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Faerie Folklore: Elves and Pixies
Faerie Folklore: Elves
Dating back centuries, legends and faerie folklore of the elves has crossed entire continents and spanned a multitude of cultures. The stories of the elves vary from sweet, innocent beings to devious, kidnapping creatures. Where did the folklore of the elves originate and what were some of the popular beliefs about the elves in their native countries? In this article, we will take a look at some of the most magical and spookiest stories of the elves in the entire realm of faerie folklore.
What do you picture in your mind when the word "elf" is uttered? Most people think of little men that aid in Santa's workshop in the North Pole, or maybe they think of Legolas and Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. These depictions or illustrations of the elves are so different from each other, how are we to know what the elves were really like in faerie folklore before mainstream culture snatched up the name "elf"? Let's take a look back in time to when the Pagan peoples roamed and ruled the majority of the continent we now call Europe, before Christianity took rise over the land and turned these ancient beings into demons. We will also take a look at the faerie folklore of elves as a whole, including the beliefs after Christianity took rise.
Interestingly the term "elf" comes from a combination of two old English words meaning "nightmare" and "hiccup". Apparently both nightmares and hiccups were thought to be caused by the elves, and so the elves were named thus. While many accounts will say that the elves are of germanic legend, the elves are also seen in Norse legends, old English legends, Scandinavian legends, and even Icelandic legends. Elves were a phenomenon across the entire continent of Europe, and the people of old had a real belief in the elves. Other names for elves include elb, mannikin, erl, alb, alp, alfar, and more.
The appearance of elves ranges from culture to culture in Europe with many saying that elves were of a smaller, chubby stature (sometimes confused with dwarves in the Northern countries) and others believing the elves to be quite tall...almost god-like and sometimes therefore believed to have been deities or fallen deities of sorts. Elves in faerie folklore were usually seen in groups and were called "trooping elves", and usually in groups they were considered to be non-threatening. If an elf was solitary, usually the legend had it that the solitary elves were mischievous or malevolent in some way.
Take for instance the story of Rumpelstiltskin. He was an elf...did you know that? Rumpelstiltskin goal was to acquire a human child by spinning gold from straw. In the end, he did not win as the hero learned his name and used it against him. This feeds into another legend in faerie folklore that if a person learned the name of a solitary elf, that they could use that name to gain control over the malevolent elf.
In many legends in Europe, the elves were thought to be helpful in the areas of spinning cloth and making shoes, and sometimes they would lend a hand to a human in dire need. It was also said in faerie folklore that elves had one true enemy - the cat (which is kind of ironic as the picture to the upper right depicts an elf with kittens surrounding her). Mice were their familiars (according to author Edain McCoy) and it was even believed that elves could shapeshift into rodents at will.
To the old English, the elves were portrayed in many mythos as dark creatures probably due to the Christian Church's pull on the people in the Middle Ages. Stories about elves being in cahoots or being the same as witches abounded and people came up with remedies against sickness and disease that were supposed to ward off the elves' powers or evil curses against the victim/patient. Many times, especially in ballads, the elves in their male form would come to kidnap women and do dark, sinister things to their victims.
In Iceland, the "hidden folk" were elves that were thought to live in the rocks and come out at night. In Germany, there are many legends and faerie folklore with elves, giving way to the Grimm brothers' fairy tales and many more fairy tale and fantasy authors to follow them in years after. In Old Norse faerie folklore, crossbreeding between humans and elves was a strong belief...as the Old Norse beliefs consisted of the elves being very attractive and powerful beings.
As you can see, the elves have been around for centuries, if not longer, and the beliefs range from dark to captivating depending on the region and period in time. Do the elves still exist in Europe...hiding in the rocks and hills as faerie folklore suggests? Or are they now a figment of our imaginations and only able to be called upon in the magickal, spiritual realm?
Read More about the Fairies:
Faerie Folklore: Pixies
Now the pixies are interesting little characters, indeed. They have been seen for hundreds of years, particularly in Scotland, England (in an area known as East Anglia) and Cornwall. Many people today claim to see them in their gardens and in meadows all over the world. Other names for the pixies in faerie folklore include piskies, pisgies, pechts, pechs, pickers, grigs, and dusters. They are mostly associated with the element air, and probably so because of their light, airy wings. The image of the pixies is one that has been used in many modern books and movies, in particular Tinkerbell from Peter Pan. The portrayal of the pixies in Tinkerbell is actually quite close to the image of the pixies from Old English faerie folklore. Tiny faeries with wings, large heads, pointed ears, and arched eyebrows. The clothing worn by the pixies usually consists of seasonal colors and flowers or greenery.
The pixies are usually portrayed throughout faerie folklore as being friendly faeries. Pixies are trooping faeries, which means that they are usually always found in groups, and love to dance, play, and hear music. They don't like lazy humans and have been said in faerie folklore to pinch lazy humans or play tricks on them to wake them out of laziness. Pixies do fly, and the "pixie dust" of much legend has been seen left-over from the pixies' footsteps in faerie rings. The ancient Celts were the ones who coined the term "pixie dust"; however, they most likely called it "pict's dust".
The origins of Pixies are thought to have stemmed from the earliest inhabitants of Scotland known as the "Picts". Once these people were ran out of Scotland or an effort was made to push them out, it was thought that they went into hiding in the hills and forests. It is said that pixies can be hurt by iron (other faeries fear iron, as well), and this is probably because of the Iron Age in Europe and the fear of humans that wielded iron weapons.
Pixies have been seen in flower gardens most often, and there is a story from the early 20th century about two little girls in England who captured some pixies on film. Their photos were later debunked and they admitted to four out of five being faked; however, to the day that the one lady died, she claimed that the last picture was indeed a true photo of trooping pixies in her Uncle's garden in England. This story is known as the Cottingley Fairies, and you can read more about it by clicking here.
Written and copyrighted © by Kitty the Dreamer (May Canfield), June 2012. All Rights Reserved.
More Faerie Folklore:
- Faerie Folklore: The Changeling
The ancient peoples of Europe, specifically the Celtic people, believed in the "wee folk" or the "fae", but they not only believed in them...they feared most of them. The faeries gave the ancient people reasons to fear them, as they were mysterious a
- Faerie Folklore: The Banshee (Bean-sidhe) and the Leanan-Sidhe
Learn about the Irish faerie folklore of the Banshee (bean-sidhe) and the Bean-tidhe. You'll leave shivering or feeling eerily intrigued!
© 2011 Nicole Canfield