The religious ritual and practice of the Elves of Middle-Earth
The religious ritual and practice of the Elves of Middle-Earth at the time of the War of The Ring
Michael R. Hiclonan
First published in Mallorn, the Journal of the Tolkien Society: 40 Hunters Hill, High Wycombe, Bucks HP13 7EW, England
In a draft letter written in 1954 Tolkien denied that there was any “religion” in Middle-earth (Letters: 193)1. However, he was referring to the existence of an organized religion with buildings, priestly cults, etc. In fact, there is much evidence of religion in The Lord of the Rings. In page 13 of The Road Goes Ever On Tolkien wrote about Elvish songs in praise of Elbereth, “The Elves sing hymns to her,” and then commented. These and other references to religion in The Lord of the Rings are frequently overlooked2. In a small way I would like to remedy this “overlooking.”
As a teacher of Religious Studies and as an avid reader of Tolkien’s books I have often thought about studying the religious practices and beliefs of the peoples of Middle-earth by applying to them the techniques employed in the study of religion.
The study of religion has been transformed over the past few decades. One of the most influential thinkers in bringing about this change has been Professor Ninian Smart of Lancaster University. He developed a method of studying the phenomenon of religion by categorizing it in the six major ways in which all religion manifests itself. These ways he refers to as “dimensions.” They have become well known and are called Smart’s Six Dimensions of Religion.
Briefly, they are:
- the teachings of a religion that are passed on as a series of beliefs (doctrine),
- the common sets of stories/presuppositions that act as a cohesive force for followers of a religion (myth),
- the behavioral standards of right and wrong (ethics),
- the practices by which people express their beliefs (ritual),
- the encounter with the “divine” (experience), and
- the interaction between one person or group and another (social).
This article, therefore, is not a study of the origins of Tolkien’s thought or an exploration of his own Christian beliefs and how they influenced his writings. Rather it is an attempt to look at these writings in order to see what the religious beliefs and practices were of the peoples of Middle-earth at the time of the War of the Ring (hereinafter referred to as the “War”). With the limitations of space and the amount and type of material available I have restricted this article to a study of just one of the six dimensions (ritual) of one of the peoples (the Elves) of Middle-earth.
We possess two types of material from Middle-earth. First, the hymns, invocations and other statements of the Elves (and of the other peoples influenced by Elvish culture) as recorded by Tolkien; secondly, the rest of the text of Tolkien’s writings which can be taken as a kind of commentary or record of the events and thinking of the time.
Elvish culture in Middle-earth by T.A. 3020 was in decline but because of their life-span and life-style it can be assumed that many of their religious beliefs and practices had remained relatively unchanged over several millennia, and therefore evidence from writings other that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings can be used.
There were four main centres of Elvish culture in Middle-earth at the time of the War: the Havens, Rivendell, Lothlórien, and Northern Mirkwood. There are very few references to religious practice or belief at the Havens, and not many more to those at Lothlórien or in Mirkwood but most of the basic ritual was probably common to all these centres. This article is based upon the culture at Rivendell, which was basically a combination of Noldorin and Sindarin. Where there are clear differences, these will be noted.
The basic Elvish beliefs are expressed in the three major hymns recorded in The Lord of the Rings: the pilgrimage hymn of Gildor and company (LotR I: 88 – 89), the hymn in the Hall of Fire at the House of Elrond (LotR I: 250), and the hymn of Galadriel (more personal than the others) on the departure of the companions from Lothlórien (LotR I: 394).
All of these hymns, called songs in The Lord of the Rings but hymns in The Road Goes Ever On (see note 21), are addressed to Elbereth, and they each refer to Elbereth’s relation to the stars. They also speak of Elbereth’s place far beyond Middle-earth, but the Elves clearly believed that their prayers could reach her. As such Elbereth is seen by the Elves as one whose power, although limited, could be used for protection, or to influence or change events (Letters: 193).
The Elves believed that there was only one God, Eru Ilúvatar, but in The Lord of the Rings that name is never used by Elves. It must be assumed that the name was too holy to utter and that, if misused, would bring about dire consequences for the user, as for Fëanor and his sons (Sil: 88)3. As a substitute in blessing and in invocation therefore, they used the name of Elbereth or referred to the stars that she had kindled. Although the Noldor were taught many of their skills by Aulë, it is Elbereth as star-kindler who most attracted their devotion. There were opportunities, which will be referred to later (see pilgrimage; p. 10 below) for Elves to obtain visions of Elbereth.
