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Where Do Elves Come From?

Aug 17, 2007
The recent movie trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkiens impressive work, the Lord of the Rings, has sent interest in elves through the roof.

It seems at times that every facet of popular culture has an elf involved somewhere or another. Of course, elves are not a recent mythological invention. Indeed, elves have been a part of cultural mythologies for centuries.

Early depictions of elves

The first depictions of elves are from the mythologies of northern European Germanic cultures. Within this group, the earliest descriptions found by modern scholars are in Norse mythology.

The elves in Norse mythology were beautiful human-sized beings with special powers who lived a semi-divine life. Although this point is contested, many scholars believe that the Norse associated elves closely with Vanir, the god of fertility.

Scandinavian folklore is a comparatively more recent invention, being a combination of Norse mythology and Christian mythology. Once again, however, elves are present. In Scandinavian folklore, elves are presented as beautiful women dancing the night away in meadows. For the most part, elves were benevolent; however, if an elf was ever insulted, trouble was sure to ensue.

Offended elves were sure to cast spells against their target that would cause horrible diseases, ranging from a skin rash to death. Epidemics and other outbreaks in Scandinavian society were often blamed on vengeful elves.

The depiction of elves in German folklore continues this vengeful streak, although in a less harsh manner. The elves of German folklore are tiny pranksters who give diseases to people and cattle, and are the ultimate source of bad dreams.

This can be seen in the German word for nightmare: albtraum, which literally means elf dream. It was thought that the elves would pass on the bad dream by sitting on your head. Fortunately, given their small size, the only consequence was the bad dream. Similar to the conception of elves in German folklore is the depiction presented in English folklore.

In English folklore, elves are still seen as pranksters, but without their more malevolent characteristics, mainly seen prancing around in forests with fairies.

Modern depictions of elves

The resurgence of elves did not just start with the Lord of the Rings movies, but more properly with J.R.R. Tolkien's novels, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, both released in the 1950s.

In Tolkien's Middle Earth, the elves most closely resemble the elves as depicted in Norse mythology: full-sized with god-like powers. The elves in J.R.R. Tolkien's work are missing most of the mischievousness of elves in German and English folklore, and the vengefulness of elves from Scandinavian folklore. Instead, elves in Tolkien's work are firmly on the side of good in the great battles with evil forces.

The popularity of J.R.R. Tolkien's work meant that elves were incorporated into Dungeons & Dragons, the popular fantasy role playing game, in the 1970s. That provided the breeding ground for modern fantasy works. From there, elves have become a standard character in fantasy worlds.
About the Author
Steve Dolan loves fantasy and fiction and is an avid reader of mythology. Find out more at Elf and Elves
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