Elf-shot by mermaids…

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.

Barrows and howes are places that people have believed, rightly or wrongly, to be ancient burial mounds. Cumbria has lots of actual barrows; the lady at the LDNPA once told me that people often assume that piles of stone on top of mountains are walker’s landmarks, when in fact a good number of them are Bronze Age monuments. It’s also been noted across northern Europe that elven/faery processions frequently terminate at or pass prehistoric burial sites. I believe this applies to the Cumbrian story of the elven procession at Staveley, near Kendal.

Flint arrowhead 3300-2400BCE (Museum of Toulouse)
Flint arrowhead 3300-2400BCE (Museum of Toulouse)

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.

When presented with a strange folkloric conundrum in Cumbria, it’s usually a good idea to go hunting in Welsh mythology. We spoke almost the same language right up to the 10th century, and many of our oldest stories have their roots in this shared culture. This was where I found a bunch of ladies called the ‘gwragedd Annwn’. Folklore keenies will have spotted ‘Annwn’, the Welsh otherworld; ‘gwragedd’ just means, ‘wives of’. The Gwragedd Annwn were intermediaries between the mortal world and the world of spirits, below the earth. They lived in watery places, on the boundary between air and land, and were able to pass the pleas of the living on to the spirits who lived below. They looked like normal women – no fishy tails – and lived not at the sea, but at lakes, rivers and particularly mountain tarns and springs. Cumbria, it seems, was their ideal habitat.

If you prod around in Iron Age and earlier history, you find that a lot of valuable items, such as weapons, were deposited in boggy ground. We’ve even found preserved human bodies; people who were ritually killed and left in shallow water. If we add the archaeology to the mythology we can guess that these deposits were messages for the Gwragedd Annwn. It also seems too close to Arthurian tales of the Lady of the Lake to be a coincidence.

Most surviving bog bodies are dated to the Iron Age, but there are a precious few, such as the Danish Koelbjerg Woman, which are considerably older. So, did the Cumbrian tradition of stone arrows from the ladies in the water have its roots in this, extraordinarily ancient, practice?

And this is the beauty of folklore: it’s so readily dismissed as inconsequential (faery tales!), but if you dig a little deeper, our ancient history unfolds before us.

© Diane McIlmoyle 09.12.11

Bibliography and links:

See Alan Cleaver’s Strange Britain for Cumbrian faery lore.

The Folklore of the Lake District by Marjorie Rowling (1976)

The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries by WY Evans-Wentz (1911)

British Goblins by W Sikes (1880)

The Lake Counties by WG Collingwood (1932)

The Guide to the Mysterious Lake District by Geoff Holder (2009)

Koelbjerg Woman on Wiki

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13 thoughts on “Elf-shot by mermaids…

  1. Quite apart from the excellent faery info in this post I’m intrigued by the possibility of those big heaps of stone (so-called ‘hikers cairns’ or whatever) being ancient monuments. Like Dunmail Raise, presumably. I’ll be more careful around them next time I’m up on the tops.

    • Thanks for those links, Jen. I do recall that a decade ago, Penrithian men were getting quite excited because they’d had their DNA done for something similar and there were a lot of Vikings amongst them!

      I’ve broken the link to the Nottingham uni pdf because my broadband link is too slow to be able to open it – it must be massive. But people with ‘normal’ broadband speeds can easily glue the parts back together to get to it.

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

    • Thanks, Nicola! With your thorough brain and etymological knowledge, I guess you’re saying that ‘alfar’ was a word used by both Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. In Cumbria, though, we didn’t really do Saxon – officially we had an extended (compared to the rest of England) sub-Roman period which more or less segued straight into Vikings, with a little diversion amongst the Angles en route.

      I shall both read your blog post and go book hunting. Readers: take a gander at Nicola’s site: I recommend it!

  2. Pingback: The Bewcastle Cauldron | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

  3. I love this research of you!… the Water Maidens are one of my fav. fairy characters…♥
    Maybe you would like to read one of my posts dedicated to them Lake Fairies
    I have just shared a part of it on my Celtic Sprite blog, hope it will drive more attention from my visitors…

  4. Pingback: The Ambleside Hoard: 5,000 year-old bronze weapons | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

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