Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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Elf shine

While the focus of Twilight is on the period between the fifth and ninth centuries. there is an Anglo-Saxon belief which has direct parallels with post-Conquest beliefs, expressed not in Old English but in French. The phrases 'elf shine' and 'fairy glamour' are modern English derivations of Old English and anglicised French phrases. But, in this context, none of these four words – elf, shine, fairy, glamour – mean quite what you think they mean.

When we think of elves today we are influenced by nineteenth century fiction writers who portrayed elves and fairies as diminutive hominids. Please park all such ideas somewhere else for the duration of reading this section (you can always collect them again later). The origin of the Old English word aelf reveals that elves are not what a great many other people – thought. For a start something that was aelf was not necessarily a creature, still less a vaguely human-like one. Based on the wonderful work of Alaric Hall (Hall 2007; see also Who were the landwights?)) we can now appreciate that to be aelfen was to be enchanted or 'paranormal' – in some sense 'other' to normal reality.

One reason the word aelf dropped out of English is because after the Norman Conquest a French loan word faerie (itself a borrowing from the Latin fata meaning 'fates') took over the same sense of enchantment and magic. Again this is not fairies as small human-like entitities but the sense of fairy in 'fairy tales' – bearing in mind that few fairy tales are about fairies per se, but are always tales of enchantment.

However, in the fourteenth century Chaucer's tale of the Wife of Bath uses faerie in the abstract sense of 'magic' to complement 'elf', used for the magical creatures, as in the verses


Al was this lond fulfilled of faerie. The elf-quene, with hire joly compagnie...


The word 'fairy' continued to evolve towards its modern sense. The notable historian of medieval religion and magic, Keith Thomas concluded that 'Ancestral spirits, ghosts, sleeping heroes, fertility spirits and pagan gods can all be discerned in the heterogenous fairy lore of medieval England' (Thomas 1971: 724).

Fairy became a 'catch all' category, as we can see when John Aubrey wrote:


Anno 1670, not far from Cirencester, was an apparition; being demanded whether a good spirit or a bad? returned no answer, but disappeared with a curious perfume and a most melodious twang. Mr W. Lilly believes it was a fairy.


As well as being a 'catch all' term for otherworldy entities, the Old English word aelf had something else in common with medieval and later perceptions of fairies. Fairies had 'glamour' – meaning not so much an attractive appearance as the ability to hide their appearances by a veil of magic. As John Aubrey observed, they could change shape in an instant. So too there is the Old English word aelfscinu – 'elf shine'. While scin, like glamour, could describe a beautiful woman – 'not simply beautiful, but perilously so' (Hall 2007: 93) – its main usage was to denote the deceptive appearance of anything 'paranormal'. Again, aelfschinu seems to be an exact synonym for the later expression 'fairy glamour'. Aelfs and fairies were 'shape shifters' – as the older tales readily confirm.

Bearing in mind that the surviving Old English literature was written down within the Christian era, it is perhaps not too surprising that angels (a hitherto Middle Eastern concept imported as part of the 'package' of ideas which made up Byzantine Christianity) seem to have many of the attributes of 'bright elves'. Whatever aelfe were, they were distinct from more monstrous Otherworldy entities such as giants, thurs and dwarves (Hall 2007: 32). Aelf seems to denote 'all Otherwordly things bright and beautiful'.

This is perhaps easier to understand if we look briefly at some ethnographic parallels. Julia Phillips reported that Australian Aborigines from New South Wales recognise traditional 'guardians of place' whose descriptions tally closely with her first-hand encounters with an 'archetypal' British elf or fairy in 'old' south Wales. Kevin Callahan at University of Minnesota (Callahan 1995) claims Ojibwa indians of the American Midwest see 'little people' for about thirty minutes during hallucinations induced by atrophine-containing plants from the Deadly Nightshade family. And this sounds rather similar to what Terence McKenna called the 'elf-infested spaces' induced by DMT and the pysilocibin of 'magic mushrooms'.

But rather than be taken in by the 'glamour' of later medieval and early modern ideas about fairies, perhaps we should think of them as part of the aelf world which Anglo-Saxons saw as distinct from both more monstrous Otherworlds and from the spirit world of the dead. But, whatever the exact meaning and significance of 'elf shine' might have been, we can see the same underlying worldview jumping across the language and other cultural divides which separate English from French. And, as any ideas about aelfe are by their very nature pre-Christian, it is further evidence of how such worldviews can straddle apparent rifts in society.

Grateful thanks to John Call for informing me of a major error in the original opening paragraphs of this article. The relevant sections were rewritten March 2018.


copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013; revised 2018


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