Updated: May 31, 2022
Doing a search on Google for the word "elves" you will get a plethora of pictures of Legolas from Lord of the Rings, or Santa's Elves, or a variety of cartoon images. But if one were to delve into historical sources, to gain an understanding of what the Heathen peoples in the northern parts of Europe understood an elf to be, one would get a decidedly different picture. And to be blunt, Elves are peculiar to the Germanic Peoples, and are not something that merged into other cultures until AFTER christianization. Maybe one could argue that the historical elves, the ones in Heathen Folklore, have not been adopted by other cultures. People could give a great argument that elves in fantasy are so different from the elves in Germanic lore, that these are two different beings. Elves in Old English Lore: The Oldest and First Mentions of the word "Elf" and "Elves" historically The earliest surviving manuscripts mentioning elves in any Germanic language are from England. In Old English, elves are most often mentioned in medical texts attesting to the belief that elves might afflict humans and livestock with elf-shot and other illnesses. The most famous of the medical texts is the charm Wið færstice ("against a stabbing pain"), from the tenth-century compilation Lacnunga. Other 10th century attestations are Bald's Leechbook and Leechbook III (paragraph 41 & 62). This tradition continues into later English-language traditions too: elves continue to appear in Middle English medical texts. To be clear and straight forward, in Old English literature, the Elves are not friends to mankind. Even the Old English Beowulf, which some argue is earlier than the 10th century, and actually is the first reference to Elves, associate the Elves as enemies of mankind. In Beowulf, the Elves are equated with giants and orcneas (orcs) as being monsters. Beowulf verses 1111-1113: “From there all monsters arose, ettins and elves and orcneas, likewise the giants who strove against God.” In short, Old English poems and references imply strongly that the Anglish in England did not view the Elves as friends of the Ese (Aesir) and mankind. I should add though, we have many names of people in Old English that contain the word "elf." . The term has been preserved and carried on in names like Alf (and Alv), Alfhild, Alvar (Halvard). Ælfræd which means ‘Elf Counsel’ (the modern name is Alfred), Ælfwine ‘Elf Friend’ (which is Alvin), Ælfric ‘Elf Ruler’ (which is Eldridge), and also in female names like Ælfflæd ‘Elf Beauty’.
Elves in Frankia (Belgium & Central Germany; Frankfurt): The earliest mention of Elves in Frankia comes from a Merovingian legend. Merovech, (c. 411–458) is the founder of the Merovingian dynasty of the Salian Franks. Childeric I, his son, and Clovis I, his grandson, led the tribe to be the most dominant Germanic tribe. Clovis is famous for being the first Germanic king to convert to Christianity. Merovech is one of several barbarian kings that joined forces with the Roman general Aetius against the Huns under Attila at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in Gaul. The Merovingian dynasty was the ruling family of the Franks from the middle of the 5th century until 751.
The Merovingian Legend is about Alberich (from Old High German alb- "elf" and -rîch-, "ruler", "king"), a sorcerer in the Merovingian dynasty. He is referred to as the otherworldly "brother" of Merowech. Alberich wins for his eldest son, Walbert, the hand of a princess of Constantinople. [See The last history of Hugo of Toul (12th century) was the authority of Jacques de Guyse (14th century) in his Annales historiae ill. princip. Hannoniae (Mon. Germ. xxx.), where there is an account (bk. ix. ch. 6)] In the Nibelungenlied, a Burgundian poem written around the turn of the 13th century, Alberich guards the treasure of the Nibelungen, but is overcome by Siegfried. Siegfried overpowers him using his cloak of invisibility (Tarnkappe), after which the dwarf serves the hero. Siegfried later pulls his beard in mock combat when he arrives unannounced to claim the treasure.
