May 3, 2020
The first episode of History and Folklore Podcast looking at how Anglo-Saxons viewed elves and how to heal a disease caused by elf-shot.
For a sudden
They were loud, yes loud when they rode over the land,
THey were fierce when they rode
over the land.
Shield yourself now, that you may escape this evil.
Out, little spear, if herein you be.
Stood under linden, under a light shield,
Where the mighty women readied their power,
And sent their screaming
I will send another back to them,
A flying dart against them in return.
Out little spear, if herein it be.
Six smiths sat, war spears they made.
Out spear, not in spear!
If herein be a bit of iron, hag’s work,
If you were in the skin shot, or were in the flesh shot,
Or were in the blood shot, or were in bone shot,
Or were in limb shot, may your life be never torn apart.
If it was aesir shor, if it was elf shot,
If it were hag’s shot, now I will help you.
It fled there into the mountains. No rest it had.
Whole be you know. Lord help you.
Now take the knife and dip it into the liquid.
Hello, welcome to History and Folklore, where we look at different folk beliefs through history and how these beliefs have shaped people’s perceptions of nature through time. As this is the first episode I just want to introduce myself, my name’s Holly. I have a degree in history, focussing on social and religious aspects of Anglo-Saxon and early medieval England. I focussed on this subject as I was really interested in folk beliefs and stories and what these tell us about how people interacted with and understood the world around them. I also have a Master’s degree in Museum Studies and, for the past ten years have worked in history and museum education.
Today we’re looking at elves in Anglo-Saxon England, particularly looking at charms against elves that turn up in Anglo-Saxon medical texts.
Before we go into too much detail, we need to look at what an elf was to the Anglo-Saxons. The modern idea of elves is usually similar to a Tolkein elf; human-like, graceful, immortal and magical creatures that live in their own society away in the wilds of nature, the forests or mountains. It is fairly well known that Tolkein borrowed a lot of his ideas from Anglo-Saxon and
Norse mythology, and so his version of elves are quite similar to how an Anglo-Saxon person may have thought about them.
They were generally seen as human-like creatures, who were usually invisible to humans, or at least hard to see, and they lived in their own communities separate from humans. They also seem very tied to nature, with various references to different types of elves including water, mountain, wood, down, sea and field elves. From this it can be assumed that elves were associated with wild places, separate from human civilisation. What I find particularly interesting then, is how Anglo-Saxons perceived elves and what this says about how they perceived the natural world around them. If you are walking through a forest that you believe is inhabited by invisible beings, how you feel about those beings will very much affect how you feel about the forest.
It is apparent from a lot of existing texts that elves were seen as unpredictable and generally hostile towards humans. In the epic tale of Beowulf elves are listed as being part of the group of monsters who sided with Cain after he murdered his own brother. As punishment for this, they were driven away from mankind, denied the promise of heaven and were probably quite bitter towards humans because of this. However there are hints that elves were not seen as entirely evil. For example, the Old English ‘aelf’ is often used as a prefix to old English names to represent beauty, light or wisdom. Names like Aelfred or Aelfwynn mean elf councilled and elf joy respectively, which shows a rather more positive perception of elves. Although on a side note, if you have read any of Terry Pratchett’s books, in Lords and Ladies he does point out that the fictional elves of the Discworld are glamorous because they project glamour, they are enchanting because they weave enchantment and they are terrific because they beget terror. Although those descriptions are seen as positive none of them are synonyms for nice, and it might be a good idea to keep this idea in mind.
One issue that we do have in learning about Ango-Saxon elves is the arrival of Christianity. Christian missionaries in England were not interested in completely destroying the beliefs and culture of the Anglo-Saxons, but wanted to take elements of the culture and give it a more ‘Christian’ slant. Churches, for example, would be built on holy sites as people were already accustomed to going there to worship. Festivals would be celebrated at the same time of year, and in the same way, but the meaning for the celebration would be shifted to focus on Christianity.
Karen Jolly, who has written a brilliant book about elf cures, has pointed out that Anglo-Saxon folklore and Christian religion became so entwined that it is almost impossible to tell the extent to which Christianity shaped Anglo-Saxon culture and and to which Anglo-Saxon culture shaped Christianity. Elves are a particularly good example of this. In many sources where elves are mentioned they are often represented as the equivalent to Christian demons, which is understandable as most sources were written by Christian monks. However, during conversion the Anglo-Saxon people would have had a better understanding of elves than demons, so it is likely that demons would have been explained by comparing them to elves, causing demons in modern Christianity to have partially been shaped by the idea of elves 1,500 years ago. For this reason, elves and demons, formal religion and magic existed very comfortably side by side in the mind of the average Anglo-Saxon person.
Some of the most interesting sources where this is shown are the ‘elf charms’ that are found in medical texts such as Bald’s Leechbook and the Lacnunga, both written after the conversion to Christianity. It was believed that some illnesses were caused by ‘elf-shot’, an attack by a hostile elf on a human or animal, and this is an idea which lives on in modern language when we describe a stabbing or shooting pain and elf charms told the reader how to cure these diseases.
Unfortunately, most of these
charms do not give any real information about the symptoms caused
by elf shot, as it was assumed the reader of the charm would know
how to identify the illness. However, one of the elf charms that I
particularly like is the cure for ‘water elf disease’, which some
historians have argued is actually chicken pox. This charm does
list some symptoms, which apparently include livid fingernails,
tearful eyes and, strangely, ‘looking down.’ Although no markings
are listed in the symptoms, the cure involves making a poultice of
herbs and placing this on the wound caused by the
A lot of charms against elf shot call for creating a potion or poultice of herbs to purge the evil of the elf shot out of the body. The most common herbs used in these charms were lupin, bishopwort, fennel, cropleek, garlic, hassock, pennyroyal, rue and wormwood. These were all herbs that were used in treating symptoms associated with psychological and mental afflictions such as demonic possession, nightmares, fever and hallucinations which gives an idea of the type of symptoms that may have been seen in diseases associated with elves.
Most cures for elf shot varied
between what we would now see as very superstitious and very
religious, again showing the amalgamation between folk, pagan and
Christian belief that was occuring at this time. One cure calls for
writing on a Eucharist dish and washing the words off with running
water. Another, named ‘for a sudden stitch’ which I read out at the
start of the episode, calls on prominent figures of the Anglo-Saxon
pagan religion. It tells a story of how the old gods, the Aesir,
and elves would attack while referencing other mythological figures
such as hags and smiths. The story culminated in a phrase that
would be said by the healer, with the story giving confidence
to both healer and patient as it shows the words being used
effectively against powerful mythological figures in a similar
situation. This is the sort of power you might feel you need to
call on when trying to drive out a poison caused by an attack from
a magical invisible assailant.
With all of this in mind it is likely elves were respected, but not beloved, by the people of Anglo-Saxon England. It is easy to see how this could reflect their attitude towards the wild spaces that surrounded them. The wilderness is beautiful, awe inspiring, but also incredibly dangerous, especially if you forget to treat it with the proper respect.
I hope you have enjoyed the first episode of History and Folklore. Please let me know if you did, or let me know what I can improve on in future episodes. Also get in touch if there are any topics that you would like me to focus on in future episodes. My email is email@example.com or you can follow and contact me on Facebook at History and Folklore Podcast or Instagram at history and folklore. Thanks for listening, and I hope to see you next time.