Why are elves, etc., supposed to have pointed ears?

All artistic representations I’ve seen of legendary humanoid beings such as elves, fairies, leprechauns, etc. – and sometimes devils, too – show them with pointed ears – an ear rising to a sharp backswept point like Spock’s, and like nothing you will see on any real-life primate or other animal. Doesn’t look like a rabbit’s ear, or a goat’s, or anything else I’ve ever seen. How did this get started? How far back does it go?

I am not sure, but I think it started with the book series LOTR. I could be way wrong, but I think tolkien may have been the first one to write about elves/dwarves/what-have-you, and everyone has followed his lead but expanded on it.

I’m pretty sure that the devil was portrayed with pointed ears in the middle ages.

Tolkien may have invented hobbits, but pretty much everything else he wrote about was influenced by existing mythology (mostly Norse). And I don’t think he ever described elves, especially not as having pointy ears.

You know, Tolkien would be utterly appalled to learn that people think that he invented elves. He was a student not just of folklore but of earlier fantasy stories as well. It’s like giving Baz Lurhmann credit for inventing the story of Romeo and Juliet.

Elves are found in many northern European mythologies. The Celts distinguished them from dwarfs and placed them in the world of Fairie. And that’s where we get Fairy Tales.

Modern literary depictions of elves appear to begin in Ludwig Tieck’s Die Elfen, back in 1811. Yes, predating Frankenstein. The Brothers Grimm did “The Elves and the Shoemaker” the next year. The Victorians made elves and fairies interchangeable, and added brownies.

In the 20th century, Lord Dunsany’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter is the first major repackaging of elves as a separate and distinct race. They appear all over fantasy after that, and even in a minor British book published to little acclaim or recognition in the 1950s.

I’m fairly sure that fairies, brownies, and others of their ilk were frequently depicted with pointed ears or other distinguishing characteristics in Victorian art. Arthur Rackham was certainly doing pointy-eared characters by the early 20th century and he was squarely in that tradition.

Tolkein did describe both elves and Hobbits as having pointy ears in one of his instructions to an illustrator (Hobbit ears weren’t as pointy or as long as an elf’s). But elves had a tradition of pointy ears well before Tolkein. Have a look at the original illustrations for Peter Pan and before that any illustrations of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”.

Anyway, to answer the OP, these creatures were given pointy ears by the church to symbolise their animal nature. Animals have pointy ears, more or less, so when the Christian faith encountered sidhe, pan etc. they wanted to identify them as having an animal nature rather than the divine nature they often had in their own theology. Basically it was a blatant attempt to represent them as ungodly and evil so that newly converted Christians wouldn’t backslid into their old religious traditions. The church never had any problem co-opting and incorporating such creatures and their celebrations into the faith, but they didn’t want people actually worshipping them and making offerings so they made sure they were always represented as evil.

And the evidence for this assertion would be?

Without waiting for Blake’s answer to this, I’ll give one. The ancient Greeks themselves depicted Pan with the pointed ears of a goat, along with the horns, legs and cloven hooves of a goat. Coz, he was, like, part goat. See for example this statue from around 100 B.C. in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. It wasn’t as if his animal nature was somehow hidden until some Christian bishop decided that he had to be depicted with pointy ears to “symbolise [his] animal nature”.

Next, I guess Blake will tell us that no-one ever guessed that centaurs were part horse, until somone stuck some pointy ears on one. After that, everyone said, hey, I’d hadn’t noticed the four legs, hooves and tail before.

Anyway, onto a more interesting theory, which isn’t as easily disproven as Blake’s. A few years ago, the Scientific American published an article on a genetic defect called Williams Syndrome, titled Williams Syndrome and the Brain (warning, .PDF). In it, one of the authors, Howard M Lenhoff, speculates that sufferers of the syndrome, who have “pixie like” features including pointed ears, and who often have amazing musical talents, may in fact be the original inspiration for the Celtic stories of elves, pixies and changelings.

That is a very interesting article indeed. But although it does say that those with Williams’ Syndrome exhibit various ‘elvish’ physical traits, it suggests that the pointy ears bit is more metaphorical, making reference to their ‘ear for music’ - those with Williams’ it says, have oval ears.

