Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Elves are mythical creatures of Germanic mythology that have survived in northern European folklore. Originally a race of minor gods of nature and fertility, they are often pictured as small, youthful-seeming men and women of great beauty living in forests and other natural places, underground, or in wells and springs. They have been imagined to be long-lived or immortal and magical powers have been attributed to them. Something associated with elves or the qualities of elves is described by the adjectives elfin, elven, elfish, or elvish. Elves are staple characters in modern fantasy. They are also called:
- Germany: Elfen, Elben and Alben
- Great Britain: addler
- Iceland: Álfar and Álfa-fólk
- Scandinavia: Elle
- Sweden: alv "elf", alf "elf" and älva "female elf" or "fairy" (but not älv, "river", a word which is, however, etymologically related)
Characteristics of mythological elves
Scandinavian mythology includes light-elves (Liosálfar) who dwell in the third space in heaven, dark-elves (Döckálfar), and black-elves (Svartalfar). The black-elves were skilled smiths, and the most skilled were reputed to be the sons of Ivaldi, the father of Idun.
The elves (light-elves) are often mentioned along with the Aesir, instead of the Vanir (a race of gods). The names Vanir and Alfar (light elves) may have been either synonymous, since the expression "Aesir and Alfar" meant "all the gods", or designating a difference in status between the major fertility gods, the Vanir, and the minor ones, the elves. The Van Freyr was the lord of Álfheim (meaning "elvenhome"), the home of the light-elves, and he had as servants two elves: Byggvir and Beyla. Like the Vanir the elves were associated with fertility and, in late fall, the "alfablót" (elven sacrifice) was performed in the homes. It was secret, no strangers were allowed in the homes, and so next to nothing is known of it.
The Scandinavian elves were of human size, which allowed "normal" human interactions: for example, in Hrólf Kraki's saga, the Danish king Helgi finds an elf-woman on an island and rapes her. Famous men could be elevated to the rank of elves after death, and in one such case, the full-sized smith hero Völund is called an elf.
There are also in the Heimskringla notions about a line of local kings who rule over Álfheim, situated between the Gautelfr and the present border between Norway and Sweden on the Swedish westcoast. The last king is named Gandalf. Possibly the same Gandalf who competed for power with Harald I of Norway.
The Svartalfar live in Svartalfheim. In some sources they are identified with the dwarfs of Nidavellir, who likewise had a reputation as skilled smiths. In general, however, elves and dwarfs are distinguished in surviving Norse literature.
In Scandinavian folklore, which is a later blend of Norse mythology and elements of Christian mythology, there are several groups of human-like nature spirits than are akin to "elves" in a modern sense. These are called tomtar, älvor, and vittror or vättar (compare wights).
The elves of Norse mythology have survived into folklore mainly as females. The älvor (Swedish, singular älva) were stunningly beautiful girls who lived in the forest with an elven king. They were long-lived and light-hearted in nature. In the stories, they often play the role of disease-spirits. They could be seen at night dancing over meadows. The circles they left were called älvdanser (elf dances) or älvringar (elf circles). If a human watched their dance, he would discover that even though only a few hours seemed to have passed, many years had passed in the real world. (This time phenomenon is retold in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings when the Fellowship of the Ring discovers that time seems to have run more slowly in elven Lothlórien. It also has a remote parallel in the Irish sídhe.) In the song of Olaf Liljekrans, the elven queen invites him to dance. He refuses, he knows what will happen if he joins the dance and he is on his way home to his own wedding. The queen offers him gifts, but he declines. She threatens to kill him if he do not join, but he rides off and dies of the disease she sent upon him, and his young bride dies of a broken heart. The elves are typically pictured as fair-haired, white-clad and like most creatures in the Scandinavian folklore can be really nasty when offended.
What remained of the belief in elves in German folklore was that they were mischievous pranksters that could cause disease to cattle and people, and bring bad dreams to sleepers. The German word for nightmare, Albtraum, means "elf dream". The archaic form Albdruck means "elf pressure"; it was believed that nightmares are a result of an elf sitting on the dreamer's chest.
The Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Shoemaker & the Elves is probably the most famous original elf tale. The elves are only one foot tall in this story, naked, and like to work on shoes, as leprechauns do. When the shoemaker rewards their work with little clothes, the elves are so delighted, that they run away and are never seen again. (This tales is echoed in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories: see below.)
German folklore held that elves had a particular fondness for children and would appear to those about to die, rather like the Irish banshee. This aspect of the legend was immortalised by Goethe in his poem Der Erlkönig, later set to music by Schubert.
English folktales of the early modern period typically portray elves as small, elusive people with mischievous personalities (see illustration). They are not evil but might annoy humans or interfere in their affairs. They are sometimes said to be invisible. In this tradition, elves became more or less synonymous with the fairies that originated from native British mythology, for example, the Welsh Ellyll (plural Ellyllon) and Y Dynon Bach Têg.
Elf, fairy, and other terms for nature spirits like pwcca, hobgoblin, Robin Goodfellow, the Scots brownie, and so forth are no longer clearly distinguished in popular English folklore, nor are similar terms in other European languages.
Before they became diminutive and whimsical, elves were probably akin to powerful pre-Christian forest spirits like the woodwose, the Green Man, and the drusi in the mythology of the Gauls — beings to be respected and even feared. A trace of the former importance of elves in Germanic culture exists in names like Alfred (Old English Ælfræd, "elf-counsel") and Alvin (Old English Ælfwine, "elf-friend").
The term ælfsciene ("elf-shining") is used in the Old English poem Judith referring to elven beauty. On the other hand oaf is simply a variant of the word elf, presumably originally referring to a changeling or to someone stupefied by elvish enchantment.
Little documentation exists on English rustic beliefs and terminology before the 19th century, but it seems that the term elf was used, at least on some occasions or in some places, for various kinds of uncanny wights, either human-sized or smaller. But other terms were also used.
However, in Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare imagined elves as little people. He apparently considered elves and fairies to be the same race. In Henry IV, part 1, i. 4, he has Falstaff call Prince Henry, "you starveling, you elfskin!", and in his A Midsummer Night's Dream, his elves are almost as small as insects. On the other hand, Edmund Spenser applies elf to full-sized beings in The Faerie Queene.
- There every herd by sad experience knows,
- How winged with fate their elf-shot arrows fly;
- When the sick ewe her summer-food foregoes,
- Or stretched on earth, the heart-smit heifers lie."
- — Collins, The Fairy Mythology (1870)
The elf makes many appearances in ballads of English and Scottish origin, as well as folk tales, many involving trips to Elfland, a mystical realm which is sometimes a eerie and unpleasant place. The elf is often protrayed in a positive light, such as the Queen of Elfland in the ballad "Thomas the Rhymer", but examples exist of the elf has a sinister character, as in the tale of Childe Rowland, or the ballad "Lady Isabel of the Elf-Knight", in which the Elf-Knight bears away Isabel to murder her. In none of these cases is the elf a spritely character with pixie-like qualities.
Fairy tales with elves in them include:
- Addlers & Menters
- Ainsel & Puck
- Childe Rowland
- The Elf Maiden
- Elfin Woman & Birth of Skuld
- Elle-Maid near Ebeltoft
- Hedley Kow
- Luck of Eden Hall
- The Shoemaker & the Elves
- Sir Olof in Elve-Dance
- Wild Edric
- The Young Swain and the Elves
Elves of myth include:
- Helfrat (elf father of Sigurd, Volsung Saga)
- Argante (Elven Queen of Avalon)
- Summer (Queen of the Elves of Light, in Algonquian myth)
- Raviojla (Serbian elf-maid)
Elves in Victorian English literature
The influence of Shakespeare and Michael Drayton made the use of elf and fairy for very small beings the norm. In Victorian literature, elves usually appeared in illustrations as tiny men and women with pointed ears and stocking caps. There were exceptions, such as the full-sized elves who appear in Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter.
