the Christmas Season
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
"Round about in a rainy ring-a,
Thus we dance and thus we sing-a;
Trip and go, to and fro,
Over this green-a;
All about, in and out,
Over this green-a."
~ The Elves' Dance, Anonymous (1604-1675)
The friendly elves associated with Santa are a recent invention and have little to do with elves of Celtic folklore, who were sinister beings believed to menace livestock and people with illness. The term "Elfshot" or "elf-shot" was a medical condition believed to be caused by invisible elves shooting invisible arrows at a person or animal, causing sudden shooting pains localised to a particular area of the body. It was also the Scottish term for neolithic flint arrowheads (thought to be from the elves' arrows) which were used in the Highlands an amulet or cure for protection from elf shot conditions.
Chasing an Elf
The friendly elves who assist Santa Claus in his duties are a relatively recent cultural invention.
The elves of folklore, most associated with Scotland, Ireland, Cornwall, Wales (the Celtic fringe) are part of the larger canon of faerie folklore and like the faeries, interact with humans in a much darker fashion.
The word, ‘elf’ is derived from ‘alfar’, the Scandinavian word for diminutive supernatural types. There are several Elf howes and barrows in Britain; the Elfa Hills; Elva Hill, Elva Plain and Elva stone circle; Elf Hall at Hallthwaites, Ellabarrow at Pennington, and many more. Some of these barrows are thought to be pre-historic burial mounds, and as such have been a source of archaeological findings of neolithic flint arrowheads. These arrowheads were commonly believed to be faery and elf arrows, or ‘elf-shot’ and kept as protective charms against the mischief of elves.
The noun elf-shot as a term for illness is actually first attested in a Scots poem, "Rowlis Cursing", from around 1500, where "elf schot" is listed among a range of curses to be inflicted on some chicken-thieves!
For hundreds of years, if cattle were suddenly taken ill, they were said to be ‘elf-struck’ or 'elf-shot' which meant they had been shot with a faery arrow. There’s even a theory that our colloquial medical term, ‘stroke’ is derived from 'elf-stroke,' too. The cure for elf shot was to touch the beast with one of the elf arrows or to give it water in which the arrow had been washed.
This condition often extended to humans, sudden shooting pains localised to a particular area of the body, were evidence of elf shot, associated with modern diagnoses such as rheumatism, arthritis, muscle stitches or cramps.
The prevention or curing of elfshot comes from using the arrowhead charm against the sudden stitch; or the three plants used in the cure were feverfew, red nettles and waybread (plantain). All have vaguely spear-shaped leaves, which may have suggested their use as a remedy for pains attributed to elf-arrows.
Some folklorists assert that the elves got the elf-shot from the faeries, who, in turn, were given the arrows by mermaids.
So if you're going to chase elves this season, make sure they are the friendly kind. For a scholarly discussion of elf maladies in Scotland and elsewhere, click the elf below.