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Elements of Fantasy: Elves

Will-o'-Wisp by IlyichEver glimpsed a spark of light moving around fertile trees? You experienced the sight for picking up on elf activity.

Elves are angelic tree-spirits that reside side by side with angels in heaven. Although they originated in Germany, their sprits migrated across Europe, into Scandinavia and through Great Britain. Iceland has the largest population of elves, better known as hidden folk living in rock formations.

Elf is the masculine form of the light spirits while elven is the feminine form.
As spirits, they aren’t actually male and female but are depicted in drawings as one or the other depending on which characteristics the artist is portraying. There are up to thirteen varieties of elf species. Their sizes range from tiny six-inch tall people to five feet tall.

Romanticism from the 19th century gives elves a five foot height, breathtaking beauty, and longstanding youthfulness throughout their thousand year lives. According to the 19th century literature, Hrafnagaldr, elves have divine influences, including magical skills. Their leaf-shaped ears channel magical energies from heaven, giving them the ability to control what humans see and feel. They place magic in items, such as mushrooms to temporarily grant humans a magic sight.

Elf Dance in a Grove of Alders by Moritz von SchwindMany elves in the material earth realm make their home in trees. The doorways are elongated openings in the trunks of trees, reaching the same height of whichever species resides inside.

On January 6th of each year, elves celebrate the last day of Christmas in hidden fields. Their burning torches are seen from miles away. During any night or foggy morning, elves can be seen dancing in meadows, leaving behind elf circles. Bad luck follows anyone who steps on an elf circle and if a person urinates in one, he contracts venereal disease.

According to German mythology, elves are related to the wights, which are spirits that cling to corpses. Norse tales divide their species into light elves and dark elves. Light elves are closely related to Norse gods, while dark elves are similar to dwarves. The Romans merged elves with fairy folklore, depicting tiny elves living in forests instead of human homes.

The oldest records of elves stems from Norse mythology. Frey is the god over the light-elves. According to a Norse poem, Volundarkvioa, the shaman king of Finnar in the Artics, named Volundr, is the leader of the dwarf elves. The Norse king, Olaf Geirstad lived as a handsome and great warrior. After his death, he took on the form of an elf in heaven.

Elves were beautiful and dressed divinely, making them irresistible to humans. Old Norse customs encouraged interracial marriages between humans and elves. According to Thidrek’s Saga, a queen took an elf as her lover and bore his child who became a hero known as Hogni.

Elf Queen by Maxine GaddHalf-bred elves possessed powerful skills with witchcraft. Skuld was a mixed-race child of an elfen who had been raped by King Helgi. Skuld’s witchcraft allowed her to raise dead warriors during battle, making her practically invincible. According to the stories, Heimskringla and The Saga of Thorstein, Viking’s Son, half-breeds were also exceptionally beautiful.

Humans gave sacrifices to elves during the autumn equinox. Published around 1020, the Austrfaravisur by Sigvat Thordarson tells of a Swedish custom to make an offering to elves to gain fertility and protections for the family and ancestors. The Kormaks Saga reports of a warrior severely wounded in battle pouring the blood of an animal in a circle around a hill where elves lived so the elves would heal his flesh.

Around 1220, an Icelandic historian, Snorri Sturluson, documented the differences between light and dark elves in the Prose Edda. According to Snoori’s Edda, light elves are more brilliant than sunlight and live in a heavenly place called Alfheim, while dark elves are darker than pitch and remain in underground caves or deep in the forests. A third species, black elves resemble dwarves and live in Svartalfaheim. Scandinavian folklore reinforces elves supernatural skills.

English tradition views elves as mischievous beings who bestow misfortune and illness on their human victims. Christians developed tales of elves acting with evil intentions. A Metrical Charm from the 10th century provides an elf remedy for rheumatism caused by a projectile called an elf-shot, or an arrow shot by an elf. Elves use flint arrow-heads during the 17th century to inflict sharp pain on humans and cattle. Repeated stabbings resulted in an elf-stroke which gave paralysis. Seductively attractive women in England were described as having elf-beauty. Beowulf associates elf mischief that stupefies its victims with demons. An elf named Queen Mab tangled hair into elf-locks.

Christmas Card - 1898The 1830s German author, Jacob Grimm, defines elves as third class, supernatural beings in Teutonic Mythology. Soon afterwards, Christmas elves receive a contemporary boost in the United States in an 1890s publication of Godey’s Lady’s Book. It was during this era that Father Christmas recruited clever, hardworking elves descended from Gryla and Leppaludi to relocate to Scandinavia and use their magic to create gifts. The elves eagerly dedicated their lives to helping Santa Claus and quickly developed a reputation for having the finest handiwork in the world.

