Have Yourself a Ghostly Little Christmas

Did you know that telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve is a long-standing English tradition?

“Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories,” wrote British humorist Jerome K. Jerome as part of his introduction to an anthology of Christmas ghost stories titled “Told After Supper“ in 1891. “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.”

The practice of gathering around the fire on Christmas Eve to tell ghost stories was as much a part of Christmas for the Victorian English as Santa Claus is for us.

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Female Viking Warriors?

It’s beginning to look like Viking shield-maidens may have existed in numbers greater than previously thought, if the excavations at sites in eastern England are any indication:

[Archeologist Shane] McLeod notes that recently, burials of female Norse immigrants have started to turn up in Eastern England. “An increase in the number of finds of Norse-style jewellery in the last two decades has led some scholars to suggest a larger number of female settlers. Indeed, it has been noted that there are more Norse female dress items than those worn by men,” says the study.

So, the study looked at 14 Viking burials from the era, definable by the Norse grave goods found with them and isotopes found in their bones that reveal their birthplace. The bones were sorted for telltale osteological signs of which gender they belonged to, rather than assuming that burial with a sword or knife denoted a male burial.

Overall, McLeod reports that six of the 14 burials were of women, seven were men, and one was indeterminable. Warlike grave goods may have misled earlier researchers about the gender of Viking invaders, the study suggests. At a mass burial site called Repton Woods, “(d)espite the remains of three swords being recovered from the site, all three burials that could be sexed osteologically were thought to be female, including one with a sword and shield,” says the study.

Personally, I’d like to see a better sampling than fourteen interments before asserting that Viking warriors had something approaching gender parity. Still, this is an interesting discovery. I look forward to seeing where it leads.

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.”

Conclusions

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 Myth-Making

Dan Berger has produced a wonderful and provocative article at Mythic Scribes titled “J. R. R. Tolkien: Myths that Never Were and the Worlds that They Became.” He explores Tolkien’s motivation for writing The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion and why he first wanted them to be published together as a set. It all had to do with what he perceived as a mythological deficit the English suffered when compared to the other great cultures of Europe. Tolkien wrote,

I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country: it had no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found (as an ingredient) in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish (which greatly affected me); but nothing in English, save the impoverished chap-book stuff. Of course there was and is all the Arthurian world, but powerful as it is, it is imperfectly naturalized, associated with the soil of Britain but not with English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing (Carpenter, Humphery. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 144 Houghton Mifflin, 1981).

This thought got Berger to thinking about mythology for Americans, who if anything are in an even poorer state with respect to our myths. He then goes on to explore some possible mythic themes that might resonate with Americans and even fleshes out how these themes might be developed in a fantasy setting. It’s all quite interesting, and well worth the read.