I've mentioned before that the main focus of my practice are the spirits of the Otherworld and I honor both an Irish and Norse/Germanic cultural paradigm. I thought it might be helpful to explain a bit more about how those two cultures' views on both the spirits of the land and on the Otherworldly spirits are similar and different, specifically how the Norse alfar (elves) are like and unlike the Irish daoine sidhe. I'll handle the land spirits part in a separate blog. I'd like to get into the actual comparison of the alfar and aos sidhe here; this should help illustrate how I can honor both the alfar and daoine sidhe.
Both the Alfar and Fairy People, the daoine sidhe, are described as tall, beautiful, and shining, although in later folk stories they are also seen as looking like ordinary humans except with an Otherworldly aura about them. both were later said to have diminished in stature and are often conflated with smaller Otherworldly beings which may be called by the same name but appear distinct in folklore. The Irish use euphemisms, such as Good People, Fair Folk and Gentry when speaking of the people of the sidhe to avoid offending them and in the same way the Icelanders call the Alfar Huldufolk (hidden folk) because its believed that it offends them to be called Alfar (Sontag, 2007).
In Ireland the daoine sidhe live in the hollow hills, mountains, and lakes; in Iceland the Huldufolk similarly live in natural features like boulders and cliffs; both cultures believe that construction which destroys a place belonging to the these beings will bring great misfortune. In the Irish it is believed that the Fair Folk live within the fairy hills but also that they make their home in the Otherworld, while the alfar similarly live in natural features but also have their own world, Ljossalfheim. Both worlds have a different flow of time that can affect those who visit.
Both groups are known to ride out, the alfar in processions, the daoine sidhe on fairy rades, and both are connected to the Wild Hunt. Arguably the Irish Fairy Rades, encomapssing the Slua sidhe, are more dangerous, although it is never safe to cross paths with an alfar procession either. Both groups are known to ride out especially on certain days; however the Irish Fair Folk are believed to be most active on the quarter days of Beltane, Lughnasa, Samhain, and Imbolc, while the Norse alfar are most active on or around the solstices.
In the Norse material we often see references to the Gods and Alfar (example from the Voluspa: "48. How fare the Aesir? How fare the alfar?") and in the Irish we have the phrase "deithe agus an-deithe" (Gods and not-Gods). I tend to see parallels between these two concepts, with both cultures seeming to have an idea of the Gods and the alfar/daoine sidhe as related but separate groups. this separation is more clearly defined in the Norse material than the Irish which shows a much less firm delineation between gods and daoine sidhe.
Both the Alfar and the Aos Sidhe are intricately bound up with the dead, and it is not uncommon in stories to see the dead, especially the recently dead, among the ranks of both cultures' Otherworldly beings. In the Norse and Germanic cultures the dead might join the alfar in the mounds and conversely the alfar were believed to have many similar abilities to ghosts or spirits. In the Irish the dead often appear among the daoine sidhe, usually explained as people who did not die but were taken. In both cultures the ancient burial mounds are believed to be supernatural homes of these Otherworldly beings.
Both groups are known to steal certain types of humans and to mix bloodlines with people. In both cases brides and newborns are considered tempting targets for abduction, but in the Norse it is also possible for a human to win their Otherworldly lover as a bride (most often) by casting iron over them (Gundarsson, 2007). In the Irish it is more likely for the human to be taken, with a changeling left behind to wither and die, although there are a few stories of men who took fairy wives, something that usually didn't end well. Both culture's hidden folk are prone to taking midwives as well, and the Norse may take wet nurses, while the Irish may also take musicians. The Irish daoine sidhe are also known to take horses, cattle, and steal a family's luck by borrowing or tricking a family member out of milk or fire from the home.
Both the Alfar and the daoine sidhe are offered to by the common people, usually to earn their good will or to avoid strife or ill luck. In both cases milk is found as a traditional offering, although otherwise offerings can vary. Generally offerings are left outside, usually in a place associated with the alfar, such as a boulder with a depression in it or a hill, or with the daoine sidhe, such as a fairy hill, lake, or solitary tree. A positive relationship grants blessing, luck, and prosperity. With both groups the consequences of angering or offending those powers is very similar and can include illness, madness, and death. Interestingly, while both groups have alfshot or elfshot (invisible projectiles) the Irish version are more mild, causing cramping or inexplicable pain, while the Norse version is thought to cause far more serious maladies like arthritis and cancer.
While the gifts of the Irish daoine sidhe are often not what they appear to be in a negative way - a fistful of gold might be revealed at dawn to be worthless leaves - the gifts of the alfar go the other way, with leaves turning into gold. Generally speaking the alfar are also more generous and benign in nature than the Irish sidhe (Gundarsson, 2007). Similarly the alfar seem slightly more forgiving and more willing to overlook human faux pas than the daoine sidhe who operate with a rigid etiquette that accepts no excuses.
Iron and rowan are good protections against both groups, although exactly how the iron is used varies slightly. The Norse also see sulphur and juniper as good protections, while the Irish see hazel as having some protective qualities along with several other herbs, including Saint John's Wort and Mothan. There are numerous charms in both cultures to defend against these beings; in the Irish there are specialists called fairy doctors or bean feasa as well to help people afflicted by the daoine sidhe.
The best way to get a firm grasp on the qualities of the hidden people - of either culture - is to read the mythology and folklore relating to them. While it is largely true that both groups have many things in common they also have key differences which make it clear that they may be closely related but are not identical in nature. Someone choosing a blended or syncretic approach would do well to carefully study both sides of the supernatural aisle in order to best honor these important spirits in their practice; similarly someone honoring only one culture should realize that while they have much in common they are not entirely the same and should be careful not to assume that what is acceptable or viable with one would be the same for the other.
Grimm's Teutonic Mythology http://www.northvegr.org/secondary%20sources/mythology/grimms%20teutonic%20mythology/01701.html
Yeats' Celtic Twilight http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/twi/twi39.htm
Briggs, Katharine (1978) The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends.
Evans-Wentz, W. Y. (1966, 1990) The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries.
Sontag, K (2007). Parallel worlds : fieldwork with elves, Icelanders and academics. University of Iceland. pp. 13–14.
Vincenz, M. (2009) To Be or Not to Be http://www.grapevine.is/Features/ReadArticle/Article-To-Be-or-Not-to-Be
Gundarsson, K., (2007). Elves, Wights, and Trolls
Kirk, R., (1893) The secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/sce/index.htm
Croker, T., (1825). Fairy Legends and Traditions http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/flat/index.htm
Assorted Norse mythology http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/ice/index.htm