In the period before 1000 AD, the Old High German word alp is attested only in a small number of glosses. In the Middle High German poem Ortnit, written around 1230 AD, Alberich is described as having the form of a small child and visible only to the holder of a magical ring. Alberich seduces the queen of Lombardy and fathers the hero Ortnit. When Ortnit later seeks to win the daughter of the heathen king Machorel, Alberich reveals his paternity to Ortnit and aids him in his quest, playing tricks on the heathen king and even impersonating the heathen god Mahmet. When Ortnit sets out on his final fatal adventure against a plague of dragons, Alberich takes back the magic ring and warns Ortnit not to go on his quest. [Gillespie, George T. (1973). Catalogue of Persons Named in German Heroic Literature, 700-1600: Including Named Animals and Objects and Ethnic Names. Oxford: Oxford University. ISBN 9780198157182. ]
There is also evidence associating elves with illness, specifically epilepsy. In Middle High German the elves are consistently associated with deceiving people. This is the most occurring phrase in Middle High German concerning the elves: die elben/der alp trieget mich ("the elves/elf are/is deceiving me"). The same pattern holds in Early Modern German. [Edwards, Cyril, 'Heinrich von Morungen and the Fairy-Mistress Theme', in Celtic and Germanic Themes in European Literature, ed. by Neil Thomas (Lewiston, N. Y.: Mellen, 1994), pp. 13–30 ] The Elves in Old Saxon literature: There are ZERO mentions of the word "elf" in Old Saxon poetry. I personally believe that the elves are referred to in one passage in the Old Saxon Heliand. However, the word in Old Saxon is "uuiht" meaning "wight" and not the word "alfar" or "alf." This passage is from the Heliand, Fitt 4. The word "deceit" is specifically used (Old Saxon "dragu"), which ties this in my mind to the Germanic mentality of the Elves being deceitful:
Elves in Scandinavian Literature:
Evidence for elf-beliefs in medieval Scandinavia outside Iceland is very sparse, but the Icelandic evidence is plentiful. For a long time, views about elves in Old Norse mythology were defined by Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, which talks about svartálfar, dökkálfar and ljósálfar ("black elves", "dark elves", and "light elves"). These words are only attested in the Prose Edda, and it is now agreed by scholars that they reflect traditions of dwarves, demons, and angels, partly showing Snorri's "paganisation" of a Christian cosmology learned from the Elucidarius, a popular digest of Christian thought. [Edwards, Cyril (1994). Thomas, Neil (ed.). Heinrich von Morungen and the Fairy-Mistress Theme. Celtic and Germanic Themes in European Literature. Lewiston, N. Y.: Mellen. pp. 13–30.] 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.
Elves are frequently mentioned in the alliterating phrase Æsir ok Álfar ('Æsir and elves') and its variants. Some people argue that this means that the Æsir and the Elves are the same. I think this clearly means they are different. Verses in Skaldic Poetry are used to argue the Elves and Ancestors are the same. Sigvatr Þórðarson’s skaldic travelogue Austrfaravísur, composed around 1020, mentions an álfablót (‘elves' sacrifice’) in Edskogen in what is now southern Sweden. This argument is the reason why many Google or Bing internet searches state the following:
Please note: I do agree that the word "alfar" in Old Norse is related to the word "white." But this is only the case in Old Norse dialects. In Old Saxon, the word "uuit" is the word for "white" and it is pronounced the same as "uuiht" meaning "wight." Nonetheless, many use Kormak's Saga, chapter 22, to argue that the word "Alfar" refers to Ancestors from so far back their names are forgotten. Kormak's Saga 22:
Hún segir: "Hóll einn er héðan skammt í brott er álfar búa í. Graðung þann er Kormákur drap skaltu fá og rjóða blóð graðungsins á hólinn utan en gera álfum veislu af slátrinu og mun þér batna."
I translate this as: "She (The spae-woman) answered, "There is a hollow, not far away from here, where elves dwell. Now get the bull that Kormac killed, and redden the outer side of the hollow with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then you will be healed.""
