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Faerie Lore: Elf-shot by mermaids…

 I am glad to share with you this fine article as previously published on the partner blog Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore and written by Diane McIlmoyle. Re-posted under her kind permission. All rights reserved by the author.
It’s a good theory that faeries are most strongly associated with the ‘Celtic Fringe’ (Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Wales) because these areas were not overrun by later beliefs that came with the Romans and Anglo-Saxons. Cumbria also largely missed out on the Saxons, so our traditions have a lot in common with the classic Celtic areas. But a perusal of a map, never mind a tome of folklore, shows that Cumbria has at least as many elves as faeries.
Dancing Elves (1866) by August Malmstrom 
Dancing Elves (1866) by August Malmstrom

The word, ‘elf’ is derived from ‘alfar’, the Scandinavian word for diminutive supernatural types; they are, if you like, Viking faeries. There are several Elf Howes; the Elfa Hills; Elva Hill, Elva Plain and Elva stone circle; Elf Hall at Hallthwaites, Ellabarrow at Pennington, and lots more.

The elven ‘howes’ and ‘barrows’ are an interesting continuation of the pre-existing tradition of faery hills. In 1885, a vicar from Lanercost recorded the story of a Bewcastle man who was dragged off his horse and nearly pushed into a faery hill. The only thing that stopped this calamity was the page of the bible that he kept in his pocket specifically with this need in mind. Ellabarrow is home to ‘Lord Ella’ who sleeps under the hill with his golden sword, waiting to be awoken in a time of need. Of course, many parts of the country have a tale of kings and knights who live under the hill – I recall one about a sleeping King Arthur from Alderley Edge in Cheshire – that are clearly related to faery/elven hill stories.

A lot of the detail in elven/faery folklore supports the link with ancient peoples. Lord Ella’s ‘golden’ sword could have been folk memory of a bronze blade, mistranslated by time. Ancient beakers unearthed by farmers – probably from an ancient grave, whether they realised it or not – were said to be ‘faery cups’. And well into the 20th century, neolithic flint arrowheads were believed to be faery arrows, or ‘elf-shot’.
For hundreds of years, if cattle were taken ill, they were said to be ‘elf-struck’, 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 in Cumbria was to touch the beast (or, presumably, the human) with one of the faery arrows or to give it water in which the arrow had been washed.   The arrowheads were valuable commodities and carefully preserved for this purpose. In 1712, Bishop Nicholson remarked in his diary, that at ‘Bowness (on Solway)… we saw several Elf Arrows, too pretious (for the cure of Cattle Elf-shot) to be parted with’.

I was rather elf-struck myself recently to read Marjorie Rowling’s assertion that the elves got the elf-shot from the faeries, who, in turn, were given the arrows by mermaids. For one, this suggests that tradition does reflect a chronological succession from faeries to elves. But secondly, and more importantly – where did the mermaids come from?

 Whilst Cumbria’s coast has been far more important to its development than the casual observer might realise, we don’t often hear of mermaids. What we do have is a strong tradition of faeries – and it usually is faeries, rather than elves – at other watery places: springs, wells and tarns.
St. Cuthbert’s Well at Edenhall is said to be an entrance to faeryland; perhaps this was the home of the faeries who gave the Luck of Edenhall to the Musgraves. There are numerous similar stories recorded by Cumbria’s pre-eminent faery tracker, Mr Alan Cleaver.

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