As many of you know, Halloween was originally known as 'All Hallows' Eve', which falls on October 31, marking the day before All Saints' Day on November 1. Many believe this was yet another holiday purposely created by the Christian church to replace a popular pagan holiday known as the (Celtic) holy night of Samhain (pronounced ‘SAH-win’). To many, Halloween is actually about Samhain, and to the pagan Celts of that time, Samhain marked the transition between winter and summer, and it was believed that on that night, the barrier between the natural and spirit worlds was razor-thin and in flux. On that night, people in Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, Wales, and beyond would make offerings and sacrifices to appease the spirits, to thank them for good fortune – and to avoid their wrath.
Celtic stories of Samhain would often also include mention of creatures known as faeries (more on this below).
A Norse Version of Samhain?
Interestingly enough, the Vikings of the 8th - 11th centuries also had an annual (end of Autumn) nocturnal festival ...strikingly similar to Samhain, where they too venerated the spirits of the dead and offered sacrifices to avoid malevolent forces. This ancient Norse tradition was known as 'The Alfablot' (Old Norse: Álfablót), literally meaning “Sacrifice to the Elves.”
Wait … Elves?
When most people hear "elf," they might think of tiny, red-capped men making toys for Santa. Or, they might think of a skinny, pointy-eared alternative race that populates fantasy books, games, and streaming series. Side note: Author J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) was heavily influenced by the various Icelandic sagas he read while growing up.
But to the Vikings, elves were more like spiritual beings that could (possibly) take on human form. Unfortunately, it is easier to say what elves were not to the Vikings than to say what they were. Surviving sources speak of elves (Old Norse ‘alf’ singular or ‘alfar’ plural) a lot, but they are vague about what defines an elf in the concrete terms us modern readers like to hear.
General scholarly consensus based on the available sources supposes that elves were 1) a broad array of lesser gods (or demi-gods) whose spheres of influence affected the natural world, or 2) the bygone (but active) spirits of the ancestors, or 3) spirits that animate the natural world. Indeed, they may be some combination of any (or all) of the above. Norse lore and belief held the world was teeming with a diverse array of beings existing on a broad spectrum from spirit to flesh rather than an order limited by species or rules.
One interpretation of where Álfar (elves) fall within Norse mythology
So, the Álfablót was not only a time to revere elves, but to win them over with offerings to achieve prosperity (and ward off bad luck) for the coming year. That this time was at harvest and on the cusp of winter says everything. The divine/natural forces were seen as responsible for the plenty coming in, and the only hope that all this bounty would benefit the family rather than spoil in the cellars. For much more about Norse elves, read here.
What is known about The Álfablót?
The root word blót is related to the word ‘blood,’ specifically meaning an ‘offering’ or ‘sacrifice' where blood is spilled. Gift-giving was a keystone of both the Celtic druids and the Norse society. Graciously receiving good gifts and then being able to (eventually) return them in kind was essential to every Viking to keep relationships strong. These crucial relationships included everyone from immediate family to the lords of the land. Vikings saw the gods and spiritual forces in the same light, and thought gifts (offerings) were required to keep the wheel of reciprocity turning in the right direction.
Druids practicing a human sacrifice. Illustration: Jules Gaildrau (1885).
While some sacrifices were human, a lot of these 'gifts' were in the form of animal sacrifice, ritually slaughtered and then cooked for a big feast. However, weapons, jewelry, heirlooms, or even the first fruits of harvest could be offerings, too. In fact, leaving a little butter or ale out for the elves still remains a common practice for some within Scandinavian up to modern times.
Álfablót in the Sagas
An example of a sacrifice to the elves (though not necessarily the annual Álfablót) appears in Kormáks Saga (The Saga of Cormac the Skald). Seeking healing for a battle wound, Thorvald is told by the wise woman, Thordis:
"A hill there is," answered she, "not far away from here, where elves have their haunt. Now get you the bull that Cormac killed, and redden the outer side of the hill with its blood, and make a feast for the elves with its flesh. Then thou wilt be healed." (Chapter 22).
We see from this account not only the gist of how the sacrifices were performed but also the expectation of reciprocity they contained.
