Rethinking Vikings

Listverse has a list of ten discoveries that cast the vikings in a new light. It’s quite interesting and worth a read.

Why mention vikings on Saint Patrick’s Day? Mainly because they were instrumental in the development of the city of Dublin:

The Vikings explored vast amounts of Europe and North America, but they eventually settled into the land that would eventually become Dublin. At the time, its relatively mild climate, thick tree cover, and river made it the perfect location for a winter home. There they repaired their ships and set up a trade network.

The number of Viking relics found in Dublin over the years has been staggering. Temple Lane was created by Viking settlers and has been called the oldest street in Dublin. Viking swords have been found in the area around Christchurch, and the earliest foundations of Dublin Castle are clay floors that were also dated to the Viking era. And just south of the River Liffey is a huge concentration of buildings that seem to indicate the center of the Viking settlement, including houses and buildings once used for metalworking and the production of other commodities like leathers, textiles, and jewelry. Also along the area of the Liffey was evidence of amber-working.

Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 21 Hilarious Minutes

No video, just listen to Anna Russell, professional opera comedian, explaining the Ring of the Niebelungen as only a dry-witted Briton could.

Also, “opera comedian” needs to go on my daughter’s list of possible career choices. Just sayin’.

Five Classic (or Not) Werewolves

wolfHaving discussed vampires in my last post, let’s move on to werewolves. There are plenty of other werecreatures out there, and I’ll get to them in my next post. For now, however, I’d like to look specifically at humans who turn into wolves.

One thing to note up front is that certain aspects of werewolf-lore don’t go back any further than the 1940s and Lon Chaney, Jr. The idea that werewolves only transform at the full moon, for example, does not seem to be rooted in any actual folk beliefs that I have been able to track down. The whole silver bullet thing is obviously no older than the invention of firearms (although many cultures say that silver is effective in repelling evil.)

What we do find in world mythology is a great variety in terms of how a person transforms into a wolf and whether such people should be looked upon with fear or reverence—or perhaps a mixture of both.


One form of werewolf coming from German and Polish folklore involves the use of a magical wolf-skin belt or pelt (sometimes known as a “wolf-strap”). Anyone, it is said, could become a werewolf by fastening such a strap around him- or herself, but the artifact is sometimes associated specifically with witches. In addition to belts of wolf-skin, the skin of a hanged man might also work to effect the transformation from human to wolf.

The wolf-strap is the product of evil magic, however. In fact, it is seen as a gift from the devil himself. Those who possess such a strap couldn’t get rid of it no matter how much they wanted to.

The use of an animal pelt is also common in some Native American cultures. Among the Navajo, for example, evil “skin walkers” are sometimes said to take on animal form by donning the appropriate pelt.


According to Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir, there are two types of werewolves in medieval Icelandic literature. In one, a person undergoes a physical transformation; in the other, the soul or spirit enters into an animal’s body (“The Werewolf in Medieval Icelandic Literature,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106/3 [Jul 2007] 281–82).

The most familiar example of the first type is the berserker, a warrior who is supernaturally endowed with the strength and ferocity of a wild animal, usually a wolf or bear. The wolf-warrior was called an úlfheðinn or vargstakkr, both roughly translated “wolf-coat.” As Guðmundsdóttir explains,

One of the most recognizable attributes of the berserks is that they fall into a “berserk frenzy.” They run wild in battle, become crazed, and roar or howl. No weapons can harm them and they tolerate wounds better than other men. The berserk frenzy is actually closely related to shape-shifting, for in both cases men acquire the attributes of animals. The main difference resides, perhaps, in the fact that with shape-shifting it is assumed that either the soul is transported to another body, that is, into an animal’s body (and thus people are described as eigi einhamir, “not restricted to one form”), or that the body undergoes a transformation, whereas in the berserk frenzy men acquire the attributes of wild animals; one could thus say that the berserk is a wild animal in the shape of a man. The condition is therefore psychological in the case of the berserk, but physical in the case of werewolves and other shape-shifters.

Thus, a “berserk” undergoes a psychological change were a “wolf-coat” undergoes an actual physical change. But, of course, this distinction is not always clear-cut and is sometimes a matter of how specific texts are interpreted.