Christmas festivals reinforced the magical element of the holiday. Writers, such as Thile, Toplius, and Rydberg, shared the mysterious lives of elves. Their images morphed into loyal friends to all.

The rare instances elves are visible was captured by the artists, Hansen and Nystrm. Most elf sightings occur within the few days before Christmas when they are traveling to spy on children with borderline behavior. An elf named Albtraum visits children days prior to Christmas. If the children are naughty, he gives them elf dreams, or nightmares, by sitting on their heads while they slept. Elves also punish children with the hiccups when they get too rambunctious.

The secret passage to reach the North Pole is near Lapland, Finland where herds of reindeer are trained to guide Santa’s sleigh. The entrance is in the Korvatunturi mountain in Savukoski county along the Russian/Finnish border.

Swedish elves are cheerful creatures that live in hills and mounds of stones. The elf species has fair hair and dresses in white clothes. Like in England, angered Swedish elves cause havoc. They send out diseases, such as a skin rash called elven-blow. Scandinavians rely on an elf cross carved in doors and walls for protection against malevolent elves. If a cross is forged into a pendant or silver plate over three evenings, made from nine different forms of silver, and placed on the alter of a church for three consecutive nights, it carries magic that wards off elf mischief.

GaladrielElves made their mark in the 20th century high fantasy literature through their biggest fan, J.R.R. Tolkien. Their most notable descriptions are in Tolkien’s publication, Silmarillion. As valued storytellers, elves enjoy sharing their experiences with talented human writers.

Stay alert for original elf names, which include: Baggalutur, Bjalmans, Barnid, Bjalminn sjalfur, Bitahaengir, Frodusleikir, Laekjaraegir, Raudur, Redda, Sledda, Steingrimur, Syrjusleikir, Tifill, and Tutur. Icelandic elf names include Askasleikir, Bjugnakraekir, Faldafeykir, Gattathefur, Giljagaur, Gluggagaegir, Ketkrokur, Kertasnikir, Pottasleikir, Skyrjarmur, Stekkjarstaur, Stufur and Thvorusleikir.

Title image by Matt Dixon.

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Elements of Fantasy: Elves, 8.7 out of 10 based on 15 ratings
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12 Comments

  1. Judy says:

    Hello,
    Do you know of anymore information on elves. This is very good.
    Hoping to gather alot of info on elves so maybe I could plan to do a story/book on them.
    Like to do some research on them.
    Tolkien amazes me–seems like he knows something we don’t—elves, he writes with such conviction in his LOTR series.
    Thank you for your time.
    Judy

  2. ChrisMB87 says:

    I absolutely love this article. Elves as a rule have generally not been my favorite fantasy race – I think that award would go to either dwarves or orcs if I was handing it out, but thank you for this very analytical and informative piece!

    • Janie Bill says:

      I deeply appreciate your positive feedback. Best wishes with making your elf connections in the near future. I hear they are very helpful in restoring balance to nature.

  3. Very interesting post. Most of us tend to see elves as related by Tolkien or D&D. In fact the elves that live in the forest versus those who live underground must be where D&D got the idea. I tend to use the physical descriptions of elves from D&D in my writing more so than Tolkien, as I see elves as long lived but not immortal, beautiful but not angelic. This article makes me want to learn more about the other elf mythologies and their descriptions. Anything that gets the creative juices flowing.

    • Janie Bill says:

      Hi, Doug:

      I was surprised to find out elves are considered to be angelic by modern believers. They are definitely a group of fantasy figures that have evolved and been reinvented as they spread throughout the wold.

      Thanks for reading!

  4. Elves are my favorite of all the creatures in fantasy fiction, and I found this article most interesting to read and digest. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of elven legend and lore with us. If you ever have a follow-up post with further details, I’d be most intrigued to read it as well. Indeed, I plan to do a little research on my own and discover some of the mysterious of the elven race.

    All the best,
    Rachel

    • Janie Bill says:

      I have investigated elves and posted information on my website, http://www.janiebill.com. They are under the category, supernatural happenings. With the weather warming, I am inspired to do some more field work and plan to post additional findings. Thanks for taking time to read.

  5. Chris Derby says:

    What do you know of the Topping Out Ceremony, done at the completion of the raising of a timber frame? A prayer is said to appease the tree spirits for giving up their tree homes so that the trees may be used to build the frame?

  6. Chris Derby says:

    Are elves the same tree spirits which are thanked during Topping Out ceremonies done after raising a timberframe?

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