Missing image
Poor little birdie teased by Richard Doyle

Poor little birdie teased, by Victorian era illustrator Richard Doyle depicts the traditional view of an elf from later English folklore as a diminuitive woodland humanoid.

An elf is a mythical creature of Germanic mythology which survived in northern European folklore. Originally a race of minor gods of nature and fertility, elves are often pictured as small, youthful-seeming men and women of great beauty living in forests and other natural places, underground, or in wells and springs. They have been imagined to be long-lived or immortal and magical powers have been attributed to them. Following the success of J.R.R. Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings -- wherein a wise, angelic people named elves play a significant role -- they have become staple characters of modern fantasy.

Something associated with elves or the qualities of elves is described by the adjectives elfin, elven, elfish, or elvish. They are also called:


Characteristics of traditional elves

Elves in Norse mythology

The elves of Germanic mythology stem from the animistic belief in spirits of nature and of the deceased. In Norse mythology, which represent a post-animistic religion, the concept of elves (Old Norse: álfar; sing. álf, nom-c: álfr) is not well defined. Sometimes the dwarves (dvergar) or wights (vættir), i.e. "the little people underground", were also referred to as álfar, in particular "dark-elves" (dökkálfar) or "black-elves" (svartálfar). The black-elves were skilled smiths, and the most skilled were reputed to be the sons of Ivaldi, the father of Idun. Elves who are not dark-elves are consequently "light-elves" (ljósálfar). This use of language is probably of late date, as the word álf derives from the same Indo-European root *albh as the Latin albus (white).

The elves were often compared to or identified with the Vanir (fertility gods). For example, the phrase "Æsir and the elves" appears throughout the Poetic Edda and presumably means "all the gods." However, in the Alvíssmál ("The Sayings of All-Wise"), the elves are considered distinct from both the Vanir and the Æsir, as revealed by a series of comparative names in which Æsir, Vanir, and elves are given their own versions for various words in a reflection of their individual racial ethoi. Possibly, the words designate a difference in status between the major fertility gods (the Vanir) and the minor ones (the elves). The Van Freyr was the lord of Álfheim (meaning "elvenhome"), the home of the light-elves, and he had as servants two elves: Byggvir and Beyla.

Some speculate that Vanir and álfar belong to an earlier Nordic Bronze Age religion of Scandinavia, and were later replaced by the Æsir as main gods. Others (most notably Georges Dumézil) argue that the Vanir were the gods of the common Norsemen, and the Æsir those of the priest and warrior castes (see also Nerthus).

In late fall, the álfablót ("elven sacrifice") was celebrated at the homestead and led by its mistress. It was highly secret, no strangers were allowed to enter the homes during the time of the rituals (especially not Christians), and so next to nothing is known of it. However, from the time of year (close to the autumnal equinox) and the elves association with fertility and the ancestors, we might assume that it had to do with the ancestor cult and the life force of the family.

The Scandinavian elves were of human size, which allowed "normal" human interactions: for example, in Hrólf Kraki's saga, the Danish king Helgi finds an elf-woman on an island and rapes her. Full-sized famous men could be elevated to the rank of elves after death, such as the petty king Olaf Geirstad-Elf, and the smith hero Völund. Even crossbreeding was possible between elves and humans in the Old Norse belief. One such case was the hero Högni, whose mother was a human queen, and whose father, according to the Thidrekssaga, was an elf by the name of Aldrian. (Such Elven-Human unions are a very important element of the Tolkien Saga.)

There are also in the Heimskringla and in Þorsteins saga Víkingssonar accounts of a line of local kings who ruled over Álfheim, corresponding to the modern Swedish province Bohuslän, and since they had Elven blood they were said to be more beautiful than most men. The last king is named Gandalf — possibly the same Gandalf who competed for power with Harald Fairhair.

Scandinavian elves

Missing image
Little älvor, playing with Tomtebobarnen. From Children of the Forest (1910) by Swedish author and illustrator Elsa Beskow.

In Scandinavian folklore, which is a later blend of Norse mythology and elements of Christian mythology, an elf is called en elver in Danish, en alv in Norwegian, and en alv or en älva in Swedish (the first is masculine, the second feminine). The word is etymologically related to elv/älv ("river"). As in the Old Norse belief, there is a diffuse border between elves and other human-like nature spirits, such as tomtar (or nisser) and vättar/vittror (see: wights). The insect-winged fairies in the folklore of the British Isles are often called "älvor" in Swedish, although the correct translation is "féer."

