What Is the Greek Word for “Elf”?

I’ve recently found myself in a writing critique group that has made me think about medieval/D&D-type fantasy kindreds in the context of the classical world. Specifically, what would you call such beings if you were discussing them not in English (or any other northern European language) but in Greek?

The short answer: It isn’t as easy as it looks, but there are some options.

Steven A. Guglich’s Veil Saga is shaping up to be a centuries-spanning tale of magic and intrigue. The bit of it that I’ve been reading/critiquing lately takes place in the fourth century AD, which means the characters are discussing elves, goblins, etc., in the language of that time and place: namely, Koine Greek. (Koine Greek is halfway between the Classical Greek of Socrates and the Byzantine Greek of the Middle Ages.) I’m thoroughly enjoying the tale, but the language nerd in me wants to know: How does one say “elf” (or goblin, or whatever) in Greek?

Here are my thoughts.

Dwarf

Let’s start with the easiest one. A dwarf is a νᾶνος (nanos). That term can be applied both to someone with the physical condition of dwarfism as well as to the mythological creature. If you wanted a term that exclusively referred to a mythological creature, I’d vote for δάκτυλος (daktylos), a race of rustic nature spirits who were skilled in metal-working.

Goblin

The closest I can get is μορμώ (mormo, plural mormones), meaning “fearful ones” or “hideous ones.” This is the term for a Greek bogey-woman. A more fearful version might be a μορμολυκεῖον (mormolykeion) or “wolf-bogey.”

There are a couple of other options here, though. A κόβαλος (kobalos, whence we get “kobold”), for example, is a roguish, gnomish sort of being, a shapeshifting companion of the god Dionysus. If you’re looking for a good Greek word for “kobold” or “gnome,” you can scarcely go wrong with kobalos.

A bit further afield, a κέρκωψ (kerkops) is a thieving, monkey-like creature. In mythology, there were only two of them, but the image might fit the bill depending on what your goblins are like.

Elf

This is where I started my musing, and it is in some ways the most difficult to pin down, mainly because people have different ideas about what elves actually are (mythologically speaking).

If you imagine elves as faery woodland creatures cavorting in a meadow, then you can’t go wrong with either σάτυρος (satyros) or πάν (pan) for a male and νύμφη (nymphe) for a female. (And yes, Greeks would use pan, plural panes, as a common noun.)

In English lore, elves, fairies, and nymphs and satyrs were all pretty much the same thing. Loads of Old English translations of Greek and Roman classics translated Greek σάτυρος or Latin faunus as aelf, “elf.”

At the same time, when Greek-speakers became more aware of the legends of their northern neighbors, they coined a new term for these fairy beings to distinguish them from those in their own mythology. In Byzantine Greek, such a being was called a χοτικό (xotiko), from earlier ἐχοτικόν (exotikon), literally “outlandish thing.” If the characters in Steven’s story are using this word in the fourth century, they are among the very first to do so.

If, however, you think of elves as more like friendly toymakers than eldritch wonders, you’ll probably have to default to nanos. If the most important distinguishing characteristic of elves in your mind is their diminutive size, you might want to consider…

Halfling

The Greeks did have a word for a very small humanoid: πυγμαῖος (pygmaios) or “pygmy.” This comes from the word for cubit, a length of about 18″—although pygmies weren’t always that short in mythology. As I noted in a previous post, the term “pygmy” has some unfortunate baggage that makes it largely unusable in modern English. But for Greek-speakers in the ancient world, you might be able to get away with it.

So, if elves or goblins ever use their magic to send you back to ancient times, you can use this handy cheatsheet to explain your predicament to bystanders. You’re welcome.

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The Lowdown on the Phoenix

Alice Leiper has posted a introduction to the phoenix of Greek mythology over at Mythic Scribes. Hurray!

The rebirth from the ashes has become a fundamental part of the modern perception of the phoenix. It is the reason that cities like Chicago – which suffered from several large destructive fires in the 19th century and most famously in 1906 – and Coventry – which was bombed heavily in World War Two – use the phoenix as an emblem; these cities and many others were literally turned to ash, and the people of them then rebuilt, were reborn into a modern era. The rebirth from ashes has become central to the phoenix myth, while elements which were fundamental to the ancients were left behind – the nest filled the spices, the dedication of the parent’s body on the altar of the sun god. Even the phoenix’s uniqueness is discarded by some, making it a species instead of a singular bird that is eternally alone.