Elves at Christmas
In USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom, the modern children's folklore of Santa Claus typically includes diminutive, green-clad elves as Santa's assistants. They wrap Christmas gifts and make toys in a workshop located in the Arctic. In this portrayal, elves slightly resemble nimble and delicate versions of the dwarfs of Norse mythology. However, the elf legends are in fact, even older than Saint Nicholas, the bishop on whom Santa Claus was originally based.
In the Nordic countries Santa is helped by dwarflike, bearded elves dressed in red and gray. Traditionally it was believed to live one such elf on every farm. On Christmas Eve, one must give the elf a bowl of riceporridge to keep them from playing pranks or doing something wicked. Stories were told of how the elf might take his revenge for not getting porridge by killing a goat.
In Iceland, from December 12 until Christmas Eve, thirteen elves called the Yule lads visit homes, a lad each day for 13 days, and play tricks on the children, as well as leaving presents for them. This tradition is thought to be of pre-Christian origin as it has much in common with the celebrations of Saint Lucy in Norway and Sweden of December 13.
Modern fantasy elves
Modern fantasy literature has revived the elves as a race distinct from fairies. Fantasy elves are different from Norse elves, but are more akin to that older mythology — and to the Irish sídhe — than to folktale elves.
The twentieth-century philologist and fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien had little use for Shakepearean fairy portrayals or for Victorian diminutive fairy prettiness and whimsy, aligning his elves with the god-like and human-sized elves of Norse mythology, the Ljosálfar. He conceived a race of beings similar to humans but fairer and wiser, with greater spiritual powers, keener senses, and a closer empathy with nature. They are great smiths and fierce warriors on the side of good. Tolkien's Elves of Middle-earth are not deathless and can be killed by injury, and while they are sufficiently long-lived to be called immortal by humans, they do age.
Tolkien is responsible for reviving the older and less-used terms elves, elven, and elvish rather than Edmund Spenser's invented elfs, elfin, and elfish. He probably preferred the word elf over fairy because elf is of Anglo-Saxon origin while fairy entered English from French.
Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1958) became astoundingly popular and was much imitated. In the 1960s and afterwards, elves similar to those in Tolkien's novels became staple non-human characters in high fantasy works and in fantasy role-playing games (RPGs).
Post-Tolkien literary elves (popularized by the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game) tend to be human-sized or only slightly smaller than humans, and tend also to be capable warriors, especially skilled in archery. Terms like hob or brownie or other genuine regional folklore terms are seldom used of such creatures: they are unlikely to sneak in at night and help a cobbler mend his shoes. The canonical role-playing style elf is Deedlit , a major character of the anime series Record of Lodoss War.
Tolkien's elves were enemies of goblins (orcs) and had a longstanding quarrel with the dwarves: these motifs also often reappear in Tolkien-inspired works. In gaming, and to some extent fantasy, elves have a great depth of knowledge (especially regarding magic) due to a racial inclination as well as their extreme age. There are also "dark elves" popularized by TSR as drow.
Wendy and Richard Pini's long-running comic book Elfquest attempts to avoid the usual Tolkienesque elven clichés by placing their elves in a setting inspired by Native American rather than European mythology. It later turns out that they are actually the descendants of a shape-shifting alien race rather than mythological beings.
The Harry Potter book series by J. K. Rowling features house-elves that resemble brownies or goblins more than modern high-fantasy elves. Rather like the elves in The Shoemaker & the Elves, Rowling's house-elves are released from servitude when they are given clothes.
The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett feature extradimensional creatures called elves, that go back to the old myths of cradle-robbing fairies. The book Lords and Ladies is about an encounter with "the fair folk".
Christopher Paolini's Eragon also features elves of a Nordic persuasion.
The game Final Fantasy XI even adds another addition to elves, or elfs. Elvaan are the tall long lifespan elves of the game. They are adept to strong fighting skills but not magic.
Towards the end of the 20th century, a number of people have begun to describe themselves as elves, usually more of the Tolkien than the folkloric Santa type. Many of these people can be found in the Otherkin subculture.
- Dark elf
- Eldar (Warhammer 40,000)
- Elves (Middle-earth)
- Elf versus dwarf
- Elvish language
- High elf
- Light Elves
- Night elf
- Sprite (fantasy)
- Yule lads
- Wood elf
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