February 2, 2016

Mythical E

        Time for another edition of Mythical Alphabet!

elf - this might seem like a straightforward humanoid mythical being that everybody knows, but in fact elves are pretty complicated.  Throughout northern Europe and throughout the centuries there have been a wide variety of ideas about exactly what sort of being elves are, ranging from pagan gods to Christian demons, nymphs, or succubi, who might be malevolent, beneficial, or neutral, and so on.  Today’s English mythology has two primary versions of elves.  There are the small people, including Santa Claus’s helpers, akin to gnomes or brownies, often being woodland creatures, and often with little pointed hats.  Then there are the high fantasy elves, developed and popularized by J.R.R. Tolkien, taller than human, with supernatural wisdom and beauty. (northern European)

echeneis - a tiny fish that can latch itself to the hull of a moving ship and stop it dead in the water.  There’s a picture, and a bit more about the possible natural basis of the echeneis here.  (medieval European)

elemental - an archetypal being belonging to a classical element: earth, water, air, fire.  Popularized by the renaissance alchemists, there have been various theories regarding the state of such beings’ souls, mortality, powers, and characteristics.  Paracelsus called them pygmies or gnomes (earth), nymphs or undines (water), sylphs (air), and salamanders (fire). (European)

enenra - a monster composed of smoke.  When it emerges from a fire it takes human form, but can be seen only by the pure of heart.  Unfortunately it’s unclear to me how malevolent they may be; there don’t seem to be a lot of stories about what they actually do.  (Japanese)

[Pictures: Untitled woodcut by Josef Váchal, from The Wanderings of the Little Elf by Josef Simanka, 1911 (Image from Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco);
Enenra, wood block print by Toriyama Sekien from Kojaku Hyakki Shui, 1780 (Image from Wikimedia Commons);
Erlkönig (Elf King), woodcut by Hans Knipert, before 1950 (Image from Dallas Museum of Art).]

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