Recently, as part of the research for my book on Seidr, I've been reading Alaric Hall's book 'Elves in Anglo Saxon England: Matters of Belief, Health, Gender, and Identity'. The work is a very thorough, scholarly piece, that very much reminds me of Erika Timm's 'Frau Holle, Frau Percht, und verwandte Gestalten' in terms of the level of detail that the scholar devotes to the source material, the methodology for dealing with the source material and also even how the information is presented.
As an almost-preface to this post, I'm very aware of the potentially controversial nature of this information, especially given how some groups use practices which may be construed as being similar to what this term appears to suggest. However, I do ask that you continue to read to the end before replying as I will be attaching a rather large caveat which wasn't addressed by Alaric Hall in his book, nor was it within the scope of the work.
The discussion of the term 'Ylfig' is to be found from p148 - 154, and just to give some background on the chapter in question, there is a lot of discussion on the roles of Aelfe in magic, how 'elves' were often cited as 'ailment' when a person was believed to be suffering from magical attack (especially when localised internal torso pains or mental delusions were concerned), and how magic-workers were also credited with getting their power from the elves in some sources.
This naturally led to discussion of the word 'Ylfig', there are few attestations to 'Ylfig, in two different sources from two different time periods: Aldhelm's 'Prosa de virginitate' from the end of the 7th century (relatively shortly after conversion, which occured definitively from 655CE), and a manuscript known as 'Harley 3376' that dates back to the 11th century.
Hall starts off by comparing a similar word, 'gydig', which survives to this day as the modern word 'giddy', the 'gyd' element pertained to 'god' and the word was used as a gloss for the Latin word 'lymphaticus', meaning 'diabolically possessed'. The word's primary meanings into the Middle English period were 'insane, crazy, possessed by a devil'. So, as a result, the broad meaning for 'gydig' was 'engaged with a god'.
To turn now to Ylfig, the earliest reference (and gloss) of the term comes from verses 697-698 of Aldhelm's 'Prosa', in which we see 'Ylfig' , (along with the Latin gloss 'garritor') as an OE gloss for the Latin word 'comitialis'. Generally speaking, we would now translate 'comitialis' as meaning 'epileptic', however we need to remember that our conception of epilepsy is far different from that held in 7th century England (or indeed the rest of Europe). The word 'comitialis' is an obscure word, one that has only been found in very rare instance and so Hall is pretty certain that Aldhelm took this word from Isidore of Seville's 'Etymologiae'. The entry in the Etymologiae, not only gives us the word 'comitialis', but a greater conception of how epilepsy would have been seen:
" is caused by the melancholic humour - how often it may have overflowed and been redirected to the brain. This is caused passio (suffering) and caduca (epileptic falling), because the epileptic suffers convulsions. These indeed the common people call lunatici (those made mad by the moon), because the attack of demons follows them according to the course of the moon. So also larvatici. That is also comitalian sickness, which is more significant and of divine origin/to do with divination, by which those who fall are gripped. It has such power that a healthy person collapses and froths. However comitialis is so used among the pagans, when it had happened to anyone on the day of the Comitia (assembly for electing Roman magistrates), the comitia were broken up. But the usual day of the Comitia among the Romans was during the Calends of January."
Just a footnote here before continuing, Bede gives the date for Mother's Night as being the Calends of January (24/25 December).
Given this gloss and the conception of epilepsy given above, on pages 150 -151 Hall reasons that "Ylfig must then denote some altered state of mind...We may set this alongside its pairing with the Latin gloss 'garritor'. This word is even more unusual than 'comitialis', but is a transparent deverbative formation from 'garrio' ("I chatter, babble, prate"), meaning 'babbler'. More precise connotations of this word as it was understood in Anglo-Latin, however, are suggested by chapter 44 of the Prosa de virginitate, which mentions 'a pithonibus et aruspicibus uana falsitatis deleramenta garrientibus' ('empty gibberish of falsity from garrientes prophetesses and soothsayers') suggesting that the root of garritor had (pejorative) connotations of prophetic speech."
