The Source Of Elven History

An elf (plural: elves) is a type of supernatural being in Germanic mythology and folklore.[1] Reconstructing the early concept of an elf depends almost entirely on texts in Old English or relating to Norse mythology.[2] Later evidence for elves appears in diverse sources such as medical texts, prayers, ballads, and folktales.


The English word elf is from the Old English word most often attested as ælf (whose plural would have been *ælfe). Although this word took a variety of forms in different Old English dialects, these converged on the form elf during theMiddle English period.[5] During the Old English period, separate forms were used for female elves (such as ælfen, putatively from common Germanic *ɑlβ(i)innjō), but during the Middle English period the word elf came routinely to include female beings.[6]

The main medieval Germanic cognates of elf are Old Norsealfr, plural alfar, and Old High German alp, plural alpîelpî(alongside the feminine elbe).[7] These words must come fromCommon Germanic, the ancestor-language of English, German, and the Scandinavian languages: the Common Germanic forms must have been *ɑlβi-z and ɑlβɑ-z.[8]

Germanic *ɑlβi-z~*ɑlβɑ-z is generally agreed to be cognate with the Latin albus ('(matt) white'), Old Irish ailbhín (‘flock’); Albanian elb (‘barley’); and Germanic words for ‘swan’ such as Modern Icelandic álpt. These all come from an Indo-European base *albh-, and seem to be connected by whiteness. The Germanic word presumably originally meant 'white person', perhaps as a euphemism. Jakob Grimm thought that whiteness implied positive moral connotations, and, noting Snorri Sturluson's ljósálfar, suggested that elves were divinities of light. This is not necessarily the case, however. For example, Alaric Hall, noting that the cognates suggest matt white, has instead tentatively suggested that later evidence associating both elves and whiteness with feminine beauty may indicate that it was this beauty that gave elves their name.[9] A completely different etymology, making elf cognate with the Rbhus, semi-divine craftsmen in Indian mythology, was also suggested by Kuhn, in 1855.[10][11] While still sometimes repeated, however, this idea is not widely accepted.[12]

Elves in names

Throughout the medieval Germanic languages, elf was one of the nouns that was used in personal names, almost invariably as a first element. These names may have been influenced by Celtic names beginning in Albio- such as Albiorix.

Alden Valley, Lancashire, possibly a place once associated with elves

Personal names provide the only evidence for elf in Gothic, which must have had the word *albs (plural *albeis). The most famous such name is Alboin. Old English names in elf- include the cognate of Alboin Ælfwine ('elf-friend', m.), Ælfric ('elf-powerful', m.), Ælfweard (m.) and Ælfwaru (f.) ('elf-guardian'). The only widespread survivor of these in modern English is Alfred (Old English Ælfrēd, 'elf-advice'). German examples are AlberichAlphart and Alphere (father of Walter of Aquitaine)[13][14] and Icelandic examples include Álfhildur. It is generally agreed that these names indicate that elves were positively regarded in early Germanic culture. Other words for supernatural beings in personal names almost all denote pagan gods, suggesting that elves were in a similar category of beings.[15]

In later Old Icelandic, alfr ('elf') and the personal name which in Common Germanic had been *Aþa(l)wulfaz both coincidentally becameálfr~Álfr.[16] This seems to have led people to associate legendary heroes called Álfr with the elves.

Elves appear in some place-names, though it is hard to be sure how many as a variety of other words, including personal names, can appear similar to elf. The clearest English example is Elveden ('elves' hill', Suffolk); other examples may be Eldon Hill ('Elves' hill', Derbyshire); and Alden Valley ('elves' valley', Lancashire). These seem to associate elves fairly consistently with woods and valleys.[17]

Elves in medieval texts and post-medieval folk-belief

Our earliest substantial evidence for elf-beliefs comes in medieval texts from Anglo-Saxon England and high medieval Iceland, with a scatter of texts from the German-speaking world. Some general themes are apparent: elves were human(-like); were once pagan divinities of some kind; and were dangerous: they could cause harm to people or livestock, or might seduce people into sexual relationships with them.

After the Middle Ages, the word elf tended to be replaced by other terms, becoming archaic, dialectal, or surviving only in fossilised terms.


Medieval English-language sources

Old English

The earliest surviving manuscripts mentioning elves are from Anglo-Saxon England. Here elves are most often attested in Old English glosses which translate Latin words fornymphs, and in medical texts which attest to elves afflicting humans and livestock with illnesses: apparently mostly sharp, internal pains and mental disorders. The most famous of the medical texts is the metrical charm Wið færstice ('against a stabbing pain'), from the tenth-century compilation Lacnunga, but most of the attestations are in the tenth-centuryBald's Leechbook and Leechbook III.

The Eadwine Psalter, f. 66r, detail: Christ and demons attacking the psalmist.

Because of elves' association with illness, in the second half of the twentieth century, most scholars imagined that elves in the Anglo-Saxon tradition were small, invisible, demonic beings, causing illness with arrows. Scholars, but not the primary texts, labelled the illnesses elves caused as 'elf-shot'.[31] This was encouraged by the idea that 'elf-shot' is depicted in the Eadwine Psalter, in an image which became well known in this connection.[32] However, this is now thought to be a misunderstanding: the image proves to be a conventional illustration of God's arrows and of Christian demons.[33]

But there is good evidence that elves were associated with the succuba-like mære[34] and could cause illness, recent scholarship suggests Anglo-Saxon elves, like elves in later evidence from Britain and Scandinavia or the Irish Aos Sí, were like people.[35] Like words for gods and men, the word elf is used in personal names where words for monsters and demons are not.[15] Just as álfar are associated with Æsir in Old Norse, Wið færstice associates elves with ēse; whatever this word meant by the tenth century, etymologically it denoted pagan gods.[36] In Old English, the plural ylfe (attested in Beowulf) is grammatically an ethnonym (a word for an ethnic group).[37]

While they may still have been thought to cause disease with weapons,[38] elves are more clearly associated in Old English with a kind of magic denoted by Old English sīden and sīdsa, cognate with Old Norse seiðr, and also paralleled in the Old Irish Serglige Con Culainn.[39] This fits well with the use of Old English ælf and its feminine derivative ælbinne to gloss words for nymphs and with the word ælfscȳne, which meant 'elf-beautiful' and is attested describing seductively beautiful women.[40]

Middle English

Later in medieval English evidence, while still appearing as causes of harm and danger, elves appear more clearly as human-like beings, and increasingly as females rather than males, which may reflect developments in elf-beliefs during the medieval period.[41] They became associated with medieval romance traditions of fairies and particularly with the idea of a Fairy Queen. Sexual allure becomes increasingly prominent in the source material.[42] Elves are also associated with the arcane wisdom of alchemy.[43]

By the end of the medieval period, elf was increasingly being supplanted by the French loan-word fairy,[44] as in Geoffrey Chaucer's satirical Sir Thopas where the title character sets out in quest of the 'elf-queen', who dwells in the 'countree of the Faerie'.[45]