March 1, 2023 - 7:00am

The Daily Star is not a newspaper known for its in-depth coverage of Latin American politics, but yesterday its front page featured the Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (‘AMLO’). That’s not because of his highly controversial changes to Mexico’s election law, but because he tweeted out a photograph of what is supposed to an elf. Yes, really. 

Taken at night, the image shows what looks like an otherworldly creature crouching halfway up a tree. AMLO identifies it as an alux — which is a Mayan word translating roughly to ‘elf’. As surprising as it might be for a world leader to indulge in this sort of thing, he wouldn’t be the first president or premier to dabble in the ‘unexplained’. For instance, in 1977 then-Prime Minister of Grenada Sir Eric Gairy used a speech to the UN General Assembly to call for an international investigation into UFOs. Ronald Reagan regularly took advice from an astrologer during his presidency. Even a politician as hard-nosed as Margaret Thatcher was a fan of ‘alternative’ therapies, including her infamous electric baths (don’t try this one at home). 

To the cynics, there’s nothing unexplained about AMLO’s tweet at all — it’s just an attempt to distract attention from his current political difficulties. In any case, when it comes to paranormal phenomena the idea that elves exist must surely rank right at the bottom of the credibility league table. 

And yet, as with many conspiracy theories, there’s a distinction to be drawn between taking something literally and taking it seriously. For a start, the elves we’re talking about here are not the elves of Tolkienesque fantasy fiction, but a much older phenomenon. Tales of mysterious beings who lurk in remote places and play tricks on humans go back thousands of years.

What’s more, this is a remarkably widespread belief. Though the word ‘elf’ is Germanic in origin and specifically drawn from Norse mythology, near-identical creatures populate the folklore of other cultures — including the alux of the Mayans. So, why would different civilisations tell such similar tales? 

A rational explanation is that during most of our time on earth, human cultures have come and gone without leaving much evidence of their existence. If remembered at all by successor cultures, it has been as ‘little people’ prone to disappearing without trace. Indeed, it’s only a few tens of thousands of years since we shared this planet with other human species — including the diminutive Homo floresiensis (popularly referred to as ‘hobbits’). It’s therefore not impossible that our ancestors encoded the wonder and danger of these others in fairy stories. 

However, there’s a problem with this theory, which is that the elves haven’t gone away. As the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat points out, there’s an obvious continuity between the sprites and hobgoblins of yore and contemporary observations of UFOs. Mysterious lights and strangely elusive humanoids: it all seems rather familiar. 

What, then, could be compelling us to re-tell these ancient tales in modern form? For that matter, why is the American military now openly admitting that its personnel have observed UFOs? Could it be that our brains are messing with us — even the brains possessed by carefully-vetted US fighter pilots? Perhaps we’re neurologically hardwired to see things that just aren’t there.

It’s a troubling thought — though less troubling than the alternative. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.