To turn to Harley 3376, we have the entry:
"Fanaticus .i. minister templi" with the further following information "futura praecinens . I ylfig"
Roughly translated, the first section is 'Fanaticus i.e Priest of the temple' and the second section is 'one fortelling things to come, or ylfig'. In this entry, 'futura praecinens' and 'ylfig' are glossing 'fanaticus',
Hall takes these glosses, plus the meaning of the similarly constructed word 'gydig' to mean that 'ylfig' means in a very rough sense 'engaged with elves', for the purpose of divination. He also finds further support in an account from a related culture: the tale of the wasting sickness of Cu Chulainn. In this story, Cu Chulainn is afflicted by fae people who beat him while in a state that is perceived to be something resembling an epileptic fit by human observers (who see him writhing senseless on the ground). At one point, one of these observers goes to wake him, but is stopped with the words "Do not disturb him, it is a vision that he sees." Upon waking, Cu Chulainn recites a piece of perceptual wisdom that was uncharacteristic of himself at that time. This tradition of elf/fae-gotten wisdom is something that persisted into accounts from witchtrials with both the Orkney witch Elspeth Roach and Agnes Hancock of Somerset claiming power from the elves or fae (not to mention Issobel Gowdie's detailed and fantastical tales of interactions with the elves or the conceivably elf/smith-gotten arrows of the Haegtessan in 'Wid Faerstice').
The idea of being possessed by elves might sound quite funny to our ears, especially given the cartoonish image that elves have been reduced to in our society. They're either seen as cute typically green-wearing pointy-eared people that live in forests with their elf families living their little elf lives, OR, they're seen more like the elves from Tolkein's works, aloof otherworldly living in complete harmony with nature but sometimes also warlike. What Hall does in the earlier chapters is clear up these misconceptions quite neatly. To summarize some pretty extensive scholarship, elves can be considered to be:
* All male - female elves didn't appear in earlier sources, in fact, the word for elf was artificially feminised (according to Hall, I wouldn't know, I'm understanding more OE now, but I'm nowhere near his level) and there is no cognate for the OE word for female elf in ON.
* Considered to be otherworldly, yet firmly belonging to the 'non-monstrous' category of the otherworldly beings.
* Could refer to either people with qualities considered to be elf-like/people believed to have some elf-ancestry/the 'Vanir' ('Alfar' and 'Vanir' are sometimes used interchangeably and so share partial synonymy)/ localised gods.
*Beautiful, 'white', and even shining - all qualities considered 'unmanly' by the 'in-group' of mainstream human civilisation in that area and era - but that was cool, because you know...they were elves, powerful, respected and often badass warriors in spite of being very pretty.
Now if 'Ylfig' really indicated 'possessory' practices among the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons, then there are some very real ramifications for modern day heathens. We have all railed at and mocked those that engage in 'horsing rituals', claiming them to be out of our worldview, some of those groups that have practiced those rituals have themselves, very definitely crossed over into the 'monstrous' category. After all, it's a very powerful thing to claim a god is speaking through you, and once you have consolidated the belief in your followers that that is indeed occurring, then it's all too easy to use that as a tool for control.
There are also very real issues in terms of just what would be meant by 'possession' in a society with a worldview so vastly different from our own. We know what 'possession' means in our society (a complete displacement/suppression of the possessed's soul), but we live in a society that is heavily influenced by dualistic ideas. Soul and body are easily separated, detachable for your ease and comfort. However we don't know if pre-Christian Germanic peoples considered there to be a soul. The only thing we could really solidly use as a gloss here is the 'hamr'.
From various accounts of 'mara'(in which the Seidr worker actually becomes the mara to inflict the harm on the victim) and Seidr's mind altering/influence applications, we have quite a strong case that people believed it possible that a person could be influenced 'supernaturally' by outside forces. We often see the argument that people never come across gods, because if you met a god, it'd be in the physical world, however if people believed that people could send their hamr forth in ways that were not only visible to others, but interactive, why would we not credit gods such as Odin (who was said to be skilled in Seidr), or goddesses like Freyja with the same?
Now I'm not advocating either way here, this is just a summary of the arguments presented in the book and the possible ramifications of that information. Either way, I figured it would make a good conversation topic :).