Norse mythology features a set of religious stories that give meaning to how the Norse people and the Vikings lived their lives, and why they interacted with highly complex creatures as they did. It identifies the different races of beings in Norse mythology, such as elves, who are a type of humanoid supernatural being in Danish, Scandinavian, and German mythology. Read on to learn more about them.
The origin of the Elves
According to Norse mythology, the universe is composed of nine realms, one for each of the races of Norse beings: men, elves, gods, giants, dwarves, and more. Among the most fascinating realms is Alfheim, the world of the elves, which was ruled over by Freyr, the Vanir god of virility and peace. Some Icelandic literary works sometimes refer to Alfheim as Ljosalfheim to mean the world of the Light elves. Unfortunately, not much is mentioned about Alfheim, aside from the fact that it was a world full of light and glamor.
There is a lot more information about the light and the dark elves. In the Prose Edda, Snorri states that there are two distinct races of Elves – the Light elves, referred to as Ljosalfar, and the Dark Elves, referred to as Dokkalfar. In all Icelandic literary sources, the two elven races are described as polar opposites.
The Light elves dwell in a heavenly world which was located at the southernmost part of heaven while the Dark elves resided underground in caves and dirty environments. The light elves were very beautiful to look at and had fair skin, while the dark elves had a pitch black appearance that seemed to scare other beings away.
According to the Vikings and Norse researchers, the light elves are somewhat connected to the Aesir gods. They believed that the elves were demigods or angels, which explains why the light elves are often mentioned in Icelandic literary works in an alliterating phrase alongside the Aesir gods and goddesses. All in all, the Light and dark elves played a significant role in Norse mythology and were greatly valued by the Vikings and all other races of beings in Norse mythology.
Who were dark elves in Norse myth?
In Norse mythology, the dokkalfar or svartalfar are supernatural beings that are said to reside in the underground world of Svartalfheim, which is also the world of the Norse dwarves. The elves were greatly respected and loved for their shiny appearance. The light elves in Norse mythology were also considered the most beautiful creatures and they possessed some of the most notable features that every other being in the other 8 realms envied. However, none of these features were found on any of the black elves.
In fact, the dark elves are believed to have been the dwarves in Norse mythology. Despite their shortcomings and visible imperfections, the black elves were created to serve a significant role in Norse culture and mythology. The dwarves/dark elves built their homes deep in the underworld of Svartalfheim. They lived in a very wet and dirty place, and in caves.
According to the Norse creation story, the dwarves/dark elves were created from the worms that fed on Ymir’s (the primordial giant) dead body. Supposedly, the worms that crawled out from his corpse slowly grew and were transformed into dark elves, which are also known as the dwarves.
The dwarves created very many important treasures for the Norse gods. They are ones who created the famous Mjolnir hammer for Thor, the god of thunder, rain, and lightning. The ironic hammer was the most powerful in the world and it had magical abilities. The only shortcoming of the hammer was its short handle. However, the short handle wasn’t part of the dwarfs’ construction plan. Loki tricked them into creating a powerful hammer with a tiny handle. While it didn’t seem a practical option for Thor, considering his size, its power was unmatched. Thor used it to defend Asgard, the home of the Aesir gods and goddesses from the evil giants living in Jottunheim. Icelandic literary sources identify that the Mjolnir hammer would always return to Thor like a boomerang every time he threw it. Also, there is the Norse belief that the Mjolnir had holy powers that had the ability to shield people from harm, so, Thor used it to give his blessing to mortals.
The black elves also created another powerful weapon known as the Gungnir, which was the spear of Odin. The spear was so powerful and magical, and every time Odin used it, the spear never missed its target. Additionally, the dwarves/black elves crafted the magical chain that bound Fnerir the Wolf, the beautiful hair for Sif, Thor’s wife, and the impressive ship of Freyr that could travel through the air and fold into a pouch whenever he wasn’t using it.
Dark Elves vs. Light Elves
In Norse mythology, there are two contrasting types of elves: the Ljosalfar, which are the light elves and Dokkalfar, which are the dark elves. The light elves live in Alfheimr, which is described as the world of the elves and according to most Icelandic literary sources; the light elves are fairer than the sun to look at. The dark elves on the other hand, have a very dark complexion and they dwell within the earth. The two elf races possess the ability to fly, however, the flying method differs. The dark elves have membrane wings, which they use to fly across their realm, while the light elves have the ability to levitate.
Several Icelandic literary works claim that the light and dark duality may have emanated from Christian influence. According to Christianity, there is the concept of good, which is greatly separated from evil and are represented by angels of light and darkness. In the same manner, there are the light elves associated with good and the dark elves associated with evil.
