Origin of the word “elf” or “alfar”
Along with the Æsir and Vanir the Eddas speak of the Alfar or elves. These are represented in later Germanic folk-belief, and equivalents of the name are Old High German alp, Anglo-Saxon ælf, Old Danish elv, Old Swedish älf.
In Germany, the older use of alp or alb (plural elbe, ellber) in the sense of ‘spirit’, ‘genius’, ‘fairy’, ‘ghostly being,’ shows that beings like the Norse Alfar were known there also, as does the word elbisch in the sense of mental unsoundness caused by such beings.
The word alp does not occur by itself before the thirteenth century, but it is found in proper and compound names.
The plural forms, probably denoting friendly spirits, are found in Middle High German poetry. Gradually, however, alp was used rather in the sense of ‘nightmare,’ and the words tverc, zwerg, (or “dwarf”), wiht, wicht, (or “wight”), and their synonyms took its place.
The modern German word Elfe was derived from English literary sources in the eighteenth century.
Whether the word Alfar is connected etymologically with Sanskrit rbhus is uncertain. The enigmatic rbhus, whose name is variously explained as “dexterous” and “shining”, were seasonal divinities and skilful artificers with magical power, three in number.
They have been regarded as in origin no more than elves who gradually won higher rank.
- Origin of the word “elf” or “alfar”
- Elves are divine beings, according to Norse mythological sources
- Alfheim: the home of the Elves
- Ljösalfar, light elves & Dökkalfar, dark elves
- The role of Elves in Norse mythology
- Interactions between humans and Elves
- Alfablót – the offering to the Elves
- Images of Elves used as navigation
- Elves in German folklore and mythology
- Elves in Icelandic folklore and mythology
- Elves in Danish folklore and mythology
Elves are divine beings, according to Norse mythological sources
The Norse Alfar are the earliest known elves, akin to the Anglo-Saxon ylfe (singular ælf). The scanty notices of them show that they had a loftier nature than the elves of later beliefs.
They are not said to be dangerous or mischievous, nor are they yet confused with evil trolls through Christian enmity to the old paganism.
They are joined with the Æsir, as in the recurrent phrase “Æsir ok Alfar”, used partly but not wholly for the sake of alliteration, and also with both Æsir and Vanir.
In the prose Introduction to Lokasenna many Æsir and Alfar are said to have been present at Ægir’s banquet, and Eldir said to Loki:
None of the Æsir and Alfar here present has a good word for thee.
Loki says that Bragi is the most cowardly of all the Æsir and Alfar present, and he acuses Freyja of misconduct with everyone of these.
In the mythological poems Voluspa and Thrysmskvitha the question is asked:
How is it with the Æsir, how is it with the Alfar?
The latter poem gives the reply:
Ill is it with the Æsir, ill is it with the Alfar.
In Havamal Odin says:
I know all the Æsir, I know all the Alfar.
In the next verse we learn that Thjodrörir sang
“Strength to the Æsir and prosperity to the Alfar.”
The same poem speaks of Odin carving runes for the Æsir, and Daenn carving them for the Alfar.
In Skirnismal, Frey complains that none of the Æsir or Alfar is willing that he and Gerd should come together.
Odin, in Grimnismal, speaks of the land lying near the Æsir and Alfar as holy.
Æsir, Alfar, and Dvalinn’s people (dwarfs) are conjoined in Fafnismal as progenitors of the Norns.
In Skirnismal Gerd asks Skirnir:
Art thou of the Alfar, or of the Æsir, or of the wise Vanir?
The sacred mead with which the magic runes was sent forth is with the Æsir, the Alfar, the wise Vanir, and with men, says according to Sigrdrifumal.
These phrases show that the Alfar are akin to divine beings, the gods of Norse mythology.
Alfheim: the home of the Elves
Norse Elves dwell in Heaven, in Alfheim, which is ruled by Frey, and they act with gods and share their feasts. A similar combination was known to the Anglo-Saxons, one of their spells coupling êsa and ylfa.
Though their creation is not mentioned, the Alfar are a distinct group, supernatural, and with special qualities. Unlike the dwarfs no individual Alf is spoken of, except the elf Daenn in Havamal, which is also the name of a dwarf in other poems.
Volund (Weyland the smith), however, is called “prince” and “lord” of Alfar.
The Prose Edda further states that at the southern end of Heaven there are two other Heavens superimposed, and in the uppermost is believed to be the hall Gimle, reserved for the righteous, but at present inhabited by the Light elves.
