Category Archives: Folklore

The Changeling



The always hungry changeling.  Source: public domain.

The changeling is a non-human child that appears in the folklore of western Europe. In essence the changeling is believed to be a replacement, an exchange, for an infant that has been stolen away. The roots of the superstition are to be found connected to an ancient belief that infants are prone to abduction or attack by demons and evil spirits. Many places blame a demonic entity or witch for these “…unattractive, little beings…’stocks’, inanimate, wooden doll-like beings which soon lost all semblance of life.” (Eberly, 1988).

The changeling is therefore considered to be the child of a fairy, an elf, dwarf or troll, that has been secretly replaced by one of these creatures. Such beliefs are common in the folklore of the British Isles, France, and Italy, and called plentyn-newid in Wales. In ancient Ireland the People of the Side, known as the Tuatha de Danaan, traditionally left the changeling behind in the cradle. Amongst the early Irish congenitally disabled ‘changelings’ were referred to as Amadan or ‘God’s Fool’. Also the description  of fairy origin included ‘moon-touched’ or ‘moon’calf’ (Eberly, 1988). The infant is always swapped when it is unprotected by adults or is the victim of fairy trickery. In Scandinavian, German and Slavic folklore the child is believed stolen by the denizens of the ‘under-earth’ folk or elves and dwarves.

The numinous and nature spirits blamed for the exchange are water-sprites, word-folk, wild women, nixes, and Nereids (Greece), from German, central and eastern Europe. Some beliefs claim the infant, which has to be unbaptized, has been abducted by a troll. Other folklore tales claim that the changeling is a fetch or stock. In other words a piece of wood under a spell that appears to grow sick and die.


The Changeling (1913).  By John Bauer.  Source: public domain.

The changeling, or feral child, in folklore is known by many names such as wechselbalg in Germany; ivoti in Finland; the Swedish bytinger; and the Polish odmenik. Scottish folklore contains the belief that a child born with a caul is of fairy provenance and thus a changeling. In Ireland it was once believed that a changeling was in the power of the fairies if it had been ‘overlooked’ in envy. Hybridity has been cited as a cause of changelings implying a union with supernatural gods, devils, incubi, succubi, and fairies (Eberly, 1988), or the result of pairing with animals.

There are many reasons why a child is believed exchanged by the fairies, and a number of factors are involved in the changeling belief (Briggs, 1976). In many instances blame is attached to fairies and witches who obtain access to the infant metamorphosed into birds or insects unless iron is secreted under the child’s pillow (MacCulloch, 1918). The superstition concerning the supernatural origin of congenital birth defects continued through the middle ages (Eberly, 1988), affected children regarded as ‘demonically touched’, or a ‘change-child’.

In medieval literature the theme of the changeling is quite common and in Latin are referred to as cambiones during the 15th century.  Elves were believed intent on enhancing their breed by stealing human infants, and swapped one of their own in the process. In some tales the eating of human infants was blamed on the fairies (Rhys, 1901).

Infants with congenital and serious physical defects have “…evoked a religious response since at least as early as 2000 BC…” (Eberly, 1988), as exampled by the ancient Assyrians of Nineveh. Precautions, which are Christian in nature, are taken because fairies were believed to be pagans. Christian oriented methods included baptism, prayer, use of religious objects and emblems, and rituals to avoid attacks by fairies (MacCulloch, 1910). Moreover, many rituals in Europe included magical precautions such as amulets, talismans, symbols and incantations to ward off the malignant sprites. In addition constant watching and the use of charms was regarded as protective against diabolic exchange.


The Devil steals a baby and leaves a changeling.  Martino di Bartolomeo (early 15th century). Public domain.

Children were not the only ones vulnerable to being stolen by fairies, witches, and devils. In folktale there also occur stories of adult changelings. Numerous beliefs attest to both men and women being abducted by otherworld supernatural beings such as dwarfs, fairies and giants. Common references in both Oriental and European mythology aver their detention and forcible marriage within the netherworld. The stealing of maidens and mothers by fairies is that they would function as nurses and midwives. Survivors with congenital conditions include tales of the Brownie, the Scottish Gille Dubh and Grogach (Grogan in Ireland). the Scottish Urisk and Meg Moulach.

In the modern and contemporary world the folklore of the changeling represents previous superstitions concerning infants affected by unknown and misunderstood diseases and disorders. The changeling legends and beliefs represent the birth of developmentally disabled, deformed and retarded infants.

The often inherited congenital conditions displaying visible signs and symptoms have “…produced feelings of fear and awe since earliest times.” (Eberly, 1988). Changelings or ‘elf-children’ were often described as small, wizened with a wrinkled skin, having unusual ears, eyes and hands. They often exhibited mental retardation and a failure to thrive, being unable to walk or run. The prevalence of boys amongst the ‘change children’ led to the belief that boys were more often substituted (Briggs, 1976).

A number of identified diseases have been associated with the so-called changelings. These include spina bifida; cystic fibrosis; phenylketonuria; progeria; Down Syndrome; homocystinuria; cerebral palsy; regressive autism; Williams Syndrome; Prader-Willi Syndrome; Hunter’s Syndrome; various achondroplasias or dwarfish syndromes; Sanfilippo Syndrome; all of which suggest a strong general relationship between changeling lore and children born with congenital disorders (Eberly, 1988).

However, in more detail, there are other congenital conditions that explain the ‘changeling’ in terms of the “…ancient withered fairy…wawling and crying for food and attention…in an apparent state of paralysis.” (Briggs, 1976). An example is Cat’s Cry Syndrome or Cri-du-Chat with its mewing infants with their asymmetrical features and severe brain damage. Cri du Chat (Lejeune’s Syndrome) is a chromosome 5 deletion showing also microcephaly and hypertelorism. In more detail there is Donohue’s Syndrome and Hurler’s Syndrome.

Donohue Syndrome or leprachaunism is a rare genetic disorder due to an impaired insulin receptor (Donohue, 1948; Evans, 1955). The condition presents with elfin or gnome-like features, small body with protuberant low set ears, flaring nostrils, thick lips and stunted growth. Early death is the norm before four months.