Böðvarr Bjarki and Úlfr Bjálfason

The other form of Norse were-creature, in which a human soul or spirit departs from the body and takes on the form of an animal, is found in the story of Böðvarr bjarki in a text called Hrólfs saga kraka.

In this story, Böðvarr bjarki attacks his opponents in the form of a bear while his body remains asleep, sitting still at some distance from the battlefield. This is said to be an innate ability inherited from his father, not based on any kind of spell or magical device.

Although this is the story of a werebear, werewolves of this sort were also apparently possible. In Egils saga, a shapeshifter named Úlfr Bjálfason, more commonly called Kveld-Úlfr or “night-wolf,” is said to have become ill-tempered as evening approached. Guðmundsdóttir explains, “He had a tendency to sleep in the evening, which has been seen as suggesting that his soul left his body when he slept and entered a wolf’s shape” (278 n. 5).

What is not clear (at least to me) is where the animal form comes from. Does this sort of shapeshifter “hijack” a passing animal and inhabit its body? Or is he able to conjure up an animal’s body out of his own psychic reserves? Either way, this is a type of werecreature I don’t think I’ve ever seen depicted in popular media.


Not all werewolves are evil. Some, in fact, are revered members of the community. This is the case of Turkic kurtadams, who through long and grueling ritual processes achieved an altered state of consciousness in order to experience a psychological transformation from human to wolf.

Frank Joseph describes this phenomenon as

a man or woman achiev[ing] an altered state of consciousness to spiritually identify with the soul of a non-human animal. In Turkish, for example, the Kurtadam is not only a werewolf, but also a shaman. In fact, the totemic ancestor of the Turks is the wolf. (Unlocking the Prehistory of America [Rosen, 2014] 255)

According to some legends, this transformation was physical as well as psychological, resulting in an upright-walking humanoid wolf-creature.

From the same general region, Herodotus speaks of a Scythian tribe called the Neuri “who annually transformed themselves into werewolves during a cultic warrior festival” (Joseph, 254)

Hounds of God

Finally, there is an account of certain werewolves in Livonia in the Baltic region, one of whom claimed in 1692 to have been given their power of shapeshifting in order to battle the forces of evil.

Carlo Ginzburg offers this account of the proceedings:

In 1692 at Jurgensburg in Livonia an eighty-year-old man named Thiess, whom the townsmen considered an idolater, confessed to the judges interrogating him that he was a werewolf. Three times a year, he said, on St Lucy’s Night before Christmas, the night of St John, and of the Pentecost, the werewolves of Livonia go into hell, “at the end of the sea” (he later corrected himself: “underground”), to fight with the devil and the sorcerers. Women also fight with the werewolves: but not young girls. The German werewolves go to a separate hell. Similar to dogs (they are the dogs of God, Thiess said), and armed with iron whips, the werewolves pursue the devil and sorcerers, who are armed with broomsticks wrapped in horse tails. Many years before, Thiess explained, a sorcerer (a peasant named Skeistan, now dead) had broken his nose. At stake in the battles was the fertility of the fields: the sorcerers steal the shoots of the grain, and if they cannot be wrested from there will be famine. However, that year the Livonian and the Russian werewolves had both won. The harvest of barley and of rye was going to be abundant. There was also going to be enough fish for everyone. In vain the judges tried to induce the old man to admit that he had made a pact with the devil. Thiess obstinately continued to repeat that the worst enemies of the devil and the sorcerers were werewolves like himself: after death, they would go to paradise.

Highway to Hel

Dan McCoy provides all the ins and outs of the Norse afterlife in this interesting article. I was interested to read what he thinks are connections between myths of journeys to the underworld and shamanic journeys described by other northern peoples.

What the sources do describe in uncharacteristic detail, however, is the course that one had to travel in order to reach Hel. Given how precisely they correspond to the narratives of traditional shamanic journeys of other circumpolar peoples,[2] they seem to recount, and possibly provide templates for, the journeys of Norse shamans. Throughout Old Norse literature, we find instances of such journeys to the underworld undertaken by gods or humans in order to recover a dead spirit or obtain knowledge from the dead.

