Elf arrows are stone age arrowhead-shaped flints found throughout Europe, the British Isles, and northern Africa.
Elf-Arrows derived their name from the folklore belief that they were used by the Elves to kill cattle and sometimes human beings in their mischief-joy. Also called ‘pixie arrows’, according to British folklore.
Medieval witches were thought to have used these as weapons against people and animals.
If a person was shot with an elf arrow, she or he would come down with fatal and mysterious supernatural sicknesses.
As a common target of witches, cattle are also killed by elf arrows. The term elf-shot is still applied to sick animals in some Celtic areas.
However, stricken cattle can be saved if:
- They are touched with the arrow
- The arrow is dipped in water
- The water is given to the cattle to drink
Elf-Arrows were sometimes worn as amulets, occasionally set in silver, as a charm against witchcraft.
Elf-arrows in witchcraft trials
In 1590 occurred the remarkable trial of Katherine Ross, Lady Fowlis, who was accused of witchcraft and sorcery in attempting the destruction of some of her husband’s relatives by causing clay images of them to be made, and shooting at these with elf-arrowheads. No mention is made of the manner of discharging the arrowheads, but probably they were shot in the manner described by Isobel Gowdie in her confession, quoted further on. In the “Dittay against the Pannell,” Lady Fowlis is accused.
“In the fyrat, Thow art accusit for the making of twa pictouris’ of clay, in cumpany with the said Cristiane Roiss and Mariorie Neyne M’Allester, alias Laskie Loncart, in the said Cristian Roisis westir chalmer in Canorth; the ane, maid for the distructioune and consumptioune of the young baird of Fowlis, and the vthir for the young Ladie Balnagoune; to the effect that the ane thairof sould be Putt att the Brig-end of Fowles, and the vther att Ardrnoir, for distruetioun of the saidis young Laird and Lady: And this sould hail bene performit at Alhallowmes, in the year of God Im. ye. lxxvij zeiris: Quhilkis twa pictouris, being sett on the north syd of the chalmer, the said Loskie Loncart tuik twa elf arrow heides and delyuerit ane to ye (you) Katherene, and the vther, the Mid Cristian Rois Malcumsone held in her awin hand; and thow schott twa schottis with the said arrow heid, att the Mid Lady Balnagowne, and Loskie Loncart schott thrie schottis at the said young Laird of Fowlis. In the meane tyme, baith the pictouris brak, and thow commandit Loskie Loncart to mak of new vthir twa pictouris thaireftir, for the saidis persounes; quhilk the said Loskic Loncart tuik vpoun hand to do.”
In the remarkable confession of Isobel Gowdie, one of tho Auldearn witches, in 1662, there is the following curious account of the manufacture and use of elf-arrows :
“As for Elf-arrow-heidis, the Divell shapes them with his awin hand, [and syne delivers thame] to Elf-boyes, who whyttis and dightis them with a sharp thing lyk a paking neidle; bot [quhen I wes in Elf-land ?] I saw them whytting and dighting them. Quhen I wes in the Elfes howssis, they will haw werie…… them whytting and dighting; and the divell gives them to ws, each of ws so many, quhen…… Thes that dightis thaim ar litle ones, hollow, and boss-baked. They speak gowstie lyk. Quhen the divell gives them to ws, he sayes,
‘Shoot thes in my name
And they sall not goe heall hame !’
and quhan ve shoot these arrowes (we say)—
‘I shoot yon man in the Divellis name,
He sall nott win heall hame !
And this salbe alswa trw;
Thair sall not be an bitt of him on lieiw !’
We haw no bow to shoot with, but spang them from of the naillis of our thowmbes. Som tymes we will misse: bot if they twitch, be it beast, or man or woman, it will kill, tho’ they haid an jack wpon them.”