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This article is about the mythical creature. For Tolkien's fictional version, see Elf (Middle-earth). For Other uses, see Elf (disambiguation).

An elf (plural: elves) is a type of supernatural being in Germanic mythology and folklore.[1][2] Early elves, whose description depends almost entirely on Norse mythology texts, were a race of beings with magical skills, ambivalent towards humans and capable of either helping or hindering them. But Christianized societies were viewing elves in increasingly sinister light.[3] In Anglo-Saxon England as early as the 10th century, Old English medical books attest to elves afflicting humans and livestock by "elf-shots". The German elf or alp was seen as an "addler" of people in medical books, but already in the High Middle Ages there were prayers warding against it as the agent causing nightmares, and eventually for the alp its identity as nightmare spirits became predominant.

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. Romanticist writers were influenced by this (particularly Shakespearean) notion of the "elf," and reimported the word Elf in that context into the German language.

A number of ballads in the British Isles and Scandinavia, perhaps stemming from the medieval period, describe human encounters with the elf, elven-king, elf-maid, etc. The same ballad type (cognate ballads) are often disseminated over several countries. Some common motifs, which may also be seen in English, Scottish and Scandinavian folklore, are elves enticing men with their dance, and causing death, either by elf-shot or entirely unexplained. In Scandinavia, the elves are often conflated with the beings called the huldra or huldufólk.

The "Christmas elves" of contemporary popular culture are of relatively recent tradition, popularized during the late 19th century in the United States, in publications such as Godey's Lady's Book. Elves entered the 20th-century high fantasy genre in the wake of works published by authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien, for which, see Elf (Middle-earth).


The English word elf is from the Old English ælf, elf, ylve, etc.[4] The feminine form ælfen in Old English exists, but strictly used "to gloss only words for nymphs" (See §Female elf as gloss for nymph below)[5][lower-alpha 1] In Middle English the feminine form was elve.[lower-alpha 2] The feminine form recurs in Middle English as elve(n)[6]

In sister languages the forms are Old Norse álfr, Old High German alp (plural alpî, elpî) and Middle High German alp (feminine singular elbe, plural elbe, elber).[7]

Grimm was "tempted" to see a parallel to the word with Latin albus "white",< which extrapolates to identifying the Proto-Indo-European root *albh- meaning "white".[8][9][10][lower-alpha 3] The intermediate Proto-Germanic forms postulated are *albiz for Old English ælf etc. and *albaz for Old Norse álfr.[9][11] A connection to the Rbhus, semi-divine craftsmen in Indian mythology, was also suggested by Kuhn, in 1855.[12][13]

German cognates

The Middle High German alp[15] had the primary sense of "ghostly being" or "specter, spirit".[16][17][18] And already in the Medieval Period, it had developed a narrower sense of "nightmare" (German: Alpdrück),[19] and eventually this became the more prevailing use of the term.[14][20] (See Alp; cf. also mare (in folklore), drude and incubus).

The Modern German Elf (m) (Elfe (f), Elfen) was introduced as a loan from English in the 1740s.[14][20][lower-alpha 4] Jacob Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch (1830s), rejected Elfe as a recent Anglicism, and came up with the reconstructed form Elb (m, plural Elbe or Elben), though the form Elbe (f) is attested in Middle High German writings.[23] Jacob Grimm in his Deutsches Wörterbuch deplored the "unhochdeutsch" form Elf, borrowed "unthinkingly" from the English, and Tolkien was inspired by Grimm to recommend reviving the genuinely German form in his Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings (1967) and Elb, Elben was consequently reintroduced in the 1972 German translation of The Lord of the Rings.


In personal names

Throughout Germanic tradition, given names which contain elf as an element are frequently attested. Gothic has no direct testimony of *albs, plural *albeis, but Procopius has the personal name Albila. In the modern period, Alfred is the only name with this element which continues to be in comparatively widespread use.

The eddic poem Völuspá contains a lengthy list of dwarf names that include Gandálfr "Wand-elf", Vindálfr "Wind-elf", and Álfr "Elf".[24] Elsewhere, personages in the Yngling royal house carry names such as Álfr and Gandálfr. Anglo-Saxon historical given names with the elf element include: Ælfwine (m.; continental Albewin, Alboin, Scandinavian Alfvin) "elf-friend", Ælfric (m.; cf. German Alberich) "elf-ruler", Ælfweard (m.) Ælfwaru (f.) "elf-guardian", Ælfsige "elf-victory", Ælfflæd (f.) "elf-beauty", Ælfwynn (f.) "elf-bliss", among others.