An example of Donohue Syndrome (Leprachaunism). Public domain.

Hurler Syndrome or gargoylism is a genetic disorder known as mucopolysaccharidosis type 1. It is characterised by progressive deterioration, hepatosplenomegaly, dwarfism, unique facial features, mental deterioration, developmental cessation between 2 and 4 with death by 10 years.

The hypothesis implies that the legends of changelings arose as an explanation of peculiarities in infants and children, therefore “…congenital disorders lie at the root of many of the changeling tales that have come down to us.” (Eberly, 1988).

References Cited and Sources Consulted

Briggs, K.  (1976).  Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins…  Pantheon Books, London.

Briggs, K.  (1978).  The Vanishing People.  New York.

Donohue, W. & Edwards, H. E.  (1948).  Dysendocrinism.  J. of Paediatrics.  32 (6).

Eberly, S. S.  (1988).  Fairies and the Folklore of Disability.  Folklore.  99 (1).

Grimm, J.  (1882).  Teutonic Mythology.  London.

Hartland, E. S.  (1891).  Science of Fairy Tales.  London.

Hastings, J. ed.  (1910-).  Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics.  Clark, T & T, Edinburgh.

Keightley, T.  (1891).  The Fairy Mythology.  Bohn Library, USA.

Lejeune, J.  et al  (1963).  Hebd. Sciences Acad.  257.

MacCulloch, J. A.  The Changeling.  In: Hastings (1910 -).

Persaud, T. V. N.  (1977).  Problems of Birth Defects.  Baltimore. USA.

Rhys, J.  (1901).  Celtic Folklore.  Oxford.

Wentz, (1911).  The Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries.  Colin Smythe.




Leave a comment

Filed under Folklore

The Lore and Legend of the Black Dog



Image of the Hellhound


Legends and tales about phantom Black Dogs occur aplenty in the British Isles and elsewhere (Parkinson, 2011). Indeed, though primarily British phenomenon, mythology is particularly rich in legends about dogs (Trubshaw, 2011), though Scotland has few instances (Brown, 1958). In the Highlands though there is the belief in the cu sith or green ‘fairy dogs’.

The main feature of the Black Dog legends is that, apart from being essentially nocturnal, is in its having roots in both persons and locations (Brown, 1978). Also, as a portent of death in association with the devil, the creature is always black, and always a dog. Black Dogs have been sighted in the Isle of Man, Brittany, and the Channel Islands. The persistent, widespread and variable Black Dog stories (Brown, 1958), shows that “…the phenomena of phantom dogs is a complex mix of folklore, sightings, and local superstitions, which has its roots far into the past.” (Parkinson, 2011).

Even though the majority of phantom dogs have no known cause or history there have been claimed to be three separate species of this ‘ghost’ (Brown, 1958) which are (1) a shape-shifting demoan hound; (20 a large shaggy black coloured dog and; (3) a dog that appears only at certain times in specific locales (Parkinson, 2011). The barguest type is a shape-shifter which no true Black Dog ever does.

Nature and Habitat

The dog possesses five definable characteristics which are: (1) it is ‘man’s best friend’ in the sense that it freely associates with humans, and has been regarded as an animal symbol of a vampire; (2)it protects humans and their property, and thus is a guardian; (3) it is believed to be able to see malevolent spirits including the ‘Angel of Death’; (4) it scavenges offal and decaying meat; (5) just as does the wolf the dog also howls at the moon (Brown, 1978). These are the features that underpin most mythology, superstition and folklore concerning dogs. No other animal shares all of these attributes.

The Black Dog is usually described as larger than a normal dog with large glowing red eyes. Some are viewed as benevolent creatures whereas other opinions state that “…the Black Dog is looked on as a bad omen, ill luck, disaster or death attending his appearance…” (Rudkin, 1938). Examples include Padfoot and Bogey Beast from Yorkshire and Black Shruck from East Anglia.

black struck

Black Shruck.  Source: public domain.

Black Dogs are often associated with crossroads, ancient trackways, and places of execution especially as a gallows or gibbet was often placed at a crossroads. Such places are the haunt of the Black Dog. The assumed habitat of the Black Dog is its natural home of a road, by a stream or river a place of passage from one place, one realm, to another. At these junctures they are often encountered.

Black Dogs also haunt prehistoric burial sites, and hollowed or burnt out trees, and sometimes are actually associated with a family or particular person (Brown, 1958). Their habitat can include isolated burials and old sites of battles. As portents of death Black Dogs have been sighted in churchyards where they are called Kirk or Church Grims. In this guise these creatures frequent liminal places such as “…ancient lanes, trackways, crossroads, old churchyards and prehistoric sites.” (Parkinson, 2011).

Distribution and Locale

Black Dog appearances vary from locality to locality (Parkinson, 2011), but the majority are linked to a specific locale. Regional variation of the creature shows that half are “…associated with movement from one locality to another: roads, lanes, footpaths, ancient trackways, bridges, crossroads, gateways, doorways, corridors and staircases.” (Brown, 1978).

Black Dogs occur “…frequently in England and Ireland in places known to be Scandinavian settlements.” (Rudkin, 1938). In Wales the apparition is known as the ‘Dog of Darkness’ or gwyllgi and is related to the mythical and ghostly Cwn Annwn. Black Dogs are sometimes known by a familial patronymic such as the fictional Hound of the Baskervilles or the Dog of the Haynes, or similarly to the the family seat attachment of the Irish banshee.

The occurrence of Black Dog sightings is noted in two main areas (Brown, 1958), which are : (1) Cambridge, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, along the roads, coasts, fens and in churchyards where they always have an ominous aspect. However, in Lincolnshire the Black Dog is never feared (Rudkin, 1938). In Staffordshire the Black Dog is known for haunting wayside graves and wells (Brown, 1958).