Some argue that the word "holl" means "hill." Others argue that the word means "hollow." If the word means "hill", the argument is that it is a grave mound, and that the sacrifice is to the Ancestors, not the Alfar (Elves) for healing. They argue that the Ancestors have the power if blotted to, to heal. Being fluent in Old Saxon, and not having a huge knowledge of Old Norse/Icelandic, I look up key words when I do not know the meaning, or the Old Saxon language doesn't have the same word. While many do translate this as hill, most translate it as "hollow", like a hollow log. This word is used by Icelanders from something like what is pictured here:
Some also use a passage in one of the King's sags to argue that "alfar" means "departed Ancestors whose names have been forgotten" instead of only meaning "elves." The Kings' sagas include a widely studied account of an early Swedish king being worshiped after his death and being called Ólafr Geirstaðaálfr ('Ólafr the elf of Geirstaðir'), and a demonic elf at the beginning of Norna-Gests þáttr. [Ármann Jakobsson (2006). "The Extreme Emotional Life of Völundr the Elf". Scandinavian Studies. 78 (3): 227–54. JSTOR 40920693.] This argument is not a strong one, as Ancestor veneration was common amongst the Germanic tribes and even non-Germanic peoples. The Swedish Alfablot is the final major argument that Alfablot is an Ancestral blot done by families, where foreigners and non-family members were not allowed to attend. Swedish Alfablot: Alfablot was clearly done by families in the homestead, with the exclusion of non-family members. We have only one mention of the historical Alfablot as a "Swedish" holiday, the Swedish poem Austrfararvisur. In early winter of the year 1018, Sigvatr Þórðarson (a Norwegian Christian) traveled to Sweden and claimed he was refused hospitality due to the Swedish blot called alfablót, which was being held in the homes of Sweden, to each home he traveled. Austrfararvisur makes very clear that Alfablot was done by individual Heathen families: Austrfararvísur (verses 1-6): “After an arduous journey, Sighvatr and his companions arrived at a homestead called Hof. They expected to be received as per the laws of hospitality, but the door remained shut. Sighvatr had to stick his nose down into a narrow opening in a front door to present himself, but the people of the household declined by saying that the place was holy. Sighvatr retorted that the trolls should take them and continued to the next homestead. At the following farm, he met a lady who told him to go away and said "Don't go further inside unlucky man! We are afraid of Odin's wrath; we are Heathens!" Then, she chased him away as if he were a wolf and said that they "are having the Alfablot at the homestead."”
For Scandinavian Heathenry, which has Vanir (the Vanir are not mentioned outside of Scandinavia or DaneLaw England), the god Freyr is associated with elves. Álfheimr (literally "elf-world") is given to Freyr in Grímnismál. Snorri Sturluson identified Freyr as one of the Vanir. However, the term Vanir is rare in Eddaic verse, very rare in Skaldic verse, and is not generally thought to appear in other Germanic languages. Please join us on the Facebook Group Aldsidu: Saxon Heathenry, and the Facebook Page "Germanic Heathenry." In this article, I have given a brief overview of the Elves. It is clear that "Santa's Elves" are extremely different from the Elves in historical Heathen folklore. The idea of light colored hair, or white hair, especially seen in Peter Jackson's movies of the "Lord of the Rings Trilogy" and "The Hobbit Trilogy" comes from the fact that the word for Elves, "alfar" comes from a proto-Germanic word meaning "white." In Germanic literature, the Elves are most often associated with deceit and trick-playing. Modern Neo-Pagan movements more take modern "fantasy" elements on the elves for their artwork in particular, and often in their belief system. I have not seen any "Asatru" organization or group teach "Alfablot." I do think that Alfablot is the best argument for the word "alfar" meaning "Ancestors" as well, as in the Swedish blot only allows family members. Therefore, the Swedish Alfablot would only make sense if it was an Ancestral blot to not allow non-family members. In Old Saxon literature, "forthrun" is the word that means "Ancestors." The same is true in other Germanic languages, they all have words for "Ancestors." Therefore, I am not entirely convinced that Swedish Alfablot is an Ancestral blot. A good counter argument is the Old Saxon Blood Moon (attested in the Old Saxon document "Essen Necrology" and matching Bede's "De Temporum Ratione" written 725 AD) which mentions that the Anglish (Angles) in England celebrate blots (plural) during the entire moon of "blodmanod" (meaning "Blood Moon"). Bede stating that Blood Moon was "a moon of blots to the Gods for the animals they were about to kill." (Bede De Temporum Ratione, Chapter 15). In the end, I can only conclude that we have insufficient evidence to state that the word "alfar" also means "ancestors."