Anonymous asked grumpylokeanelder:
Dear GLE, I have been thinking lately about elves in the Eddas, and wondering if the light-elf/dark-(or black-)elf construct was true to common Nordic belief or a projection of Snorri’s Christian faith, as it’s sounding more and more like a heaven/hell dichotomy. If you consider the elves as the dead that is. Do you know of any other sources that classified the elves as light and dark/black?
This is tricky business, as the line between the who was an alf, who was a duerg, and who was a dead human are all pretty damn fuzzy. Later texts even start blurring the line between alfar and thursar (as in Grettis Saga, Bosa saga ok Herrauðs, mentions in Beowulf of alfar being like Grendel, etc.) and they become associated with sickness (as per the Anglo-Saxon charm spells and other folk traditions regarding elf-shot).
The alfar seem to merge in later beliefs and practices with dead humans to some extent (mound-alfar, haugbo/haugbonde/haugbui, etc). There’s a bit of arguing about whether “Dark Alfs” are Duergar, mound-alfar/dead humans, or a different category entirely. Even Snorri seems to be confused about precisely what the difference is between the Dark Alfar and Duergar. My own opinion lines up more with John Lindow and Lotte Motz (that the Duergar and Dark Alfar are basically the same and alf became liberally used to mean “supernatural being” later on, much like vaettir and troll were) than Turville-Petre’s theory that the (Dark) Alfar are the male counterparts to the Disir.
Jacob Grimm divides up the Light Alfar, Dark Alfar, and Duergar as separate beings, but he’s really an unreliable source.
- Hall, Alaric. The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England.
- Lotz, Motte. Of Elves and Dwarves. <-read this one, if nothing else.
- Gunnell, Terry. How Elvish Are The Alfar?
- Gunnell, Terry. Hof, Halls, Goðar and Dwarves: An Examination of the Ritual Space in the Pagan Icelandic Hall. (This is actually tangential, but good reading and I was fascinated by the mentions of duergar relating to the pillars, given that we have duergar related to the cardinal directions.)
- Gundarsson, Kveldulf. Elves, Wights, and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry. (Go buy this book, seriously.)