Neolithic flint arrowheads ascribed as elf-shot in folklore.
Ancient belief in elf-shot, otherwise known as elf-arrows and elf-bolts, was common in 17th and 18th century Scotland and Northern England. Since Anglo-Saxon times ‘elf-shot’ have been recorded in manuscripts that make many references to various afflictions suffered by cattle, horses, and humans. During the During the 16th century references were regularly made to sharp pains inflicted on beasts by elves. The cause was blamed, during the 17th century, on elves who fired arrow heads at animals and people that led eventually and inevitably to their wounding and killing. Horses and cattle were regarded as particularly vulnerable of being bewitched by fairy shot.
Elf-shot afflicted cattle tended to fall over on their horns. They were therefore unable to arise and it was assumed that this was the “…common way in which cows fall when struck by the saighead sithe or fairy arrow.” (Proceedings, 1867; cited in Davidson, 1952). Affected animals did not always become ill or die immediately but initially often suffered from some noticeable distension of the first stomach or a distemper, especially if an elf-arrow had been found near to the afflicted animal. In Scotland the condition was blamed on elf-shot fired by the Elle-folk or Elf-boyes (Edwards, 1974). The elf-shot, or ofscoten was supposedly fired by elves or pagan entities called ese, or witches who were responsible for the pain inflicted. The country people of Denmark called elves the Elle-folk or Elve-people who lived in Elle-moors. For them it was required to watch cattle who were not permitted to graze in pastures frequented by the Elle-people. It was the superstitious belief that where the Elle-people had spilled, or even worse, the animal would be attacked by a serious disease. Sudden paralyses in both humans and beasts were called ‘elf-stroke’. Symptoms in ‘elf-shot’ animals varied from locality to locality, country to country (Davidson, 1952).
Elf-shotten men had no chance of recovery and sooner or later died of their unidentified affliction (Edwards, 1974). It proved on many occasions to find no evidence of an elf-shot wound due to the assumed magical dexterity of the elfen marksman. The fact that there was no trace of a wound on the skin of a animal adds credence to the idea that the internal troubles were due to ingestion of Neolithic blades. Herbivores grazing swollen grass and clover in certain localities probably ingested Neolithic arrow heads which then caused internal injuries and symptoms blamed on elf-shot (Denham Tracts, 1952).
In 1699. even though the arrowheads were known to be part of the weapons of early man, elf shot was still ascribed to elfs and fairies (Davidson, 1952; Llywd, 1699). The origin of elf-shot are surviving archaeological evidence of Neolithic flint arrowheads (Hall, 2005), that are found in the landscape and .do have delicate and crafted appearance that had been made by the previous Neolithic population of Britain. During the middle ages common superstition gave credence to the belief in elf-shot and the “…origin of these arrows, elf-stones, elf-bolts or fairy darts, in reality Neolithic flints…was shrouded in complete mystery and as a consequence considerable powers and virtues ascribed to them.” (Edwards, 1974).
Scottish manuscripts of Anglo-Saxon provenance contained recipes and cures for the effects of elf-shot in both animals and people. Scottish and Irish materials on the matter of elf-shot are quite extensive. However, in the sympathetic principle of like healing like, arrowheads were used magically in healing rituals (Hall, 2005), just as so-called elf-arrows were used in Scotland as amulets, charms and cures (Davidson, 1952). Amulets included odd shaped stones, including ‘elf-arrows’ as well as wooden and metal objects and written scraps of formulae or spells. There were many remedies and charms that were never consistent in means or method, and some bordered on the irrational. The belief in elf-shot influenced the treatment of the affected cattle with remedies comprising “…a confusion of charms and amulets, invocations and incantations these last incorporating, often with complete impartiality, Christian and pagan prayers.” (Davidson, 1952).
References and sources consulted
Davidson, T. (1956). Elf-shot cattle. Antiquity, 30 (119-). London.
Denham Tracts, II (113). Cited in Davidson (1952).
Edwards, G. (1974). Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck. Geoffrey Bles, London.
Hall, A. (2005). Getting shot of elves. Folklore, 116 (1), 19-36.
Llwyd. (1699). Philosophical Transactions (28), 99-100.