There was a general belief in the ability to go over the Sea to Eressëa, indeed in the Noldor and Sindar it was a longing that could not be suppressed. Both Galadriel’s lament (LotR I: 388 – 389, 394) and Legolas’ song (LotR III: 234 – 235) express this concept, one in sadness, the other in expectation.
The calendar and the liturgical year
The only calendar that is recorded in The Lord of the Rings is the Calendar of Imladris (LotR III: 385 – 390).” However it is probable that this calendar is basically the same as that for other Elvish communities. It would be very unlikely for there to be different days for the New Year or Midsummer days4. The length of the seasons differed and there may have been different festivals, each according to local circumstances (ibid: 385), for example, the Elves at the Havens may well have celebrated a festival connected with the Sea that would have been inappropriate in northern Mirkwood.
|The Two Trees||Aldúya||Orgalahad|
The calendar of Imladris included a week of six days, enquië (pl. enquier), which, as Tolkien comments, existed for “ritual rather than practical purposes (ibid).” The numbers 6 and 12 held special significance, and they observed six seasons throughout the solar year. The names of each of the days of the week were:
These show whom and what the Elves revere. As the names are recorded in both major languages, they were almost definitely common to all the Elvish centres. The enquier existed primarily for ritual purposes; therefore it can be assumed that rituals took place on one or more of these days, and definitely on the last day which was, “the chief day of the week.” Each day began at sunset, but it seems that the most important parts of the day were connected with the stars, “tindómë” or star-fading, and “undómë” or star-opening (ibid: 389).
The differences between Elves and Hobbits in the timing of the start of the day can cause confusion when comparing calendars. It is possible to draw an Elvish calendar and compare it, day for day, with the Shire Calendar in The Lord of the Rings (ibid: 384). We are told that the Elves’ New Year, “corresponded more or less with Shire April 6 (ibid: 390; note 1). However, we do not know whether Yestarë began at sunset on April 5 or April 6, both of which are possible. The effect of this difference will be seen later in the dating of the feast to celebrate the victory at the Ford of Bruinen.
The liturgical year had six seasons, and included at least three major festivals or periods of festival which were: a) a two day festival incorporating the last day of the year, “Mettarë,” which concluded the winter, and New Year’s Day, “Yestarë,” which heralded the spring (ibid: 386); b) Midsummer’s day, (which seems to have taken place on the 31st or 32nd day of Lairë, not the 36th and c) a three-day festival, “Enderi,” at the end of Autumn, which was used as a day of Thanksgiving (probably for the harvest) (ibid).
There are no specific references to the last of these in The Lord of the Rings, but its existence and celebration can be inferred from the parallel on Númenor, where the three days of festival were the first days of Spring, midsummer and the end of autumn (UT: 166). Its existence can also be inferred from the fact that Elves usually called the year “loa,” meaning “growth,” for in these matters they were primarily concerned with, “the seasonal changes in vegetation (LotR III: 385).” The Elves relied for food, other than by trading for it, on growing, gathering and hunting and would undoubtedly have had some form of harvest Thanksgiving in common with all similar communities today.
The ritual year, giving both Quenya and Sindarin, can therefore be reconstructed as follows (Once again, as this calendar is recorded in both Quenya and Sindarin, it can be assumed that its basis was followed by all Elves.):
|Yestarë||-||New Year||1||New Year Festival|
|Lairë||Laer||Summer||72||Including the Mid-summer festival (1 day)|
|Mettarë||-||Year End||1||Last Day Festival|
Festivals, rituals, and practices
Elvish society was hierarchical and led by hereditary kings or lords whose authority was both secular and sacred; this too was paralleled by Númenórean society. The senior Elvish line in Middle-earth was that of Finwë, represented by only two families at the time of the War, that of Elrond and Galadriel. In each society in which they lived, these two individuals, and their families, were the leaders.