Hel was located underground – down and to the north, the realm of cold and general lifelessness. It was reached by descending from a higher point with the help of a guide – an unnamed (dead) woman in Hadding’s case, and Sleipnir in the Prose Edda and the poem Baldrs Draumar (Baldr’s Dreams) in the Poetic Edda. After traveling through darkness and mist, one would come to a river, perhaps a torrential river of water, but more commonly a river of clanging weapons.[10] There was a bridge over the river that one had to cross. After a time, one would finally arrive at the wall surrounding Hel, but, for reasons we don’t entirely understand, it wasn’t thought wise to attempt to enter through the gate. More surreptitious ways were preferred. At that point, one would be, in spirit, in the world of the dead in their graves, and one had to take extreme precaution to ensure that one didn’t become trapped there while accomplishing one’s purpose, which is surely part of the reason why all of the surviving accounts of such journeys from northern Europe involve quests undertaken by gods, heroes, or other specialists rather than ordinary people.

Twelve Uses of Dragon’s Blood (plus Some Other Useful Dragon Parts)

There really are many uses of dragon’s blood in folklore and legend, many of which far predate the work of Albus Dumbledore. Here are some of the uses that strike me as the most interesting/cool/noteworthy.

“Dragon’s blood” can mean at least three different things in an early text or story. First, it can refer to the actual blood of a fantastic beast from mythology. Second, it can refer to a resin noted for its bright red color, obtained from a number of trees, most commonly Dracaena cinnabari, the so-called “dragon’s blood tree” from the island of Socotra. Finally, it can refer to the poisonous mineral cinnabar, also known as mercury sulfide, which was sometimes confused with dragon’s blood resin in ancient times—with disastrous results! The word “cinnabar” actually comes from Persian words meaning “dragon’s blood.”

Let’s begin with world mythology and the uses attached to the blood of an actual dragon:

(1) Acid. The dragon that eventually killed Beowulf had blood so acidic it could eat through iron. Medieval alchemists held that dragon’s blood was the only solvent capable of dissolving gold. There is, therefore, a nugget of truth in J. K. Rowling’s assertion that the twelfth use of dragon’s blood discovered by Dumbledore is “oven cleaner”: something as caustic as dragon’s blood would definitely remove baked-on food from practically any surface!

(2) Poison. In Armenian legend, dragon’s blood could be applied as a poison to weapons. In Slavic legend, the blood of a dragon was so vile and poisonous that the earth itself would not absorb it. It should be noted here that cinnabar is also highly poisonous. The effects of cinnabar poisoning include tremors, extreme mood changes, and loss of hearing progressing to severe mental derangement and death.

Given these first two uses, the positive nature of most of those that follow are more than a bit surprising. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, however, if dragons are interpreted as wild, unpredictable creatures capable of bringing health and blessing as well as death:

(3) Source of Invulnerability. In Germanic legend, the hero Sigurd bathed in dragon’s blood and was granted invulnerability. Similarly, when the hero Ornit dipped his armor in the substance, it too became impervious to mundane weapons.

(4) Source of Secret Knowledge. When Sigurd accidentally tasted the blood of the dragon Fafnir, it granted him the ability to understand the language of birds. Some have interpreted this as the blood imparting a knowledge that is available to dragons but not to humans.

Finally, three more effects of a more general nature are sometimes claimed for dragons in western mythology. All of them probably derive from the primitive idea that one can gain the powers or abilities of something by consuming a part of it. Since dragons are noted for their keen eyesight, bravery, and long life, these should not be terribly surprising:

(5) Cure for Blindness. As noted below, dragon’s blood resin is touted as a cure for many physical ailments. Since dragons are associated with keen eyesight, this particular cure deserves special mention.

(6) Bravery Enhancer. Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic patent medicines for anxiety or depression sometimes include trace amounts of cinnabar.

(7) Lifespan Extender. Probably goes very closely with the invulnerability.

The next five are actual uses of dragon’s blood resin, which can be bought online and at various herbalist and other specialty shops.

