from Wikipedia:

An elf (plural elves) is a being of Germanic mythology. The elves were originally thought of as a race of divine beings (wights, vættir) endowed with magical powers, which they use both for the benefit and the injury of mankind. In medieval Norse mythology, they appear to have been divided into light elves and dark elves, difficult to delineate from the Æsir (gods) on one hand and the dvergar (dwarves) on the other.

In early modern and modern folklore, they become associated with the fairies of Romance folklore and assume a diminutive size, often living mainly in forests but also underground in hills or rocks, or in wells and springs. 19th-century Romanticism attempted to restore them to full stature, making them men and women of great beauty, often depicted as very young.

From their depiction in Romanticism, elves entered the 20th-century high fantasy genre in the wake of the published work of J. R. R. Tolkien (especially the posthumous publication of his Silmarillion where Tolkien’s treatment of the relation of light elves, dark elves and dwarves is made explicit).

The „Christmas elves” of contemporary popular culture were popularized during the 1870s in the United States, in publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book.


The English word elf is from the Old English ælf or elf, in reference to a midget, themselves from the Proto-Germanic *albiz which also resulted in Old Norse álfr, Middle High German elbe. *Albiz may be from the Proto-Indo-European root *albh- meaning „white”, from which also stems the Latin albus „white”.Alternatively, a connection to the Rbhus, semi-divine craftsmen in Indian mythology, has also been suggested(OED).

Originally ælf/elf and its plural ælfe were the masculine forms, while the corresponding feminine form (first found in eighth century glosses) was ælfen or elfen (with a possible feminine plural -ælfa, found in dunælfa) which became the Middle English elven, using the feminine suffix -en from the earlier -inn which derives from the Proto-Germanic *-innja). The fact that cognates exist (such as the German elbinne) could suggest a West Germanic *alb(i)innjo, but this is uncertain, as the examples may be simply a transference to the weak declension common in Southern and Western forms of Middle English. The Middle English forms with this weak declension were aluen(e) and eluen(e). By the earlier eleventh century ælf could denote a female.

The Modern German Elf (m), Elfe (f), Elfen is a loan from English. A masculine Elb is reconstructed from the plural by Jacob Grimm, Deutsches Wörterbuch, who rejects Elfe as a (then, in the 1830s) recent anglicism. Elb (m, plural Elbe or Elben) is a reconstructed term, while Elbe (f) is attested in Middle High German. Alb, Alp (m), plural Alpe has the meaning of „incubus” (Old High German alp, plural *alpî or *elpî). Gothic has no direct testimony of *albs, plural *albeis, but Procopius has the personal name Albila.

Germanic mythology

Jacob Grimm discusses „Wights and Elves” comparatively in chapter 17 of his Teutonic Mythology. He notes that the Elder Edda couples the Æsir and the álfar, a conjunction that recurs in Old English ês and ylfe, clearly grouping the elves as a divine or supernatural class of beings, sometimes extended by the Vanir as a third class: The Hrafnagaldr states Alföðr orkar, álfar skilja, vanir vita „The Allfather [i.e. the áss] has power, the álfar have skill, and vanir knowledge”.

A notable crux in the Old Norse mythology is the distinction of álfar and dvergar. They appear as separate races in extended lists such as the one in Alvíssmál, listing Æsir, álfar, Vanir, goð (gods), męnn (humans), ginregin, jǫtnar, dvergar and denizens of Hęl. Middle High German tradition asgma separates the elbe from getwerc.

On the other hand, there is a close kinship between elves and dwarves, evident already because many dwarves have elvish names, including simple Álfr „elf”, and Alberich „king of elves”.

Loki is particularly difficult to classify; he is usually called an áss, but is really of jǫtunn origin, and is nevertheless also addressed as álfr. The conclusion of Grimm is that the classification „elf” can be considered to „shrink and stretch by turns”. The etymology connecting *alboz with albus „white” suggests an original dichotomy of „white” vs. „black” genii, corresponding to the elves vs. the dwarves which was subsequently confused. Thus the „white” elves proper are named ljósálfar „light elves”, contrasting with døckálfar „dark elves”.

Snorri in the Prose Edda states that the light elves dwell in Álfheim while the dark elves dwell underground. Confusion arises from the introduction of the additional term svartálfar „black elves”, which at first appears synonymous to the „dark elves”; Snorri identifies with the dvergar and has them reside in Svartálfaheim. This prompts Grimm to assume a tripartite division of light elves, dark elves and black elves, of which only the latter are identical with dwarves, while the dark elves are an intermediate class, „not so much downright black, as dim, dingy”. In support of such an intermediate class between light elves, or „elves proper”, on one hand, and black elves or dwarves on the other, Grimm adduces the evidence of the Scottish brownies and other traditions of dwarves wearing grey or brown clothing.

