HomeNorthwest TerritoriesElves from the North Pole – More than a Fairytale?

Elves from the North Pole – More than a Fairytale?

Elves from the North Pole – More than a Fairytale?

In the Western world today, we associate Christmas with two main stories. The more important of these, upon which the holiday is based, is the Nativity of Christ, which appears in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Originating in the Holy Land in the 1st Century A.D., the story of Christ’s birth spread throughout the Roman Empire during the reign of Constantine the Great.

The second major story that we associate with Christmas is that of Santa Claus, the jolly, white-bearded, semi-magical embodiment of Christmas who appears every Christmas Eve to deliver presents to good girls and boys. Like gingerbread houses and the Christmas tree, the Santa Claus story as we know it probably has its roots in 16th Century Germany/Holland.

Arctic Elves – A Canadian Legend

One particular set of characters who have populated the Santa Claus story for at least a century and a half are Christmas elves, Santa’s little magical helpers. According to a relatively modern tradition, these tiny people live in the North Pole, where they make toys in Santa’s workshop. Although elves have been a mainstay of Germanic folklore for millennia, Christmas elves first appeared in writing in American novelist Louisa May Alcott’s unpublished book Christmas Elves (1855).

Many Canadians might be surprised to learn that, despite their relatively recent addition to the Santa Claus story, little magical people from the North Pole have featured in Western folklore for more than 1,000 years. And believe it or not, rather than hailing from northernmost Norway, Russia, or some other Old World abode, these creatures were said to live in Northern Canada.

Skraelings

The first written accounts of Artic elves are the Viking Sagas- texts written by medieval Norsemen on ancient Nordic and Germanic history. Among the most famous of these is the saga of Erik the Red.

Erik the Red was a red-bearded Norse farmer who lived in Iceland in the late 10th Century. In 982 A.D., he was banished from Iceland for committing manslaughter. Accompanied by a handful of loyal friends and relatives, he left his longhouse and headed out to sea, bound for a mysterious land to the west which had been spotted by Icelandic sailors blown off course.

Erik the Red and his crew spent three years exploring this new land, and discovered that it had areas which were suitable for farming. In 985, he returned to Iceland and regaled his fellow Vikings with tales of what he attractively dubbed “Groenland”, or “Greenland”. Having convinced a number of Norsemen to help him settle this new territory, Erik the Red returned to Greenland that year and established a colony there.

In 999 A.D., one of Erik the Red’s sons, called Leif Eriksson, travelled to Norway, his father’s birthplace, where he converted from Norse paganism to Christianity. Determined to bring the Christian religion to Greenland, he headed out into the North Atlantic. During his westward voyage, he was blown off course, and landed on strange shores where wild grapes grew in abundance. He called this New World “Vinland”, or “Wineland”, and later returned there to establish a colony of his own. Some historians believe that Leif Eriksson’s Vinlandic colony was what we know today as L’Anse aux Meadows, a cluster of Viking ruins discovered on the northern tip of Newfoundland.

A recreated Viking longhouse at L’Anse Aux Meadows.

For centuries, Icelanders told stories of Erik the Red and Leif Eriksson’s New World adventures around smoky longhouse fires. Medieval storytellers eventually put these tales to parchment, writing what are known as the Icelandic Sagas.

Many of the Sagas spoke of natives whom Norse explorers encountered in the New World, in both Vinland and Greenland. The Vikings called these people “Skraeling”. According to the 13th Century Saga of Erik the Red, the Skraeling “were short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads. Their eyes were large and their cheeks broad.” Although their relationship with these aboriginals was initially a friendly one, the Vikings eventually engaged in a number of savage skirmishes with these diminutive New World natives.

Many historians believe that the Skraeling were the Thule people, the ancestors of the modern Inuit. Indeed, Inuit folklore contains references to bearded, sword-wielding giants called “Kavdlunait”, believed by some to be Viking explorers. Others claim that the Skraeling were the ancient Dorset people, whom the Inuit eventually displaced. Others still, however, maintain that the Sagas’ references to Skraeling constitute the first written records describing a lost tribe of Arctic dwarfs, remnants of which, some say, still inhabit the Northland to this very day.

