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. 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 the 16th Century Holy Roman
Empire, in regions that now comprise the states of Germany and Holland. 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 1855, in
American novelist Louisa May Alcott’s unpublished book ,Christmas Elves’. Many
Westerners might be surprised to learn that despite their relatively recent
addition to the Santa Claus story, little magical people from a North Pole have
featured in Western folklore for more than a thousand 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. The
following stories are excerpts from my book
‘Legends of the Nahanni Valley’, which details the history and folklore of a
mysterious region in Northern Canada popularly known as the “Headless Valley”.
If you’d like to get a copy of this book, please check out the link in the
description. The first written accounts of Arctic elves are the Viking sagas-
texts written by medieval Norseman 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 attractive
lee dubbed “Greenland”. Having convinced a number of Norseman 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 Erikson, traveled
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 were wild grapes grew in abundance.
He called this new world “Vinland”, or “Wine Land”, and later returned there to
establish a colony of his own. Some historians believe that Leif Erikson’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. For centuries,
Icelanders told stories of Erik the Red and Leif Erikson’s New World
adventures around smoky longhouse fires. Medieval storytellers eventually put
these tales to parchment, writing what are known today 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, believed by some to be Viking explorers. Others claimed that the
Skraeling were the ancient Dorset people, whom the Inuit eventually displaced.
Others still, however, maintained that the Saga’s 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 dwarfs 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 the eastern coast of India when they trudged on to 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. Seavers’ 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, in Latin, “Here lived the Pygmies, at
most four feet tall, like unto those they call Skraelings in Greenland.” 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 27th ,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 Svages 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, 4inches thicke. In what manner the
tree they have been made out of was cloven or sawen, it was so smooth that we
could not discern, the burials had bin so old. And, as in other places in these
countries, the berry’ all their Utensils, as bows, arrows, strings, darts, lances, and
other implements carved in bone. The longest Corpses was
not above 4 foot long, 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 three stones, laid one above the other, man’s height. We took 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 sent me better for my adventures than
these”. When white men began to establish themselves in what is now Canada’s
Northwest Territories in the late 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 1964 book “The Kaska Indians: An Ethnographic
Reconstruction”, 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 paralyze 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 dwarves 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 North Ontario were
reportedly afraid of these little men “who inhabited the rocky cliffs
along rivers.” 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 mines, forgotten civilizations, and other
weird tales of the Northland. Ferrell dedicated one chapter of his book to
stories of strange tribes which prospectors and trappers are said to
have discovered during the course of their boreal wanderings. Farrell found
one of these articles, entitled “Pygmies of the North Pole”, in the September 13th,
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 with the
burrow. Slowly, 27 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.
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. During their visit, Roche and his
girlfriend stayed in her parents’ cabin, which was vacant at the time. This
cottage, situated about 80 yards away from the grandmother’s cabin, constituted
the only other residence in that remote corner of the Arctic at that time. One
day, while his girlfriend went for tea at her grandmother’s cabin, Roche went out to
inspect her parents’ fish net. “I got three fish in the net,” Roche told me, “filetted
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 cabins 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 that time.
There was no one there. Roche craned his neck to get a better view,. “And there,” said
Roche, “was the smallest human being I’ve ever seen, wearing a ragged old orange-coloured coat and caribou skin pants”. Suddenly, both doors shut in
unison, “as if they were one. My girlfriend
screamed, ‘Someone tried to get in!’ I jumped up to see who it was.
Looked out every window and didn’t see anyone. I walked out the door and didn’t
see anyone. I thought to myself ‘Grandma can’t move that fast; her cabin is 80
yards away’.” Later, Roche and his girlfriend
met up with her parents and told them of their experience. “They told us a
‘little person’ visited us. An ‘inuk’, they called them- ‘Inuagulik’, in our language.
They were supposed to be folk stories for children, and one walked into our
cabin. Thanks for watching! If you would like to learn more about the many
strange stories and legends endemic to Northern Canada, please check out my book
‘Legends of the Nahanni Valley’, which you can find by clicking the link in the

4 thoughts on “Elves from the North Pole – More than a Fairytale?

  1. Thanks for watching! If you enjoyed this video and would like to help support this channel, please check out my book 'Legends of the Nahanni Valley': https://www.amazon.com/Legends-Nahanni-Valley-Hammerson-Peters/dp/099395586X

  2. Thank You for such a delightful fact based historical story.
    History is fascinating when not skewed by governmental meddling and religious fiction.

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