elves: Indic counterpart?

Dean Anderson dean_anderson at SACARI.ORG
Wed Feb 9 17:48:07 EST 2005

>My books about Tolkien are packed up at the moment, but he
>derived many aspects of them from various older sources, as
>far back as the Norse.  He did NOT think of his mythology as
>being Celtic.

While Tolkien did not think of his mythology as Celtic, he did however
draw from many Celtic influences in creating it. He also drew heavily
upon Nordic and Finnish sources, as you are probably aware.

Of course the identification of elves > Sidhe > siddhas is rather loose,
involving, as it does, a leap from India to Ireland after they had been
separated for thousands of years after the Indo-European diaspora and
then another leap from Irish myth to modern fantasy!

>This is perhaps another obiter dictum, but when I was reading
>Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British
>Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, Oxford and Cambridge, MA:
>Blackwell, 1991, I was struck by the fact that he didn't say a
>thing about fairies, elves, leprechauns, brownies, et hoc
>genus omne. I tracked down his email and asked him about that.
> He said he did not think they were shrunken pre-Christian
>gods, but were always petty tutelary spirits, closely linked
>to particular spots, and not really part of "religion" at all,
>which was why he omitted them from his book.  The main point
>of his book is that we know practically nothing about the
>subject, and most of what is repeated, whether by scholars or
>by religionists, has little or no evidence for it.

Thanks for this interesting information. I can't agree with Hutton on a
couple of issues. First of all, one area of my research when I was in
Ireland many years ago focused on interviewing the local repositories of
these traditions following the practice pioneered by Evan-Wentz (The
Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries) and Lady Gregory's retellings of the
epics based on local traditions. The idea that some, at least, of the
Irish sprites were shrunken Celtic gods whose diminished stature
represented their loss of power to Christianity and modernism was
widespread among the local people. It would be interesting to trace this
tradition further and try to find its origin.

Secondly, I disagree with Hutton's omission of "petty tutelary spirits"
from the category of "religion" for a couple of reasons. First, is the
continued widespread propitiation of such spirits even today. In fact, I
was quite surprised to find that even among modern "sophisticated" Irish
the belief in the fairy faith predominated albeit mixed with Catholicism
and other beliefs. Second, is the common practice among many polytheists
in general, and Indo-Europeans in particular, to identify local spirits
as manifestations of more universal deities; for example, the dedication
of Irish wells to (St.) Brigid. We are all familiar with this practice
in India as well.

This highlights an issue which is also important to Indology: the
overemphasis on textual information to the exclusion of living
traditions. Recently this is starting to be addressed. For example, Axel
Michael's work _Hinduism_ takes account of local and oral traditions and
how they often differ significantly from the written "Brahminical"

Dean Anderson

>Allen W. Thrasher, Ph.D.
>Senior Reference Librarian
>Southern Asia Section
>Asian Division
>Library of Congress
>Jefferson Building 150
>101 Independence Ave., S.E.
>Washington, DC 20540-4810
>tel. 202-707-3732
>fax 202-707-1724
>athr at loc.gov
>The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the
>Library of Congress.

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