The Elves in Ireland
1. The Good People
The Irish expression for Elf in this signification is Shefro; and this in the original is the name of the first division; but it does not occur elsewhere, nor is there any explanation of it. She or Shi, without doubt, means Elf; compare Banshi and the Scotch Doane-shi and Shian.
The Elves, which in their true shape are but a few inches high, have an airy, almost transparent body; so delicate is their form, that a dew-drop, when they dance on it, trembles indeed, but never breaks. Both sexes are of extraordinary beauty, and mortal beings cannot be compared with them.
They do not live alone, or in pairs, but always in large societies. They are invisible to man, particularly in the day-time; and as they can be present and hear what is said, the peasantry never speak of them but with caution and respect, terming them the good people, or the friends; as any other name would offend them. If a great cloud of dust rises on the road, it is a sign that they are about to change their residence and remove to another place, and the invisible travellers are always saluted with a respectful bow. They have their dwellings in clefts of rocks, caves, and ancient tumuli. Every part within is decorated in the most splendid and magnificent manner; and the pleasing music which sometimes issues from thence in the night has delighted those who have been so fortunate as to hear it.
During the summer nights, when the moon shines, and particularly in harvest-time, the Elves come out of their secret dwellings, and assemble for the dance in certain favourite spots, which are hidden and secluded places, such as mountain-valleys—meadows near streams and brooks—churchyards where men seldom come. They often celebrate their feasts under large mushrooms, or repose beneath their shade.
In the first rays of the morning sun they again vanish, with a noise resembling that of a swarm of bees or flies.
Their garments are as white as snow, sometimes shining like silver; a hat or cap is indispensable, for which purpose they generally select the red flowers of the foxglove, and by it different parties are distinguished.
The secret and magic powers of the Elves are so great as scarcely to know any bounds. They can assume in a moment, not only the human, but every other form, even the most terrific; and it is easy for them to convey themselves in one second a distance of five leagues.
Before their breath all human energy fails. They sometimes communicate supernatural knowledge to men; and if a person is seen walking up and down alone, and moving his lips as one half distraught, it is a sign that an Elf is invisibly present and instructing him.
The Elves are above all things fond of music. Those who have heard their music cannot find words to describe the power with which it fills and enraptures the soul: it rushes upon them like a stream; and yet the tones are simple, even monotonous, and in general resembling natural sounds.
Among their amusements is that of playing at ball, which they pursue with much eagerness, and at which they often differ so as even to quarrel.
Their skill in dancing far exceeds the highest art of man, and the pleasure they take in this amusement is inexhaustible. They dance without interruption till the rays of the sun appear on the mountains, and make the boldest leaps without the least exertion.
They do not appear to require any food, but refresh themselves with dew-drops which they collect from the leaves.
They severely punish all who inquisitively approach or tease them; otherwise they are friendly and obliging to well-meaning people who confide in them. They remove humps from the shoulder; make presents of new articles of clothing; undertake to grant requests; though in such cases, good-humour on the applicant’s part seems to be necessary. Sometimes too they appear in human form, or allow persons who have accidentally strayed among them during the night to join in their dances; but there is always some danger in this intercourse. The person becomes ill in consequence, and falls into a violent fever from the unnatural exertion, as they seem to lend him a part of their power. If he forgets himself, and, according to the custom, kisses his partner, the whole scene vanishes the instant his lips touch hers.
The Elves have another peculiar and more intimate connexion with mortals. It seems as if they divided among themselves the souls of men, and considered them thenceforth as their property. Hence certain families have their particular Elves, to whom they are devoted, in return for which, however, they receive from them help and assistance in critical moments, and often recovery from mortal diseases. But as after death they become the property of their Elves, the death of a man is to them always a festival at which one of their own body enters into their society. Therefore they require that people shall be present at funerals, and pay them reverence; they celebrate an interment like a wedding, by dancing on the grave, and it is for this reason that they select churchyards for their favourite places of resort. A violent quarrel often arises whether a child belongs to the Elves of the father or of the mother, and in what churchyard it is to be buried. The different parties of these supernatural beings hate and make war on each other, with as much animosity as nations among mankind; their combats take place in the night, in cross-roads, and they often do not separate till daybreak parts them. This connexion of men with a quiet and good tribe of spirits, far from being frightful, would rather be beneficial: but the Elves appear in a dubious character; both evil and good are combined in their nature, and they show a dark as well as a fair side.
They are angels expelled from heaven, who have not fallen into hell, but are in fear and doubt respecting their future state, and whether they shall find mercy at the day of judgment. This mixture of the dark and malevolent is visibly manifested in their actions and inclinations. If in remembrance of their original happy condition they are beneficent and friendly towards man, the evil principle within them prompts them to malicious and injurious tricks. Their beauty, the wondrous splendour of their dwellings, their sprightliness, is nothing more than illusive show; and their true figure, which is frightfully ugly, inspires terror. If, as is but rarely the case, they are seen in the day-time, their countenances appear to be wrinkled with age, or, as people express it, “like a withered cauliflower;” a little nose, red eyes, and hair hoary with extreme age.
From Fairy legends and traditions of the South of Ireland, part III., by Thomas Crofton Croker.
London: John Murray, 1828.