Säg, kännar du Elfvornas glada slägt?
De bygga ved fiodernas rand;
De spinna af månsken sin högtidsdrägt,
Med liljehvit spelande hand.
Say, knowest thou the Elves' gay and joyous race?
The banks of streams are their home;
They spin of the moonshine their holiday-dress,
With their lily-white hands frolicsome.
THE Alfar still live in the memory and traditions of the peasantry of Scandinavia. They also, to a certain extent, retain their distinction into White and Black. The former, or the Good Elves, dwell in the air, dance on the grass, or sit in the leaves of trees; the latter, or Evil Elves, are regarded as an underground people, who frequently inflict sickness or injury on mankind; for which there is a particular kind of doctors called Kloka män, [a] to be met with in all parts of the country.
The Elves are believed to have their kings, and to celebrate their weddings and banquets, just the same as the dwellers above ground. There is an interesting intermediate class of them in popular tradition called the Hill-people (Högfolk), who are believed to dwell in caves and small hills: when they show themselves they have a handsome human form. The common people seem to connect with them a deep feeling of melancholy, as if bewailing a half-quenched hope of redemption. [b]
There are only a few old persons now who can tell any thing more about them than of the sweet singing that may occasionally on summer nights be beard out of their hills, when one stands still and listens, or, as it is expressed in the ballads, "lays his ear to the Elve-hill" (lägger sit öra till Elfvehögg): but no one must be so cruel as, by the slightest word, to destroy their hopes of salvation, for then the spritely music will be turned into weeping and laanentation. [c]
The Norwegians call the Elves Huldrafolk, and their music Huldraslaat: it is in the minor key, and of a dull and mournful sound. The mountaineers sometimes play it, and pretend they have learned it by listening to the underground people among the hills and rocks. There is also a tune called the Elf-king's tune, which several of the good fiddlers know right well, but never venture to play, for as soon as it begins both old and young, and even inanimate objects, are impelled to dance, and the player cannot stop unless be can play the air backwards, or that some one comes behind him and cuts the strings of his fiddle. [d]
The little underground Elves, who are believed to dwell under the houses of mankind, are described as sportive and mischievous, and as imitating all the actions of men. They are said to love cleanliness about the house and place, and to reward such servants as are neat and. cleanly.
There was one time, it is said, a servant girl, who was for her cleanly, tidy habits, greatly beloved by the Elves, particularly as she was careful to carry away all dirt and foul water to a distance from the house, and they once invited her to a wedding. Every thing was conducted in the greatest order, and they made her a present of some chips, which she took good-homouredly and put into her pocket. But when the bride-pair was coming there was a straw unluckily lying in the way, the bridegroom got cleverly over it, but the poor bride fell on her face. At the sight of this the girl could not restrain herself, but burst out a-laughing, and that instant the whole vanished from her sight. Next day, to her utter amazement, she found that what she had taken to be nothing but chips, were so many pieces of pure gold. [e]
A dairy-maid at a place called Skibshuset (the Ship-house), in Odense, was not so fortunate. A colony of Elves had taken up their abode under the floor of the cowhouse, or it is more likely, were there before it was made a cowhouse. However, the dirt and filth that the cattle made annoyed them beyond measure, and they gave the dairy-maid to understand that if she did not remove the cows, she would have reason to repent it. She gave little heed to their representations; and it was not very long till they set her up on top of the hay-rick, and killed all the cows. It is said that they were seen on the same night removing in a great hurry from the cowhouse down to the meadow, and that they went in little coaches; and their king was in the first coach, which was far more stately and magnificent than the rest. They have ever since lived in the meadow. [f]
The Elves are extremely fond of dancing in the meadows, where they form those circles of a livelier green which from them are called Elf-dance (Elfdans). When the country people see in the morning stripes along the dewy grass in the woods and meadows, they say the Elves have been dancing there. If any one should at midnight get within their circle, they become visible to him, and they may then illude him. It is not every one that can see the Elves; and one person may see them dancing while another perceives nothing. Sunday children, as they are called, i. e. those born on Sunday, are remarkable for possessing this property of seeing Elves and similar beings. The Elves, however, have the power to bestow this gift on whomsoever they please. People also used to speak of Elf-books which they gave to those whom they loved, and which enabled them to foretell future events.
