(Originally published in 2015)
I am sometimes baffled by how things come into our cultural consciousness…and change over the centuries. Cue the elves.
Elf comes from Germanic folklore, with equivalents in Norse and Saxon mythology. The word itself hasn’t changed much since Old English in spelling, sound, etc.
The meaning, however…
Back then, an elf was considered to be a mean-spirited goblin-like creature with quite a bit of power. Descriptions range from creatures who are merely mischievous to “evil incubus.” Since the mid-1500s, it’s been used figuratively for a mischievous person. They were thought to create knots in hair (oooookay) and hiccups.
Over the centuries, they gradually took on new roles in people’s minds. They were occasionally referred to as “house gnomes,” and while they would act with traditional mischief if not treated properly, they were thought to scare off true evil spirits from your house if you treated them properly–people were known to leave out gifts of food and baubles to appease them.
It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Scandinavian writers took this ancient tradition and decided it would be fun to apply it to Christmas. Popular writers of the day began crafting stories that assigned elves the new role of being Santa Claus‘s helpers. By this time traditional belief in elves had pretty much fallen away, so people seized this new thought that sort of revived an old belief, but in a nice, cute way. Visual artists joined this new movement and began painting pictures of what we now identify as elves–cute, small, sprite-like creatures who are all goodwill…at least unless a child in naughty, in which case some old mischief might sneak out and cause them to replace goodies in a stocking with switches or lumps of coal.
So there we have it. Elves. 😉