An Elf by Any Other Name

In the world of Into the Wonder, “faery” is not always considered a politically correct word. It is thought too forward or aggressive, and therefore it is considered better to use euphemisms like “the Fair Folk.” Another option available to those in the know is to refer to various eldritch beings by their specific faery “species” or kindred: pooka, duine sídhe, etc.

Something similar happened in Iceland with respect to the ancient Norse álfar or “elves.” So as not to appear disrespectful, Icelanders began referring to these supernatural creatures with the euphemism huldufólk, “the hidden people.”

You Keep Using That Word…

Elves will make their formal appearance in The Devil’s Due, the second installment of Into the Wonder. Though I like the idea of people avoiding the word “elf” as (at least mildly) offensive, huldufólk doesn’t really work for my purposes as an appropriate alternative. “My” elves come mainly from England, not Scandinavia. So I’ve been working on a short list of euphemisms to refer to these creatures that come from the same Old English context from which I’ve derived the creatures themselves.

I have been surprised to see how little evidence there actually is for likely terms. Almost all of what follows comes from a doctoral dissertation that I have found extremely helpful in imagining how elves were perceived in Anglo-Saxon culture: Alaric Hall’s “The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England,” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Glasgow, 2004 (PDF). (There is also a brief summary page with PDFs of individual chapters.)

Here, then, are some of the options I’ve discovered.

Terms Describing Grendel

In Beowulf, the monster Grendel is depicted as a cousin of numerous dangerous supernatural beings including giants, ogres…and elves. According to the author of Beowulf, all of these are descendants of the biblical Cain. Some of the terms used to describe Grendel might work as a description of his supposed kinfolk, the elves. (I should perhaps note that the elves of Anglo-Saxon England were a fair bit more sinister than the elves Tolkien described in The Lord of the Rings. If Tolkien had drawn his elves from England rather than the Vikings, they’d have been fighting alongside the orcs and trolls. Or, more likely, calling the shots behind the scenes.)

  • maercstapa, “creeper/stalker in the marches” (103). When Grendel first appears by name, he is called a “border-stalker.”
  • Caines cyn, “kin of Cain” (107). This term might work except that, in context, it can refer to a number of monstrous beings, only one of which is elfkind. Also, it calls for a particular theological interpretation of elf-kind that I’m not sure all elves would buy into.
  • ellengaést, “powerful/bold spirit” (86). This term has great promise, I think. The meaning is obviously something the elves would take as a compliment, and it even sounds right.
  • ellorgást, “alien, alien spirit” (807). Might work for the sort of thing humans would call elves, but I don’t see elves calling themselves “aliens.”
  • sceadugenga, “shadow-walker/wanderer” (703). Probably the coolest option.

Terms Describing Elves Proper

All of the above terms have potential, but none of them apply strictly to elves. Let’s see what happens when we look specifically for roundabout ways of talking about elves as such. Unfortunately, there are no Old English narratives that feature elves. There are, however, a number of medical texts that give treatments for the various afflictions for which elves might be responsible. A couple of these describe elves in roundabout ways that might serve as a general euphemism for “elf.”

  • nihtgenga, “night-walker/wanderer.” The text Wið aelfcynne (“For Elf-kin”) gives us this term, which ranks with “shadow-walker” on the coolness scale.
  • hy, “they.” The first half of another medical text, Wið færstice (“For a Sudden Stitch”), uses a number of roundabout terms for dangerous spiritual beings before naming them explicitly in the second half. In lines 1, 2, and 7, these threatening powers are simply called “they.” I can see humans hesitate to name elves at all, and simply calling them “they” or “them.” Such a practice has parallels with Manx expressions such as “themselves” and “them what’s in it.”
  • smiðas, “smiths/craftsmen.” This term is found in lines 11 and 14 of Wið færstice, where it refers to elves as fashioners of supernatural weapons to use against mortals (i.e., elf-shot).

Terms Describing Female Elves (or Something)

Wið færstice also mentions a class of supernatural female that is closely associated with elves. It isn’t entirely clear that these females are elves, however. They might be human witches. Or, they might be something like waelcyrigan (“valkyries”), which Hall argues are female counterparts of elves. Hall comments that, for the given time period, the boundary between a supernatural woman and a woman who has supernatural powers is quite blurry, so it’s probably not worth splitting hairs (see p. 174). At any rate, these females are called by two different names:

  • mihtigan wif, “mighty/powerful women.”
  • haegtessan, “hedge-riders” or “hedge-faeries.”

Haegtessan (singular, haegtesse) needs a little bit of explanation. The first element, haeg, is probably a variation of haga, meaning “hedge” or “enclosure.” Other Germanic languages have the expression “hedge-rider” for this sort of being. In Old English, the second element, tesse, might be related to Norwegian tysja in the sense of “faery.”


That, then is my raw data. What, though, am I to make of it? 

  • I’m thinking English-derived elves  may not be quite as touchy about the word “elf” as faeries are by the word “faery.” (Their Icelandic cousins may well think differently, however!)
  • At the same time, if the elves of c. AD 800 were still around today, would they appreciate the way the word “elf” has changed in meaning? How fiercely would they resist being lumped in with Christmastide toy-makers or mischievous, diminutive house-faeries?
  • Assuming there is a need for an alternative term, there are some decent options out there. I’m personally partial to either ellengaést or nihtgenga. Furthermore, there are some possibilities from mixing and matching among them: haegstapan (“hedge-stalkers”), ellenfolc (“powerful/bold people”), etc., while not truly authentic, might at least be plausible.

That’s probably more than anybody wanted to read, but I suppose I’m just a stickler for getting the names right.

Tolkien’s Beowulf Is Coming!

