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Santa’s Little Helpers

As the Yuletide Season is fully upon us Elves everywhere have made appearances in homes around the world. Their purpose is to keep an eye on the children and to create some harmless mischief in the process. Elves have been part of the Christmas tradition for quite some time. Apparently, Santa could not do his job if not for his trusty little helpers. But cultures around the world have some form of elf folklore year-round.

Medieval Elves

Unlike the helpful tiny beings of Santa lore, elves during the Middle Ages were believed to cause diseases, steal children and replace them with changelings, and cause bad dreams by sitting on the chest of sleepers. The German word for nightmare is Alpdrücken which translates to elf pressure.

In Old English, elves are most often mentioned in medical texts. This indicates a belief that elves could badly affect humans and livestock with illnesses. Evidently sharp, internal pains and mental disorders were caused by elves. The most famous medical texts is the metrical charm Wið færstice ("against a stabbing pain"). Written in the tenth century from a compilation of Lacnunga. However, most of the testimonies are also in the tenth century Bald's Leechbook and Leechbook III. This belief continued into later English-language traditions as well. This is evidenced as elves continued to appear in Middle English medical texts. (Hall (2007), pp. 88–89, 141; Green (2003); Hall (2006).

Huldufólk- Elves of Iceland and the Faroese

Also called the hidden people, Icelandic elves are supernatural beings that live in nature. They look and behave similarly to humans, yet live in a parallel world. (Efemia Hrönn Björgvinsdóttir (2014). Gjafir frá huldufólki (PDF) (Bachelor thesis) (in Icelandic). University of Iceland.) Additionally, they can become visible at will. According to the Younger Edda (13th Century) by Snorri Sturluson, there are two kinds of elves, light and dark. The light elves were fair while the dark elves had dark skin. They were both notably mischievous and volatile. Further, these elves appear to be connected to fertility.

While modern legends describe elves as being wee little beings, the folklore of the Faroes describe them as being being large. They wear clothes that are grey and have black hair. These elves live in mounds also called elves. Icelandic an Farore folklore warns against throwing rocks as they may inadvertently strike one of the hidden people. Scholars believe that the term huldufólk is used so as not to call them by their real name, the álfar. Further, according to anthropologists while the Norse had the álfar, their Irish slaves believed in the fae and eventually, the two became the same folklore. Similarly, once Christianization took hold in Iceland, the hidden people became synonymous with Adam and Eve. These were the children she hid from God.

The Yule Lads- Icelandic Christmas Elves

Christmas folklore from Iceland features the Yule Lads. The Lads are mountain-dwelling characters and monsters who come to town during Christmas. These folktales are targeted at children. Parents used these tales to frighten children into good behavior, similar to the legends of Krampus and modern tales of Santa giving coal to naughty children. The Yule Lads folklore includes both mischievous pranksters who leave gifts during the night and monsters who eat disobedient children.

The characters are depicted as living together as a family in a cave. One of the characters is Grýla. She is a giantess with an appetite for the flesh of mischievous children. She cooks in a large pot. Meanwhile, her husband, Leppalúði, is lazy and enjoys staying at home in their cave.

The Yule Lads are the sons of Grýla and Leppalúði. They are a group of thirteen mischievous pranksters. The Lads steal from and harass the villagers. The Yule Lads all have descriptive names that relate to their favorite way of harassing. They come to town one by one during the last thirteen nights before Yule. They leave small gifts in shoes that children have placed on window sills. Yet, if the child has been naughty they leave a rotten potato in the shoe.

Asian Elves

Elves are not restricted to Europe or the North Pole. Folktales of elves can also be found in Asian folklore. For example, the Khmer culture in Cambodia has legends of the Mrenh kongveal. They are elfish beings linked with guarding animals. Within the precolonial animistic beliefs of the Philippines, the world was divided into the material world and the spirit world. In this belief system, all objects, living or nonliving, possess a spirit called anito. Non-human anito were called diwata. Such anito were referred to as dili ingon nato as 'those unlike us'. They live in natural places like mountains, forests, old trees, caves, and reefs. They personify abstract concepts and natural phenomena such as rain and thunder. Similar to elves, they can be helpful or harmful. However, they are usually uninterested in humans. Like elves in European folklore, they can be mischievous and cause harm to humans accidentally. But, also like their European counterparts, they can also purposely cause sickness and bad luck if disrespected or angered. Spanish colonizers in Asia associated them with elves and fairy folklore.

In Malaysian, Bruneian and Indonesian folklore, Orang bunian are supernatural beings. They are invisible to most humans except those who have spiritual sight. While Orang bunian is usually translated as "elves", the literal translation is "hidden people" or "whistling people". They look almost identical to humans dressed in an ancient Southeast Asian style.

Yet again, cultures around the globe throughout history share a common myth. Maybe humans are not so different from one another as we may believe.

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