The Elf-lord had a number of ritual functions of which one of the most important was presiding at festivals. The president was sat in a chair whilst minstrels sang5. On page 148 of The Hobbit it is recorded that Thranduil sat “on a chair of carven wood,” wore crowns of different flora for the different seasons, berries and red leaves in autumn and woodland flowers in the spring, and “held a carven staff of oak.” This ritual decoration may only have been practiced in Thranduil’s realm but Galadriel at her last meeting with the Fellowship wore, “a circlet of golden flowers” in her hair (LotR I: 388). Given the Elvish love of trees and flowers it is most probable that similar rituals were performed in most Elf communities. In communities influenced by the Noldor, prayers of praise and thanksgiving to Yavanna were likely. It also seems probable that in Thranduil’s realm there were ceremonies at the New Year and at the Enderi when the king put on a new crown to the accompaniment of feast, dance and song.
The normal festival ritual seems to have been a feast, followed by drinking, singing and according to The Hobbit, dancing6. These activities often took place in the open air. As the day started at sunset, the festival would presumably start in the evening and continue till dawn at least. The fact that the day started at sunset is the reason for The Hobbit referring to Midsummer’s eve (ibid) and The Lord of the Rings to Midsummer’s day7. In Elvish terms it was one and the same day.
At the end of the feast there would have been some form of ritual liquid to drink, this being a normal conclusion to feasts. The Valar used such a ritual drink at their festival, the Eldar believing this to have been “made from the honey of the undying flowers in the gardens of Yavanna, though it was clear and translucent (Road: 69).” This drink was called “miruvóre,” which was the same name as that given to “the cordial of Imladris.”8. Galadriel gave each member of the Fellowship white mead as a cup of parting (LotR I: 390 – 391), the last and (only) meal that they had with Celeborn and Galadriel, and in her final lament she referred to miruvóre and posed the question, “who now shall refill the cup for me (ibid: 394)?”9.
The singing would include hymns to Elbereth, other hymns (or songs) of the Blessed Realm, and epic poetry recalling the mythic deeds of the ancestors. Another of the major functions of the Elf-lord was to be the repository of Elvish lore. There was no sacred text, being immortal such a collection of ancient stories was probably not required, but there were lore-masters and some collections of ancient stories were written down. These stories, such as the story of Tinúviel sung by Aragorn to the Hobbits to lift up their hearts, were inspirational and thought-provoking (ibid: 204 – 205). Their recitation would be an important event. It is no accident that the greatest of the lore-masters at the time of the War was also one of the greatest Elf-lords, Elrond.
These celebrations did not take place only at the regular festivals but at any other time that was deemed appropriate, for example, the victory at the Ford of Bruinen. On that occasion a special room was used, the Hall of Fire. In Gandalf’s words, “Here you will hear many songs and tales — if you can keep awake. But except on high days it usually stands empty and quiet, and people come here who wish for peace, and thought. There is always a fire here, all the year round, but there is little other light (ibid; 242).” From the reference to “high days” it must be assumed that it was the place of the great festivals as well as the occasional celebrations such as the victory at the Ford of Bruinen.
On a comparison of calendars it can be calculated that, if Yestarë began on the evening of April 6 S.R., then this feast took place at the beginning of the high day of the ritual week, Valanya. If so, it may be that entering the Hall of Fire arid singing hymns to Elbereth and others of the Valar on Valanya was the regular practice. However, this is very slim evidence from which to draw such a conclusion as it could equally be that it was the nature of the feast that led to the Hall of Fire being used rather than the day.
The only wedding involving Elves recorded in The Lord of the Rings was that of Aragorn and Arwen. This took place on the festival of Midsummer. It is not clear whether this great day was chosen as it was such an important event or whether or not Elvish weddings would normally be celebrated on festival days. As Elves were in no hurry, they could probably have waited until the next festival.
Daily ritual and practice
No Elf in The Lord of the Rings would invoke the name of Eru Ilúvatar (although on the most important occasions, the head of the exiled Númenórean community was prepared to do so). Instead Elves both blessed and invoked using both the name of Elbereth and the stars. A common invocation at time of great peril was, ‘Elbereth Gilthoniel” used by Legolas as he saw the carrier of the Nazgûl (ibid: 403), and by Hobbits like Frodo under similar circumstances (ibid: 208). Apparently such an invocation had great power, for even the Nazgûl were troubled by it (ibid: 210).
Elbereth and the stars were also used in blessings, for example, Gildor’s farewell to Frodo, “may the stars shine upon the end of your road (ibid: 94),” “may Elbereth protect you (ibid),” and Elrond’s farewell to the Fellowship, “May the stars shine upon your faces (ibid: 294)!”
