. Alas, not me: Ylfig and the Foresight of the Elves

15 December 2021

Ylfig and the Foresight of the Elves

Alaric Hall in his article Elves on the Brain: Chaucer, Old English, and Elvish makes an excellent case for believing that in Chaucer's time and earlier 'elvish' could mean 'prophetic'. To be brief, Hall notes that ylfig

is transparently derived from the late West Saxon form of ælf and the denominative adjectival suffix -ig; as this suffix has been productive from Common Germanic to present day English, ylfig could have been coined at any time. Parallel Old English formations are werig (‘weary, tired, exhausted’ < wor ‘ooze, bog’); sælig (‘happy, prosperous’ < sæl ‘prosperity, happiness’); and gydig (‘possessed (by a god)’ < *γuðaz ‘god’). All these suggest ‘(like) one engaged with noun X’: ‘like one in a bog’, ‘one in good fortune’, ‘one engaged with a god’, and so forth. The etymological meaning of ylfig seems therefore to be ‘(like) one engaged with an ælf or ælfe’. 

Hall then notes a glossator's use of ylfig to clarify further a Latin gloss for the word fanaticus: futura praecinens. Ylfig thus explains futura praecinens, 'foretelling the future'. Elves thus at one point were believed to possess this ability or skill. 

In The Lord of the Rings foresight and foretelling are strongly associated with Wizards, Elves and those with elvish blood in them (Elrond, Galadriel, Aragorn, Gandalf, Saruman, Legolas, Arwen, Gilraen). I haven't the leisure right now to look more fully into this. It may be a coincidence, and it may well be impossible to prove. Yet I wouldn't be surprised if Tolkien, too, had seen this gloss, and that it lies behind the foretellings of Tolkien's Elves.


I admit I find the derivation Hall gives for 'werig' very amusing, but I am a bit perplexed by it, since I haven't yet found another source that says the same. Admittedly my search has been short and this is far more his patch than mine. I would love to learn better.


  1. John Clark Hall & Herbert Meritt appear to support this derivation of 'werig' in their Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 4th ed. (Query: Is Hall related to Clark Hall, by any chance?)

  2. Ah, Lee, thank you. I couldn't find anything elsewhere, but I didn't look there.