Today is a special day on The Traveller’s Path – this is my first crosspost! My post today is also being featured on the Superversive Inklings Blog…many thanks to them for allowing me to share their space…
One of the intriguing questions about the Anglo-Saxons who lived in England in the Early Middle Ages revolves around their religious beliefs and mythologies. Pretty much all of what we know of these beliefs were written down by Christian monks, and so it’s tricky to tease out the truth of that second-hand information. Bede gives us some glimpses of their religion, but by the time he was writing his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed around 731 AD, the religious practices of the pagan Anglo-Saxons had pretty much disappeared from England, so he was writing about beliefs and practices that were pretty much legend in his time.
The Anglo-Saxons of the 7th century* were, of course, descended from the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who migrated to Britain after the Romans left the island defenceless in the 4th century. There is considerable discussion about whether these migrants came as conquerors or settlers, and the truth is likely a mix of the two.
These groups of people came with their own set of beliefs and worldview that were distinct from those of the Celtic and Romano-British people who populated Britain at the time. They were Germanic people, and shared the rich heritage of the Norse and Germanic religions. They certainly were not Christians, but encountered a strong thread of Christian culture in Britain, a legacy of the Roman occupiers.
So in trying to determine the religion and mythologies of the pagan Anglo-Saxons, scholars and historians look to the beliefs of their contemporary Germanic and Norse kin who lived on the Continent during the time they settled in Britain. But of course, their culture and beliefs slowly diverged from their Continental neighbours as time passed, and as they began to be integrated with the local population.
I don’t have the time or expertise to cover all of the Anglo-Saxon beliefs and mythology, but I thought I could give a brief overview of their mythologies about elves, seeing as I did some research on this in writing my first novel, Wilding: Book One of the Traveller’s Path (coming early 2019).
Much has been made of Tolkien’s elves, and many scholars with far more expertise than I have written about Tolkien’s understanding of the Saxon myths and religion and how he incorporated that into his Middle Earth (itself an Anglo-Saxon term) and his conception of elves.
I have posted before about how the concept of “elves” is a feature in many different cultures’ mythologies across the world. In that post I wrote:
Elves are fascinating creatures of legend, and their roots go deep into our history. And when I say “our”, I mean collective mankind, for although we may think that the concept of elves is a Western European one, you can actually find elf-like creatures in most of the world’s mythology. In the Norse and Germanic cultures they are alfar, supernatural beings having great beauty and long lives, sometimes helping humans, sometimes hindering them.
Our English word, “elf”, comes directly from the Anglo-Saxon word ælf. This means “white being”, which seems to relate to ideas of the supernatural, divine, or of feminine beauty. At any rate, the Anglo-Saxon elves were thought of as being human sized, and indeed, generally they were said to look human, although usually they were thought of as being exceptionally beautiful. They could make themselves invisible, or change shape. These are not “Tinkerbells”. The conception of elves (or “fairies”) as being diminutive beings with wings came much later, in the Late Medieval period.
Elves were not to be trusted in Anglo-Saxon mythology. They could be helpful, but they could just as easily be tricksters, or worse. They could lure both men and women into illicit sexual unions, or into a bargain that inevitably would end badly for the human.
They certainly were seen as the cause of some illnesses, both amongst humans and livestock. In Bald’s Leechbook, you can find charms or remedies against what is called “elf-shot” – a sudden, sharp pain, which was caused by being shot by an invisible arrow from an invisible elf.
Another great danger the Anglo-Saxon elves posed was their penchant for stealing children. It is said that they would take a human child and switch it with one of their own, a sickly, wizened being that would be known as a changling. Human parents who suddenly had a fractious, sickly baby would fear that they had been the recipient of this type of switch. There were also tales about human women who were tricked by elves to become wet nurses for their offspring. And of course, time moves differently in the elves’ world. The woman could emerge from the Otherworld to find that three hundred years had passed when she thought it was only three.
Speaking of the Otherworld, it is very difficult to determine exactly where the Anglo-Saxons thought their elves lived, or where they came from. That’s because the mythology of Anglo-Saxon elves has been conflated with the British Celtic views on these beings, whether they be Irish, Scottish or Welsh, and so to tease out what is specifically Anglo-Saxon about the legends in this regard is tricky. However, it does seem that the general idea was than the elves lived in hills under the earth, which would sometimes open up and reveal the elves singing, dancing, and feasting, which were favourite activities of theirs. They are also associated with certain trees, especially oaks.
The mention of elves from this time period comes from either medical treatises or from epic ballads such as Beowulf. In that poem, the elves are lumped in with other creatures such as giants and demons, who are all descendants of Cain. These are creatures exiled by God that feud endlessly with mortal men, who are the descendants of Seth (Adam’s son) and Noah. This assumes that their home is on Earth, but that they are hidden in some way from men until they make themselves known.
In general, then, when trying to categorize the elves of Anglo-Saxon lore, it is best to think more of Tolkien’s depiction than Disney’s Tinkerbell. Keep in mind, however, that Tolkein was writing fiction, and brought both his own imagination and some later Scandinavian legends and stories for his idea of elves. Not everything in Lord of the Rings corresponds with actual Anglo-Saxon beliefs about them. Especially not the pointed ears!
But because of Tolkien’s influence, there is still interest in these stories and legends that otherwise we likely would have forgotten or ignored. Our Anglo-Saxon ancestors would likely be amazed to know that, this many centuries after they are gone, we still tell stories about the elves and their kin.
*As my book takes place mainly in 7th century Northumbria, that is the time period that is the focus of this blog. Although there would be some differences from the beginning of the Anglo-Saxon migration until the time of the Vikings, these broad strokes are pretty close to what most of them would have believed throughout that time.
Featured image: Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, by William Blake (1786) This painting comes from the 18th century, but I think that it is actually not a bad depiction of Anglo-Saxon elves! Image from sussexarch.org.
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