In German heroic epic material, Alphart and Alphere (father of Walter of Aquitaine)[25][26] have been regarded as bearing the "elf" element in their names. The OE counterpart to the latter name may be Ælfhere in the Waldere fragment.[27]


In Skaldic poetry, the álfr word stem is used nearly always in a kenning for a warrior or a full-fledged man[28][29](e.g. Jörmunrekr is periphrased by the kenning sóknar alfr ("álfr of attack").)[30]

Also much discussed is the kenning for the sun, álfroðull, literally "glory of the elves"[31] or "ray or rod of the elves."[32] The kenning is suggestive of the elves' close link to the sun to some,[33] although others have been dismissive of such link, since roðull by itself denotes the sun.[34]



The Elder Edda couples the Æsir race of gods and álfar race of elves, mentioning the two classes side-by-side in a number of instances.[35] (This juxtaposition also recurs in Old English ês and ylfe). The association sometimes extends to a third class, the Vanir gods, as in the poem För Skírnis (or Skirnir's Journey).[36][37]

Elves are mentioned as a distinct race, separate from other races such as the Æsir gods, Vanir gods, giants (jǫtnar), dwarves, and mankind (męnn); and the elves evidently do not count among the "gods" (goð) or the "higher powers" (ginn-regin) — in Alvíssmál ("The Sayings of All-Wise").[lower-alpha 5] The poem also mentions as a race the denizens of Hel, which may be marginally relevant, insofar as Grimm identifies them with the "dark elves" as distinct from "black elves" in his attempt to rationally explain that there may originally have been three sub-classes of elves. (See #Light-elves and dark-elves below).

Lokasenna relates that a large group of Æsir and elves had assembled at Ægir's court for a banquet, and from the many names named here, veritably "most of the Scandinavian pantheon," scholars have attempted to find a name of the elf here in vain.[38] It has been remarked that no individual elf with a known name has passed down to our knowledge,[39] though some suggest exceptions to this, such as the smith hero Völundr being called "Ruler of Elves" (vísi álfa)[40][lower-alpha 6] Völundr also referred to as 'One among the Elven Folk' (álfa ljóði), in the poem Völundarkviða, whose later prose introduction also identifies him as the son of a king of 'Finnar', an Arctic people respected for their shamanic magic (most likely, the sami).

Just as elves are one of several races of beings, the elf's home Alfheim is assumed to be one of the Nine Worlds of Norse cosmology.[41]


In the Elder Edda, Álfheimr (literally "elf-world") is mentioned as being given to Frey as a tooth-gift—in Grímnismál. This may mean that Frey was given lordship over the dominion of elves. However, Larrington for example glosses Álfheim merely as the name of a "palace"[42]

For additional concrete description of Álfheimr, Snorri's Prose Edda must be consulted:

"There is one place there that is called the Elf Home (Álfheimr which is the elven city). People live there that are named the light elves (Ljósálfar). But the dark elves (Dökkálfar) live below in earth,in caves and the dark forest and they are unlike them in appearance – and more unlike them in reality. The Light Elves are brighter than the sun in appearance, but the Dark Elves are blacker than pitch." (Snorri, Gylfaginning 17, Prose Edda)
"Sá er einn staðr þar, er kallaðr er Álfheimr. Þar byggvir fólk þat, er Ljósálfar heita, en Dökkálfar búa niðri í jörðu, ok eru þeir ólíkir þeim sýnum ok miklu ólíkari reyndum. Ljósálfar eru fegri en sól sýnum, en Dökkálfar eru svartari en bik."[43]

For a description of the more real-life geographical region of Álfheimr, see mentions in the §Sagas, below.

Light-elves and dark-elves

Main article: Dökkálfar and Ljósálfar

The Icelandic mythographer and historian Snorri Sturluson referred to dwarves (dvergar) as "dark-elves" (dökkálfar) or "black-elves" (svartálfar). He referred to other elves as "light-elves" (ljósálfar), which has often been associated with elves' connection with Freyr, the god of fertility (according to Grímnismál, Poetic Edda). Snorri describes the elf differences.

Snorri in the Prose Edda states that the light elves dwell in Álfheim while the dark elves dwell underground.

