Cultures of Northumbria: Elves

In this series of articles, Michael Garcia shares various custom rules and handouts related to his worldbuilding for his ongoing Northumbria campaign. 


The Elves are undoubtedly the oldest known race in the world. Their culture is ancient and largely unchanged, despite the millennia that have passed.

Typical Appearance

Elves are generally slender and graceful people, with long straight blonde or dirty-blonde hair. Eye color tends to be amber and bluish-green though violet is not uncommon. They do not grow facial hair.

Concerning fashion, elves favor elegant displays of great workmanship. Colors are usually rich, while patterns tend to be both intricate and subtle. Nature motifs are very common.

Elves favor tight-fitting hosen or breeches, along with tight-fitting tunics. They also prefer loose-fitting, ornate robes, made of very light material. Narrow shoes and boots are typical. Their cloaks, though lightweight, are usually long and flowing.

Language

It is common in many cultures for people to call themselves ‘the people’ or ‘the speakers’, but elves recognize that humans, elves, dwarves, and gnomes are all sentient beings that fit such a bill. Therefore, they call all these races ‘the singers’ (laulajia). Their specific words for elf/elves are keijukainen/keijut.

The elven base word for any language is the same as for ‘song’ (laulu/laulut). As the elves are the eldest race, they call their own language the ‘ancient song’ (vanha laulu).

The elves use a sound-based system of runes, which later became the inspiration for other runic systems, such as that of the dwarves and that of the Varangians (a northern group of humans). They actually have two sets of runes, one used for common writing (sanat, meaning ‘words’) and another (voimat, meaning ‘powers’) used for important concepts like magic and law.  All elves know the former, and all elders know the latter as well.

Origins and Deities

Elven lore states that the elves originally come from a distant world, where they were essentially immortal.  The radiation or magic inherent in that world sustained their bodies indefinitely.

In a sense, the elves are polytheistic, but they do not worship their gods.  Instead, they respect and honor them as mighty ancestors. The greatest of these immortal ancestral deities is Varda, Queen of the Stars. There are supposedly elven communities on various worlds, and Varda is queen to them all.

The elves believe that Corellon Larethian brought their ancestors to this world many millennia ago so they honor him as their champion and protector here.  He is the one associated with all things natural, as he showed the first elves here how to live in harmony with nature.  He also crystallized many elven traditions (traditions are the closest that elves have to laws), setting the elves of this world on a path of righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy. To retain his immortality, Corellon does not dwell in this world, but he does visit from time to time, and some say that he can see this world from his own world by means of a magical lens.

Elven elders reason and suspect that there is a Creator God (Ylijumala), who created even the elven deities. Yet, as elves have little information on this, it does not concern them much. An old elven children’s tale says that elves began when starlight shone down on the trees, casting many shadows on the ground.  The shadows yearned for the starlight that they lacked so they crawled into the starlight and took form as the first elves.  Thus, elves were born when darkness became light.  Elves sometimes tell this story to non-elves as a practical joke, but they do not take it seriously.

Despite their love of the night sky, elves do enjoy daylight and the sun as well.  The sun brings life, light, and warmth.  It has great beauty in and of itself, while it can also reveal the beauty in other things.  However, elves note that the sun can often be harsh, bringing blistering heat, killing crops, blinding creatures, and blocking out their beloved stars.  Therefore, they prefer clear skies at night, where they can see starlight. Just as beautiful, the night sky is subtle, forgiving, and reminiscent of their distant homeland.

Rituals to honor (not worship) the deities always take place in a natural setting of great beauty.  Varda’s ceremonies always occur under clear skies at night, and they often correspond with astronomical events, such as new moons, full moons, eclipses, solstices, equinoxes, and conjunctions.  The settings for Corellon’s ceremonies vary—some occur at sunrise, others at sunset, still others at false dawn, and still others at quarter-moon.

