The people of the British Isles tended to blame unexplained illnesses on the malevolent work of elves. As early as the tenth century, medical books discuss elves afflicting both humans and livestock with death and disease via “elf-shot.” In Scots Gaelic, this phenomenon was called a saighead sithe (“faery arrow”). In Irish Gaelic, it was a gae sídhe (“faery dart”).
Elf-shot might be compared to the supposed druidic ability to “send” misfortune by putting a curse on an object (say, a handful of straw) and then throwing it at the intended victim. Elf-shot does the same thing, but delivers the magical “payload” via arrows or darts. In fact, people appealed to the neolithic flint arrow heads they sometimes found on their land as evidence of the activity of elves.
Elf-shot “payloads” can be quite diverse. Apparently many types of curses and hexes could be embedded on the projectile. Some of the more commonly encountered types of elf-shot curses are:
- Sudden shooting pains, which might be diagnosed as rheumatism, arthritis, muscle stitches, cramps, etc. The Old English medical text Wið færstice provides a remedy for this sort of elf-shot.
- Sudden paralysis. We call cerebrovascular accidents “strokes” because they were formerly believed to be the result of the stroke of an elf or faery’s hand.
- Sluggishness, hard breathing, and loss of appetite associated with the opening of the peritoneum in livestock (as described in America Bewitched by Owen Davies, p. 39).
- Bad dreams (referred to in German as Alpdrücken, “elf-pressure”). Also, the phenomenon known as sleep paralysis was often explained as the work of elves, demons, etc.
- Blackleg (aka black quarter, quarter evil, or quarter ill), an acute infection of cattle, sheep, and goats characterized by crepitant swelling of the muscles of the infected part (see T. Davidson, “The Cure of Elf-Disease in Animals” in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 15/3 : 15:282–91).
- Tumors. Like paralysis, tumors were often considered a curse inflicted by elves.
- Death of animals as suddenly as if they had been struck by lightning (referred to in Swedish as skot “shot” and in Danish as elleskud “elf-shot”).
Though several years old, Richard Scott Nokes discussed elves, faeries, and elf-shot in a nice, brief post at his Unlocked Wordhoard blog. He makes some interesting observations about how we deal with unexplained illness today—and how we may not be quite as far removed from our ancestors as we might like to think.