An elf (plural: elves) is a type of supernatural being in Germanic mythology and folklore. Reconstructing the early concept of an elf depends almost entirely on texts in Old English or relating to Norse mythology. Later evidence for elves appears in diverse sources such as medical texts, prayers, ballads, and folktales.
- Elves in names
- Relationship to Christian cosmologies
- Elves in medieval texts and post medieval folk belief
- Old English
- Middle English
- Post medieval folk belief in Britain
- Old Norse texts
- Mythological texts
- Other sources
- Post medieval developments
- Medieval and early modern German texts
- Early modern ballads
- Post medieval conceptions of elves
- England and Germany
- Modern popular culture
- Christmas elf
- Fantasy fiction
Recent scholars have emphasised, in the words of Ármann Jakobsson, thatthe time has come to resist reviewing information about álfar en masse and trying to impose generalizations on a tradition of a thousand years. Legends of álfar may have been constantly changing and were perhaps always heterogeneous so it might be argued that any particular source will only reflect the state of affairs at one given time.
However, some generalisations are possible. In medieval Germanic-speaking cultures, elves seem generally to have been thought of as a group of beings with magical powers and supernatural beauty, ambivalent towards everyday people and capable of either helping or hindering them. However, the precise character of beliefs in elves across the Germanic-speaking world has varied considerably across time, space, and different cultures. In Old Norse mythological texts, elves seem at least at times to be counted among the pagan gods; in medieval German texts they seem more consistently monstrous and harmful.
Elves are prominently associated with sexual threats, seducing people and causing them harm. For example, a number of early modern ballads in the British Isles and Scandinavia, originating in the medieval period, describe human encounters with elves.
In English literature of the Elizabethan era, elves became conflated with the fairies of Romance culture, so that the two terms began to be used interchangeably. German Romanticist writers were influenced by this notion of the 'elf', and reimported the English word elf in that context into the German language. In Scandinavia, probably through a process of euphemism, elves often came to be conflated with the beings called the huldra or huldufólk. Meanwhile, German folklore has tended to see the conflation of elves with dwarfs.
The "Christmas elves" of contemporary popular culture are of relatively recent tradition, popularized during the late nineteenth-century in the United States. Elves entered the twentieth-century high fantasy genre in the wake of works published by authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien, for which, see Elf (Middle-earth).
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 the Middle English period. 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.
The main medieval Germanic cognates of elf are Old Norse alfr, plural alfar, and Old High German alp, plural alpî, elpî (alongside the feminine elbe). These words must come from Common Germanic, the ancestor-language of English, German, and the Scandinavian languages: the Common Germanic forms must have been *ɑlβi-z and ɑlβɑ-z.
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 or soft white, has instead tentatively suggested that later evidence associating both elves and whiteness with beauty may indicate that it was this beauty that gave elves their name. Compare descriptions such as ‘swan white’ to describe the beauty of fair complexion. Norse cultural values view masculinity as an ideal of beauty, which the Alfr personifies. For example, the Norse Eddas similarly celebrate the male beauty of Baldr. Icelandic sagas celebrate the beauty of the cliff giants (bergrisi), and certain warrior kings that descend from them. Modern Scandinavian folklore celebrates the male beauty of the Fossegrim and the Huldrekarl/Huldrekall, nature spirits comparable to nymphs, but masculine men. By contrast, British cultural values tend to downplay male beauty and only emphasize femininity as an ideal of beauty. For example, angels are unambiguously masculine in ancient biblical texts, yet because of their beauty, modern British artists often depict angels as feminine. Ultimately, beauty and luminosity are identical. In the Norse Eddas, the radiant beauty of Baldr is the light of the daylight itself. Likewise, in medieval British poetry, the supernatural beauty of biblical Judith is described as ‘elf shining’ (ælfscinu), a magical beauty that shines an aura of light.
A completely different etymology, making elf cognate with the Rbhus, semi-divine craftsmen in Indian mythology, was also suggested by Kuhn, in 1855. In this case, *ɑlβi-z connotes the meaning, ‘skillful, inventive, clever’, and is cognate with Latin labor, in the sense of ‘creative work’. While often mentioned, this etymology is not widely accepted. Notable is the association of both Old Norse Alfr and Sanskrit Rbhu with the solar corona and sun rays.