The Elves often sit in little stones that are of a circular form, and are called Elf-mills (Elf-quärnor); the sound of their voice is said to be sweet and soft like the air. [g]
The Danish peasantry give the following account of their EllefoIk or Elve-people.
The Elle-people live in the Elle-moors. The appearance of the man is that of an old man with a low-crowned hat on his head; the Elle-woman is young and of a fair and attractive countenance, but behind she is hollow like a dough-trough. Young men should be especially on their guard against her, for it is very difficult to resist her; and she has, moreover, a stringed instrument, which, when she plays on it, quite ravishes their hearts. The man may be often seen near the EIle-moors, bathing himself in the sunbeams, but if any one comes too near him, he opens his mouth wide and breathes upon them, and his breath produces sickness and pestilence. But the women are most frequently to be seen by moonshine; then they dance their rounds in the high grass so lightly and so gracefully, that they seldom meet a denial when they offer their hand to a rash young man. It is also necessary to watch cattle, that they may not graze in any place where the Elle-people have been; for if any animal come to a place where the Elle-people have spit, or done what is worse, it is attacked by some grievous disease which can only be cured by giving it to eat a handful of St. John's wort, which had been pulled at twelve o'clock on St. John's night. It might also happen that they might sustain some injury by mixing with the Elle-people's cattle, which are very large, and of a blue colour, and which may sometimes be seen in the fields licking up the dew, on which they live. But the farmer has an easy remedy against this evil; for he has only to go to the Elle-hill when he is turning out his cattle and to say, "Thou little Troll! may I graze my cows on thy hill?" And if he is not prohibited, he may set his mind at rest. [h]
The following ballads and tales will fully justify what baa been said respecting the tone of melancholy connected with the subject of the Elves. [i]
[a] That is, Wise People or Conjurors. They answer to the Fairy-women of Ireland.
[b] Afzelius is of opinion that this notion respecting the Hill-people is derived from the time of the introduction of Christianity into the north, and expresses the sympathy of the first converts with their forefathers, who had died without a knowledge of the Redeemer, and lay buried in heathen earth, and whose unhappy spirits were doomed to wander about these lower regions, or sigh within their mounds till the great day of redemption.
[c] "About fifteen years ago," says Odman (Bahuslän, p. 80), "people used to hear, out of the hill under Gärun, in the parish of Tanum, the playing, as it were, of the very best musicians. Any one there who had a fiddle, and wished to play, was taught in an instant, provided they promised them salvation; but whoever did not do so, might hear them within, in the hill, breaking their violins to pieces, sad weeping bitterly." See Grimm. Deut. Myth. 461.
[d] Arndt, Reise nach Schweden, iv. 241.
[e] Svenska Folk-Visor, vol. iii. p. 159. There is a similar legend in Germany. A servant, one time, seeing one of the little ones very hard-set to carry a single grain of wheat, burst out laughing at him. In a rage, he threw it on the ground, and it proved to be the purest gold. But he and his comrades quitted the house, and it speedily went to decay.--Strack. Beschr. v. Eilsen, p. 124, ap. Grimm, Introd., etc., p. 90.
[f] Thiele, vol. iv. p. 22. They are called Trolls in the original. As they had a king, we think they must have been Elves. The Dwarfs have long since abolished monarchy.
[g] The greater part of what precedes has been taken from Afzelius in the Svenska Visor, vol. iii.
[h] Thiele, iv. 26.
[i] In the distinction which we have made between the Elves and Dwarfs we find that we are justified by the popular creed of the Norwegians--Faye, p. 49, ap. Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, p. 412.