An elf (plural: elves) is a type of supernatural being in Germanic mythology and folklore. Reconstructing the early concept of an elf depends almost entirely on texts in Old English or relating to Norse mythology. Later evidence for elves appears in diverse sources such as medical texts, prayers, ballads, and folktales.
- Recent scholars have emphasised, in the words of Ármann Jakobsson, that the time has come to resist reviewing information about álfar en masse and trying to impose generalizations on a tradition of a thousand years. Legends of álfar may have been constantly changing and were perhaps always heterogeneous so it might be argued that any particular source will only reflect the state of affairs at one given time.
However, some generalisations are possible. In medieval Germanic-speaking cultures, elves seem generally to have been thought of as a group of beings with magical powers and supernatural beauty, ambivalent towards everyday people and capable of either helping or hindering them. However, the precise character of beliefs in elves across the Germanic-speaking world has varied considerably across time, space, and different cultures. In Old Norse mythological texts, elves seem at least at times to be counted among the pagan gods; in medieval German texts they seem more consistently monstrous and harmful.
Elves are prominently associated with sexual threats, seducing people and causing them harm. For example, a number of early modern ballads in the British Isles and Scandinavia, originating in the medieval period, describe human encounters with elves.
In English literature of the Elizabethan era, elves became conflated with the fairies of Romance culture, so that the two terms began to be used interchangeably. German Romanticist writers were influenced by this notion of the ‘elf’, and reimported the English wordelf in that context into the German language. In Scandinavia, probably through a process of euphemism, elves often came to be conflated with the beings called the huldra or huldufólk. Meanwhile, German folklore has tended to see the conflation of elves with dwarfs.
The English word elf is from the Old English word most often attested as ælf (whose plural would have been *ælfe). Although this word took a variety of forms in different Old English dialects, these converged on the form elf during the Middle English period. During the Old English period, separate forms were used for female elves (such as ælfen, putatively from common Germanic *ɑlβ(i)innjō), but during the Middle English period the word elfcame routinely to include female beings.
The main medieval Germanic cognates of elf are Old Norse alfr, plural alfar, and Old High German alp, plural alpî, elpî (alongside the feminine elbe).These words must come from Common Germanic, the ancestor-language of English, German, and the Scandinavian languages: the Common Germanic forms must have been *ɑlβi-z and ɑlβɑ-z.
Germanic *ɑlβi-z~*ɑlβɑ-z is generally agreed to be cognate with the Latin albus (‘(matt) white’), Old Irish ailbhín (‘flock’); Albanian elb (‘barley’); and Germanic words for ‘swan’ such as Modern Icelandic álpt. These all come from an Indo-European base *albh–, and seem to be connected by whiteness. The Germanic word presumably originally meant ‘white person’, perhaps as a euphemism. Jakob Grimm thought that whiteness implied positive moral connotations, and, noting Snorri Sturluson’s ljósálfar, suggested that elves were divinities of light. This is not necessarily the case, however. For example, Alaric Hall, noting that the cognates suggest matt white or soft white, has instead tentatively suggested that later evidence associating both elves and whiteness with beauty may indicate that it was this beauty that gave elves their name. Compare descriptions such as ‘swan white’ to describe the beauty of fair complexion. Norse cultural values view masculinity as an ideal of beauty, which the Alfr personifies. For example, the Norse Eddas similarly celebrate the male beauty of Baldr. Icelandic Sagas celebrate the beauty of the cliff giants (bergrisi), and certain warrior kings that descend from them. Modern Scandinavian folklore celebrates the male beauty of the Fossegrim and the Huldrekarl/Huldrekall, nature spirits comparable to nymphs, but masculine men. By contrast, British cultural values tend to downplay male beauty and only emphasize femininity as an ideal of beauty. For example, angels are unambiguously masculine in ancient biblical texts, yet because of their beauty, modern British artists often depict angels as feminine. Ultimately, beauty and luminosity are identical. In the Norse Eddas, the radiant beauty of Baldr is the light of the daylight itself. Likewise, in medieval British poetry, the supernatural beauty of biblical Judith is described as ‘elf shining’ (ælfscinu), a magical beauty that shines an aura of light.
A completely different etymology, making elf cognate with the Rbhus, semi-divine craftsmen in Indian mythology, was also suggested by Kuhn, in 1855. In this case, *ɑlβi-z connotes the meaning, ‘skillful, inventive, clever’, and is cognate with Latin labor, in the sense of ‘creative work’. While often mentioned, this etymology is not widely accepted. Notable is the association of both Old Norse Alfr and Sanskrit Rbhu with the solar corona and sun rays.