Norse mythology has made tremendous contributions to popular folklore and today’s fantasy. Elves and dwarves are but two of these elements that have become ubiquitous. Today, the word “elf” might make people think of Santa’s helpers or Elf on the Shelf or 'The Lord of the Rings’. However, the original elves and dwarves were not the "wee folk" of Victorian storybooks, nor the alternative humanoid races of modern sword & sorcery. They were supernatural beings that played a significant role in the world's past, present, and future, as the Vikings saw it. This article looks at what we know – and what we don’t know – about Viking elves (light and dark) and dwarves.
Elves – an Overview
Elves (álfr singular and álfar plural in Old Norse) are everywhere in sagas and Eddic poetry. However, elves are perhaps some of the most mysterious characters in Norse lore. The surviving literature does not give us much description of what elves looked like, other than they were “fairer than the sun.” Some of the best hints about what elves were like come from the Eddic poem, Alvíssmál (The Sayings of All-Wise), which portrays them as closely connected to nature. Elves join the gods in council and in war. As described in the Eddic poem, Lokasenna (Loki’s Quarrel), they also join the gods as drinking companions and lovers.
How Divine Are Elves?
Elves are usually mentioned along with the gods, leading a few scholars to hypothesize that elves and gods are synonymous. For example, verse 49 of the Eddic poem, Vǫluspá (Song of the Seeress, 2016 translation by Samuel Zinner) reads:
What befalls the Æsir? What befalls the Elves?
All of <God>-Home heaves, at council stand the Æsir.
The Dwarves groan before the gates of stone,
The wise guardians of the mountain walls
However, most experts think this is a technical poetic device rather than firm doctrine. (The Norse did not seem to be big on firm doctrines, after all). Alliteration is the basis of Old Norse poetry, and Aesir and álfar alliterate well.
Other sources make clear distinctions between gods and elves. For example, Skirnir’s Journey verse 18 (Larrington 2014 translation, p. 60):
I am not of the Elves
Or of the Aesir’s sons
Nor of the wise Vanir
So, the majority of informed people think of elves as more of a demigod or other supernatural being and not a god per se.
However, during the Álfablót festival at harvest time (a kind of Norse Halloween), the Norse made offerings to stay in the elves’ good graces and avoid their wrath. There are also saga mentions of sacrificing to the elves for healing or other help.
Elves and the Dead
In addition to being associated with the gods, elves are also associated with the dead. In the sagas, the areas around burial mounds might be haunted by elves (similar to the Irish association of ancient burial mounds being the doors to the land of the Sidhe – the Celtic elf equivalent). In Olafs Saga Helga, Olaf repeatedly calls his ancestor an elf. But it is unclear if he does so because he believes himself to be descended from an actual elf or because of the association between departed spirits and elves.
The Role of Elves in Viking Lore
Though elves are associated with all the gods, they are especially affiliated with Freyr. When the Vanir god Freyr was inducted into the Aesir, he received lordship over Alfheim (the realm of the elves) as a gift. This link between the elves and this god of virility and plenty seems to support the notion that elves may have been fertility spirits representing the forces of nature.
The descriptions of the elven frame of mind provided by the poem Alvíssmál (The Sayings of All-Wise) also seem to support the notion of elves as a type of nature spirit or descended from that ancient shamanistic tradition.
Portrayals of Elves in Viking Lore
One character that is expressly called an elf in the surviving Viking lore is Völund (or Wayland) the Smith. In Völundarkviða, this dark and mysterious character is searching for his wife (a Valkyrie who can change her shape) when he is captured and maimed by a human king. The king and queen think that Völund will make them rich, but instead, the cunning elf weaves a chillingly sadistic vengeance on them. So great is Völund’s skill and craftsmanship that he literally makes something to help him fly away. The poem ends with Völund taunting the king from the air as the king realizes just how much damage has been done.
Here we see one of the motifs that would persist in elf stories throughout Europe – don’t cross them. Even today, our term “stroke” (for the life-threatening neurological emergency) comes from the notion that elves could smite someone who had invoked their wrath. Likewise, bad luck in almost any form has often been attributed to the workings of malevolent elves, which later Christians would conflate with demons and devils.
Dwarves – Craftsmen, Gift-Givers, and Architects of Magic
Unlike elves, who tend to stay out of the spotlight, there are many dwarves featured in the surviving Viking lore. Dwarves made almost all the god’s weapons and specialty tools, such as Thor's hammer Mjolnir, Sif’s hair of living gold, Freyr's magic ship Skidbladnir (that can shrink down to pocket size), golden boar Gullinborsti, Freyja's amber necklace Brisingamen, Odin's magical arm ring Draupnir, and his magical spear Gungnir. This idea that dwarves and elves were the makers of magic gifts would endure in world folklore.
