The Lore of Elves and Elfen Folk


Elves. An Arthur Rackham illustration for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

1.  Introduction

An elf is a diminutive and supernatural entity or being in Germanic folklore and mythology. In Britain the fairies have been integral to popular superstition long before they were known by that name and the ancient Britons “…conceived of these queer indeterminate beings , neither men nor gods, neither material nor spiritual…” (Edwards, 1974) as a race of sprites with magical skills. In Norse mythology there are descriptions of elves that are associated with natural landscape features such as hills, rivers, trees, lakes and seas that Christian communities decried as malevolent.


Meadow Elves. Nils Blommer (1850).

Elves adopt an ambivalent attitude to humans being regarded as either helpful or harmful, being blamed by Anglo-Saxons for the affliction in cattle called ‘elf-shot’. English literary sources tended to conflate the fairies with the elfen-folk. Elves are deemed to be a branch of the trooping fairies who travel in companies with their home in a kingdom below ground. Hobgoblins and Brownies, unlike the social fairy folk and elves, live solitary lives. An elf, which allegedly is of small child-like stature, attains some three to four feet in height. Their green complexion and countenance is usually complemented by white or green attire. Other descriptions of the elf have them as minutely flitting almost invisibly from flower to flower or sliding down to earth on moonbeams. The popular rural concept of elfish entertainment is their fondness for making circles of green grass for the purpose of abandoned meadow dancing. Their clothing is not always green because it varies according to place and time. In Scotland for instance are known to wear plaids, but an Irish elf will wear a suanoch or coarse mantle.

2.  Origin and Meaning

Etymologically alp in German is an elf which in cognatic Middle High German means ‘spectre-spirit’ or ghostly being (Schrader, 2008). Sources of early medieval origin  assert that the German alp refers to the deception and cheating of victims. In Middle High German alp is derived from elbe in the singular and elbe or elber in the plural. In the Old High German the word alp is either alpi or elpi in the plural. Modern German provides the masculine elf, and the feminine elfe, with the introduction of the term elfen from English in the mid-1700’s. The elf is expressed in the plural as elves and elfs, from which are derived the terms elven, elvish, elfin and elfish. In one sense elvish means in Old German paganism those elves of hman size, whereas elfish of elfin relates in Renaissance and Romantic folklore to tiny people.

elf play

Elf Play (1866), August Malmstrom.

In English the word elf is derived from aelf, elf, and  ulve of Old English. Furthermore, in Old English the word aelf or ylf is from albi-z and albi-z of Proto-Germanic. The word aelfen in Old English was derived from albinnja whose etymology ultimately came from the proto-Indo-European root albh which mean ‘white’. The feminine is alfen with the elve in the Middle English (Hall, 2004). In Old Norse the word is alfr and personal names that contain alf are now quite widespread as shown by Alfred. Indeed, Al-fried or Alfred means ‘all peace’ being composed of aelf and red meaning Elf-counsel. Onamastically, or that which pertains to or concerns names, historically there is an elf element in many Anglo-Saxon names of elves and dwarfs.  Again, the name Aelfric, which in German is Alberich means ‘elf-ruler’, which has been reborrowed from the French as Auberon or Aubrey. The masculine Aelfward and feminine Aelwaru mean ‘elf-guardian’. Other words containing the root aelf are aelferge for ‘elf-victory’ and the feminine aelfflaed meaning ‘elf-bliss’ or ‘elf-beauty’, aelfhaeg meaning ‘high as an elf. The word aelfgar means elf-spear, aelfhelm means elf-helmet, aelfwold is elf-power, aelfhryth or Elfrida means threatening elf, with aelfgifu being an elf-gift.

The word alp has been associated with the nightmare. It was believed that the nightmare experience was due to a nocturnal visiting spirit. During the middle ages alpdruck had a narrower meaning for nightmare or, in terms of folklore, the drude, the mare, and the succubus. In Scandinavian it was the mara, the German word was alpstraum or ‘elf-dream’. The term alpdruck was the archaic form meaning ‘elf-pressure’ referring to the stifling sensation experienced during a nightmare.

3.  Mythology

Elves are creatures of the mythology of the Norsemen (Guerber, 1994) who originated as minor fertility and nature deities that retain their magical powers and longevity. Elves are a separate division of the fairy folk distinct from the Aesir, the gods of Norse mythology. The alfar or elves still linger in the mythology, folklore, folktales and traditions of Scandinavia, in the Norse memory. Elves are referred to as Huldrafolk in Norway their music being called Huldraslaat. The ingrained elfish tradition and the worship of elves proved to be the most difficult aspect of northern paganism for the Christian church to replace. The alvar were distinguished into ‘white’ and ‘black’ elves, into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ elves. The popular image of elves is that of a mischievous and clean living sprites living underground beneath the abodes of humans. Such elves had an abiding love of moonlight meadow dancing Or sitting in their Elf-mills or small circular stones near to the Elf-dans of the Elf-dance.

The good elves who meadow danced and led an ethereal existence, were separate from the evil elves who led a subterranean life, and were malevolent to mankind. In between the good and the evil elves were the Hogfolk, the ‘hill people’, who inhabited caves, tumuli and the mounds. In Norse mythology the giants were the jotnar, the dwarfs were the duergar, men were menn and the elves were either Light or Dark. The dwarfs were regarded as misanthropic in character, possessed of cunning, but viewed also as renowned and skilled smiths and makers of magical objects. Dwarfs were also subterranean dwellers who had little to do with either the gods or humankind. In Norse mythology and Norse paganism the Light Elves, who lived in Alfheim with their god and lord called Frey, were beautiful, graceful and magical faery folk. The Alfheim of Frey, who was an original agricultural deity, was one of the nine Alvar worlds.


