What is Elves Origin in Medieval Culture and in Modern Literature


Elves are well-known mythological figures that have appeared in literature for centuries You probably remember them from JRR Tolkien ‘s novels , but the truth is that they appeared in much older texts.

Coming from Norse and Celtic culture, elves were quite common in medieval literature . They were first designated by the word Alfs  or Alfr , which has the same origin as “target”, “white”. Therefore, their myth is that they are beautiful and luminous beings, similar to fairies, and that they have special powers. They would live in realms found within forests or in hollow tree trunks.

Like fairies, elves were also considered small shapeshifters (beings capable of changing shape). However, they take on different images in the cultures in which they have been portrayed. English elves, for example, are often described as elderly, although elven maidens were almost always young and beautiful. Already in The Lord of the Rings trilogy,  from 1954, these beings are shown as tall and beautiful.

The Origin of Elves in Medieval Culture

Elves are very ancient figures in folklore and, although researchers believe that they appeared in Norse mythology, they appear in the lore of several countries in Europe. Its first records in literature date back to the 15th century — the same time when stories and legends about fairies and elves also began to spread.

Their identity within these texts is that of being mischievous characters responsible for provoking strange occurrences. There was something of a tradition that when a baby was born with a mark, it was said to have been “marked by an elf.” Sometimes they were also “accused” of more serious things, such as stealing bread, cattle and even children.

Therefore, the elves did not always appear as good beings. In the Eddas, collections of traditional texts from Scandinavian culture compiled in the thirteenth century, elves appear in three configurations: the white ones, who were good, and the dark or gray ones, who were wicked.

But perhaps it is in Iceland that these little beings have acquired greater cultural influence. For many centuries – in a belief that remains today, in some places – the existence of fairies and elves was seen as real. Icelanders believe in mythological figures called “huldufolk” (hidden people), which would be their version of elves.

Elves in Modern Literature

With urbanization and industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries, elves were re-signified in literature. At first they disappeared from the texts, as they were considered typical of a later popular culture.

However, some works brought back the elves as an idea that could be present in high literature. They appear, for example, in the play A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  written by William Shakespeare between 1594 and 1596.

Another legend responsible for bringing elves back to literature is that of Santa Claus . Modern Christmas tradition describes Santa’s helpers at the North Pole as year-round toy-making elves. In some texts, such as The Night Before Christmas, written by Clement Clark Moore in 1822, Santa Claus himself is described as a “jolly old elf”.

But certainly a very relevant work in the dissemination of this mythology is the Lord of the Rings trilogy . In it, the elves are slightly larger than humans and are extremely beautiful, with almost angelic features. The characters built by JRR Tolkien were inspired by his deep studies of Celtic, Germanic and Scandinavian folklore.

Legend of the Elves

A legend says that if you scatter leaves of buckthorn or buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) with purgative fruits in a circle and dance inside it under the full moon, an elf will appear. The dancer must see the elf and say: “Haltand grand my boon!” (stop and give me a blessing!) before he runs away. The elf will then grant a wish.

Building designs in Iceland are occasionally altered to prevent the rocks they are believed to live in from being damaged. According to these popular Icelandic beliefs, stones should not be thrown due to the possibility of reaching the Hidden People.

In Reykjavik there is a school called Icelandia Elf School that organizes five-hour educational tours for visitors. The town of Hafnarfjorour offers a guided walk of around 90 minutes. Includes a walk through Hellisgerdi Park, where paths wind through a lava field with tall trees and potted bonsai trees . It is said to be populated by the largest elven colony in the city.


Álfhóll (Elf hill) is the most famous home in Kópavogur, and Alfhóesvegur ( Elf hill road). At the end of 1930, road construction began, which was to pass through Alfhóll which meant that Alfhóll would have to be demolished. Nothing seemed to go well and construction was halted. A decade later the construction of the road would continue, but when the machines started working again, they started to break down and the tools were damaged and lost. The road remained routed around the hill, not through it as originally planned. In the late 1980’s the road was to be raised and paved. Construction went off schedule until it came time to demolish part of Alfhóll. a drillde Rocha was used but broke. Another was fetched, but it broke too. After two drills were broken into pieces, the workers refused to go near the hill with any tools.

Anthropologist Magnus Skarphedinsson, who has spent the last few decades collecting testimonies related to this topic, is convinced that yes, and dedicates himself to transmitting his knowledge to groups of curious people as director of the School of Elves, in Reikjavik. 

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