Dwarves also made the chain that was finally able to bind the superwolf, Fenrir, out of such insubstantial things as a woman’s beard, the breath of a fish, the roots of a mountain, the spittle of a bird, and the footsteps of a cat.
It was for the murder of the dwarf Otr that the Volsung treasure became cursed, and it was another dwarf who raised Sigurd, the hero who claimed that treasure. Most of the dwarves in all these stories are well-developed characters with complex personalities and motivations.
The Eddic poem, Vǫluspá (Song of the Seeress), mentions dozens of dwarves by name. The Hávamál (The Sayings of the High One) suggests knowing the names of the dwarves is a mark of wisdom and is helpful in some way (perhaps to invoke them in magic spells).
Dwarves, Gender, and the Dead
Dwarves spontaneously generated from the corpse of the giant Ymir (that is, out of the earth and the rocks). While Vǫluspá seems to figuratively say dwarves arose “like maggots” out of the flesh of Ymir, Snorri’s Edda takes this literally. Either way, both sources agree that the gods refined the dwarves’ shape and gave them intelligence. With their spontaneous generation and almost entirely male representation in the literature, it is often believed that dwarves reproduce asexually. However, dwarves are referred to as the Children of Dvalin. They are capable of sexual acts (as in the story of Freyja and her necklace, Brísingamen). There is also at least one hint (in the Eddic poem, Fafnismal) of dwarf females, in some of the lesser Norns being called the “daughters of Dvalin.”
The roughly contemporaneous Welsh legends of the Mabinogion mention “she-dwarves,” however female dwarves are unusual enough to specify it. Interestingly, these Welsh legends associate dwarves with the dead the same way elves are associated with the dead, as mentioned earlier. In the Eddic poem, Alvíssmál (The Sayings of All-Wise), Thor says to the dwarf Alvis, "why so pale about the nostrils. Did you spend your night with a corpse?”
More Ambiguity in Dwarf Lore
There is a lot of other things about Viking dwarves that are ambiguous. For example, the dwarf Alvis (All-Wise) turns to stone when Thor tricks him into staying out until dawn (like trolls do in some Icelandic sagas), but not all dwarves seem to have this problem.
Like elves, dwarves are magical beings. It is suggested that four dwarves hold up the four corners of the sky (though whether through strength or – more likely – through cunning invention, it does not say).
Some dwarves can shape-shift, spending much of their lives as otters, fish, dragons, or other creatures. When cornered, dwarves may retreat into solid rock.
Could You Trust a Viking Dwarf?
Dwarves are not evil creatures like trolls – but one does need to be warry of them. Dwarves often appear in the poems and sagas as greedy, cunning, and vindictive. For example, two dwarves killed Kvasir, the wisest man who ever lived, and mixed his blood with honey to make the Mead of Poetry. Kvasir was their guest at the time, so their crime became especially heinous by breaking the Norse hospitality taboo. In the Volsunga Saga, the dwarf Regin raises Sigurd intending to kill him when he has completed Regin's fratricidal purpose. In the same story, the dwarf Andvari puts a death curse on anyone who possesses his treasure, not just Loki who stole it. So, Vikings believed that a meeting with a dwarf might earn you splendid weapons or magical treasures, but it was just as likely to earn you death and woe.
Light Elves, Dark Elves & Dwarves – How Different are they?
From all these variations, it seems that elves and dwarves may have been types of demigods or supernatural creatures in the Viking Age. They were not just alternate races as in fantasy novels today. It would also appear that there was diversity and variation in beliefs about elves and dwarves amongst Vikings in different times and places.
A close inspection of the surviving sources does raise further questions, though. In the Vǫluspá “Catalogue of the Dwarves” mentioned previously, there are several dwarves who have names that include the word “elf”, such as Vindalfr (‘Wind Elf”), Gandalfr (‘Staff Elf’), and Alfr (‘Elf’). Yngvi is also mentioned (to further muddy the waters), which is a name for Freyr. So, do dwarves and elves overlap somehow, as opposed to being two different things?
Snorri Sturluson (the 13th-century literary mastermind responsible for more surviving Viking lore than anyone) elaborated on this. In the Prose Edda, Snorri calls elves "light elves" (ljósálfar) while explicitly using “dwarves” (dvergar), “black elves” (svartálfar), or "dark elves" (dökkálfar) for dwarves interchangeably. Dwarves live in Svartalfheim (Black Elf Land), for example. However, Snorri is the only source that sets up this dichotomy or uses these terms this way.