Black elves

Main article: Svartálfar

Confusion arises from the introduction of the additional term svartálfar "black elves", which at first appears synonymous to the "dark elves"; Snorri identifies with the dvergar and has them reside in Svartálfaheim. This prompts Grimm to assume a tripartite division of light elves, dark elves and black elves, of which only the latter are identical with dwarves, while the dark elves are an intermediate class, "not so much downright black, as dim, dingy". In support of such an intermediate class between light elves, or "elves proper", on one hand, and black elves or dwarves on the other, Grimm adduces the evidence of the Scottish brownies and other traditions of dwarves wearing grey or brown clothing.


In the Thidrek's Saga a human queen is surprised to learn that the lover who has made her pregnant is an elf and not a man. In the saga of Hrolf Kraki a king named Helgi rapes and impregnates an elf-woman clad in silk who is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.


Men after death could be venerated and sacrificed to, such as the petty king Olaf Geirstad-Elf.

In addition to this, Kormáks saga accounts for how a sacrifice to elves (álfablót) was apparently believed able to heal a severe battle wound:

Þorvarð healed but slowly; and when he could get on his feet he went to see Þorðís, and asked her what was best to help his healing.
"A hill there is," answered she, "not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Kormák killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed."[44]

Sigvat Thordarson, a missionary for St. Olaf wrote a poem around 1020, the Austrfaravísur ('Eastern-journey verses') describing his journey to the border areas. While in Sweden, being a Christian was refused board in a heathen household, because an álfablót ("elves' sacrifice") was being conducted there.

From the time of year (close to the autumnal equinox) and the elves' association with fertility and the ancestors, it might be assumed that it had to do with the ancestor cult and the life force of the family. The legendary sagas and more fantastical portions of the bibliographical sagas of the kings contain reference to elves. The fays foreign tales also appear as elves in saga adaptations.


According to Hrólfs saga kraka the titular hero Hrolf Kraki's half-sister Skuld was half-elven, a product of King Helgi having lain with an elf-woman (álfkona). Skuld grew up to marry Hjörvard, Hrólfr Kraki's killer. She was very skilled in witchcraft (seiðr), and this to the point that she was almost invincible in battle. When her warriors fell, she made them rise again to continue fighting. The only way to defeat her was to capture her before she could summon her armies, which included elvish warriors.[45] The saga only survives in a version dating to ca. 1400, and accounts of Skulda (Latin form of her name) in works such as the Gesta Danorum do not concur.[46] An early 18th century editor of the saga, Torfæus, quoted the opinion of pastor Einar Gudmund of Garpsdal that "the females of this race are capable of procreating with mankind" (Walter Scott's paraphrase).[47][48] The pastor's testimony was buttressed by three cases of Icelanders mating with such supernatural kind, ending in pregnancy, and it included one of his own ancestors; the testimony being translated out by Thomas Keightley.[49][lower-alpha 7]

King Aldrian's human queen was visited upon by an elf and gave birth to the hero Högni in the Thidrekssaga version of the Nibelungen (Niflungr) legend. No supernatural birth is associated with Högni/Hagen in other treatments of the legend such as the Eddas, the Volsunga saga, or the Nibelungenlied.

Elves and andi

At the beginning of the tale Norna-Gests þáttr, which is a portion of the Greatest Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, The king (Olaf Tryggvasson) noticed the presence of something, which he could not tell if it was an elf or an andi (spirit), slipping into the locked mansion. This "elf" turned out to be the title character Norna-gest, a man endowed with the longevity of many men.

So, like spirits, the elves were not bound by physical limitations and could pass through walls and doors in the manner of ghosts, which happens in .

Alfr line of kings

Mention of the land of Álfheimr, somewhat conflated with the view of the elven home Álfheimr is found in the Heimskringla and in The Saga of Thorstein, Viking's Son accounts of a line of local kings who ruled over Álfheim, and since they had elven blood they were said to be more beautiful than most men.

The land governed by King Alf was called Alfheim, and all his offspring are related to the elves. They were fairer than any other people...[50]

Modern interpretations

In addition to these human aspects, they are commonly described as semi-divine beings associated with fertility and the cult of the ancestors and ancestor worship. The notion of elves thus appears similar to the animistic belief in spirits of nature and of the deceased, common to nearly all human religions; this is also true for the Old Norse belief in dísir, fylgjur and vörðar ("follower" and "warden" spirits, respectively).