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.
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 Alberich, Alphart and Alphere (father of Walter of Aquitaine) 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.
In later Old Icelandic, alfr ("elf") and the personal name which in Common Germanic had been *Aþa(l)wulfaz both coincidentally became álfr~Álfr. 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.
Relationship to Christian cosmologies
Almost all surviving textual sources about elves were produced by Christians—whether Anglo-Saxon monks, medieval Icelandic poets, early modern ballad-singers, nineteenth-century folklore collectors, or even early twentieth-century fantasy authors. As with the Irish Aos Sí, beliefs in elves have, therefore, been a part of Christian cultures throughout their recorded history and there is a complex relationship between ideas about elves and mainstream Christian thought.
Historically, people have taken three main approaches to integrating elves into Christian cosmology (though of course there are no rigid distinctions between these):
- Identifying elves with the demons of Judaeo-Christian-Mediterranean tradition. For example:
- In English-language material, in the Royal Prayer Book from c. 900, elf appears as a gloss for 'Satan'; in the late fourteenth-century Wife of Bath’s Tale, Geoffrey Chaucer equates male elves with incubi; and in the early modern Scottish witchcraft trials, confessions by people accused of witchcraft to encounters with elves were often interpreted by prosecutors as evidence of encounters with the Devil.
- In medieval Scandinavia, Snorri Sturluson wrote in his Prose Edda of ljósálfar and døkkálfar ('light-elves and dark-elves'), the ljósálfar living in the heavens and the døkkálfar under the earth. The consensus of modern scholarship is that Snorri’s elves are based on angels and demons of Christian cosmology.
- Elves appear as demonic forces widely in medieval and early modern English, German, and Scandinavian prayers.
- Viewing elves as being more or less like people, and more or less outside Christian cosmology. The people who copied the Poetic Edda do not seem to have attempted to integrate elves into Christian thought. Likewise, the early modern Scottish people who, when prosecuted as witches, confessed to encountering elves seem not to have thought of themselves as having dealings with the Devil. Nineteenth-century Icelandic folklore about elves mostly presents them as a human agricultural community parallel to the visible human community, that may or may not be Christian. It is even possible that stories were sometimes told from this perspective to subvert the dominance of the Church.
- Integrating elves into Christian cosmology without demonising them. The most striking examples are serious (if unusual) theological treatises: the Icelandic Tíðfordrif (1644) by Jón Guðmundsson lærði or, in Scotland, Robert Kirk’s Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (1691). This approach also appears in the Old English poem Beowulf, which lists elves among the monstrous races springing from Cain’s murder of Abel. The late thirteenth-century South English Legendary and some Icelandic folktales explain elves as angels that sided neither with Lucifer nor with God, and were banished by God to earth rather than hell. One famous Icelandic folktale explains elves as the lost children of Eve.
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.
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 for nymphs, 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-century Bald's Leechbook and Leechbook III.
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" 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. 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.
But there is good evidence that elves were associated with the succuba-like mære 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. Like words for gods and men, the word elf is used in personal names where words for monsters and demons are not. 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. In Old English, the plural ylfe (attested in Beowulf) is grammatically an ethnonym (a word for an ethnic group).
While they may still have been thought to cause disease with weapons, 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. 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.
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. 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. Elves are also associated with the arcane wisdom of alchemy.
By the end of the medieval period, elf was increasingly being supplanted by the French loan-word fairy, 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'.
Post-medieval folk belief in Britain
Despite the decline in references to elves in England, beliefs in elves remained prominent in early modern Scotland, where elves appear in English-language sources in the early modern Scottish witchcraft trials. These produced many depositions by people who believed themselves to have been given healing powers or to know of people or animals made sick by elves. The similarities with Old English material, and particularly Wið færstice, are close. Elves were viewed as being supernaturally powerful people who lived invisibly alongside everyday rural people.
