A humanoid race, elves typically stand four inches shorter than their human companions and have a slender, lithe build and pointed ears. In Ferelden, and many other parts of Thedas, elves are second-class citizens, often referred to by humans as 'knife ears' as a racial slur. Thousands of years ago, elves rules the surface of Thedas, but today they live in mankind's shadow, whether as an oppressed underclass confined to urban slums or in the case of Dalish Tribes, forced to wander the ancient forests forever.
Racial benefits of elves: +2 Willpower, +2 magic
Elves in Ferelden are not immortal, but elven legends state that this was not always the case. Once, they say, they were immortal beings who lived in harmony with the natural world and followed the elven pantheon. The first "shem" (short for shemlen, a term meaning "quick children" that was used by the ancient elves to describe the humans) they encountered were the mages of the Tevinter Imperium. They traded with the Imperium and grew friendly with humans, but soon discovered that breeding with humans produced only human babies, due to the elves' genetic adaptability, while exposure to the ‘quick children’ caused the elves to quicken themselves. For the first time, elves began to age and die.
In fear, the elves withdrew from human contact, but the Imperium interpreted this as a sign of hostility and invaded Elvhenan, the elven homeland, and enslaved its people. The elven people lost their immortality and their gods forsook them. The exact details of the war are lost to history, though artifacts found in Imperium ruins suggest Elvhenan was looted, or that some Elves joined the Imperium bringing artifacts with them.
At some point in the past, elves created a second elven homeland in the Dales, and began to restore the lost lore and culture of Elvhenan, including the worship of their former Gods. Over time and as the Chant of Light and the religion of the Maker spread throughout human nations, the diplomatic relationships between the Dales and surrounding human nations turned cold, as the Elves refused to be converted. The Chantry eventually led an Exalted March against it, claiming they had been attacked by the Dales. As the Dales fell and the Elves had to abandon their second homeland, either going to live in the Alienages inside human cities and worshipping the Maker, or joining the Dalish and continuing the efforts to recover the lost culture of Elvhenan.
The tale of "The Fall of Arlathan"
“Before the ages were named or numbered, our people were glorious and eternal and never-changing. Like the great oak tree, they were constant in their traditions, strong in their roots, and ever-reaching for the sky.
They felt no need to rush when life was endless. They worshipped their gods for months at a time. Decisions were made after decades of debate, and an introduction could last for years. From time to time, our ancestors would drift into centuries-long slumber, but this was not death, for we know they wandered the Fade in dreams.
In those ages, our people called all the land Elvhenan, which in the old language means ”Place of our People.” And at the center of the world stood the great city of Arlathan, a place of knowledge and debate, where the best of the ancient elves would go to trade knowledge, greet old friends, and settle disputes that had gone on for millennia. But while our ancestors were caught up in the forever cycle of ages, drifting through life at what we today would consider an intolerable pace, the world outside was changing. The humans first arrived from the north. I know it is not something that the humans today will accept, but all the ancient accounts of our people that can be found agree it is so: one day the humans came from elsewhere, into a land where they had never been before. Called shemlen, or "quicklings", by the ancients, the humans were pitiful creatures whose lives blinked by in an instant. When they first met with the elves, the humans were brash and warlike, quick to anger, quicker to fight, and they had no patience for the unhurried pace of elven diplomacy.
But the humans brought worse things than war with them. Our ancestors proved susceptible to human diseases, and for the first time in millennia, elves were dying of natural causes. What's more, those elves that spent time bartering and negotiating with humans found themselves aging, quickened by the humans' brash and impatient lives. Many believed that our gods had judged us unworthy of eternal life and were casting us down. Our ancestors came to look upon the humans as parasites, which I understand is the way the humans see our people in their cities today… punishment, perhaps, for our hubris of long ago? Horrified at the prospect of losing their way of life forever, the ancient elves immediately moved to close Elvhenan off from the humans for fear that this "quickening" effect would crumble their civilization.
Perhaps they believed that ignoring the shemlen would make them go away. Perhaps they assumed that two peoples could simply live in peace, remaining ignorant of each others’ ways. Perhaps they meant no insult, or perhaps they meant to start a war. We know very little of the time that followed, only that the time of ancient Elvhenan was gone forever.”
“Now you ask, “What happened to Arlathan?” Sadly, we do not know. Even the Dalish, we who keep the ancient lore, have no record of what truly happened. All we have are accounts of the days before the fall and a fable of the whims of the gods.