Old English elven race

Although Old English writings about the ælf as a supernatural race as described in Norse (Eddic) sources are scarce, some scholars have attempted to reconstruct the lost picture of the benevolent elf in Anglo-Saxon culture.[51]

There is a well-known example from Beowulf (Fitt I, vv. 111–14), where elves are included among "misbegotten creatures" condemned by God, and named alongside Germanic giants (ettins) and hell-devils (orcs).[52][53]

Another example is a fragment of the lost Tale of Wade, which begins "Summe sende ylves ..", and translated by Gollancz as: "..[all creatures who fell] became elves or adders or nickors who live in pools; not one became a man except Hildebrand."[54][55][lower-alpha 8] Hildebrand mentioned here is an established character from the Cycle of Dietrich von Berne, and this scene may well have involved them as well as Wate's grandson Widia in a den of monsters, as in the Old English Waldere fragment, a speculation that Rickert advanced.[57] More recently, Alaric Hall suggested "some hostile force sent ylues to beset Wade", though cautioning that the remnant was too short to contextualize it with certainty.[58]

Female elf as gloss for nymph

In Old-English there are some eight compound words with the -ælf (female -ælfen) stem, but these are generally considered coined terms used by glossators to conjure Old English names for types of nymphs in Greco-Roman classical literature,[59][60] and the female form -ælfen itself may be a coinage as well.[61][lower-alpha 9]

The nymph types glossed are as follows: landælf (Ruricoras Musas[62] or "country muses") dún- ("hill-"; castalides), feld- ("field-"; moides), munt- ("mountain-"; oreades), - ("sea-"; naiades), wæter- ("water-"; nymphae), and wudu- ("wood-nymph"; dryades).[59]

German heroic poetry

Although the mythological elf is all but absent in Middle High German texts (except as transformed into the sense of "ghostly beings" etc., cf. §Etymology above),[63] some dwarfs (Middle High German: getwerc) that appear in German heroic poetry have been seen as relating to elves, especially when the dwarf's name is Alberich, construed as "Elf-king".[64][lower-alpha 10] Of Alberich, Grimm thinks this name echoes the notion of the king of the nation of elves or dwarfs.[66] The Alberich in the epic Ortnit is a dwarf of childlike-stature who turns out to be the real father of the titular character, having ravished his mother. There is an incubus motif here,[67] that recurs in the Thidrekssaga version of the parentage of Hagen (ON Högni), who was the product of his mother Oda being impregnated by an elf (ON álfr) while she lay in bed.[68]

The Alberich who aids Ortnit is paralleled by the French Auberon, who aids Huon de Bordeaux. Both figures occur in 13th century works, but commentators typically regard Auberon as the derivative form.[69] Auberon entered English literature through Lord Berner's translation of the chanson de geste around 1540, then as Oberon, the king of elves and fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (see below).


Middle ages

The elf as a spirit playing tricks

In Christianized societies, the elves began to be viewed as spirit that could afflict cattle and people with various conditions, and the mythological notions began to be lost. The loss happened early in Anglo-Saxon England which was an early convert; in Old English, compound as ælfadl "nightmare", ælfsogoða "hiccup", afflictions apparently thought to be caused by elves.

Elf shot

The "elf-shot," recorded since the Anglo-Saxon period refers to a large number of affliction produced in humans and beasts purportedly caused by elves firing shots, .[70] A projectile from an elves or ése (pagan deities) or witches (gif hit wære esa gescot oððe hit wære ylfa gescot oððe hit wære hægtessan gescot) was responsible for sudden pain (such as rheumatism), whose remedy was offered in the Metrical Charm "Against A Sudden Stitch" (Wið færstice) from the late 10th century medical text Lacnunga. The related Bald's Leechbook from the mid-10th century prescribes for the case "If a horse be ofscoten" the remedy of inscribing Christ's mark on the horse. The operative word ofscoten here, conventionally construed as "elf-shot" has been challenged by A. Hall who proposes "badly pained". Still, the fact remains the medieval formula concludes by saying the cure should be effective should it be the work of elves (Old English: Sy þæt ylfa þe him).[71]

Also, sudden paralysis was sometimes attributed to elf-stroke.