The god Frey and his boar. Jacques Reich (1852-1923).

The elves or alvar comprised the dark elves or dwarfs, called dokkalvar, the light elves the ljosalfar. An implication is that, because the ‘black elves’ were thee svartalfar, the dark elves may have been an intermediate group. The dark elves were the counterpart to the Highland fairies of Scotland known as the seelie-court. The light elves the equivalent of the un-seelie court. The dark elves lived in Svartheim, avoiding exposure to the hated sun and its light and from whence they caused nightmares, haunted horses, and malevolently threatened people. It seems that the Dark Elves and the Black Elves were the same and in fact comprised the svartalfar dwarfs, whoe were also “…those inimitable craftsmen who haunted mines and worked in precious metals.” (Edwards, 1974).

Elves can be traced in the ancient northern mythology summarised in the Prose Edda of around 1230 AD (Edwards, 1974). The Norse Edda writes of a supernatural race called the alf known also to the Old English and reconstructed in Anglo-Saxon times (Hall, 2004). The Edda tells that beneath the sacred world tree, the ash called Yggdrasil, there existed many cities of beauty. One of these fair abodes was Alfheim, the home of the ljiosalfar or Light Elves, who were whiter than the sun in appearance.

4.  Folklore

The Anglo-Saxons differentiated between the Light Elves and the Dark Elves or dwarfs, and believed in in many types of fairies who lived in subterranean caverns, mines, and beneath the hollow hills. In general folklore did not describe the non-human elfen folk as particularly benevolent. The elf had therefore inherited a duality, a two-fold contradictory persona of being some times a malevolent and some times a benevolent entity. In Beowulf there is reference to “…misshapen creatures who were condemned alongside the Germanic giants (ettins) and the hell devils (orca).” (Hall, 2007). The alve were also described as daemons, the underground Ellefolk, the svartalfar or ‘Black Spirits’ (Edwards, 1974). These resemble the subterranean dickalfar, those ‘dark elves’ blacker than pitch.

In Anglo-Saxon records there is mention of many elfen types. In Old English the female elf or alfen becomes a gloss for a nymph (Kightley, 1850) with may compound terms derived from alf (Hall, 2004). In Graeco-Roman terms of classical literature and mythology the landalf are the Ruricaras Musas or ‘country muses’. For the Anglo-Saxon a hill-elven there were dunaelfen; field elves, mountain elves, water elves, and wild elves (wyldelfen), who lived in trees (Edwards, 1974). The words alp and alf both referred to mountains and mountain demons (Hall, 2004). The Old English names for classical nymphs (Keightley, 1850) gave dun meaning hill to the Castalides; feld meaning field to the Mordes; munti meaning mountain the Creades; sae to the Naiades; waetere meaning water to the Nymphae; and wudu meaning wood nymph to the Dryades.


Poor Little Birdie teased. Victorian English folklore depiction by Richard Doyle.

Medical practice for the Anglo-Saxons was called leechcraft which was used as remedies against aelfynne, the race of elves (Edwards, 1974). Elf-disease, or aelfsocotha is a condition that resembles  jaundice where a person turns yellow instead of red. Anglo-Saxon medicine was sometimes occupied with the nightmare, caused by elves or the ‘spirits walking at night’. This condition equates the elf with the incubus or the incubi demones. Goblins and demons are associated with the words ‘pox’ and ‘pocks’ which are common to may languages, and include the waterpox or wasserpuchen. This disease connects with water elf disease, waeteraelferadl with its hard nails, hard hands, watery eyes and hardness in the side called elf-cake. Again, the derivation and link to elfish influence can be seen with the pooka and puck. The blisters of such a pox can be seen with the pocks or the Old English pocca which means a bag.

References and Sources Consulted

Edwards, G.  (1974).  Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck.  Geoffrey Bles, London.

Grimm, J.  (1883).  Teutonic Mythology (2).  W. Swan.

Grimm. J. (1883).  Teutonic Mythology (3).  W. Swan.

Guerber, H. A.  (1994).  The Norsemen: Myths and Legends.  Senate, London.

Hall, A. T.  (2004).  The Meanings of Elves in Medieval England.  University of Glasgow Press.

Hall, A. T.  (2007).  Elves in Anglo-Saxon England.  Boydell Press.

Jolly, K. L.  (1996).  Popular Religion in Late Saxon England.  Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina.

Keightley, T.  (1850).  The Fairy Mythology.  Bohn, H. G.

Lindow, J.  (2002).  Norse Mythology.  UP, Oxford.

MacKenzie, D. A.  (1995).  Teutonic Myths and Legends.  Senate, London.

Schrader, O.  (2003).  Primitive Rituals of the Aryan People.  Global Vision, USA.



Filed under Folklore

2 responses to “The Lore of Elves and Elfen Folk

  1. Pingback: Hey, Tolkien, Where’d You Get Those Elves? Part 2: Build an Elf – Illuminating the Fool's Mirror

  2. Pingback: Elves – The Library of Myths and Legends

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