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….




Norse Sea-Giants in more detail…

Giants and monsters have a special connection to the sea in Norse mythology – just like the Titans in ancient Greek mythology. They represent the unconquerable and titanic forces of nature. As characters in stories, their great size can be considered an expression of the large shadows cast by distant things with the low sun behind them – as happens as it passes into the ocean on the western horizon of the Atlantic. The main characters in these tales of oceanic titans are Thor, Loki and Aegir:

Thor wrestling the Midgard Serpent (painting by Füssli, 1788).

Thor with Hymir wrestling Loki’s son – the Midgard Serpent (painting by Füssli, 1788).

The 13thC CE, Icelandic christian scholar Snorri Sturluson wrote a mythological ‘theogonic’ dialogue on poetry called Skáldskaparmál (“language of poetry”) in which the primal sea-giant Ægir, also known as Gymir (a version of ‘Hymir’) or Hlér, discusses kennings and mythology with the Æsir god, Bragi, after the style of the poetic Edda composition Alvissmal. That Snorri chose these two as characters in the dialogue is interesting, moreso because of they seem to represent the two ‘Platonic’ aspects of what to the ancients was knowable – the first: nature and the elements (Ægir), understandable through sense, and the second: the gods and spiritual things – knowable through the mind, and therefore the province of poetry and philosophy (Bragi). In Alvissmal, it is a wise earth deity – a dwarf/dvergar called Alviss (‘All-Wise’) who instructs Thor on poetic kennings. In Skáldskaparmál, however, it is the ‘sea’ (Aegir) talking…

Aegir is also the host of the feast at the centre of the important poetic Edda story Lokasenna (Codex Regius): This is the tale of a feast of the gods and elves, hosted by Aegir, whose hospitality (and his ale and mead) is considered sacrosanct to the gods, who become angry when troublesome giant/god Loki starts drunkenly abusing the guests. This episode assures Loki’s imprisonment and Promethean-Orphic torture by the gods (he must endure the poison dripping from the fangs of a serpent ) until the showdown of Ragnarok. Aegir’s legendary cauldron or brewing pan seems to provide a link between the elements and the mind, and Lokasenna (the ultimate drunken social meltdown) provides an amusing view of how leisure and strife were never far away from each other in the Viking world. The poetic Edda version from the Codex Regius says Aegir was also called Gymir, and ‘Hymir’ is the giant with mighty caudron/brewing-pan who is Thor’s host and companion when he goes fishing for the giant Midgard Serpent in the poetic Edda tale of Hymiskviða (Codex Regius). Hymir, Gymir and Aegir are probably the same mythological sea-giant.

Aegir was said to be one of three sons of the giant-ancestor Fornjótr (described as an ancient king of the magical north),the other two being Logi (fire) and Kári (wind).  Fornjótr might in literally mean ‘First Giant’. The compounding of his watery son’s name with ‘-gir’ is redolent of the word ‘Gyr’ (eg – Gygr) and theirefore of the Greek words Gigantes and Gygas, representing the larger than life ancestral deities of ancient Greek myth. Ægir might even be a Norse version of and the sea-giant Geryon, who had three bodies. This association with the elements (water in Aegir’s case) comes from the Skáldskaparmál kennings of the primal elemental forces:

“…How should the wind be periphrased? Thus: call it son of Fornjót, Brother of the Sea and of Fire, Scathe or Ruin or Hound or Wolf of the Wood or of the Sail or of the Rigging…”

The only classical element missing from the ÆgirKáriLogi triad is earth (jörð), usually represented in Norse myth and kennings as the eponymous giantess Jörð – ‘wife of Odin’. The Earth is feminine – like in the Greek Gaia/Ge. It is obvious from both ancient Greek and Norse mythology that the ‘giants’ bear names with suffixes which connect them intimately with ‘mother earth’: Gigantes (‘Born of Gaia/Ge’) and Jötnar (‘Born of Jörð’).