There may be here a reflexion of Christian ideas of successive Heavens, and possibly an identification of Light elves with angels.
Alfheim, the region of the Light elves, is a heavenly abode, and in Alvissmal, Heaven is called “Fair roof” by the Alfar, as if it stretched over their aerial home, and the sun is its Fair wheel.
Ljösalfar, light elves & Dökkalfar, dark elves
Only one kind of Alfar is spoken of in Norse mythological poems (called the Poetic Edda), however the Prose Edda gives three groups: Ljösalfar or Light elves, Dökkalfar or Dark elves.
The final group are the inhabitants of Svartalfaheim, called Svartalfar or Black elves, however, the context shows these to be dwarfs.
According to the Prose Edda, Alfheim is the place where the Light elves live, but the Dark elves dwell down in the earth.
The Light elves are fairer than the sun, but the Dark elves are blacker (svartari) than pitch.
The Black elves are not mentioned, however Loki swore to get the Black elves to make for Sif a hair of gold, and then he went to those dwarfs called Ivaldi’s sons, who made it.
Another indication that Black Elves are dwarves is that Odin sent Loki into Svartalfaheim to the dwarf Andvari in order to get his treasure.
Odin also sent Skirnir into Svartalfaheim to certain dwarfs who made Gleipnir, the metal chain that binds Fenrir.
The Black elves are thus likely to dwarfs.
The role of Elves in Norse mythology
Unfortunately the Eddas say nothing regarding the functions of the Alfar.
Light as applied to them, has no moral significance, and merely refers to their appearance.
Certain elfin groups of later Scandinavian belief, associated with the air and with trees, and not specifically an underground race, may represent the older Light elves, though neither they nor those of German tradition dwell in Heaven.
Grimm connected with the Light elves the Germanic White Women, appearing at noon, sitting in the sunshine or bathing, contrary to the avoidance of sunlight by most fairy folk.
This trait of the White Women recalls the Norse name for the sun, alfrodull meaning “shining on the elves”, “elf-ray”, or “elf-light” perhaps because they rejoiced in it.
But it might equally mean that it was a danger to them, and in Hamthesmal dawn is called the “grief of Alfar”.
In later folk-belief the elfin beings who most probably represent the earlier Alfar are generally a race dwelling on the earth or under the earth; yet distinct from dwarfs, though these have many elfin traits. Other groups of beings haunting the forests, the waters, the mountains, are also akin to elves.
These also were objects of belief in earlier times and survivals of cult paid to them were frequently condemned in the earlier Middle Ages and even later.
Whether the Anglo-Saxon glosses which speak of wudu-elfenne, munt-elfenne, dun-elfenne, feld-elfenne, sæ-elfene, represent a mere translation of Dryads, Oreads, Naiads,and the like, or actual groups of native elfins, cannot be definitely known.
Interactions between humans and Elves
The Norse Alfar dwell in mounds or hills. They are more slender and refined than mortals, and are ruled by a king and queen, whose kingdom and laws resemble those of men.
In later times the fairies or elves were said to be ruled by the king of the dwarfs, who, being an underground spirit, was considered a demon, and allowed to retain the magic power which the missionaries had wrested from the god Frey.
In England and France the king of the fairies was known by the name of Oberon; he governed fairyland with his queen Titania, and held His highest revels on earth on on Midsummer night. It was then that the fairies all congregated around him and danced most merrily.
The Rå is a harmless elfin, heard in workshops and houses, but silent whenever any one seeks the cause of the noise. The sound of his working is a good omen, but if he is heard lamenting, this betokens an accident.
The Rå resembles, but is distinct from, the Vätter, guardians of houses beneath which they live, playing with the children, or feasting when the household sleeps. They are unknown in a house tenanted by a Nisse or Brownie.
The older literature mentions the Löfjerskor, perhaps the same as the Lund-folk, (Grove-folk), or Lundjungfrur, (meaning Grove-damsels), invisible spirits of the heathen groves.
Elves were not always kind
Groves and trees, especially lime-trees, are still associated with the Alf and the Ra. Those who protect such trees or seek the help of these elfins benefit by this, but if any one breaks a branch he suffers for it.
Many tales and ballads describe the beauty and musical voices of the females, their dancing in woods, hillsides, and meadows where the grass in the circle grows more luxuriantly than outside it. Into the circle mortals are enticed. The dancers must disappear by cockcrow, otherwise they remain stationary but invisible, and if any one touches them unawares sickness and pain follow.