The modern form Elf-shot (or elf-bolt or elf-arrow) from Scotland and Northern England was first attested in a manuscript of about the last quarter of the 16th century, and originally was used in the sense of a 'sharp pain caused by elves'. Later, the word also denoted Neolithic flint arrow-heads, which by the 17th century seem to have been attributed in the region to elvish folk, and which were used in healing rituals, and alleged to be used by witches (and perhaps elves) to injure people and cattle.[72] Compare with the following excerpt from an 1750 ode by Willam 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.[73]

German alp

Main article: Alp (folklore)

In early medieval sources, the German alp would be described as "cheating" or "deceiving" (Middle High German: trieben, German: trüben) its victims.[74][75] In particular, Germans of the medieval age ascribed incidents of nightmare to the alp,[19] and the idea stuck so that by the early modern age, the alp became known primarily as a spirit causing nightmares. (Hence the word for "nightmare" in German is Alptraum "elf dream", archaic form Alpdruck "elf pressure.") It was believed that nightmares are a result of an elf sitting on the dreamer's chest (incubi). This aspect of German elf-belief largely corresponds to the Scandinavian belief in the mara.

Late Middle Ages to Elizabethan era

Elf as fairy

From around the Late Middle Ages, the word elf began to be used as a term loosely synonymous with fairy and other beings.[lower-alpha 11] This mingling is found already in Geoffrey Chaucer's satirical Sir Thopas (1387 or later) where the title character sets out in quest of the "elf-queen", who dwells in the "countree of the Faerie".[76][77] Edmund Spenser in his Faerie Queene (1590-) uses "fairy" and "elf" interchangeably,[78] though his conceptions of the elf must be treated with caution, since they are "imaginary or allegorical characters" that populate his Utopian world,[79] and Spenser's origins of the "Elfe" and "Elfin kynd" as being made and quickened by Prometheus is entirely his invention.[80]

Significant for the distancing of the concept of elves from its mythological origins was the influence from literature. In Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare imagined elves as little people. He apparently considered elves and fairies to be the same race. In his A Midsummer Night's Dream, his elves are almost as small as insects.[dubious ][lower-alpha 12] 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. But not all traditional tales were contaminated by Shakespearean era notions of elves as the wee people, notably the #ballads such as The Queen of Elfan's Nourice.


The elf-lock, or a tangle in the hair purportedly caused by the mischief of the elves, can be traced to the Shakespearean period.[81] In a speech in Romeo and Juliet (1592) the "elf-lock" is not caused by an "elf" as such, but Queen Mab who is referred to as "the fairies' midwife", and who travels over people's face unnoticed and matting up their hair.[81][82]

German counterparts of the "elf-lock" are alpzopf, drutenzopf, wichtelzopf, weichelzopf, mahrenlocke, elfklatte, etc. (where alp, drude, mare, and wight are given as the beings responsible). Grimm who compiled the list, also remarked on the similarity to Frau Holle, who entangled people's hair and herself had matted hair.[83]


References to the elf, elfland, or people of elfin nature can be found in a number of ballads of English and Scottish origin, surviving mostly in early modern redactions, though often rooted in Medieval tradition.

In a late version of the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer[84] taken down around 1800, Thomas's abductor is called the "queen of fair Elfland",[85] and commentators have taken license to refer to her variously as "elfin queen,"[86] "queen of Faëry,"[87][88] or "Queen of Elphame",[89] etc., though these do not occur in the ballad text itself. And her original identity is more obscure, since in the ancient verse dating perhaps to ca. 1400,[90] she is only referred to as "lady gaye" or "quene" in another "cuntre".[91][lower-alpha 13]

In Thomas the Rhymer, the Queen of Elfland is portrayed in a positive light. But in additional ballad examples, elves exhibit sinister character, bent on rape and murder, as in the Childe Rowland, or Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight, in which the Elf-Knight bears away Isabel to murder her. In The Queen of Elfland's Nourice, a woman is abducted to be a wet-nurse to the queen's baby, but promised that she may return home once the child is weaned. In none of these cases is the elf a spritely character with pixie-like qualities.