The noun elf-shot is first attested in a Scots poem, 'Rowlis Cursing' from around 1500, where 'elf schot' is listed among a range of curses to be inflicted on some chicken-thieves. It may not always have denoted an actual projectile as there is evidence that 'shot' could mean 'a sharp pain', but it and terms like elf-arrow(head) are sometimes used of neolithic arrow-heads, apparently thought to have been made by elves, and in a few witchcraft trials people attest that these were used in healing rituals, and occasionally alleged to be used by witches (and perhaps elves) to injure people and cattle. Compare with the following excerpt from a 1749–50 ode by William Collins:There every herd, by sad experience, knowsHow, winged with fate, their elf-shot arrows fly,When the sick ewe her summer food forgoes,Or, stretched on earth, the heart-smit heifers lie.
Old Norse texts
Evidence for elf-beliefs in medieval Scandinavia outside Iceland is very sparse, but the Icelandic evidence is uniquely rich.
For a long time, views about elves in Old Norse mythology were defined by Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, which talks about svartálfar, dökkálfar and ljósálfar. However, these words are only attested in the Prose Edda and texts based on it, and it is now agreed that they reflect traditions of dwarves, demons, and angels, partly showing Snorri's 'paganisation' of a Christian cosmology learned from the Elucidarius.
Scholars of Old Norse mythology now focus on references to elves in Old Norse poetry, particularly the Elder Edda. The only character explicitly identified as an elf in classical Eddaic poetry, if any, is Völundr, the protagonist of Völundarkviða. However, elves are frequently mentioned in the alliterating formulaic collocation Æsir ok Álfar ('Æsir and elves') and its variants. This shows a strong tradition of associating elves with the Æsir, or sometimes even of not distinguishing between the two groups. The collocation is paralleled in the Old English poem Wið færstice; in the Germanic personal name system; and in Skaldic verse the word elf is used in the same way as words for gods. Sigvatr Þórðarson’s skaldic travelogue Austrfaravísur, composed around 1020, mentions an álfablót (‘elves' sacrifice’) in Edskogen in what is now southern Sweden. There does not seem to have been any clear-cut distinction between humans and gods; like the Æsir, then, elves were presumably thought of as being human(-like) and existing in opposition to the giants. Many commentators have also (or instead) argued for conceptual overlap between elves and dwarves in Old Norse mythology, which may fit with trends in the medieval German evidence.
There are hints that Freyr was associated with elves, particularly that Álfheimr (literally 'elf-world') is mentioned as being given to Freyr in Grímnismál. Because Snorri Sturluson identified Freyr as one of the Vanir when that word is rare in Eddaic verse, very rare in Skaldic verse, and is not generally thought to appear in other Germanic languages, it has long been suggested that álfar and Vanir are, more or less, different words for the same group of beings, and even that Snorri invented the Vanir. However, this is not uniformly accepted.
A kenning for the sun, álfröðull, is of uncertain meaning but is to some suggestive of a close link between the elves' and the sun.
Although the relevant words are of slightly uncertain meaning, it seems fairly clear that Völundr is described as one of the elves in Völundarkviða. As his most prominent deed in the poem is to rape Böðvildr, the poem associates elves with being a sexual threat to maidens. The same idea is present in two post-classical Eddaic poems, which are also influenced by romance or Breton lais, Kötludraumur and Gullkársljóð and in later traditions in Scandinavia and beyond, so may be an early attestation of a prominent tradition. Elves also appear in a couple of verse spells, including the Bergen rune-charm from among the Bryggen inscriptions.
The appearance of elves in sagas is closely defined by genre. 'In the more realistic Sagas of Icelanders, Bishops' sagas, and Sturlunga saga, álfar are rare. When seen, they are distant.' These texts include a fleeting mention of elves seen out riding in 1168 (in Sturlunga saga); mention of an álfablót in Kormáks saga; and the existence of the euphemism ganga álfrek ('go to drive away the elves') for 'going for a poo' in Eyrbyggja saga.