Fever is caused by meeting with these elves. Should a man place his ear to an elf-mound, he hears their music, and if he promises them redemption it becomes sweeter, but changes to lamentation if he does not.
Offerings for the sick used to be laid in round hollows cut out of rocks or stones (prehistoric rock-carvings).
Elves and their connection to the dead
The origin of the elves and fairies of popular belief, including the older Alfar, has been sought in different directions. They were souls of the dead, nature spirits, lesser divinities, reminiscences of older races, products of dream or imagination. Probably all these mingle together in the elfin belief wherever found.
There is, however, some evidence that the Alfar or a certain class of them were, if not originating in, yet connected locally with the dead, perhaps because both dwelt in mounds ortumuli.
Olaf Gudrudsson after his death and while dwelling in his burial-mound at Geirstad was known as Geirstadar-álf. His kinsmen sacrificed to him for a fruitful year. This evidence, however, is too scanty for us to assume that all mortals who died were then called Alfar.
In Northern England, in the medieval ages, the will-o’-the-wisps were known as elf lights, for these tiny sprites were supposed to mislead travelers; and popular superstition claimed that the Jack-o-lanterns were the restless spirits of murderers forced against their will to return to the scene of their crimes.
As they nightly walked here and there, it is said that they doggedly repeated with every step, ” It is right;” but as they returned they sadly reiterated, “It is wrong.”
Alfablót – the offering to the Elves
The religious or mythic aspect of the older Alfar is seen in the álfablót (ceremonial offerings to Elves) and in survivals of sacrifices to elfin beings at trees or stones, and to the House-spirit or Brownie.
But, on the whole, this aspect has vanished and given place to a merely superstitious regard for these beings, who are the subjects of innumerable folk-tales.
To the Alfar was offered a sacrifice called “álfablót”, resembling the disablót made to the Disir. A description of this is given in the Kormaks-saga.
These sacrifices, which consisted either of some small animal, or of a bowl of honey and milk, were known as AIf-blot, and were quite common until the missionaries taught the people that the elves were mere demons.
The sacrifice once offered to them was then transferred to the angels, who were long sought to befriend mortals, and satisfied by the same gifts as those offered to Elves.
Thorward enquired of Thordis, a wise-woman, how his wounds could be cured. She told him that near by was a hillock in which lived Alfar. He must take a bullock and redden the hillock with its blood.
Then he must make a feast to the Alfar with the meat, and he would get well. Here the Alfar in their hillock resemble the dead in their barrows.
In the time of Olaf the Holy the inland people of Norway were still heathen or inclined to the old heathen ways. The skald Sigvat was on a journey with his companions to the east. ln Gautland they came to a homestead where, on asking admission, they were told that an álfablót was going on, and they must not come in. The nature of this act of worship is not described.
On Helga-fell or Holy-fell, a hill regarded as very sacred by Thorolf, an early emigrant to Iceland, men were forbidden to commit that form of defilement known as álf-reka, meaning elf-driving, or being obnoxious to the Alfar.
Images of Elves used as navigation
In Scandinavia the elves, both light and dark, were worshiped as household divinities, and their images were carved on the doorposts.
The Norsemen, who were driven away from home by the tyranny of Harald Harfager in 874, entered their ships, taking these carved doorposts with them.
Similar carvings, including images of the gods and heroes, decorated the pillars of their high seats which they also carried away.
The exiles showed their trust in their gods by throwing these wooden images overboard when they neared the Icelandic shores, and settling where the waves carried the posts, although the spot rarely seemed the most desirable.
Thus they carried with them the religion, the poetry, and the laws of their race, and on this desolate volcanic island they kept these records unchangedfor hundreds of years, while other Germanic nations gradually be-came affected by their intercourse with Roman and Byzantine Christianity.
The Norse sagas relate that the first Norse settlements in Greenland and Vinland were made in the same way, the Norsemen piously landing wherever their household gods drifted ashore,-many years before the voyage of Columbus and the accredited discovery of America.
Elves in German folklore and mythology
The older German elben seem to have been merged in the various kinds of dwarfs and underground folk known to later tradition.
Beautiful, fairy-like women, akin to the medieval fées, are known to German tradition, the White Women (Weisse Frauen) already mentioned.
They are seen on hills or in woods, or haunting old castles. Sometimes spellbound in hills, they guard treasure; they carry flowers or a bunch of keys; or are seen turning over pods of flax. If a mortal takes such flowers or pods, they turn to gold.
The White Woman tries to induce a mortal to do something which will release her from enchantment, but usually the purpose fails. Some of these White Women are ancestral spirits; more usually they represent older native goddesses or nature spirits, and the spell under which they suffer may be a symbol of the ban laid by Christianity on the divinities of the older faith.
