Elves and Ladies

Nils Blommér, Meadow Elves, 1850

Nils Blommér, Meadow Elves, 1850

Originally, the Old Norse term álfr may have connoted exclusively masculine beings. There must have been female members of this group, however. If Alaric Hall is right that vanr is synonymous with álfr (Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, 27, 36), then we can even propose the names of some of these females: the names of female vanir such as Freyja, Jörd, etc.

In Icelandic, a female álfr is called an álfkona. But there are also certain named beings that seem to correspond more directly to “elves” as they are generally understood.

Hall (Elves in Anglo-Saxon England, 29, 43) suggests that dísir and nornir were the female counterparts of álfar. You can decide for yourselves whether this means that dísir is simply the term for female álfar or that dísir and álfar are naturally paired entities, perhaps like nymphs and satyrs are paired in Greek mythology.

At any rate, Hall perceives a distinct group of goddess-like beings in Norse mythology that go by a number of names. He contends that dís (plural, dísir), norn (plural, nornir), and valkyrja (plural, valkyrjur) are partial synonyms with largely overlapping meaning. Of these three terms, dís is the most inclusive. Just as the Norse religion had the custom of álfablót, a votive offering to the álfar, there were also sacrifices to the dísir called dísablót.

Dísir (“ladies”) are female warrior-spirits who choose who will live or die on the battlefield—and often intervene to ensure their choices come to pass. Valkyrja (“chooser of the slain”) is a kenning or poetic nickname for dís.

The derivation of the word norn is uncertain. It may, however, come from a verb meaning “to twine,” a reference to these beings’ twining the thread of fate. Another possibility is to connect the word with a later Swedish word meaning “to communicate secretly.” This etymology evokes images of shadowy, mysterious entities that deal in secrets mortals rarely comprehend—until it is too late.

Scholars speak of “the three Norns,” but Old Norse sources never do. According to the Prose Edda, “there are yet more nornir, namely those who come to every man when he is born to shape his life.” The nornir are thus a close counterpart to the fae women of other cultures who take an interest in the destiny of human beings.