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Thursday, July 7, 2016


  In both Irish and Scottish fairylore 'elfshot' or 'elf arrows' are a type of small weapon used by the Good Folk, and in Scotland also by witches, against people and livestock. The ubiquitous weapons of the Fey, elfshot caused a variety of maladies to those struck by them.The arrows themselves when found on the ground are small, neolithic flint arrowheads but when used by the Gentry are invisible to mortal eyes as are the wounds they cause. Finding such a small piece of flint or primitive arrowhead lying on the ground might lead a person to believe they had found a fairy-dart (O hOgain, 1995) and indeed such arrows are occasionally found and thought to be significant and powerful, for good or ill.

In Scotland they were called 'saighead sith' [fairy arrows] and finding one on the ground was believed to bring a person good luck(McNeill, 1956). Indeed although being struck by one could be calamitous finding one was auspicious and it would be kept afterwards as a talisman. While some believed a found elf arrow should be thrown in water or buried lest it draw Otherworldly attentions, to others it was a powerful talisman, although it had to be kept covered from sunlight and not allowed to touch the ground again (Black, 1894; Wilde, 1888; Evans, 1957). It was believed in Scotland that elf arrows could not be found if a person was searching for one, but were only found by accident and usually in an odd or unexpected way (Black, 1894). This might include appearing in one's possessions or clothing after a walk outdoors or even in one's shoe. Lady Wilde however mentions the Irish belief that 'fairy stones' were often found near sí [fairy hills] lying on the ground, and ads no particular prohibition against intentionally looking for them. To posses an elf-arrow was good luck and they had magical uses as well, being used in cures for sick cattle as well as herbal charms (Wilde, 1888; Evans, 1957). There are several examples of found elfshot from Scotland that were set in silver and worn as pendants, because of the belief that they were protective talismans.

illustration from Black's book Scottish Charms and Amulets circa 1894, image public domain

When used as weapons by the Other Crowd elfshot was thought to be the direct cause of elf-stroke or fairy-stroke. This fairy-stroke could take the form of a sudden seizure or paralysis, cramping, pain, bruising, wasting sicknesses, and even death (Briggs, 1976). The most distinctive type of elfshot was a sudden, inexplicable shooting pain, usually internal (Hall, 2007). The fairies might use elfshot for anything from punishing someone for a minor offense, in which case the effect might be slight and temporary, to tormenting a person with great pain and suffering if they were truly angry. If they wanted to take a person they might use elfshot to paralyze them then switch the person with a changeling or a glamoured item like a log (Briggs, 1976). If they wanted to take cattle a similar procedure was used, where the animal was shot and would waste away and die, thus going to the fairies (O hOgain, 1995).

Witches as well as fairies were said to use elfshot, especially in Scotland. In several witch trials people confessed to using elfshot to harm others, and Isobel Gowdie in her confession claimed to have seen the shot being made when she was visiting among the fairies (Briggs, 1976). In her telling she said she had gone with the fairies and saw the Devil himself making the shot and handing it to 'elf boys' who sharpened them and prepared them. She claimed that they were then given to the mortal witches to be used with a short chant and that the shot was fired by being flicked off the thumb with a fingernail (Black, 1894; Briggs, 1976). In Ireland witches were not known to use elfshot, rather having a reputation for 'blinking' or putting the evil eye on cattle or people instead, but there were other similarities between Irish witches and fairies and it was said that witches learned from the fairies (Jenkins, 1991; Wilde, 1888)

"pair of prehistoric arrowheads (so called "elf arrows") set in silver used as a defense against witchcraft" Photo by user:geni usage rights: GFDL CC-BY-SA

Cures for elfshot varied. For people there are a variety of charms, drinks, and salves to be found in the old Anglo-saxon Leechbooks. Usually a person would be diagnosed with an elf related ailment, often involving sudden internal pain or an illness that was traditionally attributed to elves, then a cure would be prepared and given in conjunction with a chanted or spoken charm or prayer (Hall, 2007; Jolly;1996). For horses as well the Leechbook offers possible cures which involve a combination of actions, including shedding the animal's blood, and spoken charms (Jolly, 1996). For cattle the animal may be rubbed with salt water and made to drink a portion, given water that has both salt and silver in it, or rubbed with a found elf arrow which is believed to have curative powers (Black, 1894). One approach in Ireland was to spill a bit of the cows blood in a ceremony dedicating the animal to saint Martin (Evans, 1957). Often a specialist, a fairy doctor or wise woman [bean feasa], would be called in first to verify that a person or animal had been elfshot and if necessary to effect the cure (Jenkins, 1991). In some cases the effect of the shot was deemed permanent and could not be cured at all or the cure applied would not be strong enough to be effective. In some cases, tragically especially in relation to suspected changelings, the cure itself would prove fatal.

Elfshot by any of the many names it has gone by - elf arrows, fairy arrows, fairy darts, fairy stones, saighead sith - are fascinating items. Terribly dangerous if they strike a person or animal they are a fearsome weapon of the Good People. Their effects can be transitory or permanent and may be mitigated with magical charms and herbal cures, and ironically the same exact shot that causes the injury can be used to cure it when wielded by a well-intentioned human hand. As dangerous as elfshot can be if it strikes a person it is also a wonderful talisman to possess if you happen to find one - but only if you remember to keep it with proper care, away from sunlight and off the ground, lest the Good Folk come back to reclaim it.

McNeill, F., (1956) The Silver Bough
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
Black, G., (1894) Scottish Charms and Amulets
Jolly, K., (1996) Popular Religion in Late Saxon England; elf charms in context
Hall, A., (2007). Elves in Anglo-Saxon England
O hOgain, D., (1995). Irish Superstitions
Wilde, E., (1888) Irish cures, Mystic Charms & Superstitions
Jenkins, R., (1991) Witches and Fairies: supernatural aggression and deviance among the Irish peasantry. Essay in 'The Good People'
Evans, E., (1957) Irish folk Ways

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