The Kings' sagas include a rather elliptical account of an early Swedish king being worshipped after his death and being called Ólafr Geirstaðaálfr ('Ólafr the elf of Geirstaðir') and the elf as a demon at the beginning of Norna-Gests þáttr, which is a portion of the Greatest Saga of Olaf Tryggvason.
The legendary sagas tend to focus on elves as legendary ancestors or on heroes' sexual relations with elf-women. Mention of the land of Álfheimr is found in Heimskringla while The Saga of Thorstein, Viking's Son recounts a line of local kings who ruled over Álfheim, who since they had elven blood were said to be more beautiful than most men. According to Hrólfs saga kraka, Hrolfr Kraki's half-sister Skuld was the half-elven child of King Helgi and an elf-woman (álfkona). Skuld was skilled in witchcraft (seiðr). Accounts of Skuld in earlier sources, however, do not include this material. The Þiðreks saga version of the Nibelungen (Niflungar) describes Högni as the son of a human queen and an elf, but no such lineage is reported in the Eddas, Völsunga saga, or the Nibelungenlied. The relatively few mentions of elves in the chivalric sagas tend even to be whimsical.
Both Continental Scandinavia and Iceland have a scattering of mentions of elves in medical texts, most of them with Low German connections.
Although the term elf was sustained in some Scandinavian traditions, during and after the medieval period it largely disappears in favour either of euphemisms for the same beings or different beliefs entirely, such as huldufólk ('hidden people', Icelandic), huldra ('hidden people', Norwegian and Swedish, along with terms like skogsfru and skogsrå), vetter, nisse (Denmark, along with bjærgfolk) and tomte (Sweden).
Medieval and early modern German texts
Old High German alp is attested only in a small number of glosses and is defined by the Althochdeutsches Wörterbuch as a 'nature-god or -demon, equated with the Fauns of Classical mytholology ... regarded as eerie, ferocious beings ... As the nightmare he messes around with women'. There is also evidence associating elves with illness, specifically epilepsy, and in the word Alpdruck ('elf-oppression') with the nightmare.
Accordingly, elves appear in Middle German most often associated with deception or bewildering people 'in a phrase that occurs so often it would appear to be proverbial: "die elben/der alp trieget mich" (the elves/elf is/are deceiving me)' and are often associated with the mare. Elves appear as a threatening, even demonic, force widely in later medieval prayers. The most famous is the fourteenth-century Münchener Nachtsegen, a prayer to be said at night, which includes the lines:
In early modern sources, the German alp is also described as "cheating" or "deceiving" (Middle High German: trieben, German: trüben) its victims. In the early modern period, elves are attested in north Germany doing the evil bidding of witches; Martin Luther believed his mother to have been afflicted in this way.
Elves in German tradition also show the seductive side apparent in English and Scandinavian material, however. Most famously, the early thirteenth-century Heinrich von Morungen's fifth Minnesang begins 'Von den elben virt entsehen vil manic man | Sô bin ich von grôzer lieber entsên' ('full many a man is bewitched by elves | thus I too am bewitched by great love'). As in earlier English, elbe is attested translating words for nymphs.
As in Old Norse, however, there are few characters identified as elves. It seems likely that elves were to a significant extent conflated with dwarves (Middle High German: getwerc). Some dwarfs that appear in German heroic poetry have been seen as relating to elves, especially when the dwarf's name is Alberich, which etymologically means 'elf-powerful'; Jacob Grimm thought that the name echoed the notion of the king of the nation of elves or dwarfs. The Alberich in the epic Ortnit is a dwarf of childlike-stature who turns out to be the real father of the titular hero, having raped his mother. This incubus motif recurs in the Þiðreks saga version of the parentage of Hagen (ON Högni), who was the product of his mother Oda being impregnated by an elf (ON álfr) while she lay in bed; Þiðreks saga was translated from a lost German text. The Alberich who aids Ortnit is paralleled by the French Auberon, who aids Huon de Bordeaux and whose name derives from Alberich. Auberon entered English literature through Lord Berner's translation of the chanson de geste around 1540, then as Oberon, the king of elves and fairies in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (see below).