This is one of my favourite things about mythology: the way it changes. In the ancient world, the phoenix was about the sun, about dealing with the body of a parent appropriately, and about cycles that repeat. It came from the sun (or at least, from the east) and returned its parent body to the sun god at his altar, every five hundred years. Pope Clement I brought two elements mentioned in different accounts, frankincense and myrrh, to draw a parallel to Jesus, who had received these spices as gifts upon his birth and who had risen from his grave. The idea of the phoenix being reborn not merely from its parent’s body, but from ashes, was added at a time when the Roman empire was tearing itself apart with civil wars, coups, assassination attempts on successive emperors, and was repeated as the Roman empire continued to decline. This imagery was also used in the modern world by cities which had quite literally burned to the ground as a result of wars and natural disasters.

 

Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes

Apparently a companion piece to Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods will be arriving next summer. According to Rick Riordan,

During the Blood of Olympus tour, we announced Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes, which will be published on Percy’s birthday, Aug. 18, 2015. This is very much like Greek Gods, except about (you guessed it) the Greek heroes like Hercules, Theseus, Atalanta, Perseus, Orpheus, and all the rest. Filled with Percy’s snark and sass. Illustrated with full-color art by John Rocco. So heavy you won’t be able to lift it. Yes, it will be awesome!

So, there you go.

The Lowdown on the Minotaur

Alice Leiper has written a nice introduction to the Greek myth of the Minotaur over at Mythic Scribes:

The story of the Minotaur was never forgotten, but it wasn’t just in modern stories that it has been reused. Dante’s Inferno contains mention of the Minotaur, where Dante and Virgil encounter it guarding the entrance to the Seventh Circle of hell, the circle of violence. The Minotaur is here seen as representing all three rings of the circle: violence against others, for he ate people; violence against oneself, whereby in Dante’s version the Minotaur is seen as biting itself; and violence against nature, for what could be more unnatural than the product of a human mating with an animal?

More recently, CS Lewis used the Minotaur not as a single individual but a whole species, aligned with the White Witch and thereby retaining the evilness of their origins, albeit without the myth behind it. And from there, minotaurs became a fantasy race, used as monsters to battle in Dungeons & Dragons and various games stemming from it. In World of Warcraft the Minotaur’s appearance has inspired the Tauren race, but their temperament is quite a contrast to the angry, flesh-eating Minotaur of the Greek myth.

The Minotaur has been reimagined in other ways too. In the slightly bizarre fantasy webcomic Gunnerkrigg Court by Tom Siddell, there is a minotaur called Basil, who lives peacefully in a labyrinth hidden behind a secret door in the library of the Court. Basil gives his version of events in which Theseus is a drunk, party-crashing jerk.

Five Dwarfish Races from Around the World

Properly speaking, dwarves are a feature of Norse mythology. They are a race of subterranean smiths and craftsmen noted for their arcane knowledge and especially their skill in fashioning powerful magical items.

But these aren’t the only wise and secretive earth-spirits in world mythology, although they are probably the most frequently encountered in fantasy fiction. Here is a list of five fantastic races that combine (in various proportions) affinities for (1) the underground world, including associations with mining, metals, and precious stones and (2) secret skills or knowledge—craftsmanship, magic, the healing arts, etc.—which they may or may not share with mortals.

Dvergar

Alberich the dwarf and the Nibelungs

Alberich the dwarf and the Nibelungs

Let’s proceed roughly from the north and west to the south and east. We begin, therefore, with the dwarves of Scandinavia and their cousins in other Germanic cultures. The dwarves of northern England’s Simonside Hills, for example, are of this sort. These dwarves formed the basis for J. R. R. Tolkien’s depiction of dwarves. In fact, the dwarves in The Hobbit all have names drawn from Norse mythology. They are also seen in characters such as Alberich the dwarf in the Middle High German Nibelungenlied. As already stated, these dwarves are renowned metalworkers and blacksmiths. 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. In some later legends, they are also accomplished healers. They can, however, be highly distrusting of outsiders. They also have a reputation for being greedy.

Dvergar are 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. At the same time, they can be surprisingly friendly and loyal to those who treat them kindly. Contrary to popular misconceptions, dvergar are not particularly illustrious warriors—although their strength and overall hardiness suggest they would generally be able to hold their own in a fight.

Like trolls, Norse dwarves are sometimes depicted as turning to stone if exposed to direct sunlight.

Karliki

Wrocław Krasnal, photo by Wikimedia user Puchatech K.

