When most discuss or think of the Elves of Norse Mythology they usually think of a certain kind of Tolkien in appearance and even refer to them as the Dark and Light Elves. But I want to go deeper into these Elves and to educate my readers on how much more expansive they are within the Yggdrasil. So in this Blog post I plan to cover the Svartálfar (“Black Elves), Dökkálfar (“Dark Elves), Ljösalfar (“Light Elves) and the Hvítálfar (“Shining Elves).
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 I 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.