Now it’s time to unpack more fully what Norse mythology can tell us about elves and related supernatural beings. Since the last Germanic culture to be Christianized was that of Scandinavia, the pagan practices of that region give us perhaps our best shot at piecing together the mythological world that gave us elves.
The “Good Guys”
The first thing to note, then, is that this culture gives us a basic vocabulary for identifying a number of different types of supernatural beings.
On the one hand are human-like beings that are generally well disposed to humans. In the Proto-Germanic language, these beings are called:
- Ansuz (plural, ansiwīz): “gods” or “life forces”
- Albiz (plural, albīz): “elves”
In Old Norse, ansiwīz are called aesir (singular, áss) and albīz are called álfar (singular, álfr). There is another Old Norse word that comes into play here, and that is vanir (singular, vanr).
In Norse mythology, there are two groups or tribes of gods, the aesir and the vanir. Vanr, however, is actually a fairly rare word in Old Norse. Nor does there seem to be a clear Proto-Germanic basis for this word, although some have suggested possibilities based on an even earlier parent language, Indo-European. Most of the time, the pairing is in fact presented as áss–álfr, not áss–vanr.
Based on this and other linguistic evidence, Alaric Hall (Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, 27, 36) raises the possibility that vanr and álfr were originally synonyms. If this is correct, then perhaps in the Proto-Germanic period, these two tribes of gods would have been called ansiwīz and albīz.
According to Norse mythology, these two tribes went to war in the far distant past. The war ended with a truce, the exchange of hostages, and a unified pantheon.
In Old Norse, the word áss is often used of a god generally, without reference to his or her specific tribe. A female áss was an ásynja (plural, ásynjur). The most famous aesir are Odin, the king of the gods, and his son Thor, the god of thunder. Also in this group are Tyr, a war-god; Frigg, Odin’s wife; and many others.
In general, the aesir were, for lack of a better term, more “Olympian” in outlook. They valued order, masculinity, and power. With a few notable exceptions, they were closely connected with the themes of power and warfare.
My main interest, however, is with the álfar (or vanir). In contrast with the aesir, these beings were more “chthonic” or earth-centered. They were generally associated chaos, fertility, femininity, and wealth. Again with some notable exceptions, they were more closely linked with the earth’s material and sensual gifts.
The most notable vanir were Freyr, the ruler of Álfheimr (“Elf-land”); his sister Freyja, the goddess of love and fertility; and Jörð, the earth-goddess.
In pagan times, álfar were offered sacrifices called álfablót. These sacrifices were conducted in late autumn, when the harvest was in and the animals were fattest. They were local observances mainly administered by the lady of the household. Other forms of entreating álfar, such as for healing of battle-wounds, were observed at any time of year.
The “Bad Guys”
There are also numerous monstrous beings that are generally opposed to humans and their interests. There are three important Proto-Germanic terms for these beings, each with a corresponding Old Norse term:
- Etunaz (plural, etunōz): “giants” (Old Norse, jötunn, jötnar)
- Dwergaz (plural, dwergōz): “dwarves” (Old Norse dvergr, dvergar)
- Thurisaz (plural, thurisōz): “ogres” (Old Norse thurs, thursar)
The Old Norse terms jötunn and thurs were often used synonymously. The “frost giants” that play an important role in the myths are, for example, technically “frost ogres” (hrimthursar). Furthermore, some jötnar are not “gigantic” at all, but human sized, and female jötnar are sometimes even described as beautiful creatures, desired as wives by both aesir and álfar.
“Giants” and “ogres” were creatures of the wild, lords of nature often possessing great magical powers. They were usually hostile toward gods, elves, and humans. But there are also times of truce between these “monsters” and the more human-like creatures. And, as I just said, some gods and elves even married female giants.
Finally, “dwarves” were crafty miners and metalsmiths, associated with both the underworld and death.
The elves one encounters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings draw heavily from Norse mythology: they are tall, beautiful, powerful, and strictly aligned alongside humans and against humanity’s monstrous foes.
It should be noted, however, that even humanity’s allies in Norse mythology are not necessarily safe to be around. Odin, the king of the gods, is a case in point. The “historical” Odin delighted in war both to feed the wolves and ravens that were his companions and to fill his hall, Valhalla, with heroes who would stand beside him at Ragnarök, the Norse “apocalypse.” He was, in fact, a ruthless and conniving wizard. The fact that the Norse placed him at the head of their pantheon should reminds us that the aesir and álfar/vanir play by their own rules, even if they are more kindly disposed to humans than, for example, the frost giants. They are good (for certain values of goodness), but they are not always safe.