Family and Society

Family ties are very important to elves, so families tend to be large, multi-generational, and wealthy.  Elven society is neither patriarchal nor matriarchal.  As balance is preferred, both lord and lady rule together—within a household and within an elven kingdom.

Though their ancestors in distant words were effectively immortal, the elves in this world tend to live about 2000 years.  They are children until age 250.  A special coming-of-age ceremony at age 400 marks the move into maturity.  Creatures with such a long lifespan do not have many children so mating rituals and childbirth are of great importance.  Most elves are betrothed by age 500, but a marriage is not cemented without children.  Childbirth is cause for great celebration, marked by a solemn ceremony that binds the child to the entire household.

Elven families do not dwell in cities, choosing instead remote locations where they can live undisturbed in a setting of great natural beauty.  Some prefer flatlands, others hills, and still other mountains, but all prefer forests. Elven communities are fairly spread out.

Each village is home to three or four extended families and features a main hall and many adjacent homes spread throughout a forested region.  Homes are made of wood or stone.  When stone is used, it often intermingles naturally with earth and living trees.  All stonework and glass is delicate and airy in form.

Elves do not use currency.  Instead, each family pools its resources, which the elders allot according to individual needs. Commerce is very limited among elves, and they rarely trade with other races.  Elven families of a specific locale will occasionally hold a forest fair to frolic, celebrate, sing, and trade (more ideas than goods).  In such cases, they erect brightly colored pavilions in the forest, securing the ropes to tree branches.  Such fairs usually last one month.  Human tales often involve a young wanderer stumbling upon such a gathering in the wilderness.  Most elves prefer to make their own items or to trade with other elves rather than buying goods from other races.  The craftsmanship is often better, at least regarding goods that elves would find interesting.

Elves do not till the soil as humans do, nor do they mine the earth, nor do they hunt or trap animals.  Elves do work with wood (carpenters, coopers) and various metal (blacksmiths, finesmiths, armorers, bladesmiths, bowyers, fletchers).  They gather and grow food in the wild (gardeners).  They make and weave cloth (spinners, weavers, tailors, glovers).  Some, specially dedicated to Varda and Corellon Lorethian, celebrate the ancient rites (priests).  They make candles (chandlers), raise bees (beekeepers), make rope, make shoes and rugs from natural fibers (cobblers, rugmakers), make saddles from natural fibers (saddlers), make pottery (potters), brew spirits (brewers, vintners), make jewelry (gem-cutters, jewelers), and make glass (glassblowers).  Several of these professions require shops, but these are always small, blending well with the surroundings (elves detest cities for their filth and crowding).

The matriarch and patriarch of a family have great discretion in handling the affairs of their house.  Freedom is highly valued in elven society, but never if it brings harm to the family.  Elven society has few laws, but it does have many traditions.  Elves frown upon those that buck these traditions (few do), but they tolerate such transgressors as long as they do no concrete harm.  For any disputes between houses, elves often select representatives from the other local houses to negotiate a settlement.  As part of the proceedings, the parties in dispute must argue the other side—an act that fosters understanding and often leads to resolution.  This practice also gives rise to the saying among humans and dwarves:  “Never ask an elf for advice, for he will say both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Elven priests are highly respected, but the dedication ceremony that marks them as special also bans them from leadership in elven society.  Unlike human clerics, elven priests are not seen as intermediaries between their deities and their people, so elven priests do not typically serve as trusted advisors to elven leaders.  They are not augurs and diviners. Instead, elves see them as respected keepers of both tradition and magical secrets.  This role often makes them the default scholars of elven communities.

Each elven family’s great hall contains the family tree, an ancient and sacred plant, maintained by family specialists.  Its sap, carefully harvested, is used to anoint family members in the coming-of-age ceremony.