Norwegian-American historian Kirsten A. Seaver, in her article ‘Pygmies’ of the Far North, published in the March 2008 edition of the Journal of World History, argued that the word “Skraeling” was an Old Norse translation of “Pygmy”- in this context, a race of dwarves from India which feature in Ancient Greek mythology, with which Classically-educated Vikings would have been familiar. Seaver suspected that Dark Age Norse explorers, knowing that the earth was round, believed they had stumbled upon eastern coast of India when they trudged onto the foamy shores of the New World. Much as 15th Century Spanish conquistadors called the natives of the Americas “indios”, or “Indians”, in the mistaken belief that they had reached the Orient, the Vikings, Seaver argued, named the tiny northern natives they encountered after the legendary dwarves said to inhabit the eastern continent.

Seaver’s case is bolstered by a footnote which Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator included in his 1569 map of the world. On an island near the North Pole, Mercator wrote:

“Pygmae hic habitant 4 ad summum pedes longi, quaemadmodum illi quos in Gronlandia Screlingers vocant.”

This Latin passage, when translated to English, reads:

“Here live the Pygmies, at most 4 feet tall, like unto those they call Skraelings in Greenland.”

Captain Luke Foxe’s Discovery

Another explorer to uncover potential evidence of a race of pygmies living in the Arctic was Captain Luke Foxe, a 17th Century English adventurer who followed in the footsteps of Martin Frobisher and Henry Hudson, sailing the frigid waters of Northern Canada in search of the Northwest Passage.

Foxe set out on his first and only Arctic expedition in the spring of 1631. Setting out from Kirkwall, Orkney, he and his crew sailed west across the Atlantic to Frobisher Bay, situated near the northern lip of Hudson’s Bay. The Englishmen sailed through the Hudson Strait and, after visiting the crew of Welsh Captain Thomas James, who was similarly searching for the Northwest Passage, headed west.

On July 27, 1631, Captain Foxe and his crew disembarked at Southampton Island, a large island located at the northern end of Hudson’s Bay. There, they discovered a peculiar above-ground cemetery consisting of a number of little coffins made from wood and stone. Inside these coffins were, as cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson put it in his 1963 article Traditions of Submen in Arctic and Subarctic North America, “tiny human skeletons only four feet in length, surrounded by bows, arrows, and bone lances. They were all adults, and there is some implication that not all of them were skeletons, but might have been whole frozen bodies.”

The first part of Foxe’s report, which he included in his personal journal, went as follows:

“The newes from land was that this Island was a Sepulchre, for the Savages had laid their dead (I cannot say interred), for it is all stone, as they cannot dig therein, but lay the Corpses on the stones, and wall them about with the same, coffining them also by laying the sides of old sleddes about which have been artificially made. The boards are some 9 or 10 foot long, 4 inches thicke. In what manner the tree they have bin made out of what cloven or sawen, it was so smooth that we could not discerne, the burials had been so old.

“And, as in other places in those countries, they bury all their Vtensils, as bows, arrows, strings, darts, lances, and other implements carved in bone. The longest Corpses was not above 4 foot long, 2 with their heads laid to the West. It may be that they travell, as the Tartars and the Samoides; for, if they had remained here, there would have been some newer burials. There was one place walled 4 square, and seated within the earth; each side was 4 or 5 yards in length’ in the middle was 3 stones, laid one above another, man’s height. We tooke this to be some place of Ceremony at the buriall of the dead.”

In a footnote, Foxe added, “They seem to be people of small stature. God send me better for my adventures than these.”

The Dwarves of the Mackenzie Mountians

When white men began to establish themselves in Mackenzie Country (the watershed of the Mackenzie River, in the Northwest Territories) in the 18th and early 19th Centuries, they learned that the local Dene Indians had a strong tradition that the Mackenzie Mountains were home to a race of mystical dwarves. In a letter to a friend, a fur trader named Poole Field described these creatures as “little men of the Mountain that are supposed to be about four feet high at the most and have fine living places in the heart of the mountain, and are exceptionally strong and wise who come out occasionally and capture their women for wives, in some cases making the father of the girl they have taken a medicine man in return for the girl.”

In his book The Kaska Indians: An Ethnographic Reconstruction (1964), ethnologist John J. Honigmann recounted an old Kaska legend about the “Klunetene”- literally “Little Men”- “who lived on mice which they secured with small bows and arrows in the fall grass” and sometimes “befriended men. They also enjoyed a reputation for their making fun.”