Aegir’s other name or kenning is given as Hlér, which seems incredibly close to the Irish/Welsh/Manx name for the sea: Lir/Ller/Lear of whom the legendary Sea God Manannán/Manawydan was the son. In the most important 14thC Icelandic manuscript collection, Flateyjarbók, the following is said of Aegir/Hlér and his family:

“…There was a man called Fornjót. He had three sons; one was Hlér, another Logi, the third Kári; he ruled over winds, but Logi over fire, Hlér over the seas…”

The connection between Logi and the Norse ‘god’ figure Loki is uncertain. The names certainly seem similar, and Loki is definitely one of the Jötnar, being portrayed in the Edda myths as something of an uncontrollable ambiguous shape-shifter as well as a father (or even a mother) of monsters and magical horses. One might even compare him to the role of the Gorgons in Greek myth – a frightful challenge to be overcome by initiates into the mysteries of life, death and the otherworld. Logi represents fire – perhaps one of the most untameable and dangerous, yet useful ‘elements’ – and Loki represents a similar aspect of chaos in his oppositional and inductive roles in the Eddas. He, in fact, comes across as a character the Christian (and Muslim) narrative would assign to their ‘evil god’ – Satan – otherwise known as God’s right-hand man in the Hebrew Book of Job.

Another ‘giant’ of note in Norse myth who is tied closely to Aegir and Loki in surviving narratives is the god Þórr (Thor), whose name seems to be cognate with the word Thurs (þurs) which is another Germanic word for a giant/titan. In the Icelandic mythologies recorded in the Christian era from orally-transmitted traditional pagan poetic and story traditions, Thor is associated with great strength and battles with giants and monsters using his great hammer Mjölnir which represents both a weapon and a tool. His traditional role in Germanic societies is as a protector and battler with the elements akin to the Greek Herakles (a fact not lost on the 1stC CE Roman author and historian Tacitus), and he seems to have an agricultural/fertility aspect on account of this. This connects him to the folk-legends of similarly enthusiastic (but not too bright) ‘helpful fairies’ – Brownies, Glaistigean, Phynnodderee, the hammer-wielding Leprechauns and the ‘Hobthrust‘ of northern England…

The poetic Edda composition called Hymiskviða is a tale of Thor being sent by Aegir to fetch a giant brewing-pan or cauldron from Hymir – the giant who lives ‘at the edge of Heaven’. Hymir is said to be Aegir’s father, and Aegir also goes by the name Gymir, of which ‘Hymir’ is an aspirated pronunciation. Thor ends up going on a perilous fishing expedition with Hymir, during which Odin’s son manages to land the Midgard Serpent, Loki’s son Jörmungandr who encircles the Earth biting his tailHymir considers it very bad news when Thor bashes the serpent over the head before letting it slide (presumably lifeless) back under the waves… It can be seen here that the same consistent association occurs between oceanic Titans and sea monsters in medieval pagan Norse myths.  The outcome of the story is that Thor obtains the brewing pan that will make the ‘poisonous’ ale or mead that spurs Loki to sow discord among the gods in Lokasenna. The killing of Jörmungandr and the breakdown of order with Loki and the giants/monsters presages the Ragnarok… This imagery appears upon a number of incised stones of the Viking era (including Cumbria and the Isle of Man, as well as in Scandinavia), providing corroborative evidence of its importance in Scandinavian-influenced Atlantic mythology.

There is much to be identified between the Norse myths and the Irish and Welsh. For instance, the theme of sea-giants and a ‘fatal feast’ featuring a caudron that determines the world’s outcome is seen in the Welsh Mabinogion tales, and the Irish tales ‘Bricriu’s Feast’ (Fled Bricrenn) and ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’ (Togail Bruidne Derga) among others. They appear to be different figurative ‘branches’ of the same ancient tree whose roots are nourished by ‘world-river’,