As the apparent convergence with Gezwerc suggests, the word alp declined in use in German after the medieval period, though it still occurs in some fossilised uses, most prominently the word for 'nightmare', Alptraum ('elf dream'). Variations of the German elf in later folklore include the moss people and the weisse frauen ('white women'). As in English, however, twentieth-century fantasy fiction has helped to reinvigorate the term.
Early modern ballads
Elves have a prominent place in a number of closely related ballads which must have originated in the Middle Ages but are first attested in the early modern period, many in Karen Brahes Folio, a Danish manuscript from the 1570s. They circulated widely in Scandinavia and northern Britain. Because they were learned by heart, they sometimes mention elves when that term had become archaic in everyday usage, and have played a major role in transmitting traditional ideas about elves in post-medieval cultures. Some of the early modern ballads, indeed, are still quite widely known, whether through school syllabuses or modern folk music. They therefore give people an unusual degree of access to ideas of elves in older traditional culture.
The ballads are characterised by sexual encounters between everyday people and human(-like) beings referred to in at least some variants as elves (the same characters also appear as mermen, dwarves, and other kinds of supernatural beings). The elves pose a threat to the everyday community by trying to lure people to into the elves' world. Much the most popular example is Elveskud and its many variants (paralleled in English as Clerk Colvill), where a woman from the elf-world tries to tempt a young knight to join her in dancing, or simply to live among the elves; sometimes he refuses and sometimes he accepts, but in either case he dies, tragically. As in Elveskud, sometimes the everyday person is a man and the elf a woman, as also in Elvehøj (much the same story as Elveskud but with a happy ending), Herr Magnus og Bjærgtrolden, Herr Tønne af Alsø, Herr Bøsmer i elvehjem, or the Northern British Thomas the Rhymer. Sometimes the everyday person is a woman and the elf is a man, as in the northern British Tam Lin, The Elfin Knight, and Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight, in which the Elf-Knight bears away Isabel to murder her, or the Scandinavian Harpans kraft. In The Queen of Elfland's Nourice, a woman is abducted to be a wet-nurse to the elf-queen's baby, but promised that she may return home once the child is weaned.
Post-medieval conceptions of elves
Early modern Europe saw the emergence for the first time of a distinctive elite culture, while the Reformation encouraged new scepticism and opposition to traditional beliefs, while subsequently Romanticism encouraged their fetishisation by intellectual elites. The effects of this on writing about elves are most apparent in England and Germany, with developments in each country influencing the other. In Scandinavia, the Romantic movement was also prominent, and literary writing was the main context for continued use of the word elf except in fossilised words for illnesses. However, oral traditions about beings like elves remained prominent in Scandinavia into the early twentieth century.
England and Germany
From around the Late Middle Ages, the word elf began to be used in English as a term loosely synonymous with the French loan-word fairy; in elite culture, at least, it also became associated with diminutive supernatural beings like Puck, hobgoblins, Robin Goodfellow, the English and Scots brownie, and the Northumbrian English hob. In Elizabethan England, Edmund Spenser's Faerie Queene (1590-) used 'fairy' and 'elf' interchangeably of human-sized beings, but they are complex imaginary and allegorical figures; his aetiology of the 'Elfe' and 'Elfin kynd' as being made and quickened by Prometheus is entirely his invention.
William Shakespeare also imagined elves as little people. He apparently considered elves and fairies to be the same race. In a speech in Romeo and Juliet (1592) an 'elf-lock' (tangled hair) is not caused by an elf as such, but Queen Mab, who is referred to as 'the fairies' midwife'. In A Midsummer Night's Dream, the elves are almost as small as insects. The influence of Shakespeare and Michael Drayton made the use of elf and fairy for very small beings the norm, and had a lasting effect seen in fairy tales about elves collected in the modern period.