The following list delineates the geographical distribution of named Black Dogs (Bord, 1981; Brown, 1958; Brown, 1978). In Lincolnshire there is Hairy Jack; Lancashire has Skriker, Trash, Shag, the Barguest, and Bogey Beast; Yorkshire provides us with Skriker also, plus Padfoot; Somerset is the home of the Gurt Dog or Great Dog; Devon the Yeth or Yell Hound; Cumbria provides the Capelthwaite; Suffolk the Galleytrot, with the Mauthe Doog in Scotland and the Isle of Man; other names also include variously the Churchyard Beast, Kirk Grim, Shug Monkey, Hateful Thing, Swooning Shadow, Gyltrash, Oude Rode Ogen, Dip and Tibicena.


Dogs have existed, in historical perspective from around 18,000 BC, as associated with humans. Dogs were used to herd reindeer in the regions of the north circa 13,700 BC (Zeuner, 1963). The evidence indicates dogs “…have been not only man’s close companions for many millennia, but also providing very specific spiritual guardianship.” (Trubshaw, 2011).

Archaeology and mythology indicate a special role for dogs with a symbolic relationship to humans. Probably domesticated properly some 10,000 years ago (Zeuner, 1963), their domestication “…may well have commenced in the Pleistocene age and was certainly present by Mesolithic times.” (Brown, 1978). In Britain, at the Neolithic site of Flag Fen dogs were ritually sacrificed to become the spirit guardians of the community.

Mesolithic Natufians of the Levant show that excavated cattle and horse bones were those of animals still in the wild state, whereas sheep (caprovines) and dogs were the first species domesticated. In Semitic and Moslem lands, however, the dog is viewed as unclean meaning that the dog “…had once been of sacred significance very remotely in time.” (Brown, 1958).

Supernatural Guardians

The most common superstition concerning Black Dogs is that they are an ominous portent. The legends of the Black Dogs has few parallels in world mythology (Trubshaw, 2011), and as guardians they are seen as protectors of the portals or liminal passages down to the Otherworld of the dead (Brown, 1978).

The Black Dog has an association with witches and as transformational forms are not regarded as offensive. In witchcraft the Black Dog is regarded as being familiar of the Devil, the creature thus symbolises the Devil during the witch transformation. The Black Dog is believed to be the Devil in Germany and most Scandinavian lands. Sometimes the Devil as Black Dog, appears to witches in this form according to the witches of the Highlands, who called him ‘ane black tyke’ (Williams, 1941).

Extending the supernatural or numinous connotations of the Black Dog, they are seen as Guardian Hounds. In this role they are perceived as  ‘dogs of passage’ being associated with entrances to the otherworld via the rivers of death (Brown, 1978). In other words “…black dogs (as some form of archetype appear at places of ancient sanctity.” (Parkinson, 2011). The idea of the dog guardian is encountered in the folklore of the Church Grim. In this role the Black Dog fills the shamanic role of a guide or psychopomp to the underworld (Trubshaw, 2011), functioning  as guardian to the liminal zone. This aspect is reflected in the association of Black Dogs with death rituals in Persia, Tibet and India (Brown, 1958), still observed by the Parsees of India.

The dog ritual was very prominent in Celtic religious practice with the animal afforded a special role in Britain and Gaul with the ghost of “…regarded as a symbol, must represent some universal guardian of the threshold personified in various cultures…” (Brown, 1978). Again, this suggests a connection of Black Dogs with some underworld or chthonic ritual (Green, 1982), with hellhounds accepted as holding an “…intermediary position – that at the border of this world and the next, between life and death.” (Trubshaw, 2011). Hunting hounds recur in the literature of ancient Ireland and Wales, where they are symbolic as underworld messengers.


In mythology dogs are regularly associated with death. Welsh legends have the Cwn Annwn and Garmr, whereas Greek myth has the hound of hell called Cerberus. In northern mythology the lupine nature of the Black Dog is found with the Black Suck. Hellhounds are found in Greek, Celtic, Roman, German, Indian, Armenian and Iranian mythology. The Celtic horse goddess Epona was was sometimes accompanied by dogs as was the German and Dutch goddess Nehellenia. Dogs in ancient Rome were used as propitiatory sacrifices to the goddess of births called Genita Mana (Cook, 1905).

Prehistoric and mythic examples of phantom and supernatural dogs are found from the Near East to Greece and as far as the New World. Around 3000 BC the character of the goddess Artemis was seen as the Terrible Mother as well as the Bear Mother with the dual nature of nurturer and destroyer (Brown, 1978). The duality of Artemis was expressed as the virgin mother contrasted with the cruel huntress, a form of the terrifying and overwhelming bear (Kerenyi, 1958, Gimbutas, 1974). Again, the chaste huntress Diana also presided over births known by her title ‘Opener of the Womb’ (Gimbutas, 1974). As with the chthonic Hecate, who owned the three headed Cerberus, Diana as with Artemis, had her own hunting dogs.

The goddess Hecate was the sombre goddess of death whose duality also encompassed her role as the protectress of childbirth, who was also, as was Artemis “…accompanied and appeased by dogs.” (Brown, 1978). Hecate was therefore closely linked to dogs and Cerberus the Otherworld guardian with three heads was her pet. Not only this the goddess herself was often portrayed with three heads as well as linked to the Dog Star called Sirius. In the mythology of the ancient Greeks the hellhound guarded Hades. Cerberus originally had fifty heads but his three heads were eventually, in myth, equated the three heads of Hecate.

myth dogs

Cerberus shown on a an ancient Greek black and red vase.

A trivium is a place in classical times where three roads met, in other words a crossroads (Brown, 1966). In the time of the Romans the Black Dogs were believed to haunt the vicinity of wells. In mythological terms the trivium was regarded as a “…feminine entrance to the underworld of death – and possibly rebirth – employing the symbol of the inverted triangle, the female pubis.” (Brown, 1978). The trivium illustrates another feature of Hecate where she hovered at the crossroads in the form of a hound (Rohde, 1925).  Therefore the sinister aspect of the trivium is its “…popular association of Hecate with witch-meetings, with gallows, and gibbet sites, and with the burial of suicides, all accompanied by dog visions…” (Trubshaw, 2011).