The authors of the article gave a very sensitive presentation. I applaud that. Looking at the photos, I can’t agree with your “metaphorical” suggestion. “Caricature”, maybe.

Robert Anton Wilson took up this question in his book Cosmic Trigger. He found the pointy-ear archetype in various different cultures; the beings with these ears are always otherworldly in nature.

In 1963, Wilson took peyote. The next day, after the peyote trip was all finished, he looked up and saw in an adjacent cornfield a dancing little man with green skin and pointy ears. It was several years later that he read Carlos Castaneda’s description of Mescalito, the spirit of the peyote plant. At the time, Wilson emphasizes, he was a Materialist. One explanation Wilson suggested was that Mescalito was an archetype of the collective unconscious, in the Jungian sense. He had been reported by many others besides Castaneda and Wilson, with the same description.

Another explanation is that Mescalito is “an anthropomorphized human translation of a persistent signal sent by the molecular intelligence of the vegetative world… according to this model, Mescalito is a genetic signal in our collective unconscious, but activated only when certain molecular transmissions from the plant world are received.”

Wilson goes on to point out the similarity of Mescalito’s pointy ears on:
[li]Humanoid extraterrestrials in various flying saucer reports by alleged Contactees;[/li][li]“Mr. Spock” on the Star Trek show;[/li][li]Peter Pan from the peanut butter jar;[/li][li]Irish leprechauns.[/li][/ul]
He concluded: “It needs to be emphasized that whether we are talking of an experience involving Mescalito or one involving a kitchen chair, all of our perceptions have gone through myriads of neural processes in the brain before they appear to our consciousness. At the point of conscious recognition, the identified image is organized into a three-dimensional hologram which we project outside ourselves and call ‘reality’. We are much too modest about our own creativity if we take any of these projections literally.”

Johanna – the quote in your third paragraph is from Wilson?

See, that’s why I was so careful when I guessed. Thank you for the correction, all.

Do you have a full cite on that? I was under the impression that Tolkien never said anything about the shape of elvish ears.

In the main books, there are certainly facial differences between Elves and Humans (some characters are commented upon as having elvish features), but it’s also possible for an Elf to pass as a Human, or vice versa, and I seem to recall some cases where one character was unsure which another was, so one presumes that the differences were not as profound as they’re often illustrated.

Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati (New York: Pocket Books, 1977), p. 14.

Humans are decended from monkeys.

Elves are decended from foxes.

So I sez. :wink:

Dunno if Blake does, but I do:


BTW, there’s no need for anyone to point out that my cite doesn’t support Blake’s conclusion.


That’s what I thought, I just wanted to make sure you weren’t bringing another person into it.

I suspect that the illustrations of fairies (or other creatures of Faerie) using pointed ears does arise from an intention to show them as separate from humanity. I have found no evidence that the church played any role in this, however. In ancient Greece and Rome, we have numerous statues of (Greek) satyrs and (Roman) fauns with ears shaped in what we now think of as “elven.” There are a few illustrations of demons or devils from the late medieval or Renaissance period with similar ears (and cloven hoofed feet–a trait that appears, but not universally, on the Greek and Roman images).

However, I have not found any images of fairies or elves that display pointed ears prior to the 19th century. For example, Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night’s Dream has had a recurring appearance among artists for several hundred years, yet neither Oberon nor Titania (nor their court) are given pointed ears in any painting I have found prior to the 19th century. During that century, a lot of paintings or illustration begin showing up with pointed-ear elves or fairies. In addition, there are non-illustrated references to pointed ears: in his tale, The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne gives his character Donatello pointy ears while implying that he is more than (or other than) human. That story was written around 1859.

In tales of the sidhe from Ireland (or similar tales from other parts of Northwest Europe), I do not ever recall a story in which a disguised fairy or elf was “revealed” by their peculiarly shaped ears. I would think that if those people/creatures had always had such a feature, it would have shown up in the literature.

My guess, then, would be that somewhere in the early 19th century, someone used that imagery to convey the notion of “otherness” from humanity and it received such a response of recognition that it was adopted by many succeeding artists. (It would be interesting to discover that the artists actually borrowed the theme from Hawthorne’s novel (which was fairly popular although not well-received critically), but I have not been able to pin down an actual teminus a quo for finding pointy-eared fairies in drawings or paintings.)