Elves are commonly referred to throughout Old English and Old Norse myths and legends. They are often inferred to be negative beings of numinous origin. Indeed, the Norse believed them to be descended from the Vanir, a family of deities that is not referred to by that name in Anglo-Saxon custom. For beings that are feared and respected in equal measure, it is perhaps surprising that many Anglo-Saxon children were given elf-based names such as Ælfmær, Ælfræd, Ælfric and Ælthryth. There is some disparity between the Anglo-Saxon and Norse traditions concerning elves but the relation to the gods is an idea they do share.
Elves, like dweorgas (dwarfs) are associated in Old English tradition with causing illness or harm and Beowulf lumps them in with other anthromorphic beings as follows: (1.112) “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas”, therefore with ettins/giants and orcs which are similarly considered to be negative entities. The passage in full reads:
From there all monsters arose –
Etinns and elves and orcneas
Likewise the giants who strove against god
For a long time – he gave them their reward for that
In Scandinavia, they have an Álfablót or “elf-blessing” as a custom which appears to be intended to secure the blessings of the elves. Evidence from the sagas indicate this involved the sacrificing of a bull, reddening the outside the dwelling of the elves with the blood and making an offering of the meat. Elf-dwellings may have been considered to be what we now refer to as barrows, thus indicating an association between elves and the dead.
Elf is a sort-of parent species from which we have such off-shoots as Woodland Elves (Wuduelfen), Mountain Elves (Dunælfen), naids, dryads and from the Lacnunga Manuscript we have a specific reference to Water Elves (Wæterælfen). Land wights are also linked to Elves in that they were considered to be powerful natural beings whose goodwill was necessary for the well-being of society as a whole.
In a study by Hall, he found that elves were originally a class of powerful male-gender beings associated with the gods who could harm humans through provoking illness, connected with transgressive behaviour and its consequences – I.E. those behaviours of moral or social violations. Consequently, they can be viewed as a means of maintaining and upholding moral and social values. Sometimes transgression could bring benefits, however, to spirit-healers and the like and the Ielfe were thus connected to hallucinogenic substances, sudden pains, prophetic speech and trances.
In Britain today, you will still commonly find flint arrowheads in and around sights of historic significance where man has known to have lived for thousands of years. This are associated with Neolithic or Bronze Age hunters but are often referred to as “Elf-shot” and believed to be physical evidence of the psychic attack of an Elf as per the “lytel spear” or little spear of the Wið Færstice charm when it was “shot into” the body of a person and thus causing a malady.
Old Norse Seiðr, or Old English Ælfsiden is a form of divination associated in name with Elves and translates as “Nightmare or magical apparition”.
Whether friendly or nefarious, elves were considered dangerous as men could not expect to deal with them on equal terms. This placed them as potentially on the same side as hostile forces. Indeed, by early mediaeval times they were also linked to succubi, female elf-beings of astounding beauty that would tempt men in order to extract their seed for fiendish reasons known only to themselves. Elf-fair or “Ælfscienu” particularly relates to these dangerous beings and indicated an otherworldly beauty.
Despite their sometimes negative associations, Elves are said to be fair to look at and thus not “monstrous” in their countenance. This leads many to feel that they were not automatically deserving of aggression or hatred, and instead should be respected and mollified. Yet they were not said to be necessarily friendly with men, and therefore for some they became worthy of worship and engagement in terms of sacrifice and gifting.
Welund the Smith is said to have been a prince of the elves and is associated with metalworking; something that would later become linked to dweorgas as opposed to elves. In modern fiction, this is perhaps represented well by JRR Tolkien where he presents both the dwarfs and the elves of Middle Earth as being exceptional smiths with wildly differing conceptions of weapon and armour smithing and the qualities those items should expound.
Elves are also intrinsically linked to the Norse god Freyr (Ingui / Ingui Frēa) who is said