In ancient Egypt the god Anubis was the jackal or dog-headed psychopomp also known originally as An-pu. Another earlier name of An-pu was Imy-ut which menas ‘he who is the skin’ or placenta. This actually refers to the unborn child. Anubis as a psychopomp was also referred to as the ‘Opener of the Paths’ . When Anubis is referred to by his name Impou we find two meanings, one of which refers to a young dog and the other a young child.In other words there is a duality in the nature of Anubis in relation to life and death.  Anubis in ancient and early Egyptian religion is associated with the Dog Star of Sirius (from which the term ‘dog days’ meaning the dry parched season is derived). Another association is between Anubis and the Cerberus of the ancient Greeks. Not only as a psychopomp but also because Cerberus was originally the goddess Hecate (Graves, 1979).


Anubis.  Source: public domain.

In ancient Greece, unlike Egypt there were no jackals but there were wolves. For example the Lycian god Apollo as the wolf had many temples dedicated to him. The word lyceum originates with the worship of the lupine Apollo as does the term lykogenes which means ‘born of the wolf. Mythology, archaeology and folklore contain echoes of phantom dogs acting as protectors and guardians of the underworld from time immemorial, and this implies “…the Black Dog be studied as an aspect of a person at every stage of life, appearing as the protector which only manifests itself visually at times of crisis – death, danger, illness….” (Brown, 1978), the phantom, the ghost.

References and sources consulted

Bord, C. & Bord, J.  (1981).  Alien Animals.  Book Club Associates, London.

Brown, T.  (1958).  The Black Dog.  Folklore.  69 (3).

Brown, T.  (1966).  The Triple Gateway.  Folklore.  LXXVII.

Brown, T.  (1978).  The Black Dog in English Folklore.  In: Porter & Russell.

Carter, A. (1979).  ‘Company of Wolves’ in The Bloody Chamber.  V. Gollancz, London.

Cook, A. B.  (1905).  The European Sky God.  Folklore.  XVI.

Davidson, H. E.  (1943).  The road to Hel.  Cambridge.

Davidson, H. E.  (1993).  The lost beliefs of northern Europe.  Routledge.

Eliade, M.  (1951).  Shamanism.  Pantheon, New York.

Gimbutas, M.  (1974).  The Gods and  Goddesses of Old Europe.  London.

Graves, R.  (1979).  The Greek Myths.  Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Green, M.  (1992).  Animals in Celtic life and myth.  Routledge.

Hesiod.  (1981).  Hesiod and the Theognis.  Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Howells, W.  (1949).  The Heathens.

Kerenyi, K.  (1958).  The Gods of the Greeks.

Levy, G. R.  (1948).  The Gate of Horn.  London.

McEwan, G. J.  (1986).  Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland.  Robert Hale Ltd.

Murray, M.  (1921).  The Witch Cult in Western Europe.

Parkinson, D.  (2011).  Mysterious

Porter, J. R. & Russell, W. M. S. (eds).  Animals in Folklore.  D. S. Brewer, Folklore Society.

Rohde, E.  (1925).  Psyche.

Rudkin, E. H.  (1938).  The Black Dog.  Folklore.  XLIX.

Simpson, J. & Roud, S.  (2003).  Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore.  OUP, Oxford.

Temple, R.  (1976).  The Sirius Mystery.  Sidgewick & Jackson.  London.

Trubshaw. B.  (2011).  Black Dogs, the Guardians of the Corpse Ways.  At the Edge.

Virgil.  (1995).  The Aeneid.  Wordsworth Classics, London.

Williams, C.  (1941).  Witchcraft.

Zeuner, F. E.  (1963).  A History of Domesticated Animals.  London.



1 Comment

Filed under Folklore

Folklore of the Selkie


A selkie coming ashore changing from her seal skin. Source: public domain.

Selkies, also called Selchies and Silkies, are supernatural and shape-shifting entities in the folklores of Scotland, Ireland and the Faroe Islands. They are also referred to as roane as well as occurring in the traditions of Iceland. In Wales the local selkie are believed to be human beings who have returned to the sea as merfolk or sea sprites. In their original form these fairies or seal shape-shifting humans occur in the tales and myths of many cultures worldwide. In some legends they are regarded as similar to Swan Maidens.

They live primarily in the seas surrounding the Shetland and Orkney Islands and the surrounding Norse ‘seaway’.. In the ocean they are large travelling seals but discard temporarily their seal-skin when venturing ashore. Ashore they are believed to occasionally consort with humans. Etymologically the name is derived from an earlier Scottish word selich which itself comes from the Old English seolh for seal. In both Scottish and Irish folklore and tales “…we find supernatural qualities attributed to seals. Descent from seals is claimed by numerous families.” (Puhvel, 1962). When coming to land the female sheds her skin and changes into a human. Eventually the female selkie, even if living with a man and bearing him children, will retrieve her skin and return to the sea.


A selkie in human form and a seal sitting on a rock.  (Source: public domain.

Despite sharing some of their characteristics selkies are not, strictly speaking, mermaids. In the Orkney’s selkies are sometimes asserted to be the souls of those drowned at sea. Orcadian folktales have claimed that the selkie were once humans fated to live out their days in the sea for some wrong-doing. Claims that they were some type of fairy or fallen angel were once common in local belief. Their origin does suggest a Celtic history though it has been suggested that they part of the mythology surrounding the Scandinavian finfolk.  Despite the origin of the folklore of the selkies, despite having no precise explanation, it is possible that there is an association with a Scandinavian source as well as their Celtic one.

References and Sources Consulted

Craigie, W. A. (1898).  Some Highland Folklore.  Folklore.  9 (4).

Harris, J. M.  (2009).  Perilous Shores.  Mythlore.  78.

MacKenzie,  W. A.  (1935).  Scottish Folk-lore and Folk-life.  Blackie, Edinburgh.

Puhvel, M.  (1963).  The Seal in the Folklore of Northern Europe.  Folklore.  74 (1).

Spence, L.  (1948).  The minor traditions of British mythology. Ayer Publishing.

Westwood, J. & Kingshill, S.  (2011).  The Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore.  Infobase Publishing.