Magic, Star Gems, and the Moons

The elves practice two distinct forms of magic. The first is their ancient starlight magic (lumoas taivaan), which relates wholly to Varda. With such magic, they can produce and alter light in myriad ways, they can produce great heat, they can send and receive messages over great distances, they can give weapons a terribly sharp edge, they can give armor an unnatural hardness, etc. The other form of magic is that of living things (lumoas kasvun), which relates wholly to Corellon Larethian. With this magic, they can heal most wounds, cure most natural diseases, enhance the growth of plants, restore strength to the weary, etc.

The two forms of magic find common ground in an ancient secret of the elves—star gems (jalokivet taivaala). Certain gems, when carefully removed from the earth and properly prepared, can be instilled with elven magic. Most stones thus prepared are permanently enchanted. Upon close examination, each such gem seems to have a tiny white star within it, glowing very faintly. Throughout the centuries, the elves have typically relied upon the dwarves and gnomes to procure these stones for them, paying them well. Most elven elders possess at least one star gem. Royal families have large collections. They are often placed in jewelry, such as rings, crowns, and amulets.

Elves have long understood the connection between magic and the two moons. Their term for the Greater Moon, commonly known to Frangians as Arcanus, is Kuu Vipunen, or just Vipunen.  The elves say that Vipunen is a giant that possesses almost all knowledge of things magical.  His mere presence during a full moon somehow magnifies the power of starlight, thereby enhancing the power of elven magic. Their term for the Lesser Moon, commonly known to Frangians as Entropa, is Kuu Turisas, or just Turisas. The elves speak of Turisas as a tremendous serpent of chaos, which spreads its tentacles through the night sky. Its rise brings chaos, war, and decay.

Food

Elves do not kill animals for the meat, as they avoid senseless killing. Moreover, they contend that eating flesh actually disrupts their life energies, causing the physical effects of age to accelerate.

Elves are not averse to consuming dairy products, but they seldom domesticate animals and thus only occasionally obtain milk, cream, and cheese, usually from rural human farmers.  Elven priests do not eat any dairy products.

For the most part, elves eat only those foods that they grow in the wild.  They grow a wide variety of vegetables, but they do not keep large farms.  Instead, each family produces its own food on many small plots of rich land, hidden within a forest.  They also gather fruit, nuts, and seeds from an assortment of trees and bushes.  They do have a few dense fibrous vegetables akin to breadfruit that they use to make something like bread (including elven way-bread).

Elves do not raise typical human cereals like wheat, rye, barley, and oats, mainly because they do not maintain the large farms required to produce such crops.  They are not averse to eating these foods, but they consider them foreign.

Elves are experts at cultivating grapes, and their wines are famous.  These vineyards are often hidden and small by human standards.  Elves supposedly possess spices unknown to other races.  They seldom sell these, but they make kingly gifts to non-elves.

Elven meals are usually communal affairs, families often eating together.  Most meals take hours to prepare and hours to eat.  Elves usually find rushed meals (like those typical to humans) to be disconcerting, though circumstances sometimes dictate brevity (military campaigns, hurried travel, etc.).

Weapons and Armor

Elves in this world generally deplore violence, but they realize that some unnatural and vile creatures, namely goblyns, must be eliminated like plague rats.

All weapons of elven make take years to fabricate and are enchanted with starlight magic.  The magic is contained in the tiny elven runes that are etched into the blade.  For this reason, most elven blades will shed a dim light, especially when goblyns are near.  Elven bows, though etched with the runes, do not shed light, but the arrowheads do.

Upon reaching adulthood at age 400, an elven male receives from an elder a hauberk of elven mail. The elders do not give these to non-elves, save in the rarest of circumstances. Elven mail that belonged to a dead elven warrior is dismantled, its rings used to form a new suit.

Legends say that the enchantment on elven mail and elven weapons is more powerful under the stars at night.

Elven smiths forge special weapons for family elders and elven kings.  These contain powerful starlight magic.  If such a weapon is ever lost, elves of that family or kingdom will scour the countryside to recover it.  They will do whatever they can, within reason, to recover the blade.  As elven patriarchs and kings have such long life spans, there are few such special weapons existing at any one time.  These weapons pass down through generations as heirlooms.