The human world was changing, even as the elves slept. Clans and tribes gave way to a powerful empire called Tevinter, which came upon Elvhenan to conquer it. When they breached the great city of Arlathan, our people, fearing disease and the loss of immortality the humans would bring, chose to flee rather than to fight. With magic, demons, and even dragons at their behest, the Tevinter Imperium marched easily through Arlathan, destroying homes, galleries, and amphitheaters that had existed for ages. Our people were rounded up as slaves and taken from their ancestral home, the quickening driving itself through their veins and making them mortal. The elves called to their ancient gods, but there was no answer.
As to why the gods didn't answer, our people had only a legend. They say that Fen'Harel, the Dread Wolf and Lord of Tricksters, approached the gods of good and evil and proposed a truce. The gods of good would remove themselves to heaven, and the lords of evil would exile themselves to the abyss, and neither group would ever again enter the others’ lands. By the time they realized the Dread Wolf's treachery, they had been sealed away in their respective realms, never again to interact with the mortal world. It is a fable, to be sure, but those elves who travel the Beyond claim that Fen'Harel still roams the world of dreams, feasting upon the unwary as a glutton at his lunch, all the while keeping watch over the gods lest they escape from their prisons.
Whatever the case, Arlathan had fallen at the hands of the very humans our people had once considered naught but pests. It is said that the Tevinter magisters used their great and destructive power to force the very ground to swallow Arlathan whole, removing it from the world just as it was soon to be removed from the minds and hearts of its people. All records and artifacts lost to them forever, the whole of elven lore was trapped in the fading minds of a people who would soon forget what it meant to be an elf.”
“The humans tell tales of Andraste, and to them, she was a prophet. To our people, however, she was an inspiration. Her rebellion against Tevinter gave our people a window through which to see the sun, and our people reached toward it with all their strength. The rebellion was brief but successful; the death of the prophetess did not end our fight, and we fought on for independence even as the human Imperium began to crumble. In the end, we had won freedom and the southern reaches of land known as the Dales.
It was a home, a new chance to gather and rebuild all that we had lost. In our centuries of slavery we had lost our immortality, our language, our culture, our crafts… but never our sense of belonging to each other. From across Thedas we came to the Dales. We walked on foot, sometimes crossing thousands of miles with naught but our will to sustain us. Many of us perished on the Long Walk, but those of us that arrived at our new home were all the more determined.
There, in the Dales, our people revived the lost lore as best they could, and even turned to worship the old gods in their ancient prison. They called their first city Halamshiral, “the end of the journey,” and founded a new nation, isolated as elves were meant to be. They created an order called The Emerald Knights and charged them with watching the borders for trouble with the humans.
But you already know that something went wrong. Our ancestors' worship of the old elven gods angered the human Chantry, which constantly sent missionaries to our land. The Chantry wanted to convert our people to their worship of the Maker, but the Dalish would not submit. In protest, a small elven raiding party attacked the nearby human village of Red Crossing, an act that prompted the Chantry to attack and, with their superior numbers, conquer the Dales. We were not enslaved as we had been before, but our worship of the ancient gods was now forbidden. We were allowed to live among the humans as second class citizens and worship their Maker, slowly forgetting once more the scraps of lore we had maintained through the centuries. Those that refused were forced to wander, landless and friendless in their wagons, across a world that told them they were unwelcome.
Two homes we elves have lost, but it is the loss of the Dales that hurt us most. When I see the vhenadahl, the “tree of our people”, that is planted in the middle of our poor alienage here in the human city… I weep. It is a strong and mighty tree with many branches, but it bears only bitter fruit.”
“Now we wander, we last clans that refused to set aside our pride and live in the alienages set aside for elves in human cities. We wander the lands in our aravels – the “landships” as the shemlen call them – and proudly tattoo the symbols of our gods on our faces to pronounce to all who see us that our beliefs are sacred, and we shall never surrender them.
We keep to ourselves. If we stay in any one place for too long, the shemlen will come and attempt to make us leave. Some of the clans resist, but most will simply pick up the aravels and move on once again. Our way is not to do battle with the shemlen unless we must.
Our way is to gather what bits of our culture and our language we can find, to guard them carefully and preserve them – for the day will come when we have a homeland once again. And when that day comes, we shall be ready. Our brethren in the shemlen cities who have forgotten, they will come to us on that day and we shall teach them. They will learn the ancient magic of the Keepers, the crafts of our masters and the language of our ancestors. And we shall not make the same mistakes again.
We are the Dalish: keepers of the lost lore, walkers of the lonely path. We are the last of the Elvhenan, and never again shall we submit.”
--The tale of “The Fall of Arlathan,” as told by Gisharel, keeper of the Ralaferin Tribe of the Dalish elves.
