Elven Like Me
Magpie Hrafnsdottir, a young woman from Chicago, has extra ribs, right where wings would be, and sometimes she can feel those phantom wings ache. Something else is missing; Magpie has always believed she has a secret twin. "I could feel her," she says. "At age five, I angrily asked my mother where she was, demanded to see my twin sister."
In college, she discovered the Internet and found a community of people who had the same dreams of past lives in a magical realm populated by elves, pixies, and other mythological creatures. Magpie and her friends don't have all the answers, but they know one thing: They're not human.
They're Otherkin, and they're trying to get back Home.
Once, they believe, humans and elves and trolls and dragons may have lived together in relative harmony. The elves don't know if some disaster shattered their connection to their spiritual Home world, leaving their souls stranded here in normal bodies, or whether it was simply inbreeding that dissolved the elven genome into the greater human soup. But like so many other marginal subcultures, the Otherkin have found a place on the Internet, where they swap stories, make friends, and build communities.
As kids, many say, they felt out of place in this world, even insisting to their parents that they were adopted. By their late teens, most Otherkin were involved in paganism, fantasy fiction, the Internet, or past-life regression. Once they "awakened" to their true nature, the next step was to hit listservs, chat rooms, and Web sites, looking for the others. Magpie, for one, runs the Otherkin Resource Center at www.otherwonders.com/otherkin.
Others found their way to the fold through New Age-style trancework, dreams, and even role-playing games. Think Tolkien, not Keebler; regal nature spirits, not hunchbacked shoemakers. Arhuaine, a 34-year-old British elf, claims to heal more quickly and age more slowly than humans. "I was still showing my ID in liquor stores at the age of 32," she says, "and following major surgery, even my doctors were amazed at the speed of my recovery and the fact that I needed no painkillers."
Some elves claim to be allergic to iron and other products of encroaching modernity, while one breed of Otherkindragons in human bodiesinsist that having no allergies is a sign of Otherness. Those who have only average allergies needn't worry: You may still be a gnome or something.
More important are the psychic differences between humans and Otherkin. A number of Otherkin claim that they are especially empathetic toward others, and toward the ebb and flow of the natural world.
Of course, once upon a time, another species was widely believed to have this kind of connectedness: human beings. Before industrialization and urbanization, people depended on their feelings and intuition rather than on shrinks and Oprah. The people lived in tune with nature thanks to a largely agricultural existence, until the Enlightenment and its attendantscalculus, petroleum and animal vivisectionturned the universe into clockwork, work into wage slavery, and the family into a demographic market segment. Elves are now what people once were, before we all got office jobs, health insurance, and credit card debt, before life became like running across a flaming rope bridge. Thanks to modern society, we're all Frankenstein's monster. None of us fit.
The Otherkin are making a Romantic appeal for a better world and a better life. Rialian.com, the premier Otherkin Web site, features essays like "A Call to Arts," which draws upon the authority of Nostradamus, the Bible, Pink Floyd, and Queen to argue the modern world is out of balance. "There has also been a long time where reason and science and logic have overshadowed the spiritual, the mysterious," the essay reads. "One of the things we can teach is that not everything makes perfect sense; sometimes illogical is OK."
Online elves plunder modern pop culture for their premodern worldview. One role-playing game in particular, Changeling: The Dreaming, by White Wolf Game Studio, sent shock waves through the online Otherkin community in the 1990s. Changeling is a game about normal people who suddenly realize they are faeries with the power and need to bring magic back to a cold, soulless world. Malcolm-Rannirl, the administrator of www.otherkin.net, explains that the game did "a reasonable job of drawing together various mythological components," but that it also led to a fair number of "wannabes" deciding they were elves when they were really just human geeks.
Rich Dansky, a human being who worked on the game, ran into Otherkin through a listserv called darkfae-l. The game "had just come out and there was apparently a rampaging debate on the list over how the folks at White Wolf had gotten so much of their existence right," Dansky says. "Finally, one of the list members came to the obvious conclusion that we'd gotten it right because we ourselves were in fact changelings." Dansky denies having any pixie genes.
Anti-modern sentiment isn't unique to the Otherkin, of course. The 1999 Battle of Seattle saw the anti-technology anarchists of the Black Bloc emerge from the fog-shrouded forests of Oregon to do battle with globalism and the World Trade Organization. The Bloc's tactic of throwing rocks through Starbucks' windows to fight world capitalism has more in common with the sympathetic magic of a voodoo doll than it does with shutting down the means of production.
The ACME Collective, in its December 1999 communique, explained its actions in Seattle: "The number of broken windows pales in comparison to the number broken spellsspells cast by a corporate hegemony to lull us into forgetfulness of all the violence committed in the name of private property rights and of all the potential of a society without them."
The Battle of Seattle also saw the rise to prominence of the pagan priestess Starhawk, who set up a "WTO Spell," complete with a "Spiral Dance" around a slowly melting ice sculpture that doubled as an altar. These ethereal machinations, she claimed, defeated the World Trade Organization. And of course, millions of people in the United States are waiting to be called home in a future Rapture, where all the good people will be beamed up to heaven while the wicked suffer in hell on earth. Believers include the man who currently has his finger on the Nuclear Button, born-again Christian George W. Bush. If he gets to evacuate, why not the elves?
The Otherkin are both sign and portent of a widespread dissatisfaction with the modern world. Materialist beliefs won't do it anymore, so older ones are dusted off, or dressed up as commodities and sold to a public hungry for something other than the mundane. Dansky says that "most organically developed metaphysical beliefs, whether you're talking Judaic or Celtic or whatever, serve a dual function within their original context. In addition to being supernatural beliefs, they also lay down the guidelines for societya lot of faerie legends, for example, also serve as an agriculture primer on making sure the local forage is renewable."
Removed from this ancient context, the Otherkin appear out of step with our reality as they seek to build their own. Few elves think that a fog-shrouded gate will open up to lead them to the fabled Arcadiaputting them one step ahead of Dubya on the metaphysical food chainbut they're constructing a post-premodernworld for themselves, online. Alyannael, a self-proclaimed angel, puts it this way: "We have dragons and elves, angelics and satyrs, were-creatures and vampires who come together. Discussion gets lively, arguments can get heated, but there is the bond of a community of unique individuals who have one thing in common: We are Otherkin."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in New York, delivered to your inbox.