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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Ljósálfar, Dökkálfar, and Svartálfar; A Brief Overview of Elves in Norse Myth

Discussing the Álfar is complicated because they appear in mythology as both one cohesive grouping and subdivided into more specific groupings. Often in Norse myth we simply see references to the Álfar, often paired with but distinct from the Aesir, giving us phrases like in the Voluspo "How fare the Aesir? How fare the Álfar?" and this one from the Lokasenna "From the Gods and elves who are gathered here..."*. Yet we also find distinct groups mentioned among the Álfar that seem to have their own characteristics and descriptors, the Ljósálfar, Dökkálfar, and Svartálfar. It is possible that these distinct groups are literary conventions, created later to better define different mythic motifs, or to reflect foreign influences. Certainly in modern times we see only the general grouping of Álfar in folklore and the word álf is used in compounds such as land-elf and waterfall-elf, implying that álf has more general connotations.

Consider this a cliff notes of Alfár in Norse mythology. In the Prose Edda we see Snorri Sturlson mentioning distinct types of Álfar who appear in mythology, the Ljósálfar and the Svartálfar. A third group of álfar, the Dökkálfar also appear in mythology.
Ljósálfar - their name means 'light elves' and they live in a world called Álfheim [elf home] or Ljósálfheim [light elf home] that according to mythology belongs to the Vanic deity Freyr. The Ljósálfar are described by Snorri as being beautiful and fair to see. Ljósálfar are said to influence the weather and like the Aesir, Dwarves, Humans, and Giants they possess runes given to them by Odin.
Dökkálfar - The Dökkálfar are referenced in a few places in Norse mythology. The name itself means 'dark elves' and Snorri describes them as living in the earth. Grimm calls them 'Genii obscuri' or spirits of the dark and suggests a connection between them and nâir, spirits of the dead, even going so far as to place them living ''in hel, the heathen hades" (Grimm, 1888, p446). Grimm also questions whether the Dökkálfar should be separated from the nâir or whether "[t]he dusky elves are souls of dead men..." (Grimm, 1888, p 447).  There is some strong evidence that the Dökkálfar were the mound dead or male ancestors and the Dökkálfar are sometimes called Mound Elves; it is not certain however and it may be that some Dökkálfar are human dead but others are not**.
Svartálfar - meaning 'black elves' they possess their own world, Svartálfheim [black elf home]. The Duergar or dwarves also live in Svartálfheim creating a longstanding confusion about whether Svartálfar are truly elves in their own right or are actually another name for dwarves. Both are associated with mountains and mountainous regions, but seem to have a distinct and separate focus in activities and interactions with people. Grimm believes that the Svartálfar were good natured beings and argues that they received worship from people into the 19th century.

The álfar and the duergar - elves and dwarves - are also difficult groups to entirely sort out. On one hand there are some good arguments that the two may actually be the same, with Svartálfar and potentially Dökkálfar both simply being alternate names for deurgar. This is supported by three main things: many deurgar have names that incorporate the word 'álf' such as Vindalf and Gandalf; the Svartálfar were said to live in Svartálfheim but the deurgar live there as well; and the svartalfar and Dökkálfar were said to live beneath the ground or in mounds. However there is also evidence that might support the argument that the two groups were separate, including that they are occasionally referenced in the same work together as different groups.  In verse 25 of Hrafnagaldr Óðins we see the Dökkálfar being grouped together with giants, dead men, and dwarves: "gýgjur og þursar, náir, dvergar og dökkálfar" [Giantesses and giants, dead men, dwarves and dark elves]. This would at the least seem to indicate some degree of separation between Duergar and Dökkálfar. In the Alvissmal it is also established that the Álfar and Duergar have different languages and kennings for things, which would also indicate separation of the two groups (Gundarsson, 2007). For the most part the Álfar would seem to be beings closely tied to the Gods, perhaps one step beneath them in power and influence, beings who can influence weather and possess powerful magic that can effect people's health. The Duergar are associated with mining and smithcraft and are not as closely tied to the Gods; when they appear in myth dealing with the Gods they must always be negotiated with or otherwise dealt with in some fashion diplomatically.

The Álfar are a complicated and fascinating group in mythology and we have barely touched on them here. Consider this merely a brief introduction to some basic ideas about the Álfar as they appear in Norse mythology but bear in mind that they can be found throughout Germanic/Norse folklore. they are beings that are both benevolent and dangerous as the mood suits and depending on how they are treated, like the elves found across folklore.  

* For my own opinion I think this is likely referencing the Ljósálfar whose realm would seem by descriptions to be close to the realm of the Aesir, however as far as I know the original text does not specify which álfar
**the idea of some dead joining the elves after death is something we see as well in the Irish, indicating that this may be a wider concept.

Faulkes, A., (1995) Prose Edda
Grimm, J., (1888) Teutonic Mythology, volume 2
Hrafnagaldr Óðins
Gundarsson, K., (2007) Elves, Wights, and Trolls

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