Geek Etymology – Drow and Dark Elves

Time to have another crack at looking at the origins of geeky terminology. This time I’ll be looking at where the ‘Drow’ came from, as well as taking this as an opportunity to look at where the concept of a ‘Dark Elf’ originates and how the two terms came to be linked.


First of all we should establish what the current understanding of the term ‘Drow’ is. The Drow are a fantasy race that are dark skinned, usually white-haired, and share most other characteristics with other Elves. They are generally depicted as being evil and living deep underground, and having an affinity for dark magic, stealth, and spiders. The D&D 5th Edition Player’s Handbook says of them:
“Descended from an earlier subrace of dark-skinned elves; the drow were banished from the surface world for following the goddess Lolth down the path to evil and corruption.”
As I mentioned, the Drow are also referred to as ‘Dark Elves’, a term that is used far more widely than ‘Drow’, which is mostly limited to Dungeons & Dragons and things that take inspiration directly from it. There are Dark Elves in many other fantasy settings, including The Elder Scrolls, Warhammer, Kingdoms of Amalur, and the ‘Night Elves’ of Warcraft share a resemblance.

So to continue on with the main point; The Drow, how did the term enter modern use, and where does it originally come from? In terms of D&D, The Drow were first mentioned in the 1st Edition 1977 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual under the Elf ” entry, where it is stated that “The ‘Black Elves,’ or Drow, are only legend.” The drow are described here as purportedly dwelling deep beneath the surface world, in strange subterranean realms. They are said to be evil, “as dark as faeries are bright”, and pictured in tales as poor fighters but strong magic-users. Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax has stated a few different sources for their inspiration on creation of the Drow, Including Thomas Keightley’s ‘The Fairy Mythology’ from 1828. However, Gygax has been unsure as to which source he got the name of the Drow from. In a certain dictionary that Gygax may have referred to (potentially misremembered), the word ‘trow’ appears, with the decription: 
“[Scot.] In folk-lore, one of a race of underground elves represented as skilful workers in metal. Compare TROLL. [Variant of TROLL.]”
This description follows the theme of the Drow, being underground elves.

Jiub, an Elder Scrolls Dark Elf, also known as ‘Dunmer’

From here we have a thread which we can follow back to the origins of the term. The word ‘trow’ comes from Scottish folklore, more particularly from The Shetlands and Orkney isles. In stories the Trow are a malignant or mischievous fairy or spirit and are generally inclined to be short of stature, ugly, and shy in nature. Trows are nocturnal creatures, like the troll of Scandinavian legend with which the trow shares many similarities. The link to ‘troll’ is not coincidental, as  L-vocalisation occurred in the early 15th century in Middle Scots, the pronunciation of ‘troll’ could have easily shifted into ‘trow’. Trow is also said to have several variations on the word, such as trowe, dtrow and drow. The arrival at ‘drow’ may simply be due to the similarity of ‘T’ and ‘D’ sounds in some cases, but there is also a possibility that the word is influnced by another creature of Norse mythology; the ‘draugr’. Often pronounced as ‘draug’, it is derived from the word for an illusion or deception, and came to mean an undead spirit, and then a living corpse. It is possible to see a link being made between the two creatures in some cases, or perhaps the draugr evolving into a different meaning and becoming drow in the Shetlands and Orkneys after Viking influence. The influences of the Norse may not end there, as some scholars have speculated that the trow are based in part on the Norse invasions of the Northern Isles. The conquest by the Vikings sent the indigenous, dark-haired Picts into hiding and many stories exist in Shetland of these strange people, smaller and darker than the tall, blond Vikings who, having been driven off their land into sea caves, emerged at night to steal from the new land owners (although most Roman sources describe the Picts as tall, long limbed and red or fair haired).

As it seems we have come to at least a couple of the roots of the term ‘drow’, we could now look at the guise of the drow as a ‘dark elf’ separately, as it appears that the drow and the elf were not linked until being re-imagined and re-purposed in D&D. The use of ‘dark elf’ is fairly common in fantasy, and can have different meanings depending on the setting. Like most modern fantasy it is based on Norse mythology, and would have mostly been brought into modern usage by Tolkien, as with many fantasy words. In Middle-Earth lore, it is the ‘Moriquendi’ (dark folk) that are known as Dark Elves. The name did not refer to an evil form of elf, but to those Elves that did not wish to leave the ‘darkness’ of Middle-Earth to see the light of the two trees of Valinor in the west before the sun and moon were created. The name does have a negative connotation though, as it was thought up by those that did leave to see the light, the ‘Calaquendi’ (light folk), and seemed to imply that these Elves willingly tolerated the shadows Melkor had put upon Middle-earth. Eventually the term came to encompass all elves who had not travelled to Valinor, so technically Elves such as Legolas could be named a ‘dark elf’.

Sorry Legolas, but you’re actually a ‘Dark Elf’

In Norse mythology, the concept of a ‘dark elf’ comes from two different words; svartálfar (black elves) and Dökkálfar (dark elves). In the case of ‘black elves’ it appears that this is a seperate term for a dwarf, as when referred to in the Prose Edda one is a craftsman sought out by Loki. Furthermore Svartálfaheimr (world of black elves) appears in the Prose Edda twice, in each case as the place where certain dwarfs can be found. As for Dökkálfar, or dark elves, it is generally said to be unclear as to whether this is another name for dwarfs. While both are described as living underground, the Dökkálfar are also described as being contrasting with the Ljósálfar (light elves), and are “blacker than pitch”. It is worth noting that it is likely that both of these terms may have been interchangeable words used to refer to Dwarves, and much of the confusion can come from translation, and the retelling of old Norse myths through 13th century writings. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that the origin of the fantasy Dark Elf lies here, especially with the underground dwelling and dark appearance. It is interesting to see that the origins of Dwarves and Dark Elves may be one and the same, and yet the two races are very much distinct in modern fantasy. Legolas and Gimli do have something in common after all!

If you found this look into the past of geeky words interesting, then you should take a look at my two previous posts that tackle the words ‘Paladin’ found HERE, and ‘Mana’ found HERE

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