Leave a comment

Filed under Folklore

The Water-horse and the Kelpie


In the Scottish highlands the water-horse, or Each Uisge, is a supernatural water spirit in mythology and folklore. There is a tradition of water horses in some sixty of the thousands of lochans and lochs of Scotland (Watson, 2011). The mythical water-horse is also known as the Capaill Uisce or the Manx Cabyll-ushtey, the Ceffyl dwr in Wales, as well as often being confused with the Kelpie. It is one considered opinion that such mythical creatures appear in Scottish tales because “…the fierceness of the sea is characterised as a powerful and preternatural hage whose form…embody aspects of a stormy sea.” (Harris, 2009), the female described as the Muileartach.

Some authors regard the kelpie as being synonymous with the water-horse. The name was bestowed originally on the kelpie which allegedly resembled the horse-like hippocamp of classical myth and antiquity. The confusion can be cleared by the fact that the water-horse haunts only lakes lochs and never rivers (Green, 1992), whereas the kelpie inhabits torrents, waterfalls, and fjords. The shores and banks are the home of the glaistigs whereas the raw’ga are the revenants of seals. Water-horses, kelpies, and glaistigs have a much greater folkloric ambiguity when compared to mermaids, sea hags and dragons.

Resembling a long-necked seal in appearance, the water-horse has a long neck supporting a small head, a horse’s mane, and two sets of flippers. It is always considered a dangerous encounter with a creature, apparently measuring some 50 to 60 feet in length, with a tail 70 feet long, despite the fact that mortals can achieve power over the animal (Harris, 2009).

Ida Sofia Foss

Calling the Water-horse by Ida Sofia Foss.

The water-horse known as the Each-uisge in Scotland, each-uisce in Ireland, is often mistaken for the kelpie. In Ireland  the term has been Anglicised ‘anghisky’. The mischievous or at worst malevolent Kelpie has its origin in the Scottish Gaelic tradition (Drever, H. 1937).The shape-shifting Each-uisge can appear as a horse, a pony, or as a handsome man. It is a mammal of acquatic habit resembling a horse that lives in fresh water lochs, sea lochs, and the sea itself.

Kelpie sculptures

Kelpie or Water-horse sculptures, Forth and Clyde Canal, Falkirk.

A nickname applied to the lake monsters of Scotland is the kelpie, such as the Each-uisge, the Morag of Loch Morar, and Lizzie of Loch Lomond. Another supernatural  water-horse, or kelpie, is the glaistig which haunts Scottish waters and is “…associated mainly with domesticated animals and with the agricultural mode of life, and is attached to certin families, but has a similar sinister aspect as a river fury.” (Harris, 2009). The Kelpie is usually to be found beside or in isolated and fast moving streams where she, in common with the Ceffyn dwr, lures travellers to ride on her back into deep pools where they are drowned and consumed (McKillop, 1998; Coleman, 2007). In terms of mythology and folk-tale the kelpie is described as a sky-blue and white horse of strong physique that can shapeshift into beautiful women. Artists have portrayed the kelpie in this way as a seductive and languorous maiden seated on a riverside rock or beside a pool. However, the kelpie was also feared as a cannibalistic and foul-tempered water sprite with webbed feet and tail and mane of a horse.


The Kelpie (1913) by H. J. Draper


The Kelpie (1895) by Thomas Milke Dow.

There are a number of regional variations of the water-horse and the kelpie and similar mythological creatures. These include the Each uisge, the Neck (a water spirit) and the Nix. In Scandinavia the Norwegians have the brook horse other wise called the Backahasten, which is also called the nokken. For Faroe islanders there is the Nykur and in Iceland it is known as the Nykur or the nennir. In Orkney there is the Nuggle or Nuggie, with the Shetland Islands the home of Tangi, the Shoopiltee, and the Njogel. The Manx Gaelic for water-horse is the Cabbyl-ushtey and the Irish have their Capall uisce (also known as the Glashtin). The Irish had their Eisges or Fuath alongside the Shoney of Cornwall derived from the Norse name Sjofn meaning ‘Goddess of the Sea’.

The Ceffyl Dwr of Welsh folktale is a shape-shifting killer of travellers, with flying ability, that lives in mountain pools and pools, as well as capable of disappearing into the mists (Rose, 2001). In one form it leaps from the waters and kills travellers, but in another tale it gets the unwary to ride on its back. The Glashtyn, also known as the glashan, the glaistiyn, or the glastyn and believed derived from the old Irish Celtic words glais, glaise, or glas meaning the sea and also stream.


Hylas and the Nymphs. (1896).  J. W. Waterhouse.

In the mythology of the British Isles the oldest Celtic goddesses and nymphs are those connected with rivers and waters. For example the glashtin is regarded as a goblin that is believed to appear of its watery habitat, and in other words a ‘water-horse’. Historically  many pre-Christian names of rivers are named after female deities. Examples include Ness from the Picts and which is the name of the mother of Conchobar (Henderson, 2008). The term Nigra Dea means the Black Goddess of Adamnan with lochy or loch-diae the ‘lake of the black goddess’ (Hull, 1928). Affric, originally Aithbrecc means ‘nymph of the river and Aberdeen is derived from the goddess of the mouth of or river of Devona. Scottish glens are often believed inhabited by river spirits, river hags, and half horse half human water-horses. The Cuachag lives in Glen Cuachag and Etag inhabits Glen Etive.

References and Sources Consulted

Briggs, K.     Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies and other Supernatural Creatures.

Coleman, J. A.  (2007).  The Dictionary of Mythology.  Capella, London.

Craigie, W. A.  (1898).  Some Highland Folklore.  Folklore.  9 (4).

Drever, H.  (1937).  The Lore of the Kelpie.  Edinburgh.

Green, M.  (1992). Dictionary of Celtic Myth and Legend.  Thames & Hudson, London.

Harris, J. M.  (2009).  Perilous Shores: the unfathomable supernaturalism of water in 19th century Scottish folklore.  Mythlore, 28 (107-108).  Alhambra, USA.

Henderson, W.  (2008).  Folklore of the Northern Counties.  BiblioLife Books.

Hull, E.  (1928).  Folklore of the British Isles.

MacKenzie, D. A.  (1935).  Scottish Folk-lore and Folk-life.  Blackie, Edinburgh.