Elven weapons are always highly decorated, often with tracery (in the form of leaves, vines, acorns, etc.) etched into the blade, in addition to the magical runes.  Sometimes, the weapons contain gilding and inlay.  However, the most valued form of decoration is the inclusion of amber stones set into the hilt or haft.  Usually natural amber is used, but special weapons have elven-engineered amber stones, which contain natural items such as seeds, acorns, berries, etc.  Sometimes, elves living by the sea also value pearls and coral as much as amber.  They do not obtain these themselves, but they will trade with humans to obtain them.

Beliefs on the Afterlife

All elves believe that life is precious.  They know that in this world they are not immortal, but they yearn for immortality, not for gain or power, but because they wish to preserve that precious and joyous gift called life.

Elven priests teach that with enough study and meditation, an elder can learn the art of ‘traveling in the spirit’.  One might think of this as astral travel, by which an elven spirit can travel great distances from one world to another, even though there is no physical connection between them.

Elves believe that they should enjoy the beauty of this world while they can, all the while learning to one day ‘travel in the spirit’ back to their home world, where they can live forever with their kinsmen, Corellon Larethian, and Varda.

Those elves that lack the ability to ‘travel in the spirit’ face the very real threat of death.  An accident or death in battle can be disastrous.  Upon death, elven spirits tend to infuse themselves into trees, ponds, rocks, and other natural formations.  These lost spirits can never gain true sentient immortality, and they will never have physical bodies again, but they do linger on for untold centuries as sprites, pixies, and such.  This fate is considered a terrible tragedy for the fallen elf’s kin.  The existence of infused spirits is yet another reason why elves have so much respect for nature.

Corellon Larethian taught his priests a secret by which elven elders can safeguard an elf’s spirit in the face of certain death.  If an elven elder can get to a dying elf before he expires, that elder can perform a ceremony known as absorbing the mind (imevaa milei), in which he takes the fallen elf’s spirit into his own body.  Only an elder can do this, for only an elder could suppress the bedlam of having two spirits in one body.  In this way, the elder retains the fallen elf’s memories, though they lie largely dormant.  The belief is that when the elder eventually ‘travels in the spirit’ to the home world, both his spirit and that which he carries can obtain new immortal bodies.  In fact, an elder that takes on the spirit of another elf often ‘travels in the spirit’ back to the home world quicker than he might otherwise, for the responsibility of carrying the fallen elf’s spirit is a tremendous one.

Views on Humans

On one hand, elves tend to see most humans as violent, ambitious, corrupt, rash, and greedy.  On the other, they admit that they frequently display bravery, industriousness, ingenuity, sacrifice, and honor.  However, the elves believe that the short lifespan of humans overrides or underlies all of these characteristics.  Elves believe that all human vices come from a human’s eagerness to do as much as possible in the short time that he or she has in this world.  As this is not their fault, most elves believe that they should not categorically condemn humans for shortcomings that they cannot avoid.

Elves frequently marvel at how much humans accomplish in their short lives.  Human kingdoms rise, fall, and are forgotten in a single elven lifespan.  Humans have the power to reshape the world around them, changing it to suit their needs.  Though this is often distasteful to elves, they grudgingly recognize the vigor of human ambition.

Elves are surprised that humans attach so much importance to things that are so fleeting.  Elves value knowledge, magic, and beauty above all else.  Elves know that most humans are ignorant of ancient history and the magical arts.  However, they do recognize that human specialists exist.  They do find these men interesting, often befriending human scholars and wizards.  However, they also realize that humans dabble with many forms of magic, many of which are distasteful or abhorrent, and they shun such practitioners.  When it comes to art, elves have slight contempt for most human work, which they consider sloppy and rushed.  There are exceptions though. Elves sometimes honor famous human bards and painters.

