An elf (plural: elves) is a type of supernatural being in Norse Religion. Reconstructing the early concept of an elf depends almost entirely on texts in Old English or relating to Norse mythology. Later evidence for elves appears in diverse sources such as medical texts, prayers, ballads, and folktales.
Recent scholars have emphasised, in the words of Ármann Jakobsson, that
- the time has come to resist reviewing information about álfar en masse and trying to impose generalizations on a tradition of a thousand years. Legends of álfar may have been constantly changing and were perhaps always heterogeneous so it might be argued that any particular source will only reflect the state of affairs at one given time.
However, some generalisations are possible. In medieval Germanic-speaking cultures, elves seem generally to have been thought of as a group of beings with magical powers and supernatural beauty, ambivalent towards everyday people and capable of either helping or hindering them. However, the precise character of beliefs in elves across the Germanic-speaking world has varied considerably across time, space, and different cultures. In Old Norse mythological texts, elves seem at least at times to be counted among the pagan gods; in medieval German texts they seem more consistently monstrous and harmful.
Elves are prominently associated with sexual threats, seducing people and causing them harm. For example, a number of early modern ballads in the British Isles and Scandinavia, originating in the medieval period, describe human encounters with elves.
Old Norse texts
Evidence for elf-beliefs in medieval Scandinavia outside Iceland is very sparse, but the Icelandic evidence is uniquely rich.
Scholars of Old Norse mythology now focus on references to elves in Old Norse poetry, particularly the Elder Edda. The only character explicitly identified as an elf in classical Eddaic poetry, if any, is Völundr, the protagonist of Völundarkviða. However, elves are frequently mentioned in the alliterating formulaic collocation Æsir ok Álfar (‘Æsir and elves’) and its variants. This shows a strong tradition of associating elves with the Æsir, or sometimes even of not distinguishing between the two groups. The collocation is paralleled in the Old English poem Wið færstice; in the Germanic personal name system; and in Skaldic verse the word elf is used in the same way as words for gods. Sigvatr Þórðarson’s skaldic travelogue Austrfaravísur, composed around 1020, mentions an álfablót (‘elves’ sacrifice’) in Edskogen in what is now southern Sweden. There does not seem to have been any clear-cut distinction between humans and gods; like the Æsir, then, elves were presumably thought of as being human(-like) and existing in opposition to the giants. Many commentators have also (or instead) argued for conceptual overlap between elves and dwarves in Old Norse mythology, which may fit with trends in the medieval German evidence.
There are hints that Freyr was associated with elves, particularly that Álfheimr (literally ‘elf-world’) is mentioned as being given to Freyr in Grímnismál. Because Snorri Sturluson identified Freyr as one of the Vanir when that word is rare in Eddaic verse, very rare in Skaldic verse, and is not generally thought to appear in other Germanic languages, it has long been suggested that álfar and Vanir are, more or less, different words for the same group of beings, and even that Snorri invented the Vanir. However, this is not uniformly accepted.
A kenning for the sun, álfröðull, is of uncertain meaning but is to some suggestive of a close link between the elves’ and the sun.
Although the relevant words are of slightly uncertain meaning, it seems fairly clear that Völundr is described as one of the elves in Völundarkviða. As his most prominent deed in the poem is to rape Böðvildr, the poem associates elves with being a sexual threat to maidens. The same idea is present in two post-classical Eddaic poems, which are also influenced by romance or Breton lais, Kötludraumur and Gullkársljóð and in later traditions in Scandinavia and beyond, so may be an early attestation of a prominent tradition. Elves also appear in a couple of verse spells, including the Bergen rune-charm from among the Bryggen inscriptions.
The appearance of elves in sagas is closely defined by genre. ‘In the more realistic Sagas of Icelanders, Bishops’ Sagas, and Sturlunga saga, álfar are rare. When seen, they are distant.’ These texts include a fleeting mention of elves seen out riding in 1168 (in Sturlunga saga); mention of an álfablót in Kormáks saga; and the existence of the euphemism ganga álfrek (‘go to drive away the elves’) for ‘going for a poo’ in Eyrbyggja saga.
The Kings’ sagas include a rather elliptical account of an early Swedish king being worshipped after his death and being called Ólafr Geirstaðaálfr (‘Ólafr the elf of Geirstaðir’) and the elf as a demon at the beginning of Norna-Gests þáttr, which is a portion of the Greatest Saga of Olaf Tryggvason.