- "Alienages have existed for as long as elves and shems have lived in the same lands. Ours isn't even the worst: They say that Val Royeaux has ten thousand elves living in a space no bigger than Denerim's market. Their walls are supposed to be so high that daylight doesn't reach the vhenadahl until midday.
- But don't be so anxious to start tearing down the walls and picking fights with the guards. They keep out more than they keep in. We don't have to live here, you know. Sometimes a family gets a good break; they buy a house in the docks, or the outskirts of town. If they're lucky, they come back to the alienage after the looters have burned their house down. The unlucky ones just go to the paupers' field.
- Here, we're among family. We look out for each other. Here, we do what we can to remember the old ways. The flat–ears who've gone out there, they're stuck. They'll never be human, and they've gone and thrown away being elven, too. So where does that leave them? Nowhere."
— Sarethia, Alienage Elder
Alienages are closed communities of elves living in human cities. They are typically poor and survive by begging or taking on the most menial and unrewarding of tasks.
Dalish elves lead nomadic lives, wandering throughout Thedas. The clans date back to the ruling clans of the Dales. The Dalish are the descendants of the ruling houses of their destroyed homeland. They are considered trouble by human authorities and face hostility if they attempt to settle in one place. They still revere the elven pantheon and each member of a tribe will tattoo the symbol of their chosen god on their face. They travel around the more remote reaches of Thedas in covered wagons called aravels, special wagons with large triangular sails atop them and rudder-like devices on the back. The Dalish elves are also known for being the only race adept at forging ironbark, a unique substance stronger and lighter than steel, used to make their weapons and certain other items of clothing, such as amulets.
Dalish elves tend to keep to their own and avoid humans whenever they can, but will occasionally encounter human travelers, or venture near human settlements to trade. At the threat of these encounters becoming violent, a Dalish clan will likely withdraw before any real force of humans gets involved, but they will often still be willing to stand their ground. In the long run, hostilities with humans will likely end badly for the elves, especially if a kingdom decides that a certain clan has become more trouble than it is worth. The Dalish are known to refer to their city cousins as 'flat ears', some of them believing the city elves are no more than pets for humans, and hence are 'flat ears' (humans) in spirit if not body.
The Dalish clans themselves can also be quite different from each other. Some clans will get along fairly well with humans, and might even camp outside of settlements for long periods of time. Other clans are more infamous, living by banditry and hiding like guerrillas in the mountain passes. The Dalish of Ferelden are on a more-or-less neutral basis with its human citizens.
Dalish clans rarely encounter each other. Once a decade or so, the Dalish clans all meet together, and their Keepers, the elders and leaders of the Dalish, will meet together and exchange knowledge.
The Dalish live by a code known as Vir Tanadahl, meaning "Way of Three Trees." It is made of three parts, which are:
- Vir Assan ("Way of the Arrow") - fly straight and do not waver
- Vir Bor'Assan ("Way of the Bow") - bend but never break
- Vir Adahlen ("Way of the Forest") - together we are stronger than the one
The three parts of the philosophy are often strung together as a sort of mantra, which the Dalish will often end with the phrase "We are the last of the elvhenan, and never again shall we submit."
Notable Dalish Elves
- Abelas (ah-BELL-aws) - elven for "sorrow," also used as an apology
- Andaran atish’an (an-DARE-an AH-tish-awn) - a formal elvish greeting (literally, "enter this place in peace")
- Arlathan (ahr-LATH-ahn) - the original homeland of the elves, from the phrase "ar lath’an" meaning "I love the place" or, more appropriately, "this place I love"
- Shemlen (shem-LEN) - literally "quick children," the original name of the elves for the human race. It continues to see use as a slang term amongst the City Elves ("Shems") even though its meaning has largely been lost
- Da'len - child
- Lethallin (leth-ah-LEEN) - "friend of mine," casual reference used for someone with whom one is familiar (elven)
- Durgen’len (dur-gen-LEN) - "children of the stone," the original elven term for the dwarves
- Vallaslin (vahl-ess-LEEN) - "blood writing," the art of tattooing adopted by some elves to more prominently (and some might say belligerently) display their worship of the traditional elven pantheon.
- Uthenera – archaic term referring to when an immortal elf passed their life onto the next generation. The theme song for Dragon Age: Origins is called ‘In Uthenera.’
- Shue shah tauthau toetoi thuet. - elven phrase for 'I don't want to kill you.'
- Vhen'alas - the land itself, as in "the ground"
The spelling system for elven contains an apostrophe but only to mark register tone, not to mark stress or just 'for decoration' as per the usual usage of the apostrophe.