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An elf is a member of a race of mythical creatures
except on Iceland, where elves exist noticeable for their heavy use of magic, having no well-defined gender (suggesting that they are hermaphrodites), and their strong ties with nature. The precise characteristics of elves are subject to change depending on the writer individuals we're dealing with, and especially their uncanny ability to change their looks as history passes by, being one of the best proofs of evolutionary theory as they adapt to changes in human culture, thus explaining why fundies will often consider them as demons.
Elves are typically presented as being suspiciously similar to the fair folk, including being vulnerable like fairies to "cold iron", which has made some suggest that we're dealing with the same creatures. Either that, or they can mutate quickly into other beings, which makes them even more disliked by fundamentalists.
While it isn't universal, elves tend to be described as very beautiful and slender, in contrast with stocky, ugly dwarves (ewww!). Some think that this caused the famous enmity between the two races. Also, unlike dwarves who imbue the objects they make with magic, elves can operate with magic directly by casting flashy spells, even if they can also create neat magic toys.
Mythology and popular culture
Elves in the popular imagination have either changed the way they appear over time, mimicking human perception, or have radiated into a whole lot of species similar to the Cambrian explosion in real life. Elves first appeared in Norse mythology and other northern European mythologies. They lived in forests near a king, being mostly female and dancing in patterns that left behind a circular ring, that if broken could bring trouble (as with fairies you did not want to mess or have businesses with them even if not all of were mischievous). It could also be trouble if one danced with them (read: time working in funny ways or even killing the human who partook on said dance), invited or not. Elves could cause havoc in various ways:
- Becoming invisible (something suggested to be the result of a confusion with demons)
- Causing illnesses, often peppering the human with arrows (like the former now thought to be the result of mixing them with similar Christian themes).
- Taking human form
- Luring the human to their lands (See the Wikipedia article on Alfheim.)
- Exchanging their babies with human ones (changeling)
In the above cases Christian imagery and themes were often mixed in with the original legends, including not only identifications of them with demons as described above and elsewhere but also considering them the result of Cain murdering Abel, as angels banished by God not to Hell but to Earth instead, or like Eve's lost children. Other times they lived outside Christian cosmology, or paralleling the way angels and demons live were split into "light elves", living in the heavens, and "dark elves", living underground.
Later on, in the Middle Ages, they became even nastier: those living in the area of modern-day Germany being considered a demonic influence that (as mentioned above) would cause illnesses, with prayers to protect oneself from them, as well as deceitful, bewildering people.
In Elizabethan England, thanks to the works of people like William Shakespeare things began to change when they became indistinguishable of fairies, being small, ethereal, creatures, who as centuries went by would later grew insect wings.
However it was during the 19th and 20th centuries when their varieties exploded. Some became workers for Santa Claus'
sweatshops workshops making toys for the children of the world up there in the North Pole. Tolkien's works (mainly The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) inspired the modern trope of pointy-eared, slender, beautiful, and nimble people living in the deepest forest who have long lives, up to the point of being immortal, with keener senses than a human, and who typically excel at archery and magic. In this latter case it has been thanks to Dungeons and Dragons and too many to count video games and fantasy novels that their speciation has reached a maximum (moon elves, sun elves, star elves, high elves, wild elves, wood elves, night elves[note 1], deep elves, snow elves, desert elves, underground elves,[note 2], aquatic elves, light and dark elves[note 3], space elves… basically, name an ecosystem and it will have an elf species), and this without including hybridization with humans and with even other fantastic creatures.
- Dwarf, as they tend to have a strained relationship with elves.
- Fairies. Maybe the same, maybe not.
- People who think they're elves
- Famous for their disproportionately long ears, claimed by some to be an adaption to hold the female during sexual intercourse. This does not explain why males have also them, however.
- Sometimes also confused with the drow, and except those who love to dance naked under the moonlight the latter being very nasty.
- Not related with the above light elves and dark elves
- Schön, Ebbe (1986). "De fagra flickorna på ängen". Älvor, vättar och andra väsen. ISBN 978-91-29-57688-7.
- Hellström, Anne Marie (1990). En Krönika om Åsbro. p. 36. ISBN 978-91-7194-726-0.
- Taylor, Lynda (2014). The Cultural Significance of Elves in Northern European Balladry (Ph. D.). University of Leeds. http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/8759/.
- Jolly, Karen Louise (1998). Ferreiro, Alberto. ed. Elves in the Psalms? The Experience of Evil from a Cosmic Perspective. Cultures, Beliefs and Traditions 6. Leiden: Brill. pp. 19–44. ISBN 978-9-0041-0610-9. https://books.google.com/books?id=UyNi3V1NKy0C&pg=PA19&lpg=PA19.
- Hall (2007), pp. 88–89, 141
- See the Wikipedia article on Elvehøj.
- Green, Richard Firth (2016). Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Hall (2007), pp. 69–74, 106 n. 48 and 122 on English evidence
- Hall (2007), pp. 69–74.
- Hall (2007), p. 75
- e.g. Hall (2007), pp. 172–75.
- Shippey, pp=180–81, Hall, pp=23–26, Gunnellm pp=127–28, Tolley, I, p. 220
- Hall (2007), pp. 125–26.
- (Stallybrass tr.)
- Grimm (1883). Teutonic mythology. 3. pp. 1246ff. https://books.google.com/books?id=c8AoAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA1246.
- "Die aufnahme des Wortes knüpft an Wielands Übersetzung von Shakespeares Sommernachtstraum 1764 und and Herders Voklslieder 1774 (Werke 25, 42) an"; Kluge, Friedrich (1899). Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (6th improved and expanded ed.). Strassbourg: K. J. Trübner. p. 93. https://books.google.com/books?id=uL8GAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA93.
- Belk, Russell W. (Spring 1987). "A Child's Christmas in America: Santa Claus as Deity, Consumption as Religion". The Journal of American Culture 10 (1): 87–100 (p. 89).
- Just in D&D