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A lot of, if not most, modern fantasy tends to have 'Elven' races that seem to be largely inspired by the Norse Elves, likely by way of Tolkien. There also seems to be a large amount of Celtic influence, however. This has got me wondering, are there any major similarities between the two myths?

I think a lot of what we tend to lump under the word 'fairy' were actually a variety of different creatures in the original Celtic myths, are any of them particularly close to the Norse Elves? I'm inclined to think maybe the Fair Folk, but I'm not really an expert on the subject.

What about where the creatures/races are supposedly from? Are there any major similarities between Faerie and Alfheim?

Is there maybe even some common origin for these myths?

  • 1
    See this answer. – Tim Lymington supports Monica Jul 9 '15 at 17:01
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    That answer's more about the etymology of the word fairy, where I'm looking more at the individual myths / mythical creatures themselves. – Salvador Jul 14 '15 at 21:12
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Yes, both in characteristics and history.

Starting from here,

Another writer, Wirt Sikes wrote in the British Goblins (1880), comparing the Welsh fairies with that of Norse/Teutonic fairies.

Sikes says that there are four types in the Norse tradition:

  1. elves,
  2. dwarves and troll,
  3. nisses and
  4. necks, mermen, and mermaids.

While in the Welsh traditions there are:

  1. The ellyllon, or the elves;
  2. The coblynau, or the mine fairies;
  3. The bwbachod, or the household fairies;
  4. The gwragedd annwn, or the fairies of the lakes and streams;
  5. The gwyllion, or the mountain fairies.

Here, the classification of Welsh fairies distinguished household fairies from that of the mines, lakes and mountains. Like the Irish tradition, the Welsh can be further divided into solitary and social fairies.

I found the text of British Goblins, where Sikes states (at the start of Chapter II)

Fairies being creatures of the imagination, it is not possible to classify them by fixed and immutable rules. In the exact sciences, there are laws which never vary, or if they vary, their very eccentricity is governed by precise rules. Even in the largest sense, comparative mythology must demean itself modestly in order to be tolerated in the severe company of the sciences. In presenting his subjects, therefore, the writer in this field can only govern himself by the purpose of orderly arrangement. To secure the maximum of system, for the sake of the student who employs the work for reference and comparison, with the minimum of dullness, for the sake of the general reader, is perhaps the limit of a reasonable ambition. Keightley[8] divides into four classes the Scandinavian elements of popular belief as to fairies, viz.:

  1. The Elves;
  2. The Dwarfs, or Trolls;
  3. The Nisses; and
  4. The Necks, [12] Mermen, and Mermaids.

How entirely arbitrary this division is, the student of Scandinavian folk-lore at once perceives. Yet it is perhaps as satisfactory as another. The fairies of Wales may be divided into five classes, if analogy be not too sharply insisted on. Thus we have

  1. The Ellyllon, or elves;
  2. The Coblynau, or mine fairies;
  3. The Bwbachod, or household fairies;
  4. The Gwragedd Annwn, or fairies of the lakes and streams; and
  5. The Gwyllion, or mountain fairies.

"Keightley" refers to Thomas Keightley, the author of Fairy Mythology, from 1870. I found an index of all its parts. This is certainly harder to search through, but in his analysis on Ireland, Keightley writes

The fairies of Ireland can hardly be said to differ in any respect from those of England and Scotland. Like them they are of diminutive size, rarely exceeding two feet in height; they live also in society, their ordinary abode being the interior of the mounds, called in Irish, Raths (Rahs), in English, Moats, the construction of which is, by the peasantry, ascribed to the Danes from whom, it might thence perhaps be inferred, the Irish got their fairies direct and not vid England.

In the more general summary of Celtic fairies, he writes

Yet in the popular creed of all these tribes, we meet at the present day beings exactly corresponding to the Dwarfs and Fairies of the Gotho-German nations. Of these beings there is no mention in any works--such as the Welsh Poems, and Mabinogion, the Poems of Ossian, or the different irish poems and romances--which can by any possibility lay claim to an antiquity anterior to the conquests of the Northmen. Is it not then a reasonable supposition that the Picts, Saxons, and other sons of the North, brought with them their Dwarfs and Kobolds, and communicated the knowledge of, and belief in, them to their Celtic and Cymric subjects and neighbours? Proceeding on this theory, we have placed the Celts and Cymry next to and after the Gotho-German nations, though they are perhaps their precursors in Europe.

In his introduction to the fairies of Great Britain as a whole (though perhaps ecluding the Celts), he writes

We have already seen that the Anglo-Saxon conquerors of Britain had in their language the terms from which are derived Elf and Dwarf, and the inference is natural that their ideas respecting these beings corresponded with those of the Scandinavians and Germans. The same may be said. of the Picts, who, akin to the Scandinavians, early seized on the Scottish Lowlands. We therefore close our survey of the Fairy Mythology of the Gotho-German race with Great Britain.

So there are quite a few parallels between Norse elves and Celtic fairies:

  • The elves are akin to the ellyllon
  • The dwarves and trolls are akin to the coblynau
  • The nisses are akin to the bwbachod
  • The necks, men and mermaids are akin to the gwragedd annwn
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Tolkien apparently drew much of his inspiration for his elves from the Welsh supernatural owners of nature, the Tylwyth Teg: these are remarkable for the degree that the Welsh assigned their brand of elves a royal attribute. And this apparently suited Tolkien.

There is a remarkable, broad swath of shared belief systems in Northern Europe that extends from Ireland, Brittany, and Iceland to Sweden that features supernatural beings that live in communities in social groups reminiscent of those of people. The following is an excerpt from my Introduction to Folklore (2014):

Supernatural beings living in human-like communities are relatively rare. They occur in the traditions of Polynesia, Britain and Ireland, Scandinavia, Iceland and the North Sea islands, and to a certain extent the Russia. The Celts may have influenced Scandinavian traditions since the two groups had millennia-old contact. In English, the supernatural beings were traditionally called “elves,” but in the Celtic areas they are more typically referred to as “fairies.” In Gaelic, they are the sidhe (pronounced “shee”). The Norwegians call them huldre meaning hidden. In Sweden they are the trolls, but the country is enormous and various locations used different terms. The geographic distribution and history of the word “troll” is extremely complex since it can refer to a wide variety of supernatural beings, depending on the location, and it is sometimes used generically for many types of supernatural beings.

If you have further questions, feel free to ask.

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