The Elvish love of the stars is reflected in what was probably a daily ritual. The Elves of Gildor’s company “all burst into song” when the evening stars appeared (ibid: 91; this was not on Valanya). This may have only been a Noldorin ritual as there is no record of Legolas doing this, or among the Elves of Lothlórien. The singing was followed by a meal around a fire.
The Silmarillion records that the returning Noldor under Fingolfin “blew their trumpets … at the first rising of the Moon (Sil: 90).” It also records that before the Fifth Battle, “the trumpets of the Eldar greeted the rising of the Sun …,”10 and that “the people of Gondolin were upon the walls to await the rising Sun, and sing their songs at its uplifting, for the morrow was the great feast that they called the Gates of Summer (ibid: 242).” However there is no mention in The Lord of the Rings of any ritual connected with either the moon or the sun nor is there any mention of the blowing of trumpets. The Elves in the Third Age lived a quieter existence11.
It may be that the end of the First Age brought about a change in Elvish attitude and the Elves of Middle-earth returned to their earlier devotion of the stars and of Elbereth. However the Elves of Lothlórien where the sun was very bright may well have continued such a practice. The other Valar are almost unmentioned in The Lord of the Rings.
As the Hall of Fire was a place where one could go for peace and quiet it is likely that the Elves practiced some form of quiet prayer or meditation, but probably not on a regular basis. They were able, through song, to bring their thoughts to life” and were also able to “sleep” by “resting their minds” in a kind of deep, but open-eyed, meditations12.
As far as I can calculate there is, with the possible exception of the celebration of the victory at the Ford of Bruinen, no record of the rituals concerned with the last day of the week, but it is most likely that there were hymns and prayers to the Valar after whom the day was named.
Many people have used ancient or archaic languages with which to pray, but it seems that the Elves used Sindarin mainly. The only recorded exception of a prayer in Quenya is Galadriel’s Lament (LotR I: 394). This was her birth language but hardly her usual one as there would have been very few Noldor in Lothlórien where a form of Sindarin was spoken. Galadriel may have used Quenya on this occasion as the particular prayer was so personal.
The hymn heard by Hobbits in the Hall of Fire was in Sindarin but of a form much influenced by Quenya (Road: 72), however, this seems to have been the normal language of the singers if in rather archaic form. The pilgrimage hymn of Gildor and company was also in Sindarin, the name Elbereth is used rather than Varda. One difference between liturgical and vernacular Sindarin was the use of archaic pronouns such as “thee,” whereas the word “thee” is not used in normal speech (ibid)13. Although there is no evidence, it is quite likely that the Noldor would use Quenya on very important occasions and a “high” Sindarin for other rituals. Sindarin Elves would probably have used “high” Sindarin for all rituals.
Places of worship
Buildings built specifically for worship did not exist. As Eru Ilúvatar alone was worshipped (the Valar were understood as intermediaries) any such building would have been thought blasphemous. This practice was paralleled by the Númenóreans both in Númenor and in Middle-earth (UT: 166). However this did not prevent any race from having sacred or hallowed places. These places were left open to the sky and there were no buildings. Among their holy places the Dúnedain had Amon Anwar, “the Hill of Awe” at the center of Gondor where Elendil was buried (ibid: 302) and other places such as the hallow on Mount Mindolluin where Gandalf led Aragorn to the sapling of the White Tree (LotR III: 248 – 250).
There is no mention of any such hallow for Elves, although by implication the burial places of Elvish kings and lords mentioned in The Silmarillion were treated in a similar way14. Elves probably regarded the whole of Middle-earth as holy and were prepared to worship under the open sky wherever they were. This would have been especially appropriate as their devotion was expressed in hymns and prayers to the stars and other celestial objects and any building would have obscured this.
However there are two buildings mentioned in The Lord of the Rings that are associated with Elvish religious rituals. First, the Hall of Fire at Rivendell which has already been mentioned. This was a place both for private thought and public celebration. Secondly, the tower, Elostirion, built by Gil-galad for Elendil for him to put a Palantír in (Sil: 292). The Palantír itself became a cause for pilgrimage.
Given the intense dislike of buildings for worship, the place and role of the Hall of Fire is not clear. It contained no images of any kind nor any cult object, only a fire there all the year round. It can only be assumed that such a building was not deemed to have contravened what was otherwise a strict prohibition.
