It’s funny how the term ‘elf’ can mean so many different things. Keebler Elves, Santa’s elves, Tolkien’s elves, that ‘Elf‘ movie with Will Ferrell.
Tolkien was the defining example for modern fantasy. His elves were long lived, elegant, and knowledgeable. Pointed ears, aloof attitudes, and proficiency with a bow were common characteristics.
This is in stark contrast with the elves of Norse mythology. The dark elves of Svartalfheim have been described in a couple of ways. One had them as wise practitioners of magic who lived in the dark places of the hillocks, and the term ‘dark elf’ referred more to their place of residence.
The other connotation of dark elf in Norse mythology was of small, lumpy, misshapen creatures who dwelt in the deep places of the earth. In many ways, they sound like the precursors to dwarves. Known for their forging skills, you’d almost think they were the same thing as the dwarves, except they were the sons of Mimir. These were also called the black elves, as they were described in early poems as being black as pitch. They were also known for their foul attitudes and penchant for playing tricks on humanity. (Kind of odd for underground dwellers to become that dark, unless it’s just layers of grime. Perhaps they all just needed a good, long bubble bath. That and a few candles, maybe they wouldn’t be so grumpy.)
Then there were the light elves. No, not light on calories or saturated fat – though I guess you never know until you try… Anyway, they broke away from their shady cousins long before the ancient poems were written about the Norse gods, and dwelt in a separate realm entirely, Alfheim – one of the Norse Nine Worlds.
The light elves are interesting in that they were almost minor deities. People would pray to them for healing. And they were broken into categories, such as mountain elves, forest elves, water nymphs, etc.
For the most part, thought, the Norse mythology is mostly silent on the matter of the elves. They’re mentioned, and then play no real role in the few stories that have survived from the time Norse mythology was at its peak.
Roman culture associated elves more along the line with faeries, as small mythical beings who resided near springs, or under rocks, and in the hills.
The Anglo-Saxons of England viewed elves as beautiful, though mischievous, beings. Sharp pains of the body were considered being elf-shot, where the elf had fired a small metaphysical arrow at the person. Likewise, elf-stroke was where a person experienced a sudden paralysis. Elf-locks were tangles of the hair.
Elves make an appearance in Shakespeare’s ‘A MidSummer Night’s Dream‘, shown as a type of nature being, again akin to a fairy. Numerous tales abound in England around that time of elves, mostly in a negative light, where they intended to commit murder and rape. (Hey kids, have I got a story for you!)
The mythology of Santa’s elves started in the 1870s. It began with a work of fiction, a story that depicted toys being made by elves. The idea took off, and we’ve had Santa’s elves ever since. Before that, in 1823, Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas‘ described Santa as a jolly, old elf. You would know the poem as it is called today, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas‘.
And, of course, as I mentioned before, then came Tolkien. He reset the stage with his version of the elfin race, which has become a pattern ever since that fantasy writers have followed and fantasy readers expect to see.
Personally, the Keebler Elves are my favorites. Man, can those nature sprites bake!