(8) General Cure-All. On the island of Socotra, dragon’s blood is used as a cure-all for practically everything: fevers, kidney stones, wounds, tumors, respiratory and gastrointestinal complaints, etc. In ancient times, Greco-Roman naturalists such as Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides discussed the curative properties of this substance.

(9) Magic Enhancer. Those involved with Wicca, neopaganism, hoodoo, and other practices claim that burning powdered dragon’s blood as  an incense can increase the potency of spells or rituals related to protection, banishing, prosperity, luck, love, and fertility.

(10) Coloring Agent. Dragon’s blood is also used as a dye, ink, or painting pigment. Socotrans use it to dye wool. Neopagan, Wiccan, Hoodoo, and other practitioners say dragon’s-blood ink can be used for writing spells, runes, magical seals, etc.

(11) Varnish. Dragon’s blood resin has been used to coat and stain wooden objects for centuries. In the eighteenth century, it was especially sought as a varnish for violins. Similarly, cinnabar was used in ancient Japan and elsewhere to lacquer both wooden and clay vessels.

(12) Mouthwash. This is another use to which Socotrans put dragon’s blood. Dissolved in water and gargled, it can serve as an astringent, a stimulant, and even a kind of toothpaste.

Finally, here are a few tidbits about the other parts of the dragon and the uses to which they can be put:

Dracontia: This was a stone said to exist within a dragon’s skull. If retrieved from a still-living dragon, it could be used as an antidote for a wide array of poisons. Simply boil it in water, then drink the water.

Bones: Powdered dragon bone (called longgu) has long been prized in Chinese medicine as a cure for madness, dysentery, diarrhea, and kidney ailments among other complaints. In some cultures, the first vertebra of a dragon can be worn as a charm to give the wearer sway with people of power. The same is also claimed for dragon’s teeth and heart-fat.

Teeth: Dragon’s teeth are also thought to have great medicinal value in the east, where they are used to treat madness, spasms, epilepsy, etc. In Greek mythology, dragon’s teeth can be sown in a field, and warriors will spring up.

Heart: Another detail from Germanic mythology is that eating a dragon’s heart is said to confer wisdom. At least, that is what the birds who watched Sigurd cook one said would happen. Pliny the elder claimed that consuming dragon’s heart confers strength and intelligence.

Fat: According to Pliny, the fat of dragons dried in the sun cures ulcers and repels undesirable beasts. Mixed with other ingredients, it can cure visual impairments, ulcers, and poisonous wounds.

Dwarves: Cantankerous Norse Craftsmen

Freyja_in_the_Cave_of_the_Dwarfs_by_H._L._MThe best known dwarves are the dvergar of Norse myth, although cognate beings are found in all Germanic cultures. Norse dwarves are associated with rocks, earth, metalworking, and mining. They are subterranean and nocturnal beings. The are sometimes depicted as having pale, chalky skin. At other times, they are said to be blue-skinned, suggestive of a dead body. Death and decay seem to be prominent themes in dwarf-lore. It is even said that they made from the maggots in the body of Ymir, the world-giant.

Dwarves are master craftsmen. In Norse mythology, they fashioned many of the magical items used by gods and heroes, including Thor’s magic hammer Mjölnir and the chain that bound the great wolf Fenrir. They are also ill-tempered, greedy, miserly, and grudging. They are known to curse objects they are forced to make or that are stolen from them. They almost never willingly teach their magical knowledge. They can be highly distrusting of outsiders.

At the same time, these beings can be surprisingly friendly and loyal to those who treat them kindly. Contrary to popular misconceptions, dwarves are not particularly illustrious warriors in the original mythology.

Dwarves are by nature subterranean and nocturnal creatures. According to some accounts, sunlight even has an adverse effect on them. One legend has it that the god Thor entered into a riddle contest with Alvíss, a dwarf, which lasted until dawn. Exposed to direct sunlight, the dwarf was promptly turned to stone.

It is not at all certain that dwarves were originally conceived as being any shorter than humans. This detail only arises in the 1200s and later, and usually adds a note of humor to their depiction. Another later development is that, in later legends, dwarves are sometimes depicted as accomplished healers as well as smiths and craftsmen.