McKillop, J.  (1998).  Dictionary of Celtic Mythology.  OUP, Oxford.

Rose, C.  (2001).  Giants, Monsters & Dragons. An Encyclopaedia of Folklore, Legend and Myth.  Norton & Co.

Trevelyan, M.  (1973).  Folk-lore and folk stories of Wales.  EP Publishing Ltd.

Watson, R.  (2011).  The Water Horses of Loch Ness.






1 Comment

Filed under Folklore





A Mermaid (1901) by J. W. Waterhouse (1849-1917).

Mermaids are aquatic creatures of folklore, myth, literature and legend who are often equated erroneously with the sirens or the sea-woman (Coleman, 2007). the mermaid has a female human head and body with the tail of a fish. This part-woman and part-fish is central to the Mer-folk themselves and occurs widely in folklore and folktale (Waugh, 1960). In the folklore of Britain mermaids are believed to foretell of disaster, misfortune, as well as represent ill-omens (Briggs, 1976). Common in ancient mythologies the ancient European mermaids are fabulous sea-creatures and supernatural divinities consistent with maritime folklore.


Havfrue (1873).  By Elizabeth, J. Bauermann

Mermaids, in common with the mythic water-horses, kelpies, and the seal-folk or selkies, can assume human form (Waugh, 1960). The term is derived from mer the French for sea and maid for a young woman, with the German meerfrau or woman from the sea regarded as akin to humans (Anon, 1896). Mermaids are regarded by some as resembling sirens who use their alluring songs of enchantment to cause mishap to sailors. In this sense mermaids have been connected to selkies, water nymphs, and water-fairies. However, the sea-nymphs must be distinguished from the mermaid because mythologically “…sea maidens, or mermaids, and sirens were very different creatures.” (Anon, 1896).

Victorian mermaid

A Victorian Mermaid

Throughout Europe tales of mermaids in variable forms are to be found. In Scandinavian folklore there is a beautiful aquatic form of the Huldra, a dairy-maid or Lady of the Forest, called Havsfrun or Sjora which is eqated with the mermaid. There is also the Danish maremind, the Irish murdnac which is anglicised to merrow. On the coast of Brittany the morgans or sea-women are beautiful and siren-like and dangerous.


Havsrun by Jona Lajla. Source: public domain.

Hulfra's nymphs

Huldra’s Nymphs (1909) by Bernard Evans Ward.  Source: public domain.

In terms of origin in folklore it was Charles Kingsley in his book “The Water Babies” who suggested that if we can have water babies why not land babies? In terms of mythic origin “…the mermaid of folktale has no kinship with sirens or sea-nymphs, and certainly none with the fish-shaped gods.” (Anon, 1896).


The Land Baby (1899).  J. Collier.

Mermaids may resemble in appearance the sea-nymph or siren but certainly differ in nature. Mermaids may not contain much, if anything, of the supernatural in their origin,  whereas a nymph of the sea is a daughter of a deity. It was the bestiaries of the middle-ages that popularised the idea of the mermaid sitting on rocks with a mirror, combing her long tresses, as she lured sailors to their doom (Coleman, 2007). It follows thus that it was the bestiaries that confused the siren with mermaids (Burnell, 1949).


The Mermaid and the Pirate Ship.  Unknown artist.

This stresses the historical origin of the modern concept of the mermaid in historical and early Christian times (Waugh, 1960). This also despite  the fact early representations of mermaids showed them with wings and bird-like features (Coleman, 2007). Again, in some folkloric traditions the mermaid as a supernatural being is believed related to the banshee and the ‘washer-woman at the ford’ (Campbell, 1900).

mermaid and sailors

The Mermaid and the Sailors.  H. D. Johnson.

In Celtic mythology and folklore there is the muruch from the Scottish and Irish Gaelic and is also an equivalent of the merfolk. These aquatic sprites are also known as the Muir-gheilt; the Samhghublia; the Suire, and the Murrough in Galloway. Again, in appearance they are human from the waist up and fishlike from the waist down. Commonly known as the Merrow their maidens are regarded as very beautiful with a gentle disposition, markedly affectionate and kindly. Recognised by their possessing a soft inter-digital webbing they are reputed to be seen sitting combing their long green hair near the sea shore. These female Merrow Maidens are belived to entice young men beneath the waters of the sea to live below in an enchanted state. In the Isle of Man a mermaid is called a ben-verrey with her male counterpart the dinny-mara.


Merrow Maidens: Source: public domain.

Originally, in Assyria circa 1000 BC, the goddess Atagartis was represented in the form of a mermaid. Atagartis became the fish-tailed wife of the Babylonian god Oannes (Waugh, 1960). In this respect legends of mermaids and fishermen may be a vestige of an archaic ritual of human sacrifice to ancient ocean deities. Hesiod (1981) wrote of some 4000 mermaids who were the daughters of the god Okeanus, just as Horace, in his Ars Poetica,  stated “…to make what at top was a beautiful woman terminate nastily in a black fish’s tail.” (cited in Burnell, 1949). For Virgil (1995) the sea monster Scylla was a “…lovely maiden to the waist, but below it is a fearful dragon with wolfish belly and dolphin tails.”

The worship of the hybrid fish-tailed goddess disappeared eventually from ancient Greece (Waugh, 1960). It was therefore in the East that the hybrid originated “…where very ancient fertility deities had long been represented in that form…the Syrian goddess Atargatis or Derketo, known as the fish goddess was one.” (Burnell, 1949).


Statue relief of fish-tailed Atagartis

Mermaid legends in myth are older than the ancient Greek and ancient Arabic legends as is shown by their commonality in regions not influenced by Greece or Arabia. This illustrates the idea that there has been much embellishment of mermaid tales that are not original (Anon, 1896). In Japanese folklore there is a fish-like creature or mermaid called the Ningyo which means ‘human fish’. whose image is not beautiful.


The Ningyo from Japanese folklore

References and Sources Consulted

Anonymous.  (1896).  The Mermaid Myth.  The Speaker.  Jan 11, 1896. 40-41.