These dwarves, despite their being constantly menaced by wild animals, were said to be a powerful people with shamanic abilities. “In warfare,” Honigmann wrote, “these small beings helped to bring up wind and cold that paralyzed the enemy. In size a dwarf reached about the height of a caribou jaw. One such being could pack only about half a pound. Despite the tendency of the dwarfs to steal women, people laughed when they spoke of the antics of the little people.”

Although the dwarves were said to have delighted in helping humans, the Attawapiskat Cree of Northern Ontario were purportedly afraid of these little men “who inhabited the rocky cliffs along rivers.”

Ed Ferrell’s Story

In 1996, northern writer Ed Ferrell published a book called Strange Stories of Alaska and the Yukon, a collection of old Northern newspaper articles about ghosts, lost gold mines, forgotten civilizations, and other weird tales of the Northland. Ferrell dedicated one chapter to his book to stories of strange tribes which prospectors and trappers are said to have discovered during the course of their boreal wanderings.

Ferrell found one of these articles, entitled “Pygmies of the North Pole”, in the September 13, 1930 issue of The Stroller’s Weekly, a newspaper based out of Juneau, Alaska. It tells of a party of scientists, one of them named John Weizl, who participated in an Arctic expedition in June, 1911, led by a Russian explorer named Captain Yvolnoff. Inuit guides led the scientists to an impossible location “about 730 miles northwest of the North Pole”, where they found tiny footprints in the snow. They followed the footprints to an underground burrow into which they sent one of their dogs. The dog quickly returned to the surface, “seeming not to like what he had discovered.”

After some time, a little man came out of the burrow, speaking a language the Inuit did not understand in a shrill, frightened tone. He was about three and a half feet tall and extremely thin, and was estimated to weigh around 35 to 40 pounds. His head, complete with enormous ears, was “almost triangular-shaped, coming to a peak, with a small tuft of hair at the top.”

When the scientists pacified the pygmy with soothing words, he called for his kinsmen to come out of the burrow. Slowly, twenty seven people emerged from the hole in the ground, all of them “clad in very fine skins”.

The expedition party spent a day with these little natives. They observed that these tiny people lived on small fish, which they caught with their bare hands. For some reason, they only ate the backs of the fish, and threw the rest away.

Anthony Roche’s Encounter

Believe it or not, sightings of Arctic dwarves still occur from time to time in the desolate wilds of the Northland. One man who may have come face-to-face with one of these little people is Anthony Roche, a native of the Northland who generously allowed me to include several of his own strange experiences in the arctic wilderness in my book Legends of the Nahanni Valley.

In August 2017, Roche paid a visit to his girlfriend’s grandmother, who lived in a cabin about ten kilometres west of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. Cambridge Bay is a hamlet of about 1,500 people, located on the southern shore of Victoria Island. Despite being the second largest island in the Arctic Archipelago, Victoria Island is only home to about 1,900 people, making it one of the most sparsely populated places on earth.

Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.

During their visit, Roche and his girlfriend stayed in her parents’ cabin, which was vacant at the time. This cottage, situated about eighty yards away from the grandmother’s cabin, constituted the only other residence in that remote corner of the Artic at the time.

One day, while his girlfriend went for tea at his grandmother’s cabin, Roche went out to inspect her parents’ fish net. “I got three fish in the net,” Roche told this author, “filleted them and hung them to dry”. That accomplished, he and his girlfriend, who had returned from her grandmother’s cabin, both decided to take a nap in her parents’ cabin. Just as they were drifting off to sleep, the couple heard an unexpected sound.

“We both woke up to footsteps on the deck,” said Roche. They heard the creaking of the cabin’s outer door. Several seconds later, the inside door swung open. Roche, who was lying on the upper level of a bunk bed, glanced over at the open door expecting to see his girlfriend’s grandmother, as she was the only other person in the area at the time. There was no one there. Roche craned his neck to get a better view.

“And there,” said Roche, “was…”

[To find out, please check out my book Legends of the Nahanni Valley]

 

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I'm a Western Canadian writer, carver, and fiddler who has a special place in his heart for history and the unexplained.

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