Wrocław Krasnal, photo by Wikimedia user Puchatech K. / GFDL

Karliki (singular, karlik) are fiendish dwarves from eastern Europe, inhabitants of the lowest recesses of the underground world. In Polish, the appropriate terms are krasnal, karzeł, or karzełek, although they are sometimes called Skarbnik, “the Treasurer.” These beings are very similar to dvergar, living in mines and guarding hoards of metals, gems, and crystals. Apparently they are even more prone to malicious behavior than their Nordic cousins. According to Slavic Christian folk beliefs, these beings are, in fact demonic. One source relates, “When Satan and all his hosts were expelled from heaven, says a popular legenda, some of the exiled spirits fell into the lowest recesses of the underground world, where they remain in the shape of Karliki or dwarfs” (see Ralston, The Songs of the Russian People, 106–107).

Karliki can be helpful toward miners, willing to lead them to rich veins of ore and protect them from danger. To those who offend them, however, they can be deadly, sending tunnels crashing down upon them or pushing them into dark chasms.

Dactyls

dactylThe daktyloi or dactyls are the dwarves of Greece and the Aegean. They are renowned smiths and healing magicians. In some legends, they taught metalworking, mathematics, and the alphabet to humans. The sisters of the dactyls are called hekaterides (singular, hekateris).

  • Cretan dactyls are especially adept at healing magic, but they are also known for working in copper and iron.
  • Idean  (or Phrygian) dactyls may be the oldest tribe of dwarves in the Mediterranean region. They are rustic creatures from around Mount Ida in Phrygia and perhaps have their origin in earlier Hittite or Pelasgian earth-spirits. They claim to have invented the art of metalworking and even to have discovered iron.
  • Kabeiroi are an offshoot of the Idean tribe that settled at Lemnos, Samothrace, and Thebes. They are divine craftsmen said to be descended from the god Hephaestus. They have an association with the sea and sailors that is quite unusual for dwarfkind. In some accounts, they are raucous wine-drinkers.
  • Rhodian dactyls are dangerous underworld smiths and magicians sometimes called telkhines.

Khnumu

Bes (Egyptian dwarf-god), photo by Wikimedia user Archeologo / GFDL

Bes, photo by Wikimedia user Archeologo / GFDL

Dwarves have an esteemed place in Egyptian mythology. Mundane dwarfs or little people apparently suffered little or no prejudice in ancient Egypt. Some gods, most notably Bes, were depicted as dwarfs. These gods were originally protectors of households.

In addition to Bes, there were the khnumu (singular, khnum), subterranean earth-spirits who were helpers of the god Ptah, the creator of the world. Their name means “the modellers.” They are represented with muscular bodies, bent legs, long arms, large broad heads, and intelligent faces. Some wear long mustaches; others have bushy beards. By some accounts, they have the power to reconstruct the decaying bodies of the dead. Other accounts say they were the ones who first taught humans the magical arts. 

In later times, khnumu might be called pataikoi (singular, pataikos), “little Ptahs” in Greek. Phoenicians carved images of pataikoi on the prows of their ships. The Greek historian Herodotus compared them to the seafaring kabeiroi.

A similar figure occurs on early Babylonian seal cylinders, where it is given the Sumerian name “the god Nugidda” or “the dwarf.” This figure is sometimes depicted dancing before the goddess Ishtar. It is a matter of speculation whether this Mesopotamian dwarf-figure was the inspiration for the Egyptians and Phoenicians or whether it was the other way around.

Yakshas

Yaksha, photo by Wikimedia user Shakti / GFDL

Yaksha, photo by Wikimedia user Shakti / GFDL

Yakshas hail from India. They are found in Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist literature. They are a broad class of nature-spirits and caretakers of treasures hidden in the earth and in tree-roots. Their king is Kubera, the god of wealth and protector of the world. He is often depicted as a fat man holding a money-bag and adorned with jewels.

Yakshas function as stewards of the earth and of the wealth buried beneath it. Depending on the story, yakshas may be either benign nature-spirits associated with woods and mountains or foreboding monsters that ambush travelers.

Male yakshas are portrayed either as warriors or as stout, dwarf-like beings. Female yakshas, called yakshis or yakshinis, are often depicted as young, beautiful, and voluptuous.

Like the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes, yakshas are often protector figures. In Thai Buddhism, yakshas often feature in architecture as guardians of temples. These fearsome yakshas are depicted as green-skinned with bulging eyes and fangs. In Thai folklore, yakshas often figure alongside ogres and giants.

In Jainism, yakshas are often propitiated to bring fertility, health, and prosperity.