Gildor’s company was returning from a pilgrimage to look into the Palantír on Emyn Beraid when they met Frodo, Pippin and Sam15. This was a regular, if infrequent, event for the Noldorin exiles, especially those living in the area of Rivendell, it would have been a very difficult journey for any Noldo living in Lothlórien. On such a pilgrimage, the pilgrim expected to see Eressëa and the Shores of Vali-nor and also hoped to have “a vision, clear but remote, of Elbereth, as a majestic figure, shining white, standing upon the mountain Oiolossë (Road: 74).” From the text of the hymn of the returning pilgrims, it seems that they had been granted such a vision, which may account for Gildor’s comment about the Elves being little concerned with the ways of Hobbits, or of any other creature upon earth,” and for immediately following this by saying, “In this meeting there may be more than chance… (LotR I: 94).”
As Tolkien indicated, there is indeed much reference to religion in The Lord of the Rings although many of the references are not immediately clear. The Elves were monotheists with angelic intermediaries who were the focus of their devotions, intercessions, supplications and thanksgivings. They had a well-constructed ritual calendar which, both weekly and seasonally, provided them with rituals and festivals to enable them to focus their thoughts and to celebrate. The rituals that they followed, daily, weekly and seasonally, had a discernable pattern, although much is still obscure.
They also undertook pilgrimages upon which they hoped to have an “experience” of one of their angelic powers. They had no scriptures as understood by the term in Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, but did have a large collection of poetry that was used for inspiration and reflection, rather like the great Viking and Hindu epics. Their leaders were leaders in both sacred and secular matters, in both war and peace and in festivals and as repositories of lore.
They had a fully developed set of religious beliefs and practices similar in many ways to peoples in our world today, and it should not be thought otherwise.
Tolkien is careful to write that “they had no ‘religion’ (or religious practices, rather) for those had been in the hands of the gods (Letters: 204).” ↩
They are also referred to as hymns in page 417 of the Index of The Lord of the Rings, but as songs in the text itself (LotR I: 88 – 89, 250, 393 – 394). ↩
See also the conversation between Maedhros and Maglor (Sil: 2S3). The idea of not pronouncing the holy name of the deity is quite common, the best example in contemporary religion being in Judaism where the word “YHWH” is only ever pronounced “Adonai” rather than as it stands. One of the reasons was the thought in the ancient world that to say a word meant to give it life and power and that if the name of the deity was uttered and then misused or abused the consequences would be death for the utterer. ↩
Celeborn and Thranduil met on the day of the New Year after Thranduil’s victory over the forces of Sauron (LotR III: 375). As only one New Year of the Elves is ever mentioned in The Lord of the Rings it must be assumed that all Elf-centres celebrated it on the same day. ↩
For example, Elrond after the feast celebrating the victory at the Ford of Bruinen “went to wards the seat prepared for him” in the Hall of Fire (LotR I: 242). ↩
“…Then they went down to the water to see the elves dance and sing upon the midsummer’s eve (Hob: 53).” ↩
For example, Aragorn and Arwen were betrothed on the eve of Midsummer (LotR III: 341) and were married on the day of Midsummer (ibid: 251). ↩
This was undoubtedly the drink given to the travelers by Glorfindel (LotR I: 224), and used by Gandalf in cases of great need as when the Company were attempting the Redhorn Pass (ibid: 303 – 304). On none of these occasions was the Miruvóre used ritually, but it may have been made for ritual purposes. ↩
The oath of Cirion and Eorl (UT: 304 – 305), which was renewed by Aragorn/Elessar with Éomer, using the same formula (ibid: 317; note 44). ↩
This was on Midsummer (Sil: 190). Many Elf events took place on this day. They seem to have thought it auspicious. ↩
“(he thought) he had received the gift of the Elf-minstrels, who can make the things of which they sing appear before the eyes of those who listen (LotR III: 338).” ↩
For example, Legolas (LotR II: 31). ↩
The word “thee” is also used by Gildor and company in addressing Elbereth. I do not know of any occasion of Elf usage of “thee” in personal conversation. ↩
The burial place of Fingolfin and the burial place of Glorfindel (Sil: 154, 243). Both were buried in lonely, high places where flowers bloomed and were untouched by evil. ↩
In pages 73 – 74 of The Road Goes Ever On it is stated that Gildor and company “live in or near Rivendell” but The Lord of the Rings (I: 89) seems to imply that they are on their way to visit their… (missing from original work). ↩
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