All About Elves

Elves do not figure prominently in Children of Pride, although there are a couple of them in my planned sequel, The Devil’s Due. There is, however, reference to “elf-shot,” and a number of elfin extras, though none explicitly identified as such.

Elves and faeries go well together. In fact, they are essentially different names for the same sort of supernatural creature from the northern European sphere. For some time, they have also been wrapped up with the mythology of Christmas—the compatriots of Saint Nicholas (himself described as “a jolly old elf”) who make the toys he delivers to good little girls and boys on Christmas Eve.

But where do elves come from? As we’ll see, they were not always the diminutive toy-makers or shelf-sitting tricksters we’ve lately associated with the Christmas season. They were once a much-feared aspect of our ancestors’ lives. And before that, they were hailed and even worshiped as powerful protectors of humankind.

In the next few weeks, I’ll look a bit at the history of elf-lore. To do this, I’m afraid we’ll have to delve a bit into the field of linguistics.

So let’s begin at the beginning. Elves are products of Germanic (mainly Norse) mythology, just as the daoine sídhe are products of Celtic (mainly Gaelic) mythology. Both groups of beings were once worshiped as gods, but with the Christianization of their cultural regions, they became “demoted,” as it were, to lesser status.

Of the various Germanic cultures of the ancient and medieval worlds, we learn most about elves from the Norse: the people of medieval Scandinavia. (Norse is a Germanic language, closely related to German, Dutch, English, and several others). Eventually, the Norse language itself branched out into Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, Faeroese, etc.) But before we turn there, let me first say a few brief words about the earliest conceptualizations of elves that may have been shared by all early Germanic peoples.

Before the Norse became Norse, their ancestors spoke a language from which all Germanic languages descended. Scholars call this language Proto-Germanic, and believe it was spoken from around 500 BC on in northern Europe. There are no written records of Proto-Germanic; scholars have reconstructed the language by comparing the various daughter languages and making educated guesses about how its grammar and vocabulary may have worked.

Little can be said with certainty about the culture or beliefs of Proto-Germanic-speakers. There are a few references in Latin sources to the Germanic tribes during the time of the Roman Empire, but by this time Proto-Germanic had already split into numerous language and culture groups that would shortly appear on the stage of history as the Vandals, Goths, Franks, Angles, Saxons, and others. They definitely believed in elves, however, because they had a word for such creatures—just as they had words for gods, giants, dwarves, and ogres.

In the next post, I’ll look at the elves as we first encounter them in the written traditions of Scandinavia. The point to make here, however, is that much of what we’ll discover about these Norse elves sheds light on how these beings were perceived in even earlier times.