Dec 18 2012

The Alfar: The Origin of Elves By Neal Litherland

Elf With Flute

Pic: AmberAudacity

So Much More Than Tolkein Said

The word elf brings to mind certain images in the mind of a listener. For some it calls up old German fairy tales, telling of little sprites that helped shoe makers and which were paid in milk. For others it brings to mind scenes from Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings,” or from the popular role playing game “Dungeons and Dragons,” now in its 4th Edition. These “fantasy” elves tend to be tall and ephemeral, more spirit than flesh and entirely apart from the affairs of humans. However, to find the origins of these and other myths and fictions, we need to go back to the era of the Vikings. .

In Norse mythology, which is called heathenism or Asatru by modern day practitioners, there were 9 worlds that made up the cosmos. Among these 9 different worlds there was a place called Alfheim, where the Alfar lived. The Alfar were divided into two halves; the Ljosalfar (Light elves) and Svartalfar (Dark elves). The light elves lived in the trees, forests and the air, and were beings of light and spirit, filled with powerful magic and they possessed the wildness of the untamed woods which made them seem capricious or even animalistic in their ways, which were not the ways of men. The Svartalfar lived in the earth, and they were associated with rock and ore, their colour more the absence of light beneath the ground than a mark of evil. All of the Alfar were spirits, which meant that they obeyed the whims and ways of the spirit world, and that they were not bound to the rules and laws of humans. These beings were also called wights at times, though that term might be applied to a variety of spirits.

The Alfar as a race were ruled by the god Frey and his sister Freya. The children of Njord, all three gods were Vanir. The Vanir were a race of gods that were considered wilder, filled with an untamed vitality that made them strong and powerful. They were a secondary race of gods in much of the mythology, since the Aesir gods, with whom Njord and his children lived, were the main gods in the Eddas. However, it is the same vitality and wild character that was possessed by the Vanir that infused the Alfar, even if the races were not as powerful as the gods.

The Alfar fill a gap that shows up in many mythologies, that area between men and gods. Daemons, a word that was originally created to describe the half breed children of the gods in Greek mythology, are generally accepted as spirits stronger than men, but not as strong as devils, for instance. The Fairy Folk in Celtic mythology were not as strong as the old gods, the Tuatha De Danann. So too the Alfar are beings of spirit that are stronger and more powerful than men, but only the most powerful kings and queens of the Alfar might consider themselves the equal of the gods.

As creatures who stood between men and gods, the Alfar were often sought as go-betweens. Rather than simply asking favor of Odin or Frigga, Norsemen would instead beg favor through offerings and sacrifice to the Alfar who were closest to their land. The idea of Ley Lines, or Fey Lines as some call them in Ireland, are that they are barriers between Midgard and Alfheim, and that the Alfar could step through those barriers if they wished. This is the same way that Catholics may call upon the aid of a saint, considered to be much closer to humanity than angels, rather than taking up the valuable ear of God himself. It’s also interesting how the associations of good and evil came to be given to the Alfar. Originally they were simply light and dark, with the light Alfar slightly more accessible because they dealt with the world of the living rather than the world of the dead. As cultural views and thoughts changed, especially with the influence of Christianity, the idea of death being inherently evil or wicked corrupted the image of the dark Alfar.

Dark Elf Lord

Dark Elf Lord Pic Source

Rather than simply being creatures of the world of the dead, they became malicious, purposefully creating havoc and planning wickedness on men. So too, because the association of light as good and heavenly came to pass, the light Alfar began to receive moral and spiritual goodness that was never associated with them before. The light simply referred to their strength and magic, as the concepts of good and evil in Norse mythology were not as cut and dried as they are in other faiths. Especially when you consider that all of the Alfar fought with the gods against the giants, and that during the battle of Ragnarok (the Norse Armageddon) the Alfar will stand with the gods and the Einherjar to fight the last battle against the giants once more.

“Gods, Goddesses and Mythology,” Volume 11 at Google Books
“The Alfar,” by Raven Kaldera at Northern Shamanism

Source

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