Scandinavian Ballads

Sir Olaf/Oluf and the elf is a ballad type widely disseminated, with seventy Scandinavian ballads (counting variants) according to Child's tally.[92] The common premise is that Olaf on his wedding day is invited to dance by elves, he refuses and as a consequence he lies dead the next day, and his would-be bride dies of grief. The ballad group was later been assigned motif number TSB No. "A 63: Elveskud — Elf maid causes man's sickness and death,"[93] encompassing a number of Scandinavian variants (Danish: Elverskud[94] tr. "Elfin Shaft"[95] or "Sir Oluf and the Elf-king's daughter" [96][97][98] Norwegian: Olaf Liljekrans; Swedish: Elf-Qvinnan och Herr Olof,[99][lower-alpha 14] tr. "Sir Olof in Elve-Dance" and "The Elf-Woman and Sir Olof" (two versions);[100] Icelandic: Kvæði af Ólafi Liljurós;[101] Faroese: Ólavur Riddarrós og álvarmoy.[102] The Danish version, as its title suggests, features the "elf-shot" as a means for the Elf-king's daughter robbing the hero of his life.[103][104]

In contrast, the hero survives his elfin encounter in the ballad type represented by the Danish Elvehøj[105] (tr. "Elfer Hill").[106] Type TSB A65. Swedish:Ungersven och Elfvorna,[107][lower-alpha 15] tr. "The Young Swain and the Elves"[108]

Modern period

Scandinavian Folklore

In Scandinavian folklore, which is a later blend of Norse mythology and elements of Christian mythology, an elf is called elver in Danish, alv in Norwegian, and alv or älva in Swedish (the first is masculine, the second feminine). The Norwegian expressions seldom appear in genuine folklore, and when they do, they are always used synonymous to huldrefolk or vetter, a category of earth-dwelling beings generally held to be more related to Norse dwarves than elves which is comparable to the Icelandic huldufólk (hidden people).

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 British folklore are often called "älvor" in modern Swedish or "alfer" in Danish, although the correct translation is "feer". In a similar vein, the alf found in the fairy tale The Elf of the Rose by Danish author H. C. 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.[110] The Swedish älvor.[111][112] (sing. älva) were stunningly beautiful girls who lived in the forest with an elven king. They were long-lived and light-hearted in nature. The elves are typically pictured as fair-haired, white-clad, and (like most creatures in the Scandinavian folklore) nasty when offended. In the 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 – perhaps a custom with roots in the Old Norse álfablót.

In order to protect themselves against malevolent elves, Scandinavians could use a so-called Elf cross (Alfkors, Älvkors or Ellakors), which was carved into buildings or other objects.[109] It existed in two shapes, one was a pentagram and it was still frequently used in early 20th century Sweden as painted or carved onto doors, walls and household utensils in order to protect against elves.[109] As the name suggests, the elves were perceived as a potential danger against people and livestock.[109] The second form was an ordinary cross carved onto a round or oblong silver plate.[109] This second kind of elf cross one was worn as a pendant in a necklace and in order to have sufficient magic it had to be forged during three evenings with silver from nine different sources of inherited silver.[109] In some locations it also had to be on the altar of a church during three consecutive Sundays.[109]

The elves could be seen dancing over meadows, particularly at night and on misty mornings. They left a kind of circle where they had danced, which were called älvdanser (elf dances) or älvringar (elf circles), and to urinate in one was thought to cause venereal diseases. Typically, elf circles were fairy rings consisting of a ring of small mushrooms, but there was also another kind of elf circle:

On lake shores, where the forest met the lake, you could find elf circles. They were round places where the grass had been flattened like a floor. Elves had danced there. By Lake Tisaren,[113] I have seen one of those. It could be dangerous and one could become ill if one had trodden over such a place or if one destroyed anything there.[110]

If a human watched the dance of the elves, he would discover that even though only a few hours seemed to have passed, many years had passed in the real world. Human being invited or lured to the elf dance is a common motif carried over from older Scandinavian ballads (as seen in the §Ballads section).

Elves were not exclusively young and beautiful. In the Swedish folktale Little Rosa and Long Leda, an elvish woman (älvakvinna) arrives in the end and saves the heroine, Little Rose, on condition that the king's cattle no longer graze on her hill. She is described as a beautiful old woman and by her aspect people saw that she belonged to the subterraneans.[114]

Huldra and huldufólk

Main articles: huldra and huldufólk

In Norwegian folklore are huldra or huldrafolk, which Keightley said were the regional names for elves.[115] In Iceland, expression of belief in the cognate huldufólk or "hidden folk", the elves that dwell in rock formations, is still common. If the natives do not explicitly express their belief, they are often reluctant to express disbelief.[116] A 2006 and 2007 study on superstition by the University of Iceland’s Faculty of Social Sciences supervised by Terry Gunnell (associate folklore professor), reveal that natives would not rule out the existence of elves and ghosts (similar results of a 1974 survey by Professor Erlendur Haraldsson, Fréttabladid reports). Gunnell stated: "Icelanders seem much more open to phenomena like dreaming the future, forebodings, ghosts and elves than other nations." His results were consistent with a similar study conducted in 1974.[117]

German lore

The notion of the alp (and alias mare, drude) that caused nighmares continued into the early modern age. Meanwhile, Shakespearean and later English notions of elves were introduced into Germany, as discussed above under the #German cognates chapter of etymology. Then legends about the "Erl-king", evidently an import from Scandinavia, but often construed as a form of elf, were German Romanticist writers in the 18th century.