Like Water-elfins they are seen basking in the sun, combing their tresses, or washing in a brook.
Elves in Icelandic folklore and mythology
In Iceland, the Alfar (elves) preserve the conception of the Norse Alfar, and resemble fairies, though the word has now the equivalence of the German “Zwerge” and Norse “Unnerjordiske”.
Like the Ljösalfar they do not fear the light, but appear in the sunshine. The name Huldu-folk (meaning “hidden folk”) is thought to be preferred by them as a milder term than Alfar, and they are also called Liuflingar, “darlings”, an obvious euphemism such as is often applied to supernatural beings.
Their dwellings are in hills, stones, and rocks, or even in the sea, and they seem to have ousted the Dvergar, now unknown to folk-belief.
Another class of beings, the Trolls, are more monstrous than elfin-giants, fiends, demons, as in the Eddas and Sagas, yet they possess certain elfin characteristics.
Though the elves as such are little known in Norway, there are different classes of beings who have elfin traits.
The Trold-folk or Tusser, trolls, gnomes, or sprites, may be as large as men, and they possess houses, cattle, and churches. Music is heard from their abodes in the mountains where they often carry mortal maidens.
Huldra (from at hylja, “to hide”, “to cover”), a mountain fairy or wood nymph, already mentioned in the thirteenth century, appears as a beautiful woman among the hills, clad in blue or grey, but she possesses a tail or is hollow behind.
Her melancholy song causes sadness, others describe it as fascinating. Fond of dancing, she appears at merry-makings, and once when her partner, espying her tail, but not wishing to betray her, said: “Fair maid, you will lose your garter” she vanished, afterwards rewarding him with gifts and cattle, of which she has a special brand.
When a man marries a Huldra, the result is not always happiness. Huldra may be regarded as queen of the green-clad Huldre-folk, or fairies, whodwell in mounds, where their mournful music, the Huldreslaat, is heard, and into which they invite men.
The Huldreman seeks to obtain a human wife, and a youth who discovered one with his sweetheart fired a silver bullet at him, seized her, and rode off, pursued by the Huldre-folk.
The subterranean folk, who are at enmity with the Huldre-folk, bade him ride on the rough and not on the smooth as they saw him approaching hishouse. He rode through a rye-field and escaped his pursuers, but they afterwards burned his house.
The subterranean folk, or elves, described in some parts of Norway as diminutive naked boys, wearing hats, live in mounds and by lofty trees. They love music and dancing, and are described as mischievous.
The dwarfs live under the earth, and are reputed to be long-armed and skilful.
The Vætter are tutelary spirits dwelling in Vætte-hougar or mounds, at whichofferings are laid, or in waterfalls, but they are sometimes described as Trolds or Nisse, meaning House-spirits, like boys dressed in grey with black hats.
Elves in Danish folklore and mythology
Danish legend connects the elfin race with the rebel angels, who, when cast out of Heaven, fell into mounds or barrows such as the Trold-folk, Bjerg-trolds, or Bjerg-folk, or into themoors such as Elver-folk or Elle-folk.
These Trold-folk differ from the Icelandic Trolls, and resemble the dwarfs. Their mounds, which contain treasure, may be seen raised on red pillars on Saint John’s Eve, but they also dwell under human habitations, coming up into these through a hole.
They wear dark clothing, and are described as like boys in size, or, as in Jutland, four feet high, with clumsy heads, red hair, and a red cap. They love dancing, and are friendly to men, but old ballads tell of their stealing maidens, and of the seductive power of their females over men.
The Elle-folk, whom legend describes as Adam’s children by Lilith, and as called Elle because of the double “l” in her name, live in mounds on the moors, or in alder (elle) trees. The males, who resemble old men, are seen basking in the sunbeams, like the Ljösalfar, and entice maidens to join them.
The females, who are beautiful but hollow as a dough-trough behind, are seen dancing in the Elle-dance by moonlight. Their ravishing music, often irresistible to susceptible youth, has fatal results.
Their cattle feed on dew, and the cattle of men’ suffer by mingling with them, or by feeding where the Elle-folk have danced. Much of the lore about the Elle-folk and the Trolds is similar, namely their dances, the pillar-mounds, and their kindly or hostile relations to men.
The Danish Vetter have similar traits, but are on the whole regarded as evil, since they suck the breasts of children.
In Sweden the same likeness in the traits of beings with different names exists.