What are Machine Elves? A deep-dive into the psychedelic entities common among most trippers

Reports of machine elves have existed for decades, but what exactly are these psychedelic entities, and how does DMT enable their behaviour?

In the 1970s, American ethnobotanist and author Terence McKenna coined the term ‘machine elves’ to describe the otherworldly creatures that appear during trips on the psychedelic drug Dimethyltryptamine (more commonly known as DMT). While McKenna’s word put linguistic weight around these apparitions, reports of the phenomenon pre-date the term’s invention and have continually sprung up since McKenna’s coining in the 70s. 

In the years since the term ‘machine elves’ has been used interchangeably with ‘clockwork elves’, and while the phenomenon may escape easy description, users of DMT report largely common, or at least interrelated, characteristics of these psychedelic entities. So popular is the instance of these apparitions that one study, conducted by Dr. Rick Strassman, found that roughly 50% of DMT users reported seeing these machine elves during their trips.   

Graphic art depiction of Machine Elves
Credit: Nick Sturgess/ Deviant Art

How does DMT work?

Before we deep-dive into exactly how these creatures work and the theories behind their existence, it’s useful to have an overview of how DMT works. Known colloquially as ‘the spirit molecule’, DMT is one of the strongest and fastest-acting psychedelics, with a chemical compound that’s found in animals, plants and even human beings. The drug is known for its powerful hallucinogenic properties, which take roughly 15 minutes to come into effect. 

While doses of DMT result in the varying strength of a given trip, it’s been found that doses above 40mg often result in users reaching the so-called ‘breakthrough’, the point at which they transcend the human world and enter new realities complete with vivid hallucinations. The breakthrough is often where users’ state of consciousness is completely immersed in some other realm, and it’s also where they commonly report encountering machine elves.

Depiction of Machine Elves DMT
Credit: Monster Children

What do machine elves look like?

Given the verging-on-science fiction properties of DMT, it’s all too easy to dismiss the phenomenon of machine elves as a mere drug-induced fantasy. But it’s the commonality of similar visual descriptions, coupled with McKenna’s research into the topic, that makes users’ experiences with machine elves feel intentional, piquing the interest of psychonauts and scientists the world over. Reports of machine elf apparitions have even been found amongst the Indigenous tribes of the Amazon Rainforest.

Strassman himself found the popularity of machine elves during his study to be especially notable, saying in an interview: “​​I admittedly chalked up these stories to some kind of West Coast eccentricity. Therefore, I was neither intellectually nor emotionally prepared for the frequency with which contact with these beings occurred in our studies, nor the often utterly bizarre nature of these experiences.


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So what exactly do machine elves look like? Upon encountering the creatures, many users reported seeing flashing displays of constantly-changing geometric patterns, while McKenna himself recalled the elves as looking anything but mechanical. He described their appearance as vividly colourful, and said they are shaped like Faberge eggs or jeweled basketballs that vibrated. He also described how it is that DMT users come into contact with the elves. 

You pass through a membrane of some sort, and you’re in a place,” McKenna said in a lecture in the 90s. “You’re pushed through, and you see the tykes, as I call them. The self-transforming machine elves that are singing in a hyperdimensional language. They surround you and say, ‘Welcome, we’re so glad to see you.’” 

Depiction of Machine Elves
Credit: Machine Elves/Tumblr

How do machine elves behave?

McKenna’s visual descriptions align with those of general users, many of whom have characterised machine elves as childish and short creatures. The entities are almost unanimously seen as welcome figures, who guide users’ trips and offer space in a friendly and celebratory way. The majority of users deemed their encounters positive (81%), with descriptions of their appearance ranging from human-like, to alien or fantastical. 

While physical descriptions vary (many users report that the apparitions are amorphous and hard to define), the behaviour of machine elves is commonplace among most trips. McKenna and most DMT users often stress the importance of sound to the creatures, who use “use a language which you see,” McKenna recalled. He continued: “[They are] made out of sound, it is sound, but you see it. And the entire point of the encounter, from their perspective, is to teach you to do this.”  

machine elve picture
Credit: KOALACID/YouTube

One anonymous user in Strassman’s study recalled a similar experience: “They were speaking and words were coming out of their mouths, just floating along,” he said. “It was like captions coming out of their mouths, very cartoon-like.” With a loose understanding of how they appear and what they tend to look like, scientists have sought to explore what the exact function of machine elves might be. 

What are machine elves trying to achieve?

McKenna himself theorised many possibilities as to what machine elves might be. He postulated that they could be evidence of extraterrestrials, entities from a parallel dimension, human souls which have died in this realm, or humans from “some extraordinarily advanced future world.” The otherworldly predictions were common among general users, too, with over 80% of DMT users in Strassman’s study describing their encounters as “more than reality.”

In any case, it’s important to note that DMT is an incredibly potent (and outright illegal) drug and should only be administered in the safest circumstances, if at all. But at least now, with the knowledge of what you could find when you break through, you might be able to strike up a friendship with machine elves or, in the best-case scenario, get them to reveal all the secrets of their existence. We’re all waiting with bated breath for their response. Head here for a guide on safe drug use.