By now it should come as little surprise that much of the contemporary pseudo-mythology around Christmas is, in fact, based upon far older underpinnings – elements that have somehow ‘seeped through’ the veiling sheens not only of Christianity, but of Coca-Cola and McWorld. Some things, I would go so far as to say, are so powerfully resonant as to not be ignorable even if we are not immediately conscious of what they are, or why. [And for more detail upon that, take a look at some of my Myth In The Modern Age series, particularly Cybele In Madrid]
Now, a grand and fulfilling article could probably be written upon the person of Santa Claus directly, with particular and especial reference to the Odinic parallels of same. But that is not going to be this piece.
Rather, my attention was turned, this fine Christmas morning, to another group of rather lesser-heralded figures. Santa’s Elves. The Elves of the North Pole.
As a youth, I was rather ill-at-ease with the concept. After all, influenced via Tolkien and what we may perhaps term the Standard Fantasy Setting which has grown up from the shadow of his mighty work, I had veer-y different conceptions of what an Elf should be. Tall, for a start. Dwarfs as craftsmen were a thing, as they were in Norse mythology [wherein it is important to make the distinction between the various kinds of ‘alfar’ – some of whom are indeed depicted as fabulous craftsmen of short stature and subterranean habitat] , yet it seemed an inherent crime against the unutterable dignity of the Elvish Race to see the the proud scions of downright angelic countenance, be reduced to the status and the situation … and rather literal stature, of course, of child-labourers in the sweatshop conditions of the Third World.
Yet the curious thing is – the notion of Elves as Craftsmen beyond measurable compare, is not only authentically Nordic [and we have a long-running internal argument around the likely Indo-European cognates and position of Volundr the Smith in this particular regard] , but seems to find much more clear and clarified expression further to the East amidst the Hindu mythological and scriptural corpus.
I am speaking, of course, of the Ribhus/Rhbus , the Solar Craftsmen Who through dint of Their ingenuity and wondrous artifice, are elevated to the ranks proximate to the Divine.
Let us consider the etymologies. In each case – Elf, and Rhbus – there are two non-exclusive and quite likely decidedly coterminous explanations for the derivation of the terms.
As applies Elf, the main understanding is that of “White” – the “Alf” of the Germanic languages shares obvious coterminity with terms like “Alb” (as in “Albino”) and “Alp” (as in “White” Mountains through Snow) [Interestingly, the Hittite 𒀠𒉺𒀸 [Alpas] appears to have taken this in the direction of ‘Cloud’; which not only combines the characteristic whiteness, but also the ‘elevated’ connotations we should expect of caelestial meaning], deriving ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ‘Albhos’/'(h)elbhos’. [This is also, with deference to a certain other modern writer whose series incorporates worker ‘elves’, the root origin of Latin “Albus”]
It is certainly possible to take the “White” connotation rather literally – as that is exactly and precisely what natural sunlight is. Really, really bright white light [and there is an intriguing ‘Elbid’ in Celtic languages, meaning “Upper World”, which not only conveys the “upper” part, as in ‘above-ground’, but also links to how “Loka” derives from “Lewk” to refer not only to the ‘world’ , as in the ‘visible world’, but also to the faculty of ‘sight’. “Lewk”, of course, meaning “Light” (inter alia) in PIE]. But it also carries inherent within it the connotations of Beauty [see also the Sanskrit semantic field around “Gaura”/”Gauri”], and, due to the source of the ‘Whiteness’ in question, the Caelestial expression.
The ‘Craftsman’ connotation, meanwhile, is supplied by the other chain of etymological derivation – wherein it is instead linked to a close phonetically relative term whose ambit of meaning is almost directly that of the Sanskrit Rhbus. Incorporating not only the physical sense of artifice and invention – but also the mental faculties which are possessed alongside these active expressions of same; those of inventiveness, ingenuity, the adept mastery of a field, skill and wisdom, the courage of one’s burgeoning output.
“Divine Craftsmen”, indeed.
It should not be hard at all to see how all of this pertains to the modern-day pseudomythological conception of “Santa’s Elves” … even leaving aside the densely packed “Polar” and “Solar” symbolism that various people have speculated upon over the years (including our good friend, Tilak). In Tolkien’s Legendarium, too, the Elves were master craftsmen, so in some ways none of this should be surprising. But the notion of the Elves working for another – in the Indo-European mythological cases, generally for a Divine Lord, often with rather impressive Bhaga to distribute from – that is something that is not so directly emblematic within his work. Ribhus of the Anglo-Saxon Word (Logos, indeed, to utilize a fitting concept for the day we are writing this upon), though he, unquestionably, turned out to be.
But the point of this piece has not been to simply suggest that there is a close coterminity between an aspect of Vedic and an aspect of Eddic belief … nor even between these two (which are really much more ‘one’ than many people have often had cause to realize) and something which is now an indispensable portion of the local super-mall’s ‘Silly Season’ consumerist-temple tableaux-display.
Rather, it has been to reaffirm my general and my genuinely held belief that in many areas of the modern world, if you know where and how to look, you shall find that the essential elements of the Myths of our forefathers are yet ‘preserved’. Even if they are hidden and enveiled in so much beguiling false-frontage that they have been enabled to continue without suppression [and this, too, goes quite strongly with the quality of the Elves to obscurate in various manners in the mythology].
Part of our task is not just to identify such situations wherein something ancient, something true, has been carried forward in hidden clothing and diminished stature to the world of the present. Nor even to enable others to begin to see the world in this manner, which expands vision both ‘backward’ in time and ‘upwards’ or ‘deep-a’ in terms of supernal saliency (so to speak). But to begin the vitally necessary process of ‘cleaning’ these representations, in the manner that an archaeologist might gently remove the grime [etymological linkage to terms for ‘mask’ there .. but another article for another time] from a precious artefact, and thence begin divining its secrets; or in more recent times, technological artifice [we are back, once again, within the realms of the Ribhus!] may be utilized to peer behind a painted-over wall to reveal some ancient fresco or Renaissance mastery sheltering behind.
This is, I feel, a rather core element of what is meant by “Krinvanto Vishvam Aryam”. To ‘Re-Enchant’ the World – to Make it Mythological [rather than pseudo-mythological for occasional materialist purposes] Again.
To reconnect both us with our heritage, even via potentially unorthodox routes and methodologies where appropriate; and to restore the essential dignity of these vastly ancient and augustly resonant mythological concepts through the dissemination of proper knowledge and facilitation of active mental engagement therewith.
One does not do this by grouching about how Santa-displays in shopping centers ought be ruled illegal (not least because this is generally only something done by those without actual power to do so).
One does this by showing the actual truth that these displays are but dim reflective-refractions via a smokey mirror [‘Maya’ in several senses of the term!] thereof.
As I have often been known to say – in situations of darkness, it is better to light the flamethrower [of illumination, and also the clearing away of obscuring decay] than it is to simply curse the gloom.
An appropriate sentiment, also, for the occasion about which an ancient Solar observance marking the lengthening of the Sun’s radiant presence within the Sky was once held.
You may know it as “Christmas”.