(plural, Elves, Anglo-Saxon, oelf). Properly, a
mountain fay, but more loosely applied to those airy creatures that
dance on the grass or sit in the leaves of trees and delight in the
full moon. They have fair golden hair, sweet musical voices, and magic
harps. They have a king and queen, marry and are given in marriage.
They impersonate the shimmering of the air, the felt but indefinable
melody of Nature, and all the little prettinesses which a lover of the
country sees, or thinks he sees, in hill and dale, copse and meadow,
grass and tree, river and moonlight. Spenser says that Prometheus
called the man he made “Elfe,” who found a maid in the garden of
Adonis, whom he called “Fay,” of “whom all Fayres spring.”
Of these a mighty people shortly grew,
And puissant kings, which all the world war rayd, And to themselves
all nations did subdue.
Faërie Queene, ii. 9, stanza 70, etc.
Elf and Goblin,
as derived from Guelf and Ghibelline, is mentioned in Johnson
(article GOBLIN), though the words existed long before those factions
arose. Heylin (in his Cosmography,
p. 130) tells us that some
supported that opinion in 1670. Skinner gives the same etymology.
In Iceland, a person gaily dressed is called a red elf (raud
), in allusion to a superstition that dwarfs wear scarlet or
red clothes. (Nial's Sagas.
) Black elves are evil spirits; white
elves, good ones.
Source: Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, E. Cobham Brewer, 1894
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