So, is he right? Snorri has a history of trying to reconcile the pre-11th-century Pagan world of his ancestors with his own early 13th-century Christian world. So, he sometimes must be taken with a grain of salt. Some experts see in Snorri's ‘light elves versus dark elves’ a sort of ‘angels versus demons’ forced dichotomy. However, this is uncertain from the text. Dwarves are never portrayed as simply evil, nor are elves portrayed as always good. So, while this interpretation is a possibility, it may also be that Snorri is blending diverse beliefs about elves and dwarves from a wide variety of the lore that survived in his time.
Light Elves and Dark Elves in Viking Lore and Modern Fantasy
Snorri reports that the light elves (ljósálfar) are fairer than the sun and live in a celestial plane called Alfheim (which is ruled by Freyr). Dark elves (svartálfar or dökkálfar) are “blacker than ink” and live in a subterranean realm called Svartalfheim. While – as we just mentioned – Snorri states that these dark elves are the dwarves, modern fantasy writers starting with Tolkien portray dark elves as a separate type of elf while keeping dwarves distinct. Dungeons & Dragons writers (who superimposed much of the rigid structure we have come to expect in fantasy though it was totally alien to the Vikings) went so far as to call the dark elves by the new term, Drow. While perhaps not what the Vikings had in mind, the exploration of dark elves as a distinct entity has created a variety of interesting characters over the years, such as R.A. Salvatore’s Drizzt Do'Urden. Determining any sort of Norse authenticity is simply impossible here due to the lack of sources, but the story-loving Vikings would probably have been pleased that their lore was still inspiring creativity 1,000 years later.
Were Elves and Dwarves Short?
There is no mention in Viking lore of elves being short or diminutive. The character Völund is portrayed as being on scale with humans. Since elves are the lovers and battle companions of the gods, it would make sense that they are (or at least could be) on that same scale, too. Dwarves are also never explicitly referred to as short, and sometimes had physical or sexual relationships with gods and humans, as well.
There was an expression in Old Norse (the Viking’s language) “dvergr of voxt” which meant “dwarf-sized” and seems to imply in the saga context that the person being described is short. This is a strong clue that Viking dwarves were short, but it is perhaps the only clue (and it of course does not necessarily pertain to the elves).
So, where does the idea that elves and/or dwarves were short come from? It is well-accepted amongst folklorists that throughout the Christian periods of the Late Middle Ages into the Early Modern Era that folk beliefs of supernatural creatures included them becoming smaller and smaller. This cultural process is sometimes referred to as diminution. Compare the tall, beautiful faeries of King Arthur legends (circa 500-1250), for example, with Shakespeare’s Cobweb, Peaseblossom, and Mustardseed of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (circa 1596).
By the time the Grimm Brothers published their definitive collections of late German fairy tales (circa 1812), dwarves, elves, and most other magical creatures were almost all portrayed as short – or even tiny. These changes were observable even in Iceland, where people still today make whimsical “elf houses” for the Huldufólk (“Hidden Folk”).
When Viking lore was translated from Old Norse and suddenly became very popular in the late 1800s, many illustrators of children’s books (such as the great Arthur Rackham) rendered pictures that were excellent in quality but indicative of their preconceived notions from the Grimms and other sources. Thus, the elves and dwarves of Viking lore almost always show up in pictures that are influenced by much later legends from completely different places.
So, there is not much to suggest that elves or dwarves were short, and not much to suggest that they were tall. One thing is clear about elves, dwarves, and other supernatural creatures of Viking lore – they were not rigidly defined and codified. Then as they are now, they were open to many interpretations. The Vikings seem to have liked it that way.
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- Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. (translated by J. Byock). Penguin Classics. London, England, 2005
- The Poetic Edda. Crawford, J. (translator). Hackett Classics. 2015.
- The Saga of the Volsungs. William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson (translators). Walter Scott Press, London, 1888. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1152/1152-h/1152-h.htm#link2HCH0029
- Lindahl, J. McNamara, & J. Lindow. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Tales, Beliefs, and Customs. Oxford University Press. New York. 2002
- The Poetic Edda. C. Larrington (translator). Oxford World Classics. London, 2014.
- Two Old Icelandic Poems from the Poetic Edda. Samuel Zinner (translator). 2016. pdf
- G. Rodgers & K. Noer Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. KDP. USA. 2018
- Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.
- Crawford, J. Dwarves and Elves in Norse Myth. YouTube video. Dwarves and Elves in Norse Myth - YouTube
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