The Origins of Norse Elves
Santa Claus, Keebler cookies, and overloaded shelves. If a person speaks of elves, the brain frequently goes to those who work for Santa or Keebler, or those that hide from small kids in the middle of night. All these are their roles in popular culture now, but it's likely unsurprising to see that their roots stem from sources less merry and jolly. Instead, one of the first depictions of the elven race would be the ancient medieval sagas and poems of wars, gods, and even death.
Elves in Pagan and Christian Times
Germanic in character, the mythology of the elven race stems in the pre-Christian Norse religion and language. In Old Norse, elves are known as álfar, although this term can be broken up into subcategories. It's long been considered that elves are creatures of light and goodness, but that is a misinterpretation of earlier texts. Elves in biblical literature are usually described as beautiful, slender, tall creatures with pale hair and skin, and unknowable magical abilities. The elves were very fluid creatures which didn't adhere to regular gender or sexual roles. Further, occasionally these beings were considered gods or demi-gods, but they were above the human race.
The elves were broken down into classes of light and the dark elves, probably first by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century. It's likely that this division of the elven race arose when Christianity became dominant. In the pagan religion, elves were capable of both positive and negative moralities, just like the Faer folk of ancient Ireland, England, and Scotland. Yet beings with dual natures did not translate well to the early medieval Christian faith. The closest comparison these writers could create was one with demons and angels --i.e., the followers of a good God versus the followers of a dark devil. Therefore, the álfar were similarly split into good and bad, or the ljósálfar and dökkálfar, respectively.
The Elves' Homes
The good elves lived either above ground or in Álfheimr, one of the nine worlds of Norse mythology specifically for the elven race, while the dark elves lived like dwarves in the ground. Snorri goes so far as to reference a separate realm for the dark elves called Svartálfaheimr, thus explaining the use of svartálfar to describe the "black-elves" in his Prose Edda.
However, the use of svartálfar has been speculated by linguistic researchers as either synonymous with the dökkálfar or the dwarves; in the Gylfaginning (dictated in Snorri's Edda), the dwarf Andvari (who later creates the ring which causes strife between Brunhild the Valkyrie and her lover's wife, Gudrun) is described as being from Svartálfar. Thus it is not without merit to postulate that the dark elves themselves are merely dwarves--longstanding enemies of the elves--improperly renamed due to Christian misunderstandings.
Literary Works Interpreting the Role of Elves in Norse Mythology
One should be wary of the most valued texts referencing the Old Norse religion and elves. The aforementioned Snorri Sturluson is most often mentioned, as he was among the first authors who took the oral histories (i.e. sagas) of the pre-Christian Scandinavians and wrote them into a coherent codex. However, because of the second, third, and fourth-hand nature of the retellings of legends discussing elves and other aspects of Norse beliefs, and the fact that Snorri was trying to understand a pagan world through Christian eyes, much of the accuracy of his work is debatable. Nonetheless, Snorri's work continues to be respected, because the Icelanders were converted to Christianity later than other cultures, and it is believed that the original pagan beliefs prevailed longer, allowing for a shorter time gap between the oral and written traditions.
According to Ph.D. candidate Alaric Hall from the University of Glasgow (2004), the business of elves is one of the few instances in which Snorri's work is not as reliable as it is in other pre-Christian aspects. Instead, the poetry of the skalds (royal bards) is far more accurate regarding elves, as it is dated to the 9th century, just before the conversion of Iceland. In this poetry, the álfar(also sometimes written as álfr) are often mentioned in poems of mourning for fallen warriors. The earliest known skald, called Bragi inn gamli Boddason, provides álfr as an epithet for one of the strongest and bravest fallen warriors. (This is the equivalent of a warrior being called "god-like" or "shining" in Greek mythology.) It is therefore plausible that such an appellation indicates that elves were not merely an ethereal race wholly separate from humans, but valued as possessing skills and abilities humans could, and should, aspire to achieve.
A third valued work discussing Old Norse faith and elves is the Poetic Edda, a collection of tales written by an unknown author, likely written before Snorri's text in the 13th century. The estimated dating of such an ambiguously authored poem is estimated due to subject matter, the names of poets and the style and meter of the poetry. As such, the Poetic Edda's estimated date could indicate that it was one of the many sources used by Snorri for his work--possibly in conjunction with the aforementioned poetry.
Despite the difficulty of recapturing the initial meaning of the álfar, whether light or dark, good or evil, or any combination of the two, the Nordic origins for elves has managed to survive in various forms because of the later efforts to preserve the Old North religion.
JRR Tolkien, renowned writer of The Lord of the Rings and advanced Anglo-Saxon and Germanic scholar, brought much of the accuracy of the ancient traditions into popular culture, seemingly endeavoring to do so without the biased Christian eye of historians like Snorri. While Tolkien's work is obviously fictional, it is a valuable example of an attempt to bring the ancient into the present. Jacob Grimm, one of the two brothers who collected Germanic fairy tales, is another pertinent individual relating to the survival of elven traditions.
Thanks in large part to the dedication of the skaldic poets and post-conversion writers, authors such as Tolkien are able to reconstruct facets of the Old Norse beliefs, combating the ever-persistent elven toy-makers, cookie bakers, and (somewhat creepily) grinning Christmas puppets.
Publisher: Ancient Origins
Original link: http://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends-europe/diverse-nature-elves-norse-myth-beings-light-or-darkness-008327