Elves are marvelous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
Nobody said elves were nice.
Elves are bad.”
- Terry Pratchett, Lords and Ladies (1992)
Today when people think of elves there is a good chance that one of two images will probably come to mind. One will be the tall, blond, pale skinned and pointed ear elves of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy based on the books by famed fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien. The other image will be that of the diminutive and cute elves of Christmas, such as those seen in Rankin/Bass’s beloved yuletide special Rudolph the Red–Nosed Reindeer.
As it would turn out both images are a far cry from the elves found in the myths and folklore of Britain, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Western Germany.
Originally, the term elf denoted all types of fairies. A classic example of this is the well known German fairy-tale the "Elves and the Shoemaker” in which the diminutive cobblers in question are not actually elves but rather an entirely separate race of supernaturals known as brownies.
Eventually the term elf would come to signify a certain class of tiny, humanoid beings who could shape-shift at will and who dwelled in forests, hollow tree trucks, old long-barrows and ancient burial mounds from which they emerge at night to dance in the light of the moon. It is unclear exactly how small elves were thought to be since many legends describe elves and human interbreeding which gives one the impression that they were at least large enough to properly perform sexual acts with adult humans. In England male elves are described as looking like old men while female elves are described as having the appearance of young beautiful women.
Amongst the many different mythologies which tell of elves it is the elves of Teutonic mythology (called Alfar) which are the most fully developed and of which we know the most about. Teutonic elves are divided into two groups; light elves (Liosalfar) and dark elves (Dökkálfar) or black elves (Svartálfar). Dark elves are described as having been born from the maggots who fed on the flesh of the dead giant Ymir. Their skin was “darker than pitch,” they lived underground, and worked as blacksmiths for the gods. Interestingly these dark elves were also seen as bringers of fertility and were thus the object of religious worship – something we certainly don’t associate with elves today.
According to Prof. Jesse L. Byock of the University of California there is evidence to suggest that elves were seen as being just as important as the gods (especially amongst the common folk) and were the subject of a widespread cult in both Scandinavia and Iceland. The 11th-Century Christian poet Sigvat Thordarson describes being turned away from a farmstead in Sweden where he sought shelter because the farmer’s wife was sacrificing to the local elves. An example of such a sacrifice can be found in Kormak’s Saga, a 10th-Century Icelandic work which describes a healing ritual in which a bull would be slaughtered and the blood smeared upon an elf mound and the meat left as a meal for the elves.
In contrast to the dark elves are the light elves that are described as being “whiter than the sun.” These elves did not live underground or in forests but rather in a celestial realm called Alfheim. However unlike there dark brethren, these light elves are largely undeveloped characters. So undeveloped, in fact, that some mythographers have even questioned whether they were actually ever believed in at all.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about elves is that of their very nature. People today often perceive elves as friendly, cheerful, even noble – very different from the troublesome and even down right malicious characters found in myth and folklore.
In Iceland, for example, elves were routinely blamed for the theft of babies, cattle, milk, and bread. They were also believed to be capable of enchanting young men and keeping them prisoner in their realm for years at a time – ala Rip Van Winkle.
Elsewhere in Europe, elves were blamed for a wide variety of problems, many of which are remembered by the folkloric names they were given. Elves were seen as responsible for much mundane troubles as hiccups, tangled hair (called Elf Locks) and nightmares (Elf Dreams) as well as much more serious issues such as birth defects (Elf Marked), strokes (Elf Twisted), splenomegaly [an enlargement of the spleen] (Elf Cake) and disease amongst farm animals (Elf Bolt).
Even when acting in a manner that some may describe as charitable elves still proved to be a handful, Danish folklore describes elves rewarding housewives who keep a clean home but at the same time not hesitating to pinch some bread from the kitchen.
Like all fairies, elves are vulnerable to iron and may also be driven away by an “elf cross” which can take the form of either a traditional cross or in some cases a pentagram.
So what of our modern day conceptions of elves?
Well to start with the tradition of ‘Christmas elves’, like that of the alleged elves in The Elves and the Shoemaker, is actually something of a misnomer. Actual elves have never been associated with Santa Claus, toy making, or Christmas. The characters which we call ‘Christmas elves’ today with their red and green clothes and pointed hats are actually relatives of the Norwegian nisse (or gnomes) and the Swedish tomtars who do have a connection to the character of Santa.
As for Tolkien’s elves, who since their inception have successfully managed to completely reshape the appearance and behavior of elves in popular-culture, they are something else entirely. Tolkien first began writing about elves as early as 1917 in his Book of Lost Tales and would later incorporate them into both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien’s elves came about as the result of the fluid mixing of various mythological ideas most notably; Teutonic light elves, the Celtic fairy-gods or Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Christian conception of angels. For Tolkien, elves were tall, blond, pale skinned, spoke a variation of Finish, had Celtic-sounding names and, most importantly, possessed pointed or “leaf shaped” ears. If any one fact should convince anybody of the mark Tolkien left on the popular conception of elves it should be that prior to Tolkien there is no mention of elves having pointy ears.
For the vast majority of people today elves are no longer a subject of fear or worship but rather simply characters in fantasy fiction and role-playing games, and the elves depicted within are always decidedly post-Tolkien. However, this is not to say that some fantasy authors have not made an attempt to move back to the more traditional, more malevolent elves of myth and legend – as the opening poem by acclaimed British fantasy/humor author Terry Pratchett shows.
It is also of interest to note that according to a June 2004 episode of Journeyman Pictures, a London based independent news site, that 10% of Icelanders currently profess to believe in elves and fairies, while another 80% say that while they don’t necessarily believe in them they still don’t want to mess with them.
And Finally a Bit of Dorky Myth-Science Trivia from Terry Pratchett…
Question: What color is elf blood?
Answer: Elf blood is green. Since iron is lethal to elves (as it is to all fairies) it would be impossible for elves to have hemoglobin-based red blood which contains iron. Copper-based green blood is used by some animals such as arthropods and mollusks so it’s the obvious alternative.
Center: Elves dance through a field in Swedish painter August Malmström's (1829-1901) painting Älvalek (1866)
Bottom: Orlando Bloom as iconic Tolkien elf Legolas from Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings films.
Sources: Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia (1996) by Carol Rose, Sagas of the Norsemen: Viking & German Myth (1997) by Jacqueline Simpson, et al., The Prose Edda (2005) by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse L. Byock, The Vikings: Life, Myth, and Art (2004) by Tony Allan, The Annotated Hobbit (2002) by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Douglas A. Anderson, Lords and Ladies (1992) by Terry Pratchett, and the "Elves and the Shoemaker" at SurLaLune Fairy Tales.com