The association between elves and burial mounds is very common. Like the Vikings, the Celts also associated what seems to be their version of elves (Sidhe or "the faerie folk") with burial mounds and the dead. These motifs appear in many key Celtic stories of Samhain.
An eye-witness account of the Álfablót
Most details on how the Álfablót was celebrated are unfortunately lost to time. The rituals were conducted secretly and behind closed doors, and as Scandinavia became Christian, these old traditions were forgotten or changed.
Perhaps the best-known first-hand account of the Álfablót comes from the beginning of this period of change, in an 11th-century poem entitled Austrfararvísur (Verses of an Eastern Journey). An Icelandic skaldic poet named Sigvatr Þórðarson took a diplomatic mission to Sweden on behalf of his lord. Sigvatr was a court poet for several famous Viking rulers, including Canute the Great.
On his trip to Sweden, he reported how he did NOT receive a warm welcome during the sacred night of Álfablót. Sigvatr reports being literally chased from three different homes in a row "as if he were a wolf."
While it might not seem unusual to us not to reject strangers at night, in the world of the Vikings, such a hostile violation of the rules of hospitality was almost unheard of. But since elves are closely associated with the ancestors, and seeking the ancestors would only apply to the family, it makes sense that families would prefer to keep to themselves on the night of the Álfablót.
We also see in Sigvatr’s account that the lady of the house was the leader of ceremonies during the Álfablót, while men were charged with playing a vigorous protective role. These protectors were even given a ritual ceremonial name, Ölvir. The worshipers also invoked Odin as a protector and recipient of the night’s honors. While Freyr is known as the lord of the elves, Odin is the god of the dead, so this elf-ancestor association is maintained.
Similarities and differences to Samhain
Like Samhain, the Álfablót was held to honor and appease the spirits that brought blessings and to ensure they did not bring curses. It was held at the same time of the year (perhaps even on the same night). As in Samhain, people would stay indoors in the deep watches of the night to stay clear of the darker forces. It was a time when people assumed roles they might not have regularly had and when some social mores might be reversed.
One of the key differences between the Álfablót and Samhain may be that none of the social traditions of going from house to house or engaging with the broader community developed in the Álfablót. In Samhain, the earlier part of the evening may have involved wider groups of people interacting before families hunkered down to stay out of harm’s way closer to midnight. But the Álfablót seems to have mostly taken place in small, secretive groups out of sight of the living and the wayward dead alike.
Actors at a Celtic event showing a fight during Samhain involving druids.
The Álfablót Today
The Álfablót is still practiced by many Viking enthusiasts and revivalist Norse faiths (such as Asatru). Practices vary widely, but essentially, it is a time for family to gather and remember the ancestors along with the god Freyr (the Vanir-Aesir lord of Alfheim, home of the elves) and certain other powers.
Many who practice today focus on the male ancestors during Álfablót because it seems to them that the elves are more associated (or even synonymous) with these ancestors, and because they honor the female ancestors during the Dísablót, the sacrifice to the Dis (active female ancestor spirits). More on the Dísablót(s) some other time.
While practices are diverse, the focus is on connecting with the past and the family through meaningful rituals, fellowship, and introspection.
As we’ve seen, traditions like Samhain and the Álfablót were widespread and engraved deeply on humankind’s soul. In the autumn, as the leaves fall and the air grows chill, it is almost impossible not to feel both fascination and dread of the unknown and to think of those who came before us. Western European immigrants brought these traditions to the New World, and now kids in costumes stand in for the spirits, and candy symbolizes the offerings to avoid their "tricks." But the atmosphere of modern Halloween, with its emphasis on magic and mortality, still has much in common with the original 'holy nights' of Samhain and Álfablót.
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- The Poetic Edda. Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2015.
- The Prose Edda of Snorri Sturluson. Brodeur, A. G. (translator). Retrieved from http://www.redicecreations.com/files/The-Prose-Edda.pdf. Published 1916, Accessed November 3, 2017.
- McCoy, D. The Viking Spirit: An Introduction to Norse Mythology and Religion. 2016
- Rodgers, D.G. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. USA. 2018
- Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.
- The Saga of Cormac the Skald. 1901 translation into English by W.G. Collingwood and J. Stefansson from the original Icelandic 'Kormáks saga.' Icelandic Saga Database. https://www.sagadb.org/kormaks_saga.en