Briggs, K.  (1976).  An Encyclopaedia of Fairies….

Burnell, F. S.  Ino and her veil.  Folklore.  LX (1).  31.3.1949.

Campbell, J. G.  (1900).  The Celtic Otherworld.  R. Black.  Edinburgh.

Coleman, J. A.  (2007).  Dictionary of Mythology.  Capella, London

Hesiod.  (1981).  Theogony.  Penguin Classics.

O’Hanlon, J.  (1973).  Irish Folklore.  E. P. Publishing.

Virgil.  (1995).  The Aeneid.  Wordsworth Classics, |London.

Waugh, Sir A.  (1960).  The Folklore of the Merfolk.  Folkore.  71 (2), June.

Yeats, W. B.  (1896).  Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.  New York.

Leave a comment

Filed under Folklore

Folklore and Myth of the European Vampire


The Vampire (1897) by Philip Burne-Jones

1.  Introduction

Vampires are beings of legend found in folklore and mythology who obtain their sustenance feeding on the blood of living creatures (Dundes, 1998). As such they are referred to in literature and folklore as vampiric or entities known as the ‘undead’ that appear in many cultures and who are considered to be as old as mankind itself (Frost, 1989). Indeed, almost all cultures throughout history “…have their own version of the vampire myth.” (Fahy, 1988; McCully, 1964). This implies that the belief in vampires goes back as far as prehistoric times. Not all vampires satiate themselves on the blood of their victims who are often killed by strangulation or contagious disease (Wright, 1924), despite the prevalent belief that vampires appear nocturnally to prey on the living by sucking their blood (Crystal, 2004). However, according to folk belief in Russia and Poland the vampire in fact appears from mid-day to midnight and not between dusk and dawn.

2.  Meaning and Origin

Etymologically the derivation of the term vampire is not clear. Popularisation of the word did not happen until after the influx of western European vampire superstitions during the 18th century. In Britain the belief in the vampire epidemic reached its height between 1723 and 1735 and can be compared to that in Serbia and Hungary. The term vampire in English can be found in 1734 which derived from the French vampyre and the German vampyr of the 17th century. According to the anthropologist E. B. Tylor vampirism could be understood in terms of primitive animism.

From the Balkan region and eastern Europe came the Serbian and Bulgarian word vampir, the Romanian strigoi (of Latin derivation), and the Greek vrykolakas. As far as ancient history is concerned vampirism was a part of Babylonian belief noted by references in Chaldean and Assyrian clay tablets. The belief in vampires differed from ancient Greece and Rome across Europe through Austria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Lorraine, and even to Iceland (Wright, 1924).

The Serbian form of the word for vampire, or revenant, has many parallels among the Slavic languages. In Bulgaria there is the vampir, in Croatia the upir and lupurine, and in Czech and Slovak the upir, whereas the Dutch use vampyr. In Poland there is the wamprior, or upior, or wopierz. In east Slavic there is the upior, the Ukrainian upear and upyr, and the Russians and Belorussians have upyr. Among Serbians, Montenegrans, as well as Albanians, there was the belief in the vampire or vukodalak, the vurkulaka or the vrykolaka, meaning wolf-fury, but in Crete the katakhana (Wright, 1924).

Theoretically the word used by the Slavs was borrowed from the Turkish for witch. For example the Tatar term ubyr which originally reflects a one time pagan worship of upyr. Old Russian first mentions the word upir around 1047 AD and in origin means ‘wicked vampire’ or ‘foul vampire’. The peoples of Transylvania believed everybody killed by the nos feratu or vampire became a vampire.

Originally many legends about vampires had their origin in medieval times, and numerous cultures have revenant traditions. In Europe occult beliefs have existed for centuries but vampire lore “…is, in general, confined to stories of resuscitated corpses of male human beings…” (Wright, 1924). In Romania the reanimated corpse underpins the commonly held vampire belief which illuminates local concepts concerning body and soul (Murjoci, 1927). Among Slavic peoples a firm distinction is made between the body and soul which underlies the Slavic invention of the vampire as a reflection of the distinction between body death and the soul which departs at demise.

In England records are scant (Barker, 1988; Jones, 1931). During the 18th century there was a flood of east European vampire sightings. Indeed, in the Slavic regions the idea of the revenant vampire pervaded the popular culture and folklore. Such perceptions of the iampir, the vukodlak or ‘wolf’s hair’ in Bosnia and Montenegro (Durham, 1923), and in Albania the lugat. In the opinion of Voltaire in his Philosophical Dictionary (Hoyt, 1984) “These vampires were corpses, who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living…after which they returned to their cemeteries…It was in Poland, Hungary, Silesia, Moravia, Austria, and Lorraine, that the dead made this good cheer.”

3.  Folklore, Myth, and Belief

In folkloric tradition there is no definitive description of the vampire. However, those descriptions of the creature that do exist share common characteristics. The vampire appears to have originated in south east and Slavic Europe during the 18th century. The shared common features of these revenants , or risen dead, are derived from witches, from suicides, malevolent spirits, sorcerers, un-shriven corpses, and those unfortunate to have bee bitten by a vampire. Descriptions say these ‘undead’ are bloated and reddish or purplish in hue wearing white linen, protruding teeth or fangs, long claw-like finger nails and overgrown hair. Revenants, as restless or returning spirits, are seeking to take still living people back with them to the afterlife (Crystal, 2004).

The myths concerning vampires have a number of shared features (Fahy, 1988) which include the death of an evil one; the return of the revenant of the ‘undead’; a breach of burial ritual or protocol; and the alleged magical properties of human blood. These beliefs and images of the vampire are a persistent archaic remnant from ancient Sumeria, China and Tibet.

According to legend and folklore vampires are repelled by sunlight, garlic and crucifixes (Crystal, 2004), as well as despatched by a nail through the skull, thorny roes placed on the skin, a stake through the body or heart, and decapitation (Wright, 1924; Crystal, 2004). The stake is preferably made of white thorn or from the ash tree. Mundane or sacred items used as apotropaics, including holy water and garlic, are also used to deter vampires and revenants (Marigny, 1993). In Bulgaria an 800 year old skeleton from Sofia was found with an iron rod stabbed through its chest and believed to a be a ritual associated with suspected vampirism.