Elves are generally wary of humans.  They tend to shun them as a rule, but elven children, younger than 250, often intermingle with them for a few years at a time.  Mature elves, those over 400, seldom appear in human settlements.

The elves have multiple words for humans, but the most commonly used is rohkeita, which roughly translates to ‘bold ones’.  This comes from the elven word rohkea (bold). Elves do not make great distinctions between the various cultures of men, as they seem similar enough and all very temporary.  Frangians, Zeelanders, and Varangians all seem so similar. Only the Picts stand out as particularly violent and barbarous, a result of their willful abuse of the hallucinogenic lakewort root.

Views on Human Deities

Celestian:  The elves know him not, but they enjoy long discussions with Celestian’s devotees, who seem to appreciate the night sky as much as the elves.  It is not uncommon to find a group of elves as a wilderness shrine to Celestian, relaxing with the priests. Some light-hearted elven songs speak of Celestian meeting the Queen of the Stars.

Cuthbert:  Elves consider him harsh and crude, but they see that his teachings tend to check most human vices.  Though unimpressed, elves note that humans could do worse than follow Cuthbert’s precepts.

Pholtus:  Elves see him as far too harsh and inflexible.  Though virtuous in many respects, his devotees restrict freedom far too much for comfort.  Elves say that good laws are only sublime when free people submit to them willingly. Devotees of Pholtus seem blind to this.

Boccob:  Elves highly value knowledge and magic, but they note that many of Boccob’s followers are unscrupulous. Moreover, the Great Sage, if he exists at all, seems unconcerned with the raw ambition of his followers.  Elves tread cautiously around followers of Boccob, revealing little of their knowledge.

Fharlagan:  Elves, especially children (under 250), admire the Far Wanderer and understand the wanderlust of his followers.  It is not uncommon to find elves at a frontier shrine, sharing wine and food with anyone currently there.

Views on Dwarves

Elven historians recall when dwarves first made contact with elves and humans, though they recognize that dwarves might have existed for centuries before that time.

Relations between dwarves and elves have been rocky over the centuries.  In times of war, elves found dwarves to be dependable allies against the goblyn plague.  Dwarven warriors were strong, brave, and fanatically loyal.  In times of peace, the warm relations between the races sometimes cooled, especially as dwarves mined deep in the earth for metals and gems. Though elves would not so mar the earth, it is inaccurate to say that it angered them.  Problems usually derived from dwarves digging too close to elven homelands in the forest. Nevertheless, there have been many examples of friendship between elven and dwarven kings.  The elves admit that dwarven workmanship with metals and gems equals their own in quality, though the dwarves have their own style, which tends to be less elegant and subtle.  Elves often say that dwarven artists do not understand the concept of balance (a dig that dwarves reject).

The elves have multiple words for ‘dwarf’, but the most commonly used is vaarentaja/vaarentajien, which translates as ‘forger/forgers’.

The elves have heard of Moradin, but they suspect that he is just a myth, an early king among the dwarves, or a symbolic representation of the best qualities found in dwarves.

Views on Gnomes

Elven historians are unclear as to the origins of the gnomes. However, they do know the gnome legends that speak of their origins, having learned them from the gnomes themselves.

Elves consider gnomes to be kindred spirits in many ways. They seem to fully appreciate nature, though elves have a greater fondness for nighttime and the stars than do gnomes.

Elves recognize that gnomes know a great deal about herbs, roots, plants, and all sorts of natural medicines.  Elves and gnomes often share ideas and secrets regarding such things.

The elves have a few words for gnome(s), but the most commonly used is menninkainen/menninkaiset, which translates roughly to ‘soil dweller(s)’.

Views on the Goblyns

Elves are unsure of whether the goblyn god Maglubiyet is real or legend.  They conclude that, if it is real, it is probably a powerful being from another world.

