In Old English, xlf was the general all-purpose term for a *fairy; after the Conquest, however, the French 'fairy' partially replaced it, though Chaucer and Shakespeare still used them interchangeably, and 'elf' seems to have faded out of rural usage in most of England (though not in Yorkshire). It kept a place in literary English, however, so it now sounds both more archaic and more elegant than 'fairy'.
   Elves must have been regarded as helpful in some contexts, otherwise xlf would not have been used as an element in personal names, e.g. Alfred and Mfwine. On the other hand, Anglo-Saxon medical textbooks and collections of healing charms refer to 'elf sickness', 'water-elf sickness', and 'elf shot'; the latter could afflict horses, cattle, or humans, and was thought to be caused when elves shot them with small darts. Prehistoric flint arrow heads were long known as 'elf arrows' or 'elf bolts'. Elves were also blamed for tangling human hair and horses' manes during the night ('elf locks'), and for 'riding' humans and horses by night, causing nightmares, sweating, and restless sleep.
   The Anglo-Saxon charms against such afflictions are interesting texts. Some rely on prayers and psalms, regarding the troublesome elf as a demon to be exorcized; others mix religious and non-religious elements:
   If a horse be elf-shot, then take a knife of which the haft is the horn of a fallow ox, and on which are three brass nails, then write upon the horse's forehead Christ's mark and on each of the limbs thou mayest feel at; then take the left ear, and prick a hole in it in silence; this thou shalt do, then take a staff, strike the horse on the back, then it will be whole. And write upon the horn of the knife these words, Benedicite omnia opera domini dominum (All ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord). Be the elf what it may, this has power against him as a remedy.
   One, in verse, describes how she-elves have plunged their spears in a victim, and the healer's counter-attack; he is to boil up feverfew, red nettle, and plantain with butter, and plunge a knife in the mixture, reciting a lengthy chant with the repeated adjuration, 'Out, little spear, if herein you be!'
   ■ Wilfred Bonser, Folk-Lore 37 (1926), 350-63; full translation of the verse in R. K. Gordon, Anglo-Saxon Poetry (1926), 94-5.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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