The Wild Hunt

Imagine a horde of ghostly hunters, sounding their horns as they ride through the countryside at night on black horses (and sometimes black stags) behind black dogs with eerie, glowing eyes. Such a ghostly experience is common to European folklore, but especially in the most northerly countries. It is called the Wild Hunt, and Dan McCoy has posted an excellent brief summary of the legend.

As McCoy explains, the Wild Hunt (also called Odin’s Hunt, Odin’s Army, the Terrifying Ride, etc.) is usually said to take place in midwinter, the coldest and darkest part of the year. Those who came upon it by accident were caught up in the ghostly procession. Others, witches and such, might join in voluntarily in a kind of astral projection.

The leader of the Hunt is variously named and variously described, but the Hunt is most often associated with the god Odin or Wotan in Germanic lands.

What is the meaning of the Hunt? As McCoy explains, it has strong ties to death and the cult of the dead:

In the body of lore surrounding the Wild Hunt, we find a number of themes that connect it powerfully with the dead and the underworld. For one thing, there’s the ghostly character of the hunters or warriors themselves. Dogs and horses, animals that were closely associated with death (amongst a great many other things), were almost invariably present. In some accounts of the Hunt, the riders can hardly, if at all, be distinguished from land spirits, who were themselves often conflated with the dead, as if the two were thought of as being in some sense one and the same. Finally, for the ancient Germanic peoples, the worlds of the living and the dead were especially permeable during midwinter, which goes a long way toward explaining why this troop of apparitions haunted the land during that particular part of the year. In the words of Claude Lecouteux, “[T]he Wild Hunt fell into the vast complex of ancestor worship, the cult of the dead, who are the go-betweens between men and the gods.”

It was as if the very elements of midwinter – the menacing cold, the almost unrelenting darkness, the eerie, desolate silence broken only by the baying winds and galloping storms – manifested the restless dead, and the ancient northern Europeans, whose ways of life and worldviews predisposed them to sense the spiritual qualities in the world around them, recorded the sometimes terrifying fruits of such an engagement with the more-than-human world in their accounts of the Wild Hunt.

Kindly Elves

The most recent development in elf-lore is to see them neither as tall, powerful, benevolent beings as in Norse mythology, nor as tall, powerful, sinister beings, as in later Germanic folklore, but rather as small, shy beings who are usually quite helpful to humans. Although they may still be mischievous, they are rarely malicious.

Germanic “House Elves”

One early depiction of this sort of elf is in 1812, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Die Wichtelmänner, known to English readers as the story of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” In this story, two tiny naked imps help the shoemaker with his work. When he seeks to reward them with clothing, however, they are so delighted that they run away and are never seen again.

It is debatable whether these Wichtelmänner should be interpreted as elves at all or rather as some other sort of fairy being: kobolds, dwarves, or brownies, for example. The word, itself a diminutive of German Wicht, “wight,” which might better be translated imp or goblin. They seem to have a bit in common with the nisse or tomte of Scandinavia, kindly, diminutive sprites similar to the hobs and brownies of England. At any rate, due to the common translation, they have entered the constellation of images to which English-speakers attach the word “elf.”

Dobby and Company

The depiction of tiny, helpful, industrious elves certainly influenced the house elves of Harry Potter more than either of the previous types. There is even a mythological basis for their aversion to conventional clothing. In English folklore, brownies are a type of sprite that secretly tidy up the house and perhaps do other domestic chores. It is said that they always dress in rags, but are deeply offended if ever anyone offered them more suitable clothing to wear. Do this, the legends say, and they will promptly disappear, never to return.

These domestic sprites are often attached to a particular family. In fact, they are believed by some to be the departed spirits of an ancestor. Such is the case, for example, of the domovoi of Slavic folklore. They may be especially associated with the hearth.

In addition to the nisse and tomte already discussed, other iterations of this sort of “elf” are the Spanish duende, the Irish grogan, the Welsh bwbach. There are also an assortment of faery creatures involved in a number of “working-class” functions: the vazila of Russia takes care of horses; the bodachan buachailleen of the Scottish highlands is a herdsman while his neighbor, the bodachan sabhaill, inhabits the barn; the kilmouli of the Border region is a spinner.