In Denmark the elves seem to have merged with the huldra and are beautiful females who can dance a man to death (cf. the Elven Queen in the story below). If you see them from the back, they are hollow.

The elves of Norse mythology have survived into folklore mainly as females. The älvor (sing. älva) were stunningly beautiful girls who lived in the forest with an elven king. They were long-lived and light-hearted in nature. The elves are typically pictured as fair-haired, white-clad and like most creatures in the Scandinavian folklore can be really nasty when offended. In the 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 -- perhaps a custom with roots in the Old Norse álfablót.

The elves could be seen dancing over meadows, particularly at night and on misty mornings. They left circles of small mushrooms were they had danced, which were called älvdanser (elf dances) or älvringar (elf circles). To urinate in an elf circle was thought to cause venereal diseases. 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. (This time phenomenon is retold in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings when the Fellowship of the Ring discovers that time seems to have run more slowly in elven Lothlórien. It also has a remote parallel in the Irish sídhe.) In a song from the late Middle Ages about Olaf Liljekrans, the elven queen invites him to dance. He refuses, he knows what will happen if he joins the dance and he is on his way home to his own wedding. The queen offers him gifts, but he declines. She threatens to kill him if he does not join, but he rides off and dies of the disease she sent upon him, and his young bride dies of a broken heart.

German elves

What remained of the belief in elves in German folklore was that they were mischievous pranksters that could cause disease to cattle and people, and bring bad dreams to sleepers. The German word for nightmare, Albtraum, means "elf dream". The archaic form Albdruck means "elf pressure"; it was believed that nightmares are a result of an elf sitting on the dreamer's chest. This aspect of German elf-belief largely corresponds to the Scandinavian belief in the mara. It is also similar to the legends regarding incubi and succubi.

The Brothers Grimm fairy tale The Shoemaker & the Elves is probably the most famous original elf tale. The elves are only one foot tall in this story, naked, and like to work on shoes, as leprechauns do. When the shoemaker rewards their work with little clothes, the elves are so delighted, that they run away and are never seen again. (This tale is echoed in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories: see below.)

German folklore held that elves had a particular fondness for children and would appear to those about to die, rather like the Irish banshee. This aspect of the legend was immortalised by Goethe in his poem Der Erlkönig, later set to music by Schubert.

English elves

Elves were imported into Britain with the Anglo-Saxons, who called them ælfen. The nymphs of the Greek and Roman mythos were by Anglo-Saxon writers translated with this word.

English folktales of the early modern period typically portray elves as small, elusive people with mischievous personalities (see the illustration at top of page). They are not evil but might annoy humans or interfere in their affairs. They are sometimes said to be invisible. In this tradition, elves became more or less synonymous with the fairies that originated from native British mythology, for example, the Welsh Ellyll (plural Ellyllon) and Y Dynon Bach Têg.

Elf, fairy, and other terms for nature spirits like pwcca, hobgoblin, Robin Goodfellow, the Scots brownie, and so forth are no longer clearly distinguished in popular English folklore, nor are similar terms in other European languages.

Before they became diminutive and whimsical, elves were probably akin to powerful pre-Christian forest spirits like the woodwose, the Green Man, and the drusi in the mythology of the Gauls — beings to be respected and even feared. A trace of the former importance of elves in Germanic culture exists in names like Alfred (Old English Ælfræd, "elf-counsel") and Alvin (Old English Ælfwine, "elf-friend").

In the Old English poem Judith, the term ælfsciene ("elf-shining") is used referring to elven beauty. On the other hand, oaf is simply a variant of the word elf, presumably originally referring to a changeling or to someone stupefied by elvish enchantment.

Little documentation exists on English rustic beliefs and terminology before the 19th century, but it seems that the term elf was used, at least on some occasions or in some places, for various kinds of uncanny wights, either human-sized or smaller. But other terms were also used.

Elf-shot (or elf-bolt or elf-arrow) was the name used for found Neolithic flint arrow-heads, imagined as created and used by the elvish folk, with which they injured cattle. So too a tangle in the hair was called an elf-lock, as being caused by the mischief of the elves, and sudden paralysis was sometimes attributed to elf-stroke. Compare with the following excerpt from an 1750 ode by Willam Collins:

There every herd, by sad experience, knows
How, 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. [1] (http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/1850/)

The elf makes many appearances in ballads of English and Scottish origin, as well as folk tales, many involving trips to Elphame or Elfland (the Álfheim of Norse mythology), a mystical realm which is sometimes an eerie and unpleasant place. The elf is often portrayed in a positive light, such as the Queen of Elphame in the ballad "Thomas the Rhymer", but examples exist of the elf has a sinister character, as in the tale of Childe Rowland, or the ballad "Lady Isabel of the Elf-Knight", in which the Elf-Knight bears away Isabel to murder her. In none of these cases is the elf a spritely character with pixie-like qualities.