Old English

The Old English form of the word is ælf (pl. ælfe, with regional and chronological variants such as ylfe and ælfen). Words for the nymphs of the Greek and Roman mythos were translated by Anglo-Saxon scholars with ælf and variants on it.[6]

Old English tradition preserves the ylfe exclusively as mischievous, harmful beings. The 10th century Metrical Charm „Against A Sudden Stitch” (Wið færstice) offers remedy against sudden pain (such as rheumatism) caused by projectiles of either ése or ylfe or witches (gif hit wære esa gescot oððe hit wære ylfa gescot oððe hit wære hægtessan gescot „be it Ése-shot or Elf-shot or witch-shot”).

In relation the beauty of the Norse elves, some further evidence is given by old English words such as ælfsciene („elf-beautiful”), used of seductively beautiful Biblical women in the Old English poems Judith and Genesis A. Although elves could be considered to be beautiful and potentially helpful beings in some sections of English-speaking society throughout its history, Old English evidence also attests to alignments of elves with demons, as for example in line 112 of Beowulf. On the other hand, oaf is simply a variant of the word elf, presumably originally referring to a changeling or to someone stupefied by elvish enchantment.

Elf-shot (or elf-bolt or elf-arrow) is a word found in Scotland and Northern England, first attested in a manuscript of about the last quarter of the 16th century. Although first attested in the sense ‘sharp pain caused by elves’, it is later attested denoting Neolithic flint arrow-heads, which by the 17th century seem to have been attributed in the region to elvish folk, and which were used in healing rituals, and alleged to be used by witches (and perhaps elves) to injure people and cattle. So too a tangle in the hair was called an elf-lock, as being caused by the mischief of the elves (or especially by Queen Mab), and sudden paralysis was sometimes attributed to elf-stroke. Compare with the following excerpt from an 1750 ode by Willam Collins:

There every herd, by sad experience, knows
How, winged with fate, their elf-shot arrows fly,
When the sick ewe her summer food forgoes,
Or, stretched on earth, the heart-smit heifers lie.

Life cycle

As told in The History of Middle-earth and in Tolkien’s Letters, Elves had a different life cycle from Men. Most of the following information strictly refers only to the Eldar, as found in his essay Laws and Customs among the Eldar, found in Morgoth’s Ring.

Early life

Elves are born about one year from their conception. The day of their conception is celebrated, not the actual birthday itself. Their minds develop more quickly than their bodies; by their first year, they can speak, walk and even dance, and their quicker onset of mental maturity makes young Elves seem, to Men, older than they really are. Physical puberty comes in around their fiftieth to one hundredth year (by age fifty they reach their adult height), and by their first hundred years of life outside the womb all Elves are fully grown. Elven bodies eventually stop aging physically, while human bodies do not.

Sexuality, marriage, and parenthood

Elves marry freely and for love early in life. Monogamy is practiced and adultery is unthinkable; they marry only once (Finwë, first High King of the Noldor, was an exception, as he remarried after his first wife died).

Spouses can choose each other even long before they are married, thus becoming betrothed. The betrothal is subject to parental approval unless the parties are of age and intend to marry soon, at which point the betrothal is announced. They exchange rings and the betrothal lasts at least a year, and is revocable by the return of the rings; however, it is rarely broken. After their formal betrothal, the couple appoint a date, at least a year later, for the wedding.

Only the words exchanged by the bride and groom (including the speaking of the name of Eru Ilúvatar) and the consummation are required for marriage. More formally, the couple’s families celebrate the marriage with a feast. The parties give back their betrothal rings and receive others worn on their index fingers. The bride’s mother gives the groom a jewel to wear (Galadriel’s gift of the Elfstone to Aragorn reflects this tradition; she is grandmother to his betrothed, Arwen, Arwen’s mother Celebrían having left Middle-earth for Valinor after grievous psychological injury after her capture by Orcs and liberation by her sons).

The Elves view the sexual act as extremely special and intimate, for it leads to the conception and birth of children. Extra-marital and premarital sex are unthinkable, adultery is also unheard of and fidelity between spouses is absolute. Yet separation during pregnancy or during the early years of parenthood (caused by war, for example) is so grievous to the couple that they prefer to have children in peaceful times. Living Elves cannot be raped or forced to have sex; before that they will lose the will to endure and go to Mandos.