Christmas Elves

Louisa May Alcott first mentioned elves in a Christmas story in 1856. Sadly, the publisher declined to print the story. A year later, however, Harper’s Weekly published an anonymous poem titled “The Wonders of Santa Claus,” which begins:

Beyond the ocean many a mile,
And many a year ago,
There lived a wonderful queer old men [sic]
In a wonderful house of snow;
And every little boy and girl,
As Christmas Eves arrive,
No doubt will be very glad to hear,
The old man is still alive.

In his house upon the top of a hill,
And almost out of sight,
He keeps a great many elves at work,
All working with all their might,
To make a million of pretty things,
Cakes, sugar-plums, and toys,
To fill the stockings, hung up you know
By the little girls and boys.

It would be a capital treat be sure,
A glimpse of his wondrous ‘shop;
But the queer old man when a stranger comes,
Orders every elf to stop;
And the house, and work, and workmen all
Instantly take a twist,
And just you may think you are there,
They are off in a frosty mist.

Thus, Christmas elves appear on the scene only thirty-five years after Clement Moore gave us the “canonical” depiction of Santa Claus himself. The depiction of these beings varies from story to story, but they are almost always shorter than normal humans. By temperament, they are cheerful and jolly—as befits Santa’s helpers. They usually dress in bright, festive colors.

The Erlking


Albert Sterner, Der Erlkönig, c. 1910

We have seen that the powerful and good elves of Norse mythology over time became the powerful and malevolent nightmares of later Germanic folklore. In that vein, I need to say a word or two about the legend of the Erlking. As a distinct figure, the Erlking is a relatively recent addition to elf-lore. Even so, he has deep roots.

The Erlking comes from Scandinavian folklore, from a time when, as in England, elves had become depicted as creatures of dread. Originally, though, “he” was apparently a “she”: a deadly but seductive elfin woman. In his 1778 ballad, Johann Gottfried von Herder freely translated the generic “elfin maid” (Danish, elvermø) as Erlkönigs Tochter (“Erlking’s daughter”). In Danish folklore, old burial mounds were feared to be the dwelling place of the Elverkonge, the king of the elves. Eventually, this figure and his daughter were collapsed into a single character.

“Erlking” is a roundabout translation from the original Danish Elverkonge, “Elf-king.” In a particular Danish dialect, Elverkonge becomes Ellerkonge or Ellekonge, which was later understood with reference to the elletrae or “alder tree.” In other words, the “Elf-king” became the “Alder-king.” Some argue that this is purely a mistranslation. Others suggest that the change is intentional, a euphemism of the sort we have already seen when the superstitious avoid explicit mention of elves once their nature has turned malevolent. For what it’s worth, the alder tree has long been associated with faeries in Celtic folklore.

At any rate, in German, the figure is called the Erlkönig, the “Alder-king.” From German, we get the English semi-translation “Erlking.” 

In the original tale, a knight named Sir Oluf is riding to his marriage but is bewitched by the music of elves in the woods. An elfin maiden appears and invites him to dance with her. When he refuses, she strikes him and sends him away. He is dead by the following morning, when his bride-to-be finds him.

The next version of the legend comes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. In his 1782 poem Der Erlkönig, the antagonist is the Erlking himself. In this version, the Erlking preys on children and his motives are never made clear. He is a force of death, not merely a magical woodland spirit.

There are a number of English translations of Der Erlkönig. Matthew G. Lewis (PDF) translated the poem in 1796. A contemporary translation has been done by A. Z. Foreman.

Goethe’s poem tells of a father riding through the forest with his feverish young son. The son is aware of the presence of the foreboding presence of the Erlking, who calls to him to leave his father and join him in his faery abode. The father, however, believes the son is merely hallucinating. In the end, the father arrives at home, but not before his son dies in his arms.

Franz Schubert used Der Erlkönig as the text for a Lied or art song for solo voice and piano in 1815. Here is a creepy animation of that piece:

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.