However, in Elizabethan England, William Shakespeare imagined elves as little people. He apparently considered elves and fairies to be the same race. In Henry IV, part 1, act II, scene iv, he has Falstaff call Prince Henry, "you starveling, you elfskin!", and in his A Midsummer Night's Dream, his elves are almost as small as insects. On the other hand, Edmund Spenser applies elf to full-sized beings in The Faerie Queene.

The influence of Shakespeare and Michael Drayton made the use of elf and fairy for very small beings the norm. In Victorian literature, elves usually appeared in illustrations as tiny men and women with pointed ears and stocking caps. An example is Andrew Lang's fairy tale Princess Nobody [2] (http://arthurwendover.com/arthurs/fairy/pnobdy10.html) (1884), illustrated by Richard Doyle, where fairies are tiny people with butterfly wings, whereas elves are tiny people with red stocking caps. There were exceptions to this rule however, such as the full-sized elves who appear in Lord Dunsany's The King of Elfland's Daughter.

Modern elves

Elves at Christmas

In USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom, the modern children's folklore of Santa Claus typically includes diminutive, green-clad elves as Santa's assistants. They wrap Christmas gifts and make toys in a workshop located in the Arctic. In this portrayal, elves slightly resemble nimble and delicate versions of the dwarfs of Norse mythology. However, the elf legends are in fact, even older than Saint Nicholas, the bishop on whom Santa Claus was originally based. (One modern fantasy shows Santa's Elves as being the children whom Saint Nicholas resurrected after they had been murdered. By this miracle, they became immortal, never growing older.)

In the Nordic countries Santa is helped by nisser, dwarflike, bearded elves dressed in red and gray. Traditionally it was believed that one such elf lived on every farm. On Christmas Eve, one must give the elf a bowl of riceporridge to keep them from playing pranks or doing something wicked. Stories were told of how the elf might take his revenge for not getting porridge by killing a goat.

In Iceland, from December 12 until Christmas Eve, thirteen elves called the Yule lads visit homes, a lad each day for 13 days, and play tricks on the children, as well as leaving presents for them. This tradition is thought to be of pre-Christian origin as it has much in common with the celebrations of Saint Lucy in Norway and Sweden of December 13.

Fantasy elves

Deedlit, the female elf from the  , is an example of a modern fantasy elf.
Deedlit, the female elf from the anime Record of the Lodoss War, is an example of a modern fantasy elf.

Modern fantasy literature has revived the elves as a race distinct from fairies. Fantasy elves are different from Norse elves, but are more akin to that older mythology — and to the Irish sídhe — than to folktale elves. Terms like hob or brownie or other genuine regional folklore terms are seldom used of such creatures: they are unlikely to sneak in at night and help a cobbler mend his shoes. One of the first precursors to modern fantasy elves are the grim Norse-style elves of human size introduced Poul Anderson's fantasy novel The Broken Sword from 1954.

The twentieth-century philologist and fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien had little use for Shakespearean fairy portrayals or for Victorian diminutive fairy prettiness and whimsy, aligning his elves with the god-like and human-sized ljósálfar of Norse mythology. He conceived a race of beings similar to humans but fairer and wiser, with greater spiritual powers, keener senses, and a closer empathy with nature. They are great smiths and fierce warriors on the side of good. Tolkien's Elves of Middle-earth are immortal; although they can be killed by injury, and they do age, a slain elf simply returns to life after an indefinite period of time (see Tolkien's Letters).

Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1954-1958) became astoundingly popular and was much imitated. In the 1960s and afterwards, elves similar to those in Tolkien's novels became staple non-human characters in high fantasy works and in fantasy role-playing games (RPGs). Tolkien's elves were enemies of goblins (orcs) and had a longstanding quarrel with the dwarves -- these motifs also often reappear in Tolkien-inspired works. Tolkien is also responsible for reviving the older and less-used terms elves, elven, and elvish rather than Edmund Spenser's invented elfs, elfin, and elfish. He probably preferred the word elf over fairy because elf is of Anglo-Saxon origin while fairy entered English from French.

