The Official Collection of Fantastical Creature Information--Updated Randomly

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Monday, July 23, 2007

Elf--Norse Mythology

The earliest preserved description of elves comes from Norse mythology. In Old Norse they are called álfar and although no older or contemporary descriptions exist, the appearance of beings etymologically related to álfar in various later folklore strongly suggests that the belief in elves was common among all the Germanic tribes, and not limited solely to the ancient Scandinavians.

Although the concept itself is never clearly defined in the extant sources, the elves appear to have been conceived as powerful and beautiful human-sized beings.

Full-sized famous men could be elevated to the rank of elves after death, such as the petty king Olaf Geirstad-Elf, whereas the smith hero Wyaland Smith was titled as "ruler of elves" while alive, in the Völundarkviða. In the Þiðrekssaga a human queen is surprised to learn that the lover who has made her pregnant is an elf and not a man. In Hrólfs saga kraka a king named Helgi rapes and impregnates an elf-woman clad in silk who is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen.

Crossbreeding was consequently possible between elves and humans in the Old Norse belief. The human queen who had an elvish lover bore the hero Högni, and the elf-woman who was raped by Helgi bore Skuld, who married Hjörvard, Hrólfr Kraki's killer. Hrólfs saga kraka adds that since Skuld was half-elven, she was very skilled in witchcraft (seiðr), and this to the point that she was almost invincible in battle. When her warriors fell, she made them rise again to continue fighting. The only way to defeat her was to capture her before she could summon her armies, which included elvish warriors. There are also in the Heimskringla and in Þorsteins saga Víkingssonar accounts of a line of local kings who ruled over Álfheim, corresponding to the modern Swedish province Bohuslän, and since they had elven blood they were said to be more beautiful than most men.

land governed by King Alf was called Alfheim, and all his offspring are related to the elves. They were fairer than any other people...The last king is named Gandalf.

In addition to these human aspects, they are commonly described as semi-divine beings associated with fertility and the cult of the ancestors. The notion of elves thus appears similar to the animistic belief in spirits of nature and of the deceased, common to nearly all human religions; this is also true for the Old Norse belief in dísir, fylgjur and vörðar ("follower" and "warden" spirits, respectively). Like spirits, the elves were not bound by physical limitations and could pass through walls and doors in the manner of ghosts, which happens in Norna-Gests þáttr.

The smith hero Völundr, the ruler of the dökkálfar (dark-elves)

Icelandic mythographer and historian Snorri Sturluson referred to dwarves (dvergar) as "dark-elves" (dökkálfar) or "black-elves" (svartálfar); but whether this reflects wider medieval Scandinavian belief is uncertain. He referred to other elves as "light-elves" (ljósálfar), which has often been associated with elves' connection with Freyr, the god of the sun (according to Grímnismál, Poetic Edda). Snorri describes the elf differences as follows:

"There is one place there [in the sky] that is called the Elf Home (Álfheimr). People live there that are named the light elves (Ljósálfar). But the dark elves (Dökkálfar) live below in earth, and they are unlike them in appearance – and more unlike them in reality. The Light Elves are brighter than the sun in appearance, but the Dark Elves are blacker than pitch." (Snorri, Gylfaginning 17, Prose Edda)

Further evidence for elves in Norse mythology comes from Skaldic poetry, the Poetic Edda and legendary sagas. In these elves are linked to the Æsir, particularly by the common phrase "Æsir and the elves", which presumably means "all the gods". Scholars have compared elves to the Vanir (fertility gods). But in the Alvíssmál ("The Sayings of All-Wise"), elves are considered distinct from both the Vanir and the Æsir, as revealed by a series of comparative names in which Æsir, Vanir, and elves are given their own versions for various words in a reflection of their individual racial preferences. It is possible that the words designate a difference in status between the major fertility gods (the Vanir) and the minor ones (the elves). Grímnismál relates that the Van Freyr was the lord of Álfheimr (meaning "elf-world"), the home of the light-elves. Lokasenna relates that a large group of Æsir and elves had assembled at Ægir's court for a banquet. Several minor forces, the servants of gods, are presented such as Byggvir and Beyla, who belonged to Freyr, the lord of the elves, and they were probably elves, since they were not counted among the gods. Two other mentioned servants were Fimafeng (who was murdered by Loki) and Eldir.

speculate that Vanir and elves belong to an earlier Nordic Bronze Age religion of Scandinavia, and were later replaced by the Æsir as main gods. Others argue that the Vanir were the gods of the common Norsemen, and the Æsir those of the priest and warrior castes.

A poem from around 1020, the Austrfaravísur ('Eastern-journey verses') of Sigvatr Þorðarson, mentions that, as a Christian, he was refused board in a heathen household, in Sweden, because an álfablót ("elves' sacrifice") was being conducted there. However, we have no further reliable information as to what an álfablót involved, but like other blóts it probably included the offering of foods, and later Scandinavian folklore retained a tradition of sacrificing treats to the elves. From the time of year (close to the autumnal equinox) and the elves' association with fertility and the ancestors, we might assume that it had to do with the ancestor cult and the life force of the family.

In addition to this, Kormáks saga accounts for how a sacrifice to elves was apparently believed able to heal a severe battle wound:

Þorvarð healed but slowly; and when he could get on his feet he went to see Þorðís, and asked her what was best to help his healing.
"A hill there is," answered she, "not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Kormák killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed."

A special thanks to Wikipedia

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