The Elf on the Shelf

Cover of NorthThis was first published on the now-retired polarcosmology.com website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

Even as I baulked at the eccentric conclusions of Samuel Carter’s recent post on a sinister conspiracy behind the figure of Santa Claus, I found it hard to fault the creepy logic behind the idea of a figure at the North Pole — in mythic terms, a seat of domineering power — wanting to know children’s wishes, and monitoring their behaviour.

Other scholars seem to be concurring. Professors Laura Pinto and Selena Nemorin, in their paper for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives ‘Who’s The Boss?’, examine the ‘Elf on the Shelf’ phenomenon that’s been sweeping the States recently. She describes it to the Washington Post thus:

‘The Elf on the Shelf’ is both a book and a doll … a soft pixie scout elf that parents are instructed to hide around the house. The accompanying book, written in rhyme, tells a Christmas-themed story that explains how Santa Claus keeps tabs on who is naughty and who is nice. The book describes elves hiding in children’s homes each day during the holidays to monitor their behavior before returning to the North Pole each night with a report for ‘the boss.’

The book instructs children to never touch the elf doll, which is placed high on a shelf, otherwise the magic of Christmas will be broken and they won’t get any presents. And they’re told that the elf will remain motionless and silent while they’re awake, in order to just watch — and report back to Santa when they fall to sleep.

For Pinto, this comes across as an attempt to habituate future citizens to a state of total surveillance, as described in Jeremy Bentham’s ‘panopticon’. In this video she introduces the Elf to Michel Foucault’s Bentham-inspired ideas of a surveillance society:

Of course, much of the world — especially here in the UK — seems to have blithely slipped into a panoptical state without growing up with creepy spying elves surrounding them. But do we want the precious slivers of resistance that remain erased entirely?

Wenlock. Photo by Martin Pettitt (CC)

This all reminds me a little of a couple of years ago — the 2012 London Olympics. Almost everyone agreed that the mascots Wenlock and Mandeville were crap at best, downright scary at worst. More than a few people commented on the fact that their singular eyes — which are overtly described as cameras — were eerily ironic, given that the host city London has the dubious distinction of having the highest CCTV to inhabitant ratio on the planet.

The significance goes deeper. The games are of course named after Mount Olympus, the home of the gods in Greek myth. The conveyance of the flame that kicks the games off is an echo of the theft of fire by Prometheus, who stole it from the gods and bestowed it on humanity.

Ostensibly, the emphasis here is on celebrating human empowerment. But lurking in the background is an awareness that rather than simply being liberated from divine authority, we have frequently managed to recreate overbearing top-down authority here on Earth.

The divine Olympian flame is often taken to be that of the sun. But other versions of the Promethean tale have him stealing fire from the hearth of Hestia, on top of Olympus. And a hearth at the peak of a cosmic mountain suggests nothing so much as the star at the celestial pole — not as overtly fiery as the sun, but symbolising at a deeper level the celestial powers that keep the cosmos turning round, powers which are concentrated at this central point. In this light, one-eyed Wenlock and Mandeville suggest (besides the inevitable dick jokes) Zeus more than Prometheus. Not the theft of power but the authoritarian wielding of it. The prying eye of the paranoid, centralised sky god on high, as in Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Now had the Almighty Father from above,
From the pure Empyrean where He sits
High throned above all highth, bent down his eye,
His own works and their works at once to view …

There’s a demented echo of this in H.P. Lovecraft’s early short story ‘Polaris’, in which the north pole star ‘leers down … winking hideously like an insane watching eye’.

It makes twisted sense, then, to learn that the whole theatre of the Olympic torch relay is quite a recent embellishment — which we owe to the Nazis. It was first staged for the 1932 games in Berlin. Under the supervision of Joseph Goebbels, the simple presence of the flame was unfolded into a dramatic relay from Greece to the stadium. As much as commemorating the Promethean theft, for Hitler this also functioned as a display of his sense that a flame was being passed from the Aryan greatness of classical Greece to the new German Reich.

One imagines der Führer would have heartily approved of the Elf on the Shelf, monitoring the unruly and reporting back to the Aryan homeland in the Arctic.