslaved creatures who serve witches and wizards. They can obtain their freedom if their master presents them with clothes. And though they are looked down upon, they can perform magic that humans are incapable of – like transporting themselves into places protected by magic, such as Hogwarts.
Dobby the house-elf shows this ability in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when he appears in the hospital wing after Harry’s accident.
In modern children’s folklore, Santa Claus typically has elves surrounding him who make all the toys. They have pointy ears, long noses, are tiny, and typically wear green with pointy hats. They, along with Santa, live in the North Pole. A few movies have turned this image of quaint magical creatures on its head. In Arthur Christmas by Sony Pictures the elves are a lot like secret agents with one mission: get wrapped presents to all the children in the world on Christmas Eve.
In Rise of the Guardians by Dreamworks, Santa’s elves are weird little creatures who don’t really do anything at all.
In fantasy (movies, books and games) we are all familiar with the warrior-like elves who are far superior to humans in both intelligence and looks. They are usually marked by pointy ears, sharp senses, and a love of nature and also appreciation of art, music and beauty. They are often skilled archers. Elves are usually seen as threatening outsiders to the human cast in these stories.
In J. R. R. Tolkien‘s legendarium, Elves are one of the races that inhabit a fictional Earth, often called Middle-earth, and set in the remote past. They appear in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings, but their complex history is described more fully in The Silmarillion. Tolkien had been writing about Elves long before he published The Hobbit.
In Peter Jackson‘s Lord of the Rings film series (2001–2003), all of the elves (including Wood Elves) are portrayed as fair, graceful, and wise beings with supernatural abilities like enhanced eyesight. While they facially resemble humans, they transcend beauty, with much longer and finer hair and an apparent inner glow. They also have pointed ears and no facial hair.
The elves are luminous beings, “more beautiful than the sun,” whose exalted status is demonstrated by their constantly being linked with the Aesir and Vanir gods in Old Norse and Old English poetry. The lines between elves and other spiritual beings such as the gods, giants, dwarves, and land spirits are blurry, and it seems unlikely that the heathen Germanic peoples themselves made any cold, systematic distinctions between these various groupings. It’s especially hard to discern the boundary that distinguishes the elves from the Vanir gods and goddesses. The Vanir god Freyr is the lord of the elves’ homeland, Alfheim, and at least one Old Norse poem repeatedly uses the word “elves” to designate the Vanir. Still, other sources do speak of the elves and the Vanir as being distinct categories of beings, such that a simple identification of the two would be misguided.
The elves also have ambivalent relations with humans. Elves commonly cause human illnesses, but they also have the power to heal them, and seem especially willing to do so if sacrifices are offered to them. Humans and elves can interbreed and produce half-human, half-elfin children, who often have the appearance of humans but possess extraordinary intuitive and magical powers. Humans can apparently become elves after death, and there was considerable overlap between the worship of human ancestors and the worship of the elves.
Elves can be seen in so many ways.
But, I’ve decided to create them as a whole new race of Fae in my Faerie world. Here they are (just as they’re described on the Origin of the Fae page on this blog):
Though they can look like the High Fae – tall, good-looking and irresistible to humans – their form in Faerie is that of pointy-eared, pale creatures, with ordinary looks and half the size they like to be in the mortal realm.
As with most Fae (that do not in any way resemble High Fae, but seen as creatures), they serve the High Fae. Usually they are bodyguards, but they have been relegated to the lowest ranks of servitude in many abodes. Just like other servants of the High Fae, they have magic that sometimes exceed that of those they serve.
In the Onyx Labyrinth only elves have power over the living stone that make their home. Everyone else, even High Fae, have to live by the Labyrinth’s whims.
Interesting, right? In Beauty Underneath, the newest instalment of Tales of the Onyx Labyrinth, I’ve delved into their existence in the Labyrinth and why they left the world above.
“One of the palest elves stepped forward.
‘Topside we had to serve as bodyguards. Killing other Fae and humans aren’t really what we should be doing.’
‘You? Bodyguards?’ one of the twins said with a sneer as the other one laughed.
Daphne could hear the onyx stone growl offended at the twins’ arrogance.
‘We’d rather serve than kill,’ the extremely pale elf said softly.
‘The labyrinth?’ Calliope prompted.
‘Our magic works even when the High Fae cannot even create light,’ she said simply before becoming one with the crowd of elves.
Something became clear to Daphne, something the Onyx Labyrinth had been trying to tell her for so long.
‘We’ll need you in your other form if we are going to be successful today,’ she said to the elves.
They all gasped in surprise.”
– Beauty Underneath, Tales of the Onyx Labyrinth, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I hope you enjoy reading the seventh tale in the series. Comments can be left here or on Wattpad – I always appreciate feedback. Do you like elves? Which kind are your favourite? Did you know that they stemmed from Norse mythology? Which folklore stories that have elves in them are your favourite? We should really have a list of all the folklore stories containing elves…