Generally, elves are considered intelligent and civilized beings that speak and write in their own language and have impressive architectural skills. Even so, the dark elves and the light elves have been at war for a prolonged period of time. They are always fighting over control of the light found in Alfheim. Their conflict never seems to end and neither side seems to be winning the case. However, by the time Atreus and Kratos arrived at Alfheim, the Dark Elves seemed to be on the winning side of the battle. The gods then defeated the dark elves, took a portion of the light and left the rest of the light for the Light elves. After the gods left, the Light elves have been in control of the light elves and they displaced the dark elves. Because of the eternal war, the Elves are completely isolated from all the other realms. It is very hard to find an elf interacting outside of Alfheim unless they have been summoned by the gods.
Snorri further explains that the world of the dark elves was Svartalfaheimr, which explains why he uses the word ‘svartalfar’ to describe the dark/black elves in the Prose Edda. The reference term ‘svartalfar is said to be synonymous with the ‘dokkalfar’ or the ‘dwarves’ living in Svartalfaheimr by several Scandinavian researchers. In the Gylfaginning, Andvari – the dwarf who forged a magic ring called Andvaranaut and had the ability to shape-shift – lived in Svaltalfaheimr and was a great enemy of the light elves. Based on this account, it is safe to assume that the dark elves themselves could be dwarves, as they too were longstanding enemies of the elves in Alfheim.
Did Vikings believe in elves?
Despite their Germanic nature, the mythology of the elves comes from the pre-Christian Norse faith and language. As mentioned earlier, the Norse people referred to the elves as ‘alfar’ and the Vikings believed that the elves were beautiful creatures of goodness and light.
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.
The Vikings also believed that the elves were broken down into two groups: the black elves and the light elves. There is a possibility that the division of the elven race came into existence when Christianity became a dominant religion in the Scandinavian region and Northern parts. In the pagan faith (that is, the Viking religion), the Vikings were convinced that the elves were capable of both good and bad moralities. Their interpretation of the elves is almost similar to the fairy folklore tales of ancient England, Scotland, and Ireland. Even so, none of these dual natures translated well into the early medieval Christian religion. Most Icelandic works that discuss about Christianity only talk about angels and demons, which was the closest comparison to the light and dark elves.
In addition to that, the Vikings believed that the light elves possessed some kind of magical art that was envied by all the other races of beings in Norse mythology. The dark elves/dwarves also possessed the same kind of magic, which explains why they were able to make all the wonderful treasures and gifts for the Aesir gods, such as Odin and Thor.
Aside from that, the elves (both light and dark) were believed to be ‘humanoid’ in nature, which explains why several heroic sagas affirm that the Vikings and other kings had sexual relations with Elvish maidens. There is also the belief that some gifted kings had Elven blood in them based on relations that their fathers had with the elves. Any man or woman with elven blood was considered the fairest of all the humans in Midgard, and they were often very skilled in witchcraft.
We cannot forget to mention that the Vikings believed that Alfheim (the world of the light elves) is ruled over by god Freyr, who was associated with kingship, fertility, prosperity, and virility. Freyr belonged to the Vanir group/tribe of gods and goddesses, one of the race of gods that exist within Norse mythology. There isn’t much difference between the Aesir gods, which include the likes of Thor, Odin, and Frigg, and the Vanir group of gods. They seemed to have similar abilities and physical characteristics. However, the Aesir gods were war like, and the Vanir more pacifistic.
Following the Vanir practice of Seidr (the worst kind of magic in Norse culture), the two tribes of gods clashed. The Aesir did not approve the Vanir way of life, and the confrontation between the two ended up in a terrible war. The Aesir entirely condemned the Vanir for incestuous marriage and sorcery. The Vanir, on the other hand, wanted to protect themselves from the Aesir.
At the end of the Aesir-Vanir war, the two tribes of gods opted to pay tribute to each other. Several Aesir gods were sent to live in Vanaheim, and another group of Vanir gods and goddesses were sent to live in Asgard as hostages. During this time, Freya and Frey (the twins) were married when they got to the world of the Aesir, but their marriage was immediately unsanctioned under the Aesir law. Immediately after, Odin gifted Freyr the realm of Alfheim to rule as a tooth gift. In Norse culture, tooth gifts are given to infants right after they cut their first tooth.
Based on this Viking belief, we can conclude that Freyr received the realm of Alfheim before becoming adult enough to reside in Asgard. Because of his age and size at the time, he was able to easily relate with the elves and rule over the land of the light elves. This Viking belief also informs the connection between the Vanir and the light elves. Some Icelandic scholars have claimed that there was some kind of overlap between the two races of beings. Additionally, this belief adds further support to Tolkeins idea that the Light Elves were nature-loving demigods.