Post-Tolkien fantasy elves (popularized by the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game) tend to be beautiful, fair, slender, human-sized or only slightly smaller than humans. A hallmark of fantasy elves is also their long and pointed ears. In gaming, and to some extent fantasy literature, elves as a rule have a greater depth of knowledge (especially regarding magic) than their human counterparts, due to a racial inclination as well as their extreme age. Typically, they are also capable warriors, especially skilled in archery, following Legolas, arguably Tolkien's most well-known elf. The canonical role-playing style elf is represented by Deedlit, a major character of the anime series Record of the Lodoss War. A common theme in fantasy literature and especially games are also "dark elves," popularized by TSR as drow. Apart from malice, drow or dark elves tend to be characterized by a dark or blue skin color, and by an underground abode.

In the modern treatment of elves in Dungeons & Dragons, they divided up into subraces that include Aquatic Elves, Gray Elves, High Elves, Wood Elves, and drow. The Forgotten Realms campaign setting's elves (or Tel'Quessir as they call themselves) differ still, replacing the High Elves and Gray Elves with Moon or Silver Elves and Sun or Gold Elves, and adding Wild or Green Elves, Star or Mithral Elves and avariel (Winged Elves) to the Aquatic (Sea) Elves, Wood (Copper) Elves, and drow (Dark Elves).

In the Warhammer Fantasy game setting, the first civilized people of the world were the High Elves from the Atlantis-like (though unsunken) island realm of Ulthuan. Early on, the High Elves colonized large parts of the Warhammer world, but following the rise of the Druchii (called Dark Elves by others than themselves), a fascistoid movement of corsairs and slave drivers, the High Elves were plunged into civil war and their power greatly faded. The elves who decided to stay in the colonies were forced to hide in the deep forests, and with time became known as Wood Elves.

Warhammer is also unique in the aspect that Warhammer 40,000, the science fantasy version of the game, feature space faring elves under the name of Eldar (a term borrowed from Tolkien) -- ancient rulers of the galaxy who vigorously oppose their fallen kindred, the Dark Eldar.

Azeroth, the fantasy world of the Warcraft computer game series originally featured eleves similar to the Warhammer High or Wood Elves. However, starting with Warcraft III, the elves (now re-dubbed High Elves) face the destruction of their kingdom and its capital Quel'Thalas, and the survivors are thereafter known as Blood Elves. The series instead introduces the naturalistic purple-skinned Night Elves as the main elven element.

The Elder Scrolls game series has a rather different look at Elves, with three different races, all of which being distinctively physically different to humans. The high Elves are tall, proud (almost arrogant) golden-skinned people, the wood-elves are wily and cunning short elves with slightly brownish coloured skin. Lastly the Dark Elves (featured prominently in Morrowind) are a very spiritual, untrusting blue-skinned elf whose average height is on par with humans. The term 'dark elf' is a reference to their coloured skin, not as a reference to being 'evil'.

The game Final Fantasy XI even adds another addition to elves, or elfs. Elvaan are the tall long lifespan elves of the game. They are adept to strong fighting skills but not magic.

In literature, the parodical Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett feature extradimensional creatures called elves, that go back to the old myths of cradle-robbing fairies. The book Lords and Ladies is about an encounter with "the fair folk".

Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy focuses heavily on a long-lived, fair-skinned, magical race known as the Sithi, which are described as elves in all but name.

Christopher Paolini's Eragon also features elves of a Nordic persuasion.

Elves have become standardized staple characters of modern fantasy to such an extent that breaking the norms for how an elf is supposed to be and behave has become an end in itself for certain works of fantasy.

Wendy and Richard Pini's long-running comic books Elfquest attempts to avoid the usual Tolkienesque elven clichés by placing their elves in a setting inspired by Native American rather than European mythology. It later turns out that the elves are actually the descendants of a shape-shifting alien race rather than mythological beings.

The Harry Potter book series by J. K. Rowling features house-elves that resemble brownies or goblins more than modern high fantasy elves. Rather like the elves in The Shoemaker & the Elves, Rowling's house-elves are released from servitude when they are given clothes.

Towards the end of the 20th century, a number of people have begun to describe themselves as elves, usually more of the Tolkien than the folkloric Santa type. Many of these people can be found in the Otherkin subculture.


Fairy tales with elves in them include:

Other works of reference:

See also


Concerning traditional elves:

Concerning fantasy elves:

Related folklore creatures:


Template:NorseMythologybg:Елф da:Elver de:Elfen es:Elfo fr:Elfe he:אלף (פנטסיה) is:Álfur ja:エルフ nl:Elf (mythologie) sv:Alfer pl:Elf (fantastyka) pt:Elfo sk:Elf zh:木妖


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