Early modern English notions of elves became influential in eighteenth-century Germany. The Modern German Elf (m) and Elfe (f) was introduced as a loan from English in the 1740s and was prominent in Christoph Martin Wieland's 1764 translation of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
As German Romanticism got underway and writers started to seek authentic folklore, Jacob Grimm rejected Elf as a recent Anglicism, and promoted the reuse of the old form Elb (plural Elbe or Elben). In the same vein, Johann Gottfried Herder translated the Danish ballad Elveskud in his 1778 collection of folk songs, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern, as 'Erlkönigs Tochter' ('The Erl-king's Daughter'; it appears that Herder introduced the term Erlkönig into German through a mis-Germanisation of the Danish word for elf). This in turn inspired Goethe's poem Der Erlkönig. Goethe's poem then took on a life of its own, inspiring the Romantic concept of the Erlking, which was influential on literary images of elves from the nineteenth century on.
English and German literary traditions both influenced the British Victorian image of elves, which appeared in illustrations as tiny men and women with pointed ears and stocking caps. An example is Andrew Lang's fairy tale Princess Nobody (1884), illustrated by Richard Doyle, where fairies are tiny people with butterfly wings, whereas elves are tiny people with red stocking caps. These conceptions remained prominent in twentieth-century children's literature, for example Enid Blyton's The Faraway Tree series, and were influenced by German Romantic literature. Accordingly, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Die Wichtelmänner (literally 'the little men'), the title protagonists are two tiny naked men who help a shoemaker in his work. Even though Wichtelmänner are akin to beings such as kobolds, dwarves and brownies, the tale was translated into English by Margaret Hunt in 1884 as The Elves and the Shoemaker. This shows how the meanings of elf had changed, and was in itself influential: the usage is echoed, for example, in the house-elf of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories. In his turn, J. R. R. Tolkien recommended using the older German form Elb in his Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings (1967) and Elb, Elben was consequently introduced in the 1972 German translation of The Lord of the Rings, having a role in repopularising the form in German.
In Scandinavian folklore, an elf is called elver in Danish, alv in Norwegian, alv (as a learned borrowing from Old Norse) or älva in Swedish, and álfur in Icelandic. After the medieval period, these terms were generally less prominent than alternatives like huldufólk ('hidden people', Icelandic), huldra ('hidden people', Norwegian and Swedish, along with terms like skogsfru and skogsrå), vetter, nisse (Denmark) and tomte (Sweden): the Norwegian expressions seldom appear in genuine folklore, for example.
In Denmark and Sweden, the elves appear as beings distinct from the vetter, even though the border between them is diffuse. The insect-winged fairies in Celtic mythology are often called älvor in modern Swedish or alfer in Danish, although the more formal translation is feer. In a similar vein, the alf found in the fairy tale The Elf of the Rose by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen is so tiny that he can have a rose blossom for home, and has 'wings that reached from his shoulders to his feet'. Yet Andersen also wrote about elvere in The Elfin Hill. The elves in this story are more alike those of traditional Danish folklore, who were beautiful females, living in hills and boulders, capable of dancing a man to death. Like the huldra in Norway and Sweden, they are hollow when seen from the back.
The elves of Norse mythology have survived into folklore mainly as females, living in hills and mounds of stones. The Swedish älvor, (sing. älva) were stunningly beautiful girls who lived in the forest with an elven king. In Romantic art and literature, elves are typically pictured as fair-haired, white-clad, and (like most creatures in the Scandinavian folklore) nasty when offended. In folk-stories, they often play the role of disease-spirits. The most common, though also most harmless case was various irritating skin rashes, which were called älvablåst (elven blow) and could be cured by a forceful counter-blow (a handy pair of bellows was most useful for this purpose). Skålgropar, a particular kind of petroglyph found in Scandinavia, were known in older times as älvkvarnar (elven mills), pointing to their believed usage. One could appease the elves by offering them a treat (preferably butter) placed into an elven mill.
In order to protect themselves and their livestock against malevolent elves, Scandinavians could use a so-called Elf cross (Alfkors, Älvkors or Ellakors), which was carved into buildings or other objects. It existed in two shapes, one was a pentagram and it was still frequently used in early 20th-century Sweden as painted or carved onto doors, walls and household utensils in order to protect against elves. The second form was an ordinary cross carved onto a round or oblong silver plate. This second kind of elf cross was worn as a pendant in a necklace and in order to have sufficient magic it had to be forged during three evenings with silver from nine different sources of inherited silver. In some locations it also had to be on the altar of a church for three consecutive Sundays.
