Divine, Demonic, or Something In-Between: How the Changing Face of Elves Reflects the Zeitgeist
Just as human culture has changed over the centuries, supernatural creatures also change with time. For example, elves were originally a type of nature spirit similar to Nymphs in Greek mythology. During the Middle Ages, however, they gained a more sinister reputation as a cause of mischief and disease. They were often thought of as either changelings or hidden folk. This may have been partly because elves had to be modified to fit into a Christian worldview.
Becoming Less Human
The ancient Norse elves lived in Alfheim, which literally means “home of the elves” or “elf-land.” The most prominent elves were light elves who were associated with the god Odin. They were very similar to humans except they had a stronger connection to nature and were immortal. In contrast to the light elves, there were the dark elves who were associated with death and considered malevolent. Like nymphs, these elves were capable of breeding with humans.
Nymphs or Naiads would lure men to their watery graves. (Public Domain)
During the Middle Ages, elves began to become less human. For one thing, they became smaller. Male elves were considered ugly tricksters while female elves were beautiful maidens who could be just as devious. They were known to lure men into secluded places with their beauty and kill them. Many diseases and strange occurrences were blamed on elves. For example, some sicknesses were called “elf-shot” because they were believed to be caused by arrows fired from magic elfin bows. Infants born with unusual deformations or birthmarks were said to be “elf-marked.”
- The Diverse Nature of Elves in Norse Myth: Beings of Light or Darkness?
- Revealing the True Nature of Elves: Dangerous Beauties and Diabolical Fiends
‘The Elf Ring’ (1905) attributed to Kate Greenaway. (Public Domain)
In many local traditions, Medieval elves were also shapeshifters or changelings which - allowed them to sometimes kidnap human infants and replace them with a shape-shifting elf that was at first identical to the infant. One of the signs that an infant had been replaced by a changeling was if the baby started to act strangely, becoming unusually sick or fussy or if it started to look deformed or have stunted mental or physical development. Medieval texts describe some rather bizarre ways to test if a baby had been replaced by a changeling such as boiling milk in cracked egg-shells in the hope that the changeling would get so baffled by the odd procedure that it would accidentally speak up and reveal its true form.
The devil steals a baby and leaves behind a fairy replacement, known as a changeling. Early 15th century. (Public Domain)
There is evidence that during the Middle Ages elves could occasionally be helpful because of their wisdom. The name Alfred, for example, (the name of several English historical figures during the Middle Ages including Alfred the Great (849-899 AD)) means “he who is counseled by elves” which implies that elves could occasionally bestow knowledge upon humans. Whether this knowledge was beneficial of course is uncertain, especially considering the nature of the elves of this epoch.
- Tuatha Dé Dannan, the Enchanting Predecessors of Irish Fairies and Elves
- Lessons from the Hidden World: Icelanders believed in elves, but it is probably not what you think
Richard Doyle (1824-1883), "Wood Elves Hiding and Watching a Lady", c. 1840 – 80. (Sofi/CC BY NC 2.0)
Icelandic “Hidden Folk”
In Medieval Iceland, fairy-like elves were present, but Icelandic lore also described another version of elves. These elves were considered to have a sinister side but they were more human-like. In Iceland, they were, and are still known today as, the “hidden folk.” They are said to resemble humans but are invisible and dwell partly in a different dimension or plane of existence. They are, however, able to make themselves visible to humans when they so desire and will occasionally have romantic human-elf liaisons.
An engraving showing a man jumping after a woman (an elf) into a precipice. It is an illustration to the Icelandic legend of Hildur, the Queen of the Elves. (Public Domain)
In one story that originates from Iceland, elves were descendants of Adam. According to this particular origin story, God visited Adam and Eve one day to see their children. There were some children whom Eve was too ashamed to show to the Lord, so she hid them. In response, God told her that the children she hid would forever be unseen and would dwell apart from all other descendants of Adam, living in the hills and forests.
One of the primary ways to differentiate one of the hidden folk from a human was religion. The elves were generally considered to be pagans and worship the old gods, while humans were assumed to be Christians. It is possible that this could reflect the slow process of Christianization in Iceland.
Icelandic stories of elves post-dating the arrival of Christianity appear to reflect the increasing invisibility and marginalization of Norse paganism. The Icelandic elves faded into invisibility in the same way that lingering Icelandic pagans may have faded into social and cultural invisibility in the process of Christianization.
Old Icelandic church. (Ophelia photos/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
Another way that Medieval Christians fit elves into their worldview was to relate them to demons or beings that were somewhere between angels and demons and different from humans. As a result, elves ended up being recast either as demonic beings or creatures that were roughly equivalent to humans.
The reason that they were never considered angels may have been because pre-Christian Norse elves were aligned with specific gods. Because of this, they could not be servants of the Judaeo-Christian God and had to be either evil or deviant in some way.
Male ‘Dark Elf’. (Fantasy Art/CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Changing Perceptions of Elves
Over the centuries, elves have gone from being powerful but human-like in old Norse legends, to more fairy-like in Medieval literature. Today, elves appear to be becoming more human-like again, with the possible exception of Santa’s elves. The elves of high fantasy and Lord of the Rings bear a lot more resemblance to the elves of ancient Norse legends, or perhaps legends from early Christian Iceland, than the fairy-like or demonic elves found in much of the Medieval lore.
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- The Secret Lives of Elves and Faeries: The Truth behind the Story of Rev Robert Kirk
A beautiful Middle-Earth elf imagined by an artist. (Alystraea/ CC BY-SA 4.0)
This may also reflect how our view of the other has changed. In the Middle Ages, those who were outside of Christendom were viewed with suspicion and as a result tended to be cast as very non-human, even monstrous. This tendency is common in all cultures to some degree. The ancient Greeks did the same when they created legends of headless or dog-faced barbarians in distant locales like India and Libya.
Today though, we tend to humanize outsiders and empathize with them even if they are very different. Even werewolves and vampires in contemporary fiction are often portrayed as personified victims of misunderstanding rather than bestial monsters as they were in earlier fiction. The story of how elves have changed over time tells us just as much about how we mortal humans have changed.
Top Image: Elves and other fairy folk. Source: Public Domain
By Caleb Strom
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