Over the centuries, the elves have composed many songs about battles between Corellon and Maglubiyet (with Corellon always triumphing), but these are simply entertaining ballads. Non-elves sometimes mistake such songs as ancient elven history, and the elves seldom correct them, finding the mistake amusing.

Elven elders conclude that goblyns are not natural creatures, in that they do not eat and reproduce normally. Elves have seen that goblyn bodies dissipate into gobs of black ichor when in the sunlight for too long or after they are slain. This fact strongly suggests a magical nature. Combined with the fact that goblyns seem to find nothing sacred, the elves have no trouble killing them upon sight. They see goblyns as the most destructive type of vermin.

Tales of Dark Elves and Their Queen

Millennia ago, an elven queen became horribly corrupt. The tales vary as to how this came about, and even the elders admit that they cannot know for sure. They do recall as fact that she killed her husband and tried to seize his throne. Because of this act, the elves later branded her as the ‘Black Widow’. The elves discovered her wickedness and drove her into exile. Over the centuries, she obtained powerful dark magic by corrupting both the magic of Varda and that of Corellon. Such was her power that she eventually seduced other powerful elves to her side. These too the elves drove out, and these outcasts formed her first subjects. In time, they multiplied until there were thousands.

War between this dark queen and the other elven lords led to her defeat, after which she took her followers underground, away from the sunlight. Over the centuries, she created a subterranean kingdom, filled with dark wonders.

The elves have little contact with the dark elves, but there are occasional sightings. Legends, gathered from a variety of folk, tell of a dark queen, ruling a matriarchal society beneath the earth. These dark elves are supposedly powerful practitioners of dark magic. They forge elegant arms and armor, which is heavily enchanted with their dark magic. However powerful, such arms and armor cannot survive exposure to sunlight. Legends also recount that the Dark Queen forces all of the powerful dark elves to undergo a test, and she transforms those that fail into giant spiders. Exiled from their subterranean society, these creatures live solitary lives, hating all other forms of life save spiders.

The elves refuse to utter the name of this dark goddess, fearful that its utterance will bring curses upon them. Instead, they call her by a variety of titles, such as Tuonetar (‘queen of the underworld’), Loviatar (‘goddess of death and disease’), Kalma (‘goddess of decay’), and Vammatar (goddess of pain and suffering). Whatever her title, elves agree that she is the deadliest of enemies, for she desires nothing more than the utter destruction of all elves, save her own followers.

Elven Behavioral Norms

One should seek and foster beauty in all things—clothes, jewelry, homes, food, song, music, poetry, tools, and even arms and armor. Transgressors are tasteless and bring shame on themselves and on their families.

Live and let live. Never draw blood over insults or differences in beliefs or customs. Draw blood only when life is threatened. Transgressors are a threat to society and must be driven from it.

Give freely of your physical possessions, without expecting something in return. Reserve only knowledge and magic to yourself. Those that heed this advice are noble. Many elves adhere to this with trivial and mundane items, but they can be hesitant when it comes to valuable items and spells.

Do not steal. If something is not freely given, it is off limits. One that steals violates trust and bonds of kinship. Transgressors are to be fined upon the first offense. If they repeat the behavior thereafter, they are to be driven from society.

Never give your word lightly or fail to honor it. Conservatives dub transgressors as rude and tasteless, but many in elven society employ word games to avoid strict fulfillment of their word.

Common Male Elven Names

Alovadir Alovadin Cavalan Cavalin Circaderan Circaderil Circaderin Circaseran Circinan Circasil Gavalon Gavalin Gisgiran Mavalidan Mavalidin Mavalidir Mavalin Mavalir Vardinir Vardinil Varvalian Varvalin

Common Female Elven Names

Alonien Alonara Aloniel Amulaine Amulara Amuliel Amulien Cuvalaine Cuvalien Cuvalora Gevalara Gevaliel Gevalien Ilmalaine Ilmalara Ilmaliel Kevelara Soryaviel Soravara Valovara Valovien Valoviel Virlainiel Virlainien Viralainen

 

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