Medieval Scandinavian Elves and Dwarves

There have been many attempts to explain how Elves (Alfar) and Dwarves (Dvergar) fitted in with the cosmology and spirituality of the pagan Norse peoples. In Snorri’s Prose Edda (13thC, based on traditional tales), he tells us that the Dvergar were a race of subterranean shapeshifters created spontaneously (as worms) within the body of the primal giant Ymir from whose corpse the world is made:

‘…Next the gods took their places on their thrones. They issued their judgements and remembered where the dwarves had come to life in the soil under the earth, like maggots in flesh. The dwarves emerged first, finding life in Ymir’s flesh. They were maggots at that time, but by a decision of the gods they acquired human understanding and assumed the likeness of men, living in the earth and rocks….’ (Prose Edda, Gylfaginning; trans. Jesse Byock)

In other Norse myths, the dwarves maintain their primal attributes and shape-shifting abilities (although this was also an ability of the other legendary spiritual beings). In the Volsungsaga, for instance, they transform into dragons, otters and salmon. They are associated with great wisdom, skill and dexterity but also are somewhat greedy and introspective, and prone to cruelty. They are, in fact, a fairly straightforward breed, easily comprehendible.

The Elves or Alfar on the other hand are a somewhat more difficult species to locate in the spiritual cosmogony. Snorri in his Prose Edda divides them into two types: ‘Light Elves’ and ‘Dark Elves’ – Ljósálfar and Dökkálfar:

‘…Then Gangleri said, ‘You know much to tell about the heavens. Are there other significant places besides the one at Urd’s Well?’

High said, ‘There are many magnificent places there. One is called Alfheim. The people called the Light Elves live there, but the dark elves live down below in the earth. They are different from the light elves in appearance, and far more so in nature. The light elves are more beautiful than the sun, while the dark elves are blacker than pitch…’

The implication here is that the Dark Elves are the dwarves, and this is also suggested when Snorri refers to dwarves as Svartálfar who inhabit Svartalfaheim, later in the Gylfaginning (34) as well as in the Skáldskaparmál. The ‘Light’ Elves and the Dwarves/Dark Elves seemed to occupy polar opposite or complementary positions in a classical ‘elemental’ reckoning of Norse cosmology. Scholars such as Alaric Hall sees Snorri’s ‘Light’ and ‘Dark’ elves (a division unattested elsewhere) as an attempt to fit these spirits into a contemporary Christian framework of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ angels, which is a distinct possibility given the propensity of christianised folklore from as far afield as Ireland, Iceland and Russia for portraying ‘fairies’ as fallen angels. Nonetheless, even Snorri’s light/dark division of elves does not divide them along moral categories, and the evidence from Edda, Saga and Skaldic literature supports the argument that Elves and Dwarves are overwhelmingly morally ambiguous. The poetic Edda composition Alvissmal maintains that the dwarves and elves are definitely different groups, however.

What is more certain is that the Aesir and the Elves are referred to as being part of the the same ‘in-group’. In the poetic Edda’s Lokasenna, the feast in Aegir’s hall which Loki so rudely interrupts is peopled by guests who include gods and elves, implying confraternity. The fact that the two groups are often named together is further evidence that the Elves and the Gods appear to have shared a ‘cultural’ commonality. For instance:

“I know a fourteenth [spell], if before a host I have to give a tally of the gods; I know something about all the Aesir and elves: few foolish men know the same.” (Hávamál 159 – Poetic Edda)

Here Odin boasts that he has knowledge of all of the ‘gods’ (tiva) among which the Aesir and the Elves appear to be counted. Snorri’s interpretation possibly adds the dwarves to the class of beings called ‘elves’. However, dwarves are often aligned to the ‘lower’ elemental forces represented by the Jötnar or giants, and (apparently) dragons and wyrms – beings more often in opposition to the gods. Sometimes, the distinction becomes blurred:

In the poetic Edda lay called Völundarkviða, Völund (known elsewhere as ‘Wayland the Smith’) is described as vísi álfa, ‘prince/wise-leader of elves’, one of three sons of the ‘King of the Finns’ – a lineage with overtones of magical powers. Although described as an ‘elf’ he is also a smith-craftsman which is a profession with distinct dwarvish overtones. The distinction between elf and dwarf is therefore not so certain! What is more certain is that Völundr was a popular figure in Norse and Germanic mythology with multiple attestations. Another set of ‘dwarves’ who are elsewhere connected to elves are the smiths known as the Sons of Ivaldi who are said in the Snorra Edda chapter called Skáldskaparmál  who create Thor’s hammer, Freyr’s golden boar and Odin’s magical ring. The ‘elf’ connection is made in a later poetic Edda composition called Hrafnagaldur Óðins, which says that the goddess Idunn was one of the Alfar and a daughter of Ivaldi. Like the 18thC MacPherson ‘Fingal’ traditions, this has been questioned, and may come from a later period than the original poetic Edda manuscripts.

As mentioned in previous posts, dwarves are strongly connected to the chthonic world and to the elements of earth and water. They also – like all water-divinities – have a more ancient primal aspect, akin to the Greek Titans and their monstrous offspring. In Norse mythology, they are closer to the ‘monstrous’ – the giants in particular – and this is perhaps worth bearing in mind when comparing them to elves (or ‘light elves’), who sit closer to the ‘spiritual-elemental’ aspects of air and fire, in Snorri’s account at least. The existence of elves may simply be a counterbalance expressing the division of things in the ancient pre-Christian mindset – ‘as above, so below’ – a belief that everything has an inverted or complimentary form.

As the companions (and drinking buddies) of the Aesir, the ‘Elves’ share some esteemed company – that of the souls of departed human heroes – and this adds another possible aspect to their identity. It is possible that the Norse Eddaic elves were – as feasting companions of the gods – identical with the Einherjar,  the occupants of Valhalla. Such an identity is never made explicit in the Icelandic sources or elsewhere, but there is circumstantial evidence of a connection. The connection between fairies and familial ancestors in Atlantic mythology is a constant one I have alluded to, and the popular idea of ‘elves’ crosses over or is identical with these imaginary beings.

Another connection also exists with the elves and the gods, and that is with the class of deities referred to as Vanir. Ostensibly a ‘second set’ of gods allied to the Aesir by truce and marriage, they occupy a somewhat curious position that has a distinct air of religious accretion or misunderstood differentiation about it. The connection between Vanir and Elves is suggested in the poetic Edda verse of Grímnismál (5) which claimed that the youthful Freyr had received Alfheim as a ‘tooth gift’ from the Aesir. Unfortunately, there are few other references to elves in relation to Vanir, although ‘half of the dead’ were supposedly claimed by the goddess Freyja, Freyr’s brother. If the souls/spirits of the dead were somehow related to the Álfar then  the connection is perhaps more explicit….




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