The origin of elves – not the cute little Christmas elves we know today

Christmas has passed, the feasting has ended and the decorations have been packed away for another year. Christmas, however, is notable, amongst other things, for its queue of children waiting to have photographs taken with shopping mall Santa Clauses and his elven helpers. My boys have outgrown this type of event but my nieces and nephews still love it and want their photographs taken with Santa every year. Looking at the lovely photograph of my nephews with this year’s fat and cheerful Santa and his elf, led me wondering about the origins of elves and so I did a bit of research with some interesting results.

The original concept of elves originates from Norse mythology and our modern knowledge of these early elves has been pieced together from Old Norse poetry. Norse mythology describes two types of elves, the one group lives beneath the earth and are not as attractive and the other group live in Elf Land and are “fairer than the sun”. This concept of “light” and “dark” elves appears in an Old Norse work of literature entitled Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, and in the late Old Norse poem Hrafnagaldr Odins. It is  interesting to note that while the “light” elves are difficult to distinguish in Norse mythology from the Vanir gods and goddesses and are described as being extremely beautiful, they also had very mixed relationships with humans. On the one hand they had the power to cause human illness and on the other hand they could heal humans, generally if the humans involved were willing to make sacrifices to them. Humans could turn into elves after death and there was an overlap between worship of ancestors and worship of elves. I am not an expert on Norse mythology by any manner of means and the purpose of this description was to introduce the idea that the original concept of elves was very different from the cute elves we see assisting Santa Clause at Christmas time.

The Danish poet and author, Hans Christian Anderson, wrote about elves in his story The Elvin Hill (The Elf Mound) which was published in 1845. This tale is about a feast held at the elf mound for the Goblin Chief of Norway and his two sons. The two sons are both expected to choose elf brides. In this tale elves are clearly aligned with goblins, merfolk, the grave pig, the death-horse and the church horse, all of which are associated with dark superstitions and myths. In the Elf Mound, the elven housekeeper is described as follows:

“…the elven hill opened and an old elfin girl, hollow at the back, came tripping out; she was the housekeeper of the old elfin king, and being distantly connected to the family; she an amber heart on her forehead. Her feet moved so nimbly -trip, trip. Good gracious! how she could trip…”

Another famous source of information on elves are the Middle-earth books written by J.R.R. Tolkien, the most well-know being The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Tolkien wrote his books between 1937 and 1949. As the title The Lord of the Rings indicates, this trilogy is mainly about the One Ring, created by the Dark Lord Sauron in a bygone age as a weapon in his campaign to defeat and rule all of Middle-earth.

Tolkien describes the elves as being very fair creatures and also as being resistant to illness, disease and other natural ailments. Tolkien’s depiction of elves also describes them as being great lovers of all beauty in nature and being very curious with an great love of learning and creating. The elves despised evil and their creations harmed evil, however, they are susceptible to greed, pride and jealousy.

The Christmas elf is a tiny creature that features in American folklore and lives with Santa Claus at the North Pole and acts as his helper. Christmas elves generally wear green or red and have large pointy ears and pointy hats. They are kind and help Santa Claus by making the Christmas toys in his workshop and looking after the reindeer. Christmas elves were apparently first introduced in literature by Louise May Alcott in her unpublished book entitled Christmas Elves.

In different countries, Santa Claus’ helpers have different names such as the Yule Lads of Iceland, Zwarte Piet from Belgium and the Netherlands, Knecht Ruprecht in Germany and Hoesecker in Luxembourg. Interestingly enough, in Nordic countries Christmas elves are considered nisse and not elves. Nisse have their origins in Scandinavian folklore and look more like garden gnomes with a long white beard, a knitted cap and usually wear red.

So next year when the decorations go up and the Christmas stories, movies and festivities begin, you can spare a thought to the origin of that cute little elf in a hat with bells and wonder if he originates from Norway or America.

Sources of information:

Norse mythology for smart people

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Treasury of Hans Christian Anderson

Tolkien Gateway; and

Wikipedia

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11 thoughts on “The origin of elves – not the cute little Christmas elves we know today

  1. The elves, faeries and many other denizens of the Otherworlds that we know today, owe more to Victorian romanticism than history. Even Snurluson’s work dates back only to the 12th century. The records before that were of the oral tradition of storytelling in folklore and the shadowy memory still remains in some of the older tales, shedding a darker light on some of the pretty creatures modern storytellers are so fond of. I have a feeling that the winged fairies and cheerful elves were drawn largely from the tales of Nature spirits.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post! It is always so interesting to learn about the origins of present-day cultural concepts. I loved Tolkien’s books and I plan to pick up a book on Norse mythology.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The elves are either woodland or royal , to distinct sets, tall ,graceful and interesting …the small kind that are created at Christmas is mans fantasy
    The elves are not if this planet , but came here for refuge like so many beings . They at present not if our dimension. All souls are aeons old and none if us originate on earth

    Like

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