Folklore and the fantastic nature of elves, gnomes and tomten, just don’t make them mad 


Elves, gnomes, and tomten. What do they have in common? All mythical, magical, and mischievous. All pint-sized and appealing (sometimes). They’re more alike than different, cute when they’re on a shelf or protecting a garden, diabolical when you cross them. And one of them gets extremely riled up if he thinks there’s no butter in his porridge. I can sympathize with that. You should never mess with anyone’s butter. But these diminutive creatures are not all fun and games. And they demand respect.

Elves have a particularly nasty side if they’re treated poorly. (Don’t picture Will Ferrell in Elf.) They have been a popular subject in fiction for centuries, ranging from Puck in William Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the classic fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien 300 years later. Perhaps the most famous of these magical creatures are the elves that work for Santa Claus at the North Pole. All playful and charming. To a point.

Granted, some of them, like Elf on a Shelf and Santa’s elves, are delightful, but true elves were said to be small shape-shifters. In England, they were described as looking like little old men and lived in forests, meadows, or hollowed-out tree trunks.

Folklore and scary elf

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Not your average Elf on a Shelf 

Of course, many of us are reluctant to accept the idea of mythical creatures. Perhaps because we have no way to prove them false or true. But a fair number of people appear to have concrete proof. In Iceland, elves set up chapels in rocks (there’s even a Fairyland Elf Garden near Reykjavik), and, apparently, become displeased when someone tries to move them.

As recounted in the, “In the 1970s, plans to move one of these rocks out of the way of one major road went awry when a bulldozer inadvertently hit a water pipe feeding a fish farm. Some 70,000 trout perished overnight and there were so many other freakish accidents in the following days that the project was abandoned. One workman claims to have been stricken with bad luck ever since.”

“There are many stories of machines breaking down and workers becoming ill when they interfere with elf rocks,” says Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, a writer and folklorist who teaches at the Iceland Academy of Arts in Reykjavik. “The elves are seen as friendly, beautiful creatures, but you have to respect them, or they will take their revenge.” 

Another good reason not to cross elves is cited in Magic and Religion in Medieval England: “several tenth-century Anglo-Saxon medical texts mention elves as a cause of illness, especially illnesses involving sharp internal pains.” But they also have the power to heal them, and seem especially willing to do so if sacrifices are offered to them. What type of sacrifices, I’m wondering?

Folklore and gnomes

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Revenge of the Gnomes

In popular culture, gnomes aren’t known to create havoc or illness; on the contrary, we see them as guardians of our gardens. Gnome, in European folklore, means dwarfish, subterranean goblin or earth spirit who guards mines of precious treasures hidden in the earth. (The term was popularized through works of the 16th-century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus in which gnomes were described as capable of moving through solid earth as fish move through water.)

Gnomes are nature spirits, and many scholars agree that, when it comes to their rare interaction with man, they are faithful and true, and very trustworthy. They show up in L. Frank Baum’s Oz novel series as underground businessmen. However, one must not betray their trust, because they could cause much sorrow and destruction in retaliation. 

Experts say, “As long as man was in service to others, the gnomes would work with them and protect them, but if he sought to use their aid selfishly to gain temporal power they would turn upon him with unrelenting fury. The same was true if he sought to deceive them.”

Folklore and tomte

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From Nordic folklore, the tomte is another creature one would be best not to deceive. Don’t be taken away by his kind demeanor and white beard. A tomte is described as an older, little man about the size of a young child, who often wears ragged clothes, usually gray or navy, and sports a bright red cap on his head. He resides in the pantry or barn and watches over the household and farm. 

Tomten require very little of the humans they work for. They demand only the respect and trust of the farmer and a bowl of julegrøt (Christmas porridge) with butter on Christmas Eve. These spirits will not remain in a home where respect is lacking, and thus the farm (or house) will not thrive.

A tomte considers porridge his due and is greedy for butter. The legend When the Nisse Got No Butter on His Christmas Porridge illustrates the consequences of tampering with his porridge.

One Christmas Eve, a servant girl decided she would play a trick on the tomte. She hid the butter for his grøt at the bottom of the bowl. When he saw there was no butter on his Christmas porridge, he went to the shed and killed the best cow. He wanted to show them he did not appreciate them begrudging him a little bit of butter. He returned to the barn to eat the porridge anyway. When he discovered the butter at the bottom of the bowl, he felt so bad that he walked to the neighbor’s farm, took their best cow, and led her back to the stall of the cow he had killed. 

Just a story, yes, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from all these mythical creatures. Don’t move an elf rock, never deceive a gnome, and, for heaven’s sake, refrain from hiding the butter in a tomte’s porridge. Don’t mess with them. To be honest, they only want a little respect. And face it, isn’t that what we all want?