Elves, Part One: The Origins of Elves

In a comment on my post from 23 Feb, “The Shadows of Our Fantasy Predecessors,” jesswords10 said: “Tell me everything you about elves! *sits with chin in hand and eyes wide open*.”  Well, I could hardly refuse such a request, could I?  And I fully intended to do just as she suggested last week.  Unfortunately, last week I was struck down by a severe cold, and I had to pull from my reserve articles instead.  So, this week, I will fulfill Jess’s request.

And so, without further ado, The Origins of Elves in Norse Mythology:


Frey, Lord of the Light Elves - image from wikipedia

Elves are first and foremost beings of Germanic/Norse mythology, which were later (much later) incorporated into English/Irish myths after the Viking culture had been established in the British Isles for some time.

In Norse mythology, the universe is divided into 3 levels.  On the first/top level, is Asgard, the realm of the Aesir (warrior gods).  Here is also found Valhalla, the huge hall that houses the Einherjar (the dead warriors await Ragnarok).  Also on this level is Vanaheim, where all the Vanir (fertility gods) lived until they eventually united with Aesir.  And finally, here is also Alfheim, the land of the light elves.

On the second level is Midgard, the middle world inhabited by men.  On this level is also Jotunheim, which lay either within Midgard or across the ocean (depending on the source) and was the home of the Giants.  North of Midgard were the Dvergar (dwarfs), who lived in Nidavellir.  And below the ground was Svartalfheim, the land of the dark elves.  There is some debate on the differences (if there are any) between dwarfs and the dark elves, and some argue that they are, in fact, essentially the same thing.

(We won’t get into the third level of the Norse universe, the underworld, because it does not bear on the discussion of elves.)

One of the best resources for Norse mythology is Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm.  Of course, Jacob Grimm is best known now for the fairy tales and folklore that he and his brother Wilhelm collected, but Jacob Grimm was best known in his own time as an expert in Germanic linguistics and mythology.  In his study, Grimm only devotes a few paragraphs to elves.  They were mentioned often in Norse and Germanic mythology, but rarely beyond some name-dropping, so there is very little detail to go on.  In any case, Grimm offers the following information:

The Poetic Edda (one of the great Old Norse texts) often couples the Aesir (gods) and the Alfar (elves) together as if they were equal (or nearly so) higher beings.  Likewise, in the Hrafnagaldr (an Icelandic poem similar in style to the Poetic Edda) opens with the words: “Alfodr orkar, alfar skilja, vanir vita” which means roughly “All-father (which is probably a refernce to Odin, leader of the Aesir) has power, Alfar (elves) have skill, Vanir have knowledge.”  This would indicate that the elves, while perhaps not the same as the Aesir, were divine in nature and were possibly respected for their skill (though stkill in what, precisely, is unknown).

In The Lay of Alvis, a narrator relates all the different names given to heavenly bodies, elements, and plants by various languages, and in so doing mentions the Aesir, alfar, Vanir, and as well as menn (men), iotnar (also called jotun, or giants), dvergar (dwarfs), and denizens of hel (the underworld).  What Grimm points out as important here is that the alfar are very clearly differentiated from the dvergar, as well as from the Aesir and Vanir, making them distinctly their own race of beings and not merely an off-shoot of one or the other as has sometimes been argued.  Grimm, however, also makes note of the fact that several dwarfs are given elf-names such as Alfr and Vindalfr, and that likewise several human heroes and kings of Icelandic folklore have been given titles such as Visi Alfa (“ruler of elves”) and alfa liodi (“one among the elves”).  All this indicates to Grimm that, at the very least, there existed some kind of kinship between elves, dwarfs, and men.

A variety of Norse myths and folklore also tell us that elves closely resembled humans and the two races were capable of cross-breeding, but that the elves were more beautiful than any human could hope to be.  The elves were also said to be semi-divine, and were often associated with fertility and nature spirits.  Some stories also claimed that elves were bound by physical limitations and could pass through walls and doors like ghosts.

For those who are wondering, yes, these Norse elves are the basis for the elves brought to life by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Sillmarillion, and the various other writings associated with the series.  I’m pretty sure this is common knowledge by now, but Tolkien was first and foremost a professor of etymology (aka, linguistics), specializing (like Jacob Grimm) in Germanic languages such as Old Norse, High German, and Old English.  And like Grimm, much of his study of language also included study of mythology (you might be surprised by how much the two are interrelated).  Quite a large amount of The Lord of the Rings was inspired by Tolkien’s vast knowledge of mythology and linguistics.  The elves are no exception.

Most of the information provided here comes from the following sources: The Norse Myths, introduced and retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland; Jacob Grimm’s Teutonic Mythology (follow link for online translation); and a bit from Wikipedia (which is such a useful site for summarizing information).

On Friday, I will discuss elves as they were absorbed into English/Irish mythology and became combined with fairies.  In the meantime: thoughts, questions, additional information?  I, of course, could not discuss everything there is to know about elves (first, because I don’t know it all yet, and second, because whole books have been written on the subject), but if you think I’ve neglected something vital, please let me know.