Elves have few children, as a rule (Fëanor and Nerdanel were an exception, conceiving seven sons), and there are relatively sizeable intervals between each child (but see below for notes on Elvish birth rates in Middle-earth versus in Aman). They are soon preoccupied with other pleasures; their libido wanes and they focus their interests elsewhere, like the arts. Nonetheless, they take great delight in the union of love, and they cherish the days of bearing and raising children as the happiest days of their lives.[

There seems to only be one known example of extreme marital strife in Tolkien’s mythology, that of Eöl and Aredhel, in which the latter actually left the former without his knowledge, resulting in Eöl ultimately killing her. However, this marriage was far from typical of the Elves.

Daily life

The Elves, particularly the Noldor, preoccupy themselves with various things such as smithwork, sculpture, music and other arts, and of course, what to eat. Males and females can do almost everything equally; however, the females often specialize in the arts of healing while the males go to war. This is because they believe that taking life interferes with the ability to preserve life. However, Elves are not stuck in rigid roles; females can defend themselves at need as well as males, and many males are skilled healers as well, such as Elrond.

Later life

Eventually, if they do not die in battle or from some other cause, the Elves of Middle-earth grow weary of it and desire to go to Valinor, where the Valar originally sheltered their kind. Those who wish to leave for the Undying Lands often go by boats provided at the Grey Havens, where Círdan the Shipwright dwells with his folk.

„The third cycle of life”, aging, and facial hair

Despite Tolkien’s statements in The Hobbit that Elves (and Hobbits) have no beards, Círdan in fact has a beard, which appears to be an anomaly and a simple oversight. However, Tolkien later devised at least three „cycles of life” for Elves around 1960; Círdan had a beard because he was in his third cycle of life. (Mahtan, Nerdanel’s father, had a beard in his second cycle of life, a rare phenomenon.) It is unclear what these cycles exactly are, since Tolkien left no notes further explaining this. Apparently, beards were the only sign of further natural physical ageing beyond maturity.

Nevertheless, Tolkien may have ultimately changed his mind about whether Elves had facial hair. As Christopher Tolkien states in Unfinished Tales, his father wrote in December 1972 or later that the Elvish strain in Men, such as Aragorn, was „observable in the beardlessness of those who were so descended”, since „it was a characteristic of all Elves to be beardless”.  This would seemingly contradict the information above.

Elves sometimes appear to age under great stress. Círdan appeared to be aged himself, since he is described as looking old, save for the stars in his eyes; this may be due to all the sorrows he had seen and lived through since the First Age. Also, the people of Gwindor of Nargothrond had trouble recognizing him after his time as a prisoner of Morgoth.


Elves are naturally immortal, and remain unwearied with age. In addition to their immortality, Elves can recover from wounds which would normally kill a mortal Man. However, Elves can be slain, or die of grief and weariness.

Spirits of dead Elves go to the Halls of Mandos in Valinor. After a certain period of time and rest that serves as „cleansing”, their spirits are clothed in bodies identical to their old ones. However, they almost never go back to Middle-earth and remain in Valinor instead. An exception was Glorfindel in The Lord of the Rings; as shown in later books, Tolkien decided he was a „reborn” hero from The Silmarillion rather than an individual with the same name. A rare and more unusual example of an Elf coming back from the Halls of Mandos is found in the tale of Beren and Lúthien, as Lúthien was the other Elf to be sent back to Middle-earth – as a mortal, however. Tolkien’s Elvish words for „spirit” and „body” were fëa (plural fëar) and hröa(plural hröar) respectively.

Eventually, their immortal spirits will overwhelm and consume their bodies, rendering them „bodiless”, whether they opt to go to Valinor or remain in Middle-earth. At the end of the world, all Elves will have become invisible to mortal eyes, except to those to whom they wish to manifest themselves. Tolkien called the Elves of Middle-earth who had undergone this process „Lingerers”.

The lives of Elves only endure as the world endures.It is said in the Second Prophecy of Mandos that at the end of time the Elves will join the other Children of Ilúvatar in singing the Second Music of the Ainur.[29] However it is disputable whether the Prophecy is canon, and the published Silmarillion states that only Men shall participate in the Second Music, and that the ultimate fate of the Elves is unknown. However, they do not believe that Eru will abandon them to oblivion.

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