The legendary sagas tend to focus on elves as legendary ancestors or on heroes’ sexual relations with elf-women. Mention of the land of Álfheimr is found in Heimskringla while The Saga of Thorstein, Viking’s Son recounts a line of local kings who ruled over Álfheim, who since they had elven blood were said to be more beautiful than most men. According to Hrólfs saga kraka, Hrolfr Kraki‘s half-sister Skuld was the half-elven child of King Helgi and an elf-woman (álfkona). Skuld was skilled in witchcraft (seiðr). Accounts of Skuld in earlier sources, however, do not include this material. The Þiðreks saga version of the Nibelungen (Niflungar) describes Högni as the son of a human queen and an elf, but no such lineage is reported in the Eddas, Völsunga saga, or the Nibelungenlied. The relatively few mentions of elves in the Chivalric sagas tend even to be whimsical.
Both Continental Scandinavia and Iceland have a scattering of mentions of elves in medical texts, most of them with Low German connections.
In Scandinavian folklore, an elf is called elver in Danish, alv in Norwegian, alv (as a learned borrowing from Old Norse) or älva in Swedish, and álfur in Icelandic. After the medieval period, these terms were generally less prominent than alternatives like huldufólk (‘hidden people’, Icelandic), huldra (‘hidden people’, Norwegian and Swedish, along with terms like skogsfru and skogsrå), vetter, nisse (Denmark) and tomte (Sweden): the Norwegian expressions seldom appear in genuine folklore, for example.
In Denmark and Sweden, the elves appear as beings distinct from the vetter, even though the border between them is diffuse. The insect-winged fairies in Celtic mythology are often called älvor in modern Swedish or alfer in Danish, although the more formal translation is feer. In a similar vein, the alf found in the fairy tale The Elf of the Rose by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen is so tiny that he can have a rose blossom for home, and has ‘wings that reached from his shoulders to his feet’. Yet Andersen also wrote about elvere in The Elfin Hill. The elves in this story are more alike those of traditional Danish folklore, who were beautiful females, living in hills and boulders, capable of dancing a man to death. Like the huldra in Norway and Sweden, they are hollow when seen from the back.
The elves of Norse mythology have survived into folklore mainly as females, living in hills and mounds of stones. The Swedish älvor, (sing. älva) were stunningly beautiful girls who lived in the forest with an elven king. In Romantic art and literature, elves are typically pictured as fair-haired, white-clad, and (like most creatures in the Scandinavian folklore) nasty when offended. In folk-stories, they often play the role of disease-spirits. The most common, though also most harmless case was various irritating skin rashes, which were called älvablåst (elven blow) and could be cured by a forceful counter-blow (a handy pair of bellows was most useful for this purpose). Skålgropar, a particular kind of petroglyph found in Scandinavia, were known in older times as älvkvarnar (elven mills), pointing to their believed usage. One could appease the elves by offering them a treat (preferably butter) placed into an elven mill.
In order to protect themselves and their livestock against malevolent elves, Scandinavians could use a so-called Elf cross (Alfkors, Älvkors or Ellakors), which was carved into buildings or other objects. It existed in two shapes, one was a pentagram and it was still frequently used in early 20th-century Sweden as painted or carved onto doors, walls and household utensils in order to protect against elves. The second form was an ordinary cross carved onto a round or oblong silver plate. This second kind of elf cross was worn as a pendant in a necklace and in order to have sufficient magic it had to be forged during three evenings with silver from nine different sources of inherited silver.
The elves could be seen dancing over meadows, particularly at night and on misty mornings. They left a circle where they had danced, which were called älvdanser (elf dances) or älvringar (elf circles), and to urinate in one was thought to cause venereal diseases. Typically, elf circles were fairy rings consisting of a ring of small mushrooms, but there was also another kind of elf circle:
- On lake shores, where the forest met the lake, you could find elf circles. They were round places where the grass had been flattened like a floor. Elves had danced there. By Lake Tisaren, I have seen one of those. It could be dangerous and one could become ill if one had trodden over such a place or if one destroyed anything there.
If a human watched the dance of the elves, he would discover that even though only a few hours seemed to have passed, many years had passed in the real world. Humans being invited or lured to the elf dance is a common motif transferred from older Scandinavian ballads.
Elves were not exclusively young and beautiful. In the Swedish folktale Little Rosa and Long Leda, an elvish woman (älvakvinna) arrives in the end and saves the heroine, Little Rose, on condition that the king’s cattle no longer graze on her hill. She is described as a beautiful old woman and by her aspect people saw that she belonged to the subterraneans.