Elves in Anglo-Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender and Identity

By Alaric Hall. 2007. Rochester: Boydell and Brewer. 288 pages. ISBN: 9781843832942 (hard cover).

Reviewed by William Hansen, Indiana University

[Review length: 912 words • Review posted on August 15, 2007]

This new study by Alaric Hall explores the earliest evidence for elves, with special attention to the traditions of Anglo-Saxon England. Since the evidence is mostly non-narrative, his method is to scrutinize the semantics of words with which elves are associated and contrasted, and to compare neighboring traditions, especially the closely-related elf traditions of early Scandinavia.

Chapter 1 surveys the medieval Scandinavian evidence. Here elves (álfar) are otherworldly beings who are somehow similar to the æsir (the principal family of gods) and show partial synonymy with the vanir (another family of gods). They can receive sacrifice. Elves are moreover associated metaphorically with human beings in that forms of the word “elf” are employed in kennings for warriors and appear as a component of human personal names. Elves stand in implicit opposition to monsters, which do not figure in personal names borne by humans. One mythological narrative centers upon a character identified as an elf, the smith Völundr, whose English cognate is Weland.

In his second chapter Hall looks at the earliest Anglo-Saxon evidence, which agrees generally with the Scandinavian. Thus the word elf is found in human personal names (for example, the popular name Ælfred, “elf-counsel”), as are words for gods, but not words for monsters; similarly, elfish place-names are treated the same as theophoric place-names but differently from place-names referring to monsters. And the word elves (ælve) itself belongs morphologically to a category of noun that denotes peoples. So elves in the early traditions of the Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians were otherworldly, god-like, human-like, and clearly distinguished from dwarves and other monstrous beings. Etymologically the word seems originally to have signified “the white one” (cf. Latin albus, whence English “albino”), which Hall interprets as a marker of effeminacy. Under the influence of Christianity, however, elves were sometimes demonized, as they are in Beowulf.

The gender of elves is the subject of chapter 3. Scandinavian elves are all male, and elves in early Anglo-Saxon tradition seem also to be exclusively male, but by the eleventh century the English word elf could also denote females, and this usage is well attested in Middle English. Characteristically, female elves were not simply attractive but perilously beautiful and seductive.

Chapters 4 and 5 are devoted to the connection of elves with various illnesses. Medical texts, offering remedies for different ills, are the Anglo-Saxon genre that most often attests to elves. Hall dismisses as insufficiently supported the widely-accepted scholarly notion of “elf-shot” as an illness in humans or animals caused by an elf’s arrow, although he does acknowledge that the idea of supernatural beings’ causing illnesses by shooting projectiles is widespread and old. In the case of elves, however, Hall argues that a close reading of the medical texts indicates only that elves could cause ailments, which mostly took the form of sharp, internal pains. The modern confusion arose, he argues, because the Anglo-Saxon word that refers to the medical symptoms can also refer to magic projectiles. There is no clear evidence that the elves themselves were thought to use projectiles to cause illness.

The author next turns to illnesses that occur as a result of ælfsīden, roughly “elf-magic,” which was associated with delusions or hallucinations, as in persons in a fevered state, including the sensation of being ridden by a nightmare. A connection between elves and nightmares is preserved in modern German Alptraum “nightmare,” literally “elf-dream.” Anglo-Saxon sīden is cognate with Old Norse seiðr, a kind of magic that, according to Snorri, was practiced by the vanir, who introduced it to the æsir. This form of magic was practiced mostly by females. Among its uses was the manipulation of the victim’s state of mind in order for the practitioner to seduce or to cause other harm. Since vanir and elves were partially synonymous in early medieval Scandinavia, the fact that Old Norse seiðr was practiced by vanir is strikingly parallel with the fact that Anglo-Saxon ælfsīden was practiced by elves.

In chapter 6 Hall returns to the question of gender, examining diachronic changes. He compares early Anglo-Saxon elves, who in Hall’s characterization were effeminate males, and the mythological warrior-women known as hægtessen, who were masculine females. A move from gender-reversal toward greater gender-alignment took place over time, perhaps as a result of Christian influence and of changes in women’s power in the social reality of the Anglo-Saxon world.

The seventh and final chapter is partly a musing on academic traditions and partly a summing up. Hall points to the irony that, despite the historical importance of the English Folklore Society in the development of European folkloristics, the study of folklore has found little favor with English academics, in contrast to its reception among, say, Scandinavianists. Hall observes that Anglo-American scholars are similarly averse to philological approaches, which they deem Teutonic and associate with national romanticism. Hall offers his own study as an illustration of the usefulness of folklore scholarship and philology in the study of an aspect of early medieval England. The author believes that he has demolished the familiar image of elves in early tradition as sprites who mischievously inflict disease by means of their arrows. Instead, elves were human-like. They were also supernaturally powerful and dangerous, but only to transgressors. Whereas monsters threatened all of society, elves served to maintain social order.

Alaric Hall’s study is clearly written, richly documented, and carefully argued. It should find a welcome reception among folklorists with historical and philological interests, particularly those who focus upon early Germanic traditions.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.