The elves could be seen dancing over meadows, particularly at night and on misty mornings. They left a circle where they had danced, which were called älvdanser (elf dances) or älvringar (elf circles), and to urinate in one was thought to cause venereal diseases. Typically, elf circles were fairy rings consisting of a ring of small mushrooms, but there was also another kind of elf circle:On lake shores, where the forest met the lake, you could find elf circles. They were round places where the grass had been flattened like a floor. Elves had danced there. By Lake Tisaren, I have seen one of those. It could be dangerous and one could become ill if one had trodden over such a place or if one destroyed anything there.
If a human watched the dance of the elves, he would discover that even though only a few hours seemed to have passed, many years had passed in the real world. Humans being invited or lured to the elf dance is a common motif transferred from older Scandinavian ballads.
Elves were not exclusively young and beautiful. In the Swedish folktale Little Rosa and Long Leda, an elvish woman (älvakvinna) arrives in the end and saves the heroine, Little Rose, on condition that the king's cattle no longer graze on her hill. She is described as a beautiful old woman and by her aspect people saw that she belonged to the subterraneans.
In Iceland, expression of belief in the cognate huldufólk or 'hidden people', the elves that dwell in rock formations, is still relatively common. Even when Icelanders do not explicitly express their belief, they are often reluctant to express disbelief. A 2006 and 2007 study on superstition by the University of Iceland’s Faculty of Social Sciences revealed that many would not rule out the existence of elves and ghosts, a result similar to a 1974 survey by Erlendur Haraldsson. The lead researcher, Terry Gunnell stated: 'Icelanders seem much more open to phenomena like dreaming the future, forebodings, ghosts and elves than other nations'.
Modern popular culture
With industrialisation and mass education, traditional folklore about elves waned, but as the phenomenon of popular culture emerged, elves were reimagined, in large part on the basis of Romantic literary depictions and associated medievalism.
As American Christmas traditions crystallized in the nineteenth century, the 1823 poem 'A Visit from St. Nicholas' (widely known as '’Twas the Night before Christmas') characterized St Nicholas himself as 'a right jolly old elf' (line 45), but it was the little helpers that were later attributed to him to whom the name stuck. Thus in the US, Canada, UK, and Ireland the modern children's folklore of Santa Claus typically includes green-clad elves with pointy ears, long noses, and pointy hats as Santa's helpers or hired workers. They make the toys in a workshop located in the North Pole. In this portrayal, elves slightly resemble nimble and delicate versions of the elves in English folktakes in the Victorian period from which they derived. The role of elves as Santa's helpers has continued to be popular, as evidenced by the success of the popular Christmas movie Elf.
The fantasy genre in the twentieth century grew out of nineteenth-century Romanticism, in which nineteenth-century scholars such as Andrew Lang and the Grimm brothers collected 'fairy-stories' from folklore and in some cases retold them freely.
A pioneering work of the fantasy genre was The King of Elfland's Daughter, a 1924 novel by Lord Dunsany. Elves played a central role in Tolkien's legendarium, notably The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings; this legendarium was enormously influential on subsequent fantasy writing. Tolkien's writing has such popularity that in the 1960s and afterwards, elves speaking an elvish language similar to those in Tolkien's novels (like Quenya, and Sindarin) became staple non-human characters in high fantasy works and in fantasy role-playing games. Post-Tolkien fantasy elves (popularized by the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game) are often portrayed as being wiser and more beautiful than humans, with sharper senses and perceptions as well. They are said to be gifted in magic, mentally sharp and lovers of nature, art, and song. They are often skilled archers. A hallmark of many fantasy elves is their pointed ears.
In works where elves are the main characters, such as The Silmarillion or Wendy and Richard Pini’s comic book series Elfquest, elves exhibit a similar range of behaviour to a human cast, distinguished largely by their superhuman physical powers. However, where narratives are more human-centered, as in The Lord of the Rings, elves tend to sustain their role as powerful, sometimes threatening, outsiders.