Assumed vampire skeleton from Sofia with iron stake through chest.

Vampire-like entities, demons or similar creatures were known to ancient civilisations. The notion of vampires, even if they were not called such, has existed for thousands of years and can be traced to Lilith in ancient Mesopotamian, Sumerian, Assyrian and Babylonian mythology. In ancient Babylonian myth Lilitu, a demon who drank the blood of babies, was synonymous with Lilith of the Hebrews (Graves, 1990), whose daughters the Lilu were demons in Hebrew mythology. In ancient India the goddess Kali, who was intimately linked with blood drinking, had fangs and was garlanded with corpses and skulls (Marigny, 1993), whilst the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet also drank blood.


Lilith (1892) by John Collier.

woman, and a daughter of Hecate. As a vampire Empusa could assume the shape of a female beauty who would seduce men in order to drain them of their life force. She was similar to Lilim of the Hebrews. The Empusae were greedy and seductive demonesses and known as the children of Lilith. One of these vampiric offspring was called Lamia.


Lamia (1909) by J. W. Waterhouse.

Lamia also preyed on children in order to suck their blood during the night, as did Gello the Greek vampire, or Sumerian Galla, (Oliphant, 1913). Greek folklore, as well as Slavic folktales, relates that a corpse that does not rot after burial is due to non-baptism, or death in sin, or incomplete funerary ritual (Crystal, 2004), will become a revenant or vampire. The striges, stryge, or strix, were blood sucking ghosts or spirits of living witches in Roman mythology.

Modern fiction and the cinema and television tends to portray the vampire as an effete, polite and bland individualistic villain with a charismatic demeanour that inspires devotion and dependency (Barber, 1988). Early in 1970 the local media in north London spread rumours that Highgate Cemetery was haunted by a vampire (Manchester, 1991; Ellis, 1993) that contributed to the emergence of an urban legend. ITV’s Channel 4 popularised the story and a similar scare occurred in the red light district of Nottingham. Personal memory come from my own trip though Hungary and Romania in 1965 when, upon asking the locals in Transylvania about vampires, I received the whimsical reply “Only in Hollywood.”

Alternative explanations about the origin of ancient myths concerning vampires and revenants have referred to vampirism as a manifestation of porphyria, even though the theory has been debunked medically (Barber, 1988). The creation of the vampire myths refer to porphyriac ravaged skin, sensitivity to sunlight, and darkened teeth even though “…there is no evidence that vampirism is a true medical phenomenon linked to organic disease, or that vampires or other creatures in literature and myth ever existed.” (Winkler, 1990). Indeed it could be said that vampires would exist today if “…the definition is limited to blood ingestion resulting in erotic satisfaction…” (Fahy, 1988).

Clinical vampirism is referred to as Renfield’s Syndrome in psychiatric literature even though there is no official recognition of the condition (Jaffe, 1994). Apparently the syndrome is associated with the drinking of blood – despite there being “…no evidence that patients with porphyria (or any other medical disease) crave blood, and human blood in particular.” (Winkler, 1990). Again, we are back in the realms of the media medicalisation of a myth. However, there is a clear link between sexual behaviour and ‘vampirism’ which involves blood rituals coupled with fertility and dietary beliefs and practices (Fahy, 1988), not to mention cannibalistic activities, sadism, necrophagy and necrophilia. Moreover, research showed that drug abuse could precipitate a satisfaction  associated with autohaemofetishism when blood is drawn into the syringe (Bartholomew, 1973).

References and Sources Consulted

Barber, P.  (1987).  Forensic pathology and the European vampire.  Journal of Folklore Research.  24 (1).

Barber, P.  (1988).  Vampires, Burial  and Death: Folklore and Reality.  Yale University Press, New York.

Bartholomew, A.  (1973).  Two features associated with intravenous drug users.  Australia New Zealand Institute of Psychiatry.  7 (1-2).

Crystal, D. ed.  (2004).  Vampire.  In: The Penguin Encyclopaedia.  London.

Dundes,  A.  (1998).  The Vampire: A Casebook.  University of Wisconsin Press, USA.

Durham, M. E.  (1923).  Of Magic, Witches and Vampires in the Balkans.  Man.  23 (189-192).   December.

Ellis, W.  (1993).  The Highgate Cemetery Vampire Hunt.  Folklore.  104 (1/2).

Fahy, T. Wesseley, S. & David, A.  (1988).  Werewolves, Vampires and Cannibals.  28 (2).

Frost, B. J.  (1989).  The Monster with a Thousand Faces.  University of Wisconsin Press, USA.

Graves, R.  (1955; 1990).  The Greek Myths.  Penguin.

Hoyt, O.  (1984).  Lust for Blood.  Chelsea, London.

Jaffe, P. D. & DiCataldo, F.  (1994).  Clinical Vamprism: blending myth and reality.  Bull.Amer.Acad.Psychiatry and Law.  (22 (4).

Jones, E.  (1931).  On the Nightmare.  Hogarth Press, London.

McCully, R. S.  (1964).  Vampirism.  Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases.  193 (1440-52).

Manchester, S.  (1991).  The Highgate Vampire.  Gothic Press, London.

Marigny, J.  (1993).  Vampires: the world of the undead. Thames & Hudson, London.

Murgoci, A.  (1926).  The Vampire in Roumania.  Folklore.  XXXVII (4).

Oliphant, S. G.  (1913).  The Story of the Strix.  Trans. Proc. Amer. Philolog. Assoc.  44 (133-49).

Spence, L.  (1960).  An Encyclopaedia of Occultism. University Books, USA.

Summers, M.  (1928).  Vampires and Vampirism.  Dover, New York.

Summers, M.  (1996).  The Vampire in Europe.  Gramercy Books, New York.

Winkler, M. G. & Anderson, K. E.  (1990).  Vampires, Porphyria, and the Media: Medicalisation of a Myth.

Wright, D.  (1924).  Vampires and Vampirism.  Willia Rider, London.









Filed under Folklore

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Folklore