The Diverse Nature of Elves in Norse Myth: Beings of Light or Darkness?
Santa Claus, Keebler cookies, and overloaded shelves. When one speaks of elves, the mind most often goes to those who work for Santa or Keebler, or those which hide from little children in the middle of the night. These are their roles in popular culture today, but it is likely unsurprising to read that their origins stem from sources much less merry and jolly. Rather, among the earliest depictions of the elven race are the early medieval sagas and poems of gods, wars, and even death.
‘The Elf Ring’ (1905) attributed to Kate Greenaway. ( Public Domain )
Elves in Pagan and Christian Times
Germanic in nature, the mythology of the elven race comes from the pre-Christian Norse faith and language. In Old Norse, elves are called álfar, though this term can be divided into subcategories. It has long been believed that elves are creatures of goodness and light, however this is a misinterpretation of earlier texts. Elves in Norse literature are often described as beautiful, slim, tall creatures with pale skin and hair, and unknowable magical powers. The elves were very fluid creatures that did not adhere to normal gender or sexual roles. Further, sometimes these beings were considered gods or demi-gods, but they were also above the human race.
Haunting and beautiful Middle-Earth-like elves. (Araniart/ CC BY 3.0 )
The elves were broken down into groups of light and the dark elves, likely first by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century (though not definitively). It is most probable that this division of the elven race arose when Christianity became dominant. In the pagan faith, elves were capable of both good and bad moralities, just like the Faer folk of ancient Ireland, England, and Scotland. Yet beings with dual natures did not translate well into the early medieval Christian religion. The closest comparison these writers could make was one with angels and demons—i.e., the followers of a good God versus the followers of a dark devil. Thus, the álfar were similarly divided into good and evil, or the ljósálfar and dökkálfar, respectively.
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Elves were separated into ‘light’ and ‘dark’ beings. (Eddi van W./ CC BY 2.0 )
The Elves’ Homes
The good elves lived either above ground or in Álfheimr, one of the nine worlds of Norse mythology specifically for the elven race, while the dark elves lived like dwarves in the ground. Snorri goes so far as to reference a separate realm for the dark elves called Svartálfaheimr, thus explaining the use of svartálfar to describe the "black-elves" in his Prose Edda .
However, the use of svartálfar has been speculated by linguistic researchers as either synonymous with the dökkálfar or the dwarves; in the Gylfaginning (dictated in Snorri's Edda), the dwarf Andvari (who later creates the ring which causes strife between Brunhild the Valkyrie and her lover's wife, Gudrun) is described as being from Svartálfar. Thus it is not without merit to postulate that the dark elves themselves are merely dwarves—longstanding enemies of the elves—improperly renamed due to Christian misunderstandings.
An artist’s depiction of Malekith the Accursed, ruler of the Dark Elves of Svartalfheim. ( Fair Use )
Literary Works Interpreting the Role of Elves in Norse Mythology
One should be wary of the most valued texts referencing the Old Norse religion and elves. The aforementioned Snorri Sturluson is most often mentioned, as he was among the first authors who took the oral histories (i.e. sagas) of the pre-Christian Scandinavians and wrote them into a coherent codex. However, because of the second, third, and fourth-hand nature of the retellings of legends discussing elves and other aspects of Norse beliefs, and the fact that Snorri was trying to understand a pagan world through Christian eyes, much of the accuracy of his work is debatable. Nonetheless, Snorri's work continues to be respected, because the Icelanders were converted to Christianity later than other cultures, and it is believed that the original pagan beliefs prevailed longer, allowing for a shorter time gap between the oral and written traditions.
Älvalek, "Elf Play" by August Malmström (1866). ( Public Domain )
According to Ph.D. candidate Alaric Hall from the University of Glasgow (2004), the business of elves is one of the few instances in which Snorri's work is not as reliable as it is in other pre-Christian aspects. Instead, the poetry of the skalds (royal bards) is far more accurate regarding elves, as it is dated to the 9th century, just before the conversion of Iceland. In this poetry, the álfar (also sometimes written as álfr) are often mentioned in poems of mourning for fallen warriors. The earliest known skald, called Bragi inn gamli Boddason, provides álfr as an epithet for one of the strongest and bravest fallen warriors. (This is the equivalent of a warrior being called "god-like" or "shining" in Greek mythology.) It is therefore plausible that such an appellation indicates that elves were not merely an ethereal race wholly separate from humans, but valued as possessing skills and abilities humans could, and should, aspire to achieve.