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I recently listened to Purcell's "King Arthur", and at one point in the libretto, Grimbald speaks of "moon-born elves" (at 19:25 in the linked video):

Let not a moon-born elf mislead ye
From your prey and from your glory;

This made me curious because I haven't previously heard of any particular connection between elves and the moon, at least not apart from the occasional affinity with the night in general.

Is there any more wide-spread basis for elves originating from the moon somehow, or is "moon-born" some kind of more general term for deceitful creatures, or something else?

The whole libretto is available here.

  • @HDE226868: Is this retagging really right? Elves are typically Germanic creatures rather than Celtic, and while I arrived to the question via "King Arthur", I don't think there's anything intrinsically Arthurian about the question as it stands. – Dolda2000 May 10 '15 at 21:23
  • You can roll it back, if you want; I'm not fully acquainted with the subject matter. I would argue that arthurian fits because of the subject matter; I'm less sure about germanic. Perhaps I was wrong about that. – HDE 226868 May 10 '15 at 21:25
  • I rolled back the edit because you weren't 100% on board with it. You can re-do part of it, all of it, or just leave it as you originally had it. – HDE 226868 May 10 '15 at 21:32
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    I rather assumed moon-born elves would be born under the light of the moon i.e. outside at night alluding to elves mythic association with vegetation. I've no references for this though. – Robert Longson May 12 '15 at 10:27
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I'm not entirely certain this means "born on the moon". Most texts that I can find refer to Elfland as being subterranean:

The fairyland of the ballad tradition similarly existed in a kind of wilderness, albiet one suffused in preternatural light. As already indicated, Thomas Rhymer's Elfland was situated in some sort of subterranean locale wherein 'he saw neither sun nor moon / But heard the roaring of the see'. Likewise, the enchanted wood in 'Tam Lin' lacked solar and lunar illumination: 'Seven days she tarried there/Saw neither sun nor meen'.
...
Frequent mention is made of the location of the home of the elves in the witch trials, virtually every example placing the fairies beside or inside hills. The trial of Lady Fowlis or Katherine Ross in 1590 reported that she 'wald gang in Hillis to speik the elf folk'. In 1615, Jonet Drever was convicted for the 'fostering of ane bairne in the hill of Westray to the fary folk, callit of hir guid nichbouris'. In Shetland, Katherine Jonesdochter, tride in 1616, saw trows on a hill called Greinfaill.

Source: Scottish Fairy Belief: A History; Henderson & Cowan, 40-41

This begs the question, are we even sure what is meant by moon-born? For that, we go to the OED (which actually mentions King Arthur):

moon-born adj. chiefly poet.
(a) born under the moon's influence; (b) originating from the moon.

Source: Oxford English Dictionary: moon-born

Perhaps what is meant here is not "originating from the moon", but born under the moon's influence. This is back up by the else tended to operate at night:

The face of the country, too, might have some effect; as we should naturally attribute a less malicious disposition, and a less frightful appearance, to the fays who glide by moon-light through the oaks of Windsor, then those who haunt the solitary heaths and lofty mountains of the North. The fact at least is certain; and it has not escaped a late ingenious traveller, that the character of the Scottish Fairy is more harsh and terrific than that wish is ascribed to the elves of our sister kingdom.
...
A beautiful reason is assigned by Fletcher for the fays frequenting streams and fountains: He tells us of

A virtuous well, about whose flowery banks
The nimble-footed Fairies dance their rounds,
By the pale moon-shine, dipping oftentimes
Their stolen children, so to make them free
From dying flesh and dull mortality.
                                          Faithful Shepherdess

It is sometimes accounted unlucky to pass such places, without performing some ceremony to avert the displeasure of the elves.

Source: The Book of Scottish Ballads, Etc.; Alexander Whitelaw; 438-439

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  • Yes I think that meaning "born under the moon's influence" makes sense. – Michael Brown May 12 '15 at 17:25

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