Main article: Erlking

An elven king occasionally appears among the predominantly female elves as in Denmark and Sweden. The legend of Der Erlkönig appears to have originated in fairly recent times in Denmark and Goethe based his poem on "Erlkönigs Tochter" ("Erlkönig's Daughter"), a Danish work translated into German by Johann Gottfried Herder.

The Erlkönig's nature has been the subject of some debate. The name translates literally from the German as "Alder King" rather than its common English translation, "Elf King" (which would be rendered as Elfenkönig in German). It has often been suggested that Erlkönig is a mistranslation from the original Danish ellerkonge or elverkonge, which does mean "elf king".

According to German and Danish folklore, the Erlkönig appears as an omen of death, much like the banshee in Irish mythology. Unlike the banshee, however, the Erlkönig will appear only to the person about to die. His form and expression also tell the person what sort of death they will have: a pained expression means a painful death, a peaceful expression means a peaceful death. This aspect of the legend was immortalised by Goethe in his poem Der Erlkönig, later set to music by Schubert.

Elves and the cobbler

In the first story of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Die Wichtelmänner, the title protagonists are two naked mannequins, which help a shoemaker in his work. When he rewards their work with little clothes, they are so delighted, that they run away and are never seen again. Even though Wichtelmänner are akin to beings such as kobolds, dwarves and brownies, the tale has been translated into English as The Elves and the Shoemaker, and is echoed in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories (see House-elf).

Variations of the German elf in folklore include the moss people[118] and the weisse frauen ("white women"). On the latter Jacob Grimm does not make a direct association to the elves, but other researchers see a possible connection to the shining light elves of Old Norse.[119]

English fairy tales

In the Victorian period stereotype of the elf, appearing 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.

Christmas elf

Main article: Christmas elf

In the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland the modern children's folklore of Santa Claus typically includes green-clad elves with pointy ears, long noses, and pointy hats as Santa's helpers or hired workers. They make the toys in a workshop located in the North Pole. In this portrayal, elves slightly resemble nimble and delicate versions of the elves in English folktakes in the Victorian period from which they derived. The role of elves as Santa's helpers has continued to be popular, as evidenced by the success of the popular Christmas movie Elf.

Fantasy fiction

The fantasy genre in the 20th century grows out of 19th century Romanticism. 19th century scholars such as Andrew Lang and the Grimm brothers collected "fairy-stories" from popular folklore and in some cases retold them freely. A pioneering work of the genre was The King of Elfland's Daughter, a 1924 novel by Lord Dunsany. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937) is seminal, predating the lecture On Fairy-Stories by the same author by a few years. In the 1939 lecture, Tolkien introduced the term "fantasy" in a sense of "higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent". Elves played a central role in Tolkien's legendarium, notably The Silmarillion. Tolkien's writing has such popularity that in the 1960s and afterwards, elves speaking an elvish language similar to those in Tolkien's novels (like Quenya, and Sindarin) became staple non-human characters in high fantasy works and in fantasy role-playing games.

Post-Tolkien fantasy elves (popularized by the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game) tend to be more beautiful and wiser than humans, with sharper senses and perceptions. They are said to be gifted in magic, mentally sharp and lovers of nature, art, and song. They are often skilled archers. A hallmark of many fantasy elves is their pointed ears.


Explanatory notes




  • *
  • Grimm, Jacob, Deutsche Mythologie (1835).
  • (Ph.D. thesis, University of Glasgow)
  • Vol.2
    • 1870 edition at Sacred Texts site
  • Marshall Jones Company (1930). Mythology of All Races Series, Volume 2 Eddic, Great Britain: Marshall Jones Company, 1930, 220-221.

External links

  • :Prose Edda/Gylfaginning (The Fooling Of Gylfe) by Sturluson, Snorri, 13th century Edda, in English. Accessed 16 Apr. 2007
  • ).
  • Anderson, H. C. 1845. ).

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