It will be obvious that the Saxon immigrants to British shores in the sixth century brought with them an established body of belief on fairies and elves. What I wish to do in this posting is to attempt to outline the core elements of what that belief might have been, before it interacted with existing insular British beliefs.
We can form some idea of what our Saxon ancestors might have believed from several sources. There are their own literary productions- poems, stories and medical texts- which provide valuable information. There are contemporary Norse texts which examine the Viking pantheon. Lastly, we may compare more recent Scandinavian- especially Danish- folk beliefs with English fairy stories; where they share elements, we may suggest that these derive from an early, common mythology believed by all the continental Germanic tribes. Of course, the potential flaw in this approach is that there was later contact through Danish and Norwegian Viking settlement in Britain. If beliefs are widespread throughout all of England and lowland Scotland- and not limited to the Danelaw, this later influence may be discounted; equally, I might argue that we are still describing Saxon folklore, albeit the beliefs of the later Saxons after the Norse influx had been absorbed (!) In fact, many of the ideas listed below are found in Wessex, the West Midlands and the North, the Borders and Scottish lowlands, beyond the Norse settlements, so that later imports may not be the best explanation. Another approach could be to ascribe these common beliefs to a core of Indo-European thought, something that was not unique to Celts, Germans, Slavs or others. There is, very likely, such a deep shared source: it is probably world wide and very ancient. In this case, it is still likely that a good number of these ideas were incorporated in to early English belief and were carried into Britain at the time of the settlement.
The old Norse Edda is a good starting point for this examination, as it provides a clear statement of northern Teutonic belief about the elves. In the early 1200s in Iceland, scholar Snorri Sturluson compiled the so-called prose Edda, a record of the Norse myths and legends. In Gylfaginning Gylfi describes the heavens and the many splendid places there:
“There is one place that is called Alfheim. There live the folk called light-elves, but the dark-elves live down in the ground, and they are unlike them in appearance, and even more unlike them in nature. Light-elves are fairer than the sun to look at, but dark-elves are blacker than pitch.”
In later British belief we come across stories of Elfame from Lowland Scotland. It seems inescapable that this ‘elf-home’ is a survival from the earliest English legends. As for the division into light and dark, good and bad, elves, there are several later references to ‘white fays’ in English literature and one echo that may be particularly significant. Being interrogated on charges of witchcraft in 1566, John Walsh of Netherbury, Dorset told his inquisitors “that there be iii kinds of fairies- white, green and black. Whereof the blacke fairies is the worst…” If the colours reflect more than mere choice of costume, there appears here to be a survival of the light/ dark opposition. In this connection we should also note the Old English term aelfscyne which was applied to women in a couple of texts (Genesis A and the poem Judith). The word seems to mean something like ‘elf-beautiful’ or even ‘enchantingly bright’; perhaps in the suggestion of light or shining there is a further hint of the light and dark elf dichotomy.
From this limited evidence it may be possible to postulate a basic Anglo-Saxon mythology of an Elf-home, divided between the good (white) elves and the bad (black) elves. Beyond that, it is not safe to go. Several further varieties of elves- the sae, feld, beorg, dun and munt aelfen- are mentioned in Aelfric’s Glossary, but it seems very likely that these are actually translations of classical terms such as naiad and hamadryad and that they are not genuine Saxon categories at all. If this is so, this is a tenth century example of the deleterious effects of classical learning that I described in a previous post.
Luckily, we do possess some direct evidence of Saxon conceptions of the elvish race. They are mentioned in several medical texts as the causes of illnesses, mainly internal pains or mental disturbances. A spell to cure ‘the stitch’ goes as follows:
“Loud were they, lo, loud, as they rode over the barrow/ … Out little spear, if herein it be/ … To them another I wish to send back/ … a flying dart against them in return./ …if it were gods’ shot, or it were elves’ shot/ Or it were witches’ shot, now I will help you/ This is the remedy…”
‘Elf-shot’ was a recognised cause of disease in later times and was a major diagnosis in the Saxon texts such as Lacnunga. A selection of herbs were employed in treating both humans and livestock afflicted with these maladies. The medical texts also refer to aelfsogetha- which appears to be something like bronchitis or heartburn- and to aelfsidenn, which literally means elf-enchantment and seems to be a night fever or nightmares. There is too a cure for waeteraelfaedle (water-elf sickness) which is characterised by the patient’s livid nails, watering eyes and downcast looks. This term may denote another subdivision of the elves: in later times in Scotland there was a clear distincton between land (or dressed) and water fairies (see Campbell, Popular tales of the west Highlands, vol.2 p.64). Equally, though, it might just as well be read as ‘watery elf-sickness’ and so be more concerned with the symptoms than the identity of the agent inflicting the disease.
Turning to the comparative sources, the attributes shared by English fairies with those of the original English homelands seem to be extensive and to include:
- living under hills, which will periodically rise or open up to reveal feasting and music within;
- a love of singing and dancing;
- a preference for dancing in circles in grassy places, leaving marks on the ground;
- a love of cleanliness and tidiness, for which humans are rewarded (or punished);
- causing disease in humans and livestock;
- the inability to cross running water;
- a preference for wearing green and red, especially red caps;
- an aversion to loud noises, which may drive them away;
- the power to make themselves invisible, change their shape, see the future or to confer prosperity;
- the need to use human midwives;
- magic power in their names, which must be concealed from humans;
- a strong link to certain trees, especially oaks. Elder trees also feature in Danish folklore, which tells of the Old Lady of the Elder Tree who must be appeased before taking wood. This spirit also appears in Lincolnshire, very strongly suggesting that Danish settlers brought the belief with them to East Anglia;
- residence in Elfame is perilous, because time passes differently and because their food is unsafe for humans;
- fairies take children and leave changelings, which may be exposed by cooking tricks or by burning;
- there is a species of fairy that resides with humans, doing farm-work, stealing fodder and grain from neighbours and becoming so attached to a household that it is impossible to escape them by trying to move away. Nonetheless, if they are insulted, they will become a nuisance;
- there are freshwater fairies that are part horse;
- there are marine fairies such as mermaids and seal people.
As suggested earlier, the considerable parallels between Danish fairy lore and English tales are indicative of a common source. The question remains whether that was located in fifth century Angeln before the early English fared forth in their keels, or further back in time and further away in the homelands of the Indo-European peoples.
Anglo-Saxon elves seem to have been imagined as being human in size and shape, but having a semi-divine nature. Scandinavian elves shared this character and were the subject of sacrifices, aelfblot. For instance, in Kormaks Saga a wounded man was told to sacrifice a bull and then to take the beast to a mound “in which elves dwell … and redden the outside of the mound with the bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast with the flesh; and you will be healed.” There are records of comparable practices in Britain.
The evidence indicates that a rich set of beliefs were imported to British shores, there to mingle with the mythology of the residual British population and to produce the complex and developed fairy-lore to which this blog is dedicated.
For those readers who want a far more detailed and academic examination of this area, I recommend the work of Alaric Hall, lecturer in medieval English literature at Leeds University. You will readily find online pdf copies of his book Elves in Anglo-Saxon England and of his PhD thesis from which the book derives. As his job indicates, his approach is primarily literary and is written from the perspective of an Anglo-Saxonist. If your conversational Mercian is weak, you may not fancy it….!