On Elves, Hobbits and the Little Folk

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen
We daren't go a-hunting
For fear of little men.

— William Allingham (1824-89), Irish poet

When the first baby laughed for the first time, the laugh broke into a thousand pieces and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies. And now when every new baby is born its first laugh becomes a fairy. So there ought to be one fairy for every boy or girl.
— J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

The Picts were the ancient inhabitants of the northern British isles. Some accounts describe them as being shorter than average, and with brown skin. Of all the races who inhabited the British Isles at the time of the Roman invasion, the Picts were the only one never conquered by the Romans. They retreated into what is now Scotland and later allied themselves with the Scottish Gaels to form modern Scotland.

Some say Picts further south retreated into the mountains of Wales and hid themselves from the Roman invaders. The Romans themselves write of hunting down the Picts like wild beasts, shooting them for sport. According to this theory, the Picts went into hiding and began living in burrows, coming out only at night to forage for food. Eventually, they became even shorter and became dwarfish people. Eventually, they came to be called pixies or brownies.

Myths grew up about them. They would come out at night and do chores for any of the "big folk" who were nice to them, who would put out saucers of milk at night for them, for example.

And on Samhain (Halloween), the pixies come out to ask for treats — and to do their tricks as well. So, next Halloween, look closely at the "goblins" who come to your door. Some might just be neighborhood children. But some might be pixies.

It makes a good story, especially on this day after April Fools Day. But there might also be a grain of truth to it!

Every nation has its stories of the "little people." Often called fairies (from the Latin fata or fate), they dwell apart from us big folk and both work mischief and do good deeds. In Arabic lands, they are the jinn or genies. The Scandinavians usually called them trolls, the Germans, elves, and the English called them pixies.

The word "pict," by the way, is thought to be from the Latin pictus, meaning painted, so it is assumed the original Picts painted their bodies.

The land of faerie is a magical place. Interestingly, there is no place for the fairies in the Christian religion — though belief in them persists throughout Christendom.

W.B. Yeats, in his wanderings around Ireland in search of lore, wrote of an interview with a farm woman who told him — "she did not believe either in Hell or in ghosts. Hell was an invention got up by the priest to keep people good; and ghosts would not be permitted, she held, to go 'trapsin' about the earth' at their own free will; 'but there are faeries and little leprechauns, and water-horses, and fallen angels.'"

Yeats described the elves this way: "The little people and faeries in Ireland are sometimes as big as we are, sometimes bigger, and sometimes, as I have been told, about three feet high."

Bullfinch, in his classic Mythology, describes the elves this way:
The Edda mentions another class of beings, inferior to the gods, but still possessed of great power; these were called Elves. The white spirits, or Elves of Light, were exceedingly fair, more brilliant than the sun, and clad in garments of a delicate and transparent texture.

They loved the light, were kindly disposed to humankind, and generally appeared as fair and lovely children. Their country was called Alfheim, and was the domain of Freyr, the god of the sun, in whose light they were always sporting.

The black or Night Elves were a different kind of creatures. Ugly, long-nosed dwarfs, of a dirty brown color, they appeared only at night, for they avoided the sun as their most deadly enemy, because whenever his beams fell upon any of them they changed them immediately into stones. Their language was the echo of solitudes, and their dwelling-places subterranean caves and clefts. They were supposed to have come into existence as maggots produced by the decaying flesh of Ymir's body, and were afterwords endowed by the gods with a human form and great understanding. They were particularly distinguished for a knowledge of the mysterious powers of nature, and for the runes which they carved and explained. They were the most skillful artificers of all created beings, and worked in metals and in wood. Among their most noted works were Thor's hammer, and the ship "Skidbladnir," which they gave to Freyr, and which was so large that it could contain all the deities with their war and household implements, but so skillfully was it wrought that when folded together it could be put into a side pocket.

These latter were called (by Paracelsus in the 16th century) gnomes, bearded dwarfs who lived in mountains and hills and who knew the secret of all metals. Their name is from the Greek gnosis, meaning knowledge, for they knew where the secret hordes of treasure were hidden.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his classic fantasies such as Lord of the Rings, invented a class of "little people" called hobbits. These were small mortals (unlike the immortal or nearly immortal elves) who lived in burrows in the ground, and who loved nothing better than eating, smoking pipes and exchanging gifts with one another. Tolkien wrote that if you walked in the woods you might catch a glimpse of a movement in the grass out of the corner of your eye. This, he said, would be a hobbit, staying just out of sight, for they fear the anger and brutality of human beings.

The faeries are portrayed often — as by J.M. Barrie — as cute little creatures, more playful than serious. But there is a deadly serious side to the little people.

The word elf is thought to come from the Latin alba, meaning white. The German word alp means a nightmare, and the elves originally were the dead, the white ghosts of dead folk.

As I mentioned earlier, the word fairy is thought to be derived from the Latin fata, meaning fate. The old English word was fay or fae (the Old French word for fairy). This was the word used to describe the old Roman goddess of fate, Fata. But another word in English also might be an original for fairy. This is the word fey, meaning "otherworldly" or "magickal," as in the expression: "He has a fey look about him."

The word fey comes from the Middle English feie, meaning "fated to die" (derived from Old English faege)/ In Scotland today, someone who is fey is about to die or strongly afraid of dying.

Again, we find the little people associated with death.

In Ireland there is another creature, called a "woman of the fairies" who has, according to legend, never been seen by a living human being. This is the banshee, who screams mournfully in the night around any home where someone will die in the night. In Celtic times, a sidh (pronounced "shee") was a hole or barrow in the earth. Gradually, the sidhe became the Irish fairies, dwellers of night and darkness. The Irish phrase "bean sidhe" literally means "woman of the fairies."

In traditional English folklore, the land of Fairy was a place out of space and out of time. If a person visited this realm, a stay of a few days might be the same as a hundred years in "real time." Remember Rip van Winkle and his "long sleep" or the land of Avalon in the Arthurian legend.

The land of Fairy was the world of dreams, the world in which we died briefly, and where we functioned in a universe that did not obey natural law.

Some say the little people are nothing but the ancient gods still remembered by the common folk. The Giants of the Scandinavians are now the trolls (or gnomes) of northern countries. The leprechauns are the remains of the great Cu Chulain, the ancient Irish hero. The fairies of Europe are the last vestiges of the Roman fauns, and the pixies are British versions of the ancient dryads (in fact, the ancient English word for dryad was wudaelf, or elf of the wood.)

I believe the little folk are folk or racial memories — memories of ancient beliefs perhaps. But also memories of small-framed cultures who have disappeared, or almost disappeared from memory. The conquered peoples of the world — vanquished by the larger hominids who were our ancestors.

But I also believe that the little people are remnants of our own dream worlds, the nightmares and fantasies of night-time reflected on our days.

And I would like, most of all, to believe in elves. To believe that there exists a tiny race of humanoids dwelling in the forests and mountains of this planet — staying just out of sight of humans and retaining a vestige of the old, peaceful ways of earth when it was not so crowded with Homo Sapiens.

Sometimes, far from the city, I think I see them, scurrying through the brush, the little people. The long-dead ancestors of our species. The last of a conquered race.

But perhaps it's only a squirrel I see. Or the image of my own death.

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