Via The Guardian:

John Garth, author of Tolkien and the Great War, said the epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf had “a deep and detailed impact on what Tolkien wrote – from his earliest poem of Middle-earth, written in September 1914, right through The Hobbit with the theft of a cup from a dragon hoard, and The Lord of the Rings with the arrival at the halls of Rohan”.

The author also, said Garth, changed attitudes to Beowulf “completely in a 1936 talk which rescued this marvellous poem from being treated as a mere quarry for historical enquiry”.

Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher Tolkien, will be published by HarperCollins on May 22. And there was much rejoicing!


Ryan Howse has provided a excellent brief summary of Beowulf and his contribution not only to Western culture but to fantasy fiction. The piece ends thusly:

Beowulf is one of the most influential texts in history, and it has a particular relevance for fantasy. John Gardner, the famous writer, wrote a take on the novel from the monster’s point of view, called Grendel. In this, Grendel was a figure of existentialism and angst who dies at the hands of the hero. Gardner also used Beowulf as a key text in his writing guide, The Art of Fiction: Notes on the Craft For Young Authors.

Michael Crichton wrote Eaters of the Dead, later turned into the film the 13th Warrior. Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary wrote a script forBeowulf that streamlined the narrative so that it followed causality, rather than the third tale being separate from the other two.

But of course, the most important reason that Beowulf is important is J.R.R. Tolkien. His love of Beowulf influenced Middle-Earth. Smaug is a literary descendant of Beowulf’s dragon, right down to the single piece of stolen treasure awakening him.

Do read it all. It’s short, and you’ll be better for it.

Elves Breaking Bad

Now that we have seen where elves got their beginning, let’s cross the North Sea for the British Isles to hone in a bit more closely on the elves of English folklore. As we do so, we’ll switch from Old Norse to Old English, a related language where we can spot a family resemblance in some of the terms we have already encountered. In Old English, for example, the equivalent of the Norse aesir is ése (singular, ós). The Old English equivalent of Norse álfar is aelfe (singular, aelf).

Kindly Elves

Germanic mythology first came to England with the Angles and Saxons in the fifth century. Early on, English elves enjoyed the same positive reputation as their Scandinavian kin. Aelf is found among terms denoting “good” supernatural beings, and thus fit to be used as an element in personal names. Thus, an Old English speaker might name his or her son Aelfwine (“elf-friend”) as easily as Oswine or Godwine (both meaning “god-friend”).

Other terms denoting “monsters” that pose a threat to humans, are excluded from Old English naming practices. There are no names, for example, that include the elements eoten (“giant”), dweorg (“dwarf”), or thyrs (“ogre”). It goes without saying that nobody who loved their child would put the word “ogre” in his or her name. By the same token, it ought to tell us something that putting the word “elf” in a name was perfectly acceptable.

So, at least in the early centuries of English settlement in Britain, elves were largely the same as the Norse conceived of them: powerful supernatural beings on the side of good. They were also considered to be human-sized. Contrary to much popular opinion, these elves were not diminutive beings. After an involved linguistic analysis, Alaric Hall concludes:

[I]t is unlikely that aelfe in early Old English were considered particularly small, invisible or incorporeal. Although it is not conclusive, the early Old English evidence suggests [that elves were] corporeal anthropomorphic beings mirroring the human in-groups which believed in them. This prospect is eminently well paralleled in medieval north-west Europe by the evidence for álfar, the medieval Irish aes sídhe, the inhabitants of the medieval Welsh Annwn, medieval Latin fatae and Old French fées, Middle English elves, and the Older Scots elvis. (Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, 67–68)

Evil Elves

Within a pagan context, the elves of Norse and early Anglo-Saxon mythology were numbered with the “good guys.” Although they might work in ways unfathomable to mere mortals, they were generally on humanity’s side in the cosmic struggle against giants, dwarves, and ogres.

When Christianity replaced paganism, however, elves were re-interpreted as creatures of darkness.

By the time of Beowulf (8th or 9th century), aelfe were aligned with “monsters” in common understanding. The writer(s) of the Beowulf saga describe Grendel and his kin as descendants of the biblical Cain:

That fierce spirit/guest was called Grendel, the famed border-walker, he who occupied waste-lands, the fen and the fastness, the homeland of the giant-race—the ill-blessed man inhabited them for a time, after the Creator had condemned him; the eternal Lord avenged that killing on the kin of Cain, because he [Cain] slew Abel. He did not profit from that feud, but the Measurer banished him for that crime, from humankind. Thence all misbegotten beings sprang forth, eotenas and aelfe and orcneas, likewise gigantas, which struggled against God for a long while. He gave them repayment for that. (Lines 102–14, end of fitt I; transl. by Hall, 70)

Rather than being on the side of humans against the giants, now the elves and the giants are kin. In the popular imagination, they became associated with physical ailments in humans and livestock, which they inflicted via the magic of elf-shot. The gods or ése didn’t fare any better: an Anglo-Saxon spell against a sudden stabbing pain seeks to protect the victim from harm, be it from “gods’ shot” (esa gescot) or “elves’ shot.”

Furthermore, elves were said to be the cause of nightmares. The German word for nightmare is, in fact, Alpdrücken, literally “elf-pressure.”

These darker, more malevolent elves eventually become the predominant conception not only in England but throughout the Germanic world. In many locales, even the word “elf” came to be avoided because of its sinister connotations. Thus, for example, In Iceland, for example, one finds the term huldufólk, “hidden people” or even liuflingar, “darlings.” This tracks perfectly with the habit in many parts of the world of referring to potentially dangerous spiritual beings with euphemisms lest they overhear and take offense: “the good neighbors,” “the fair folk,” “the kindly ones,” etc.


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 [1960]: 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.