Two Norse deities can be connected to the álfar, or elves, of Norse myth. One is Freyr, who had Alfheim as a tooth-gift, and was ruler of the álfar. The other is the sun-goddess, whose connection with the álfar runs much deeper than her by-name Álfroðull, or Elfin Beam.
Sun and Elves
Hints of a connection between the sun-goddess and elves are scattered around the Poetic Edda. The name Álfroðull appears in Vafthrudnismal, a wisdom contest between Odin and the giant Vafthrud, and as a passing reference in Skirnismal:
46. ‘Much have I travelled, much have I tried out,
Much have I tested the Powers;
from where will a sun come into the smooth heaven,
When Fenrir has assailed this one?’
47. ‘Elf-disc will bear a daughter,
before Fenrir assails her;
she shall ride, when the Powers die,
the girl, on her mother’s paths.
(Vafthrudnismal, Larrington’s trans.)
4. ‘Why should I tell you, young man,
about my great sorrow of heart,
for the elf-beam shines day after day,
but not on my longings.’
(Skirnismal, Larrington’s trans.)
While you could argue that the second is a reference to the sun as object, you could hardly argue that the sun is merely a shining orb in Vaf., since she will have a daughter.
I would argue that the reference to the sun as “elfbeam” is significant, since Skirnismal is about Freyr, ruler of Alfheim. Some have seen his servant Skirnir, “Shining”, as an álf, so working a mention of Sol into the poem makes it a triple.
The name also turns up in skaldic poetry. Eyvind Skaldaspillir used it in a kenning for gold:
Now the river’s elf-disc [sun of river = gold] is hidden in the body of giant’s enemy [Thor’s] mother [Iord, earth].
and Snorri also includes it in two lists of poetical names for the sun.
In the poem Alvissmal, one of the many things Thor questions Alviss about is the names for the sun:
15. ‘Tell me this, All-wise–I foresee, dwarf,
that you know all the fates of men–
what the sun is called, which the sons of men see,
In each of the worlds?’
16. ‘Sun it’s called by men, and sunshine by the gods,
for the dwarves it’s Dvalin’s deluder,
the giants call it everglow, the elves the lovely wheel,
the sons of the Aesir the all-shining.’
(Alvissmal, Larrington’s trans.)
The name “Fair Wheel” suggests the ancient idea of the sun as a wheel, rolling through the sky, or else the wheel of the sun-chariot.
Light-Elves? or Just Elves?
Sometimes books on Norse myth draw a distinction between light and dark elves, suggesting that only the light-elves live in Alfheim. What is a light-elf, and how valid is the distinction between them and the dark elves?
In the Prose Edda, which is partly based on the lore in the poems making up the Poetic Edda, the elves are divided into two categories, light and dark. Snorri Sturluson, the author, describes the difference:
There is one place that is called Alfheim. There live the folk called light-elves, but dark-elves live down in the ground, and they are unlike them in appearance, and even more unlike them in nature. Light-elves are fairer than the sun to look at, but dark-elves are blacker than pitch.
(Gylf. 17, Faulkes’ trans.)
This separation doesn’t appear anywhere else in the sources, and it may come from the idea of the fallen angels, which was how the Church classified any nature spirits or powers. (Gunnell: 128, Lindow: 110)
The division might also reflect what seems like a division between the bright powers of fertility and light, and the álfar‘s connection with death and the afterlife. I touched on this in my other post, as King Geirstadaalfr’s tomb was a focus of worship (and Freyr’s, in the Ynglinga saga version, which describes him as a historical king). In addition, the Eddic poem Havamal names Dainn (Dead) as leader of the álfar (142). (Although Voluspa (11) says he was a dwarf.)
The álfar were part of the cult of the dead centred around the barrows built on private land and housing the family’s ancestors. We know that Freyr was part of that cult, but he also gave peace and plenty to his followers, and good weather to farmers.
The festival for the elves, the álfablót, was a family event, held in the fall. Strangers were not permitted during the celebration, so we know very little about it. One account tells how once the farmstead was hallowed, no one could come visiting, which suggests the álfablót honoured the ancestors as much as the álfar.
The sun and the dead
Light and fertility are what we expect from the sun; after all, without her there would be no life on earth. In the Eddic poem Voluspa she got the credit she deserved for this, as part of the poem’s creation myth. It describes how she entered the sky from the south, stretched out her hand, and brought warmth and light to the world. And the earth responded, sending forth green shoots.
But while the sun brings light to the world each day, it also has to set each night. Bronze Age artifacts like the Trundholm Chariot suggest a “dark” side to the sun cult.
As you can see, the sun disk is only gilded on one side, but both sides are decorated in a similar style, giving its sun a light and dark side. The sun’s journey through the underworld is a common theme in mythology, beginning in speculation as to how the sun gets from the west back to the east so it can rise again.
Flemming Kaul, studying Bronze Age razors, reconstructed from their decoration a mythological cycle of the sun’s journey through the sky and underworld, like the one the Egyptian sun-god Ra takes each day. A fish helps it up out of the water, then the sun-horses take over, until a snake joins it to travel beneath the waters.
(I should note that Kaul thinks the sun was a power rather than a human-like deity. However, Kristian Kristiansen interprets the imagery as part of a cult of a sun-deity and divine twins.)
Bronze Age art shows the sun in a chariot, and in a ship. Kristiansen and others (108-9) think the ship was for the journey through the underworld the ship took each night. The little we have about Sol in the sources doesn’t mention this, but there is good reason to think she was associated with death and the underworld.
The Baltic goddess Saule welcomed dead souls into her home in the west, a paradise with apple trees, and the Finnish Beiwe was the “Mother of Souls”. All three goddesses share many similarities, and are near neighbours, so it would not be surprising if they shared this characteristic as well.
Alfheim and the sun
I mentioned in my earlier post that Alfheim was also a real place. It lay on the coast, between Sweden and Norway, bounded by the Gota and Glom rivers. With a name like that, it was bound to attract álf myths, whether it was named for them or not.1
The many petroglyphs and cup marks (called älvkvarnar, elf-mills) that the Bronze Age people left behind them would have made it a remarkable place even without the name. Like Stonehenge or the temple at Bath, these fascinated the Iron Age and medieval people who came after. Given the numerous sun discs found in the rock art, it’s not hard to imagine an early sun cult there.
It was the name that probably led to the link with the álfar. As the saga of The Sagas of Thorstein, Viking’s Son has it:
Grim was a very great berserk; his wife was Alvor, a sister of Alf the Old. He ruled that kingdom which lies between two rivers, both of which were called Elfs (i.e. Elbs), taking their name from him (Alf). The river south of his kingdom, dividing it from Gautland, the country of King Gaut, was called Gaut’s Elf (i.e. Gaut’s River, the river Gotha in the southwestern part of the present Sweden); the one north of it was called Raum’s Elf, named after King Raum, and the kingdom of the latter was called Raum’s-ric. The land governed by King Alf was called Alfheim, and all his offspring are related to the Elves. They were fairer than any other people save the giants.
The people of Alfheim were unusally fair, according to the king’s saga Sögubrot Af Nokkrum Fornkonungum:
For in all the old tales, it’s a well known fact about the folk who were called Alfar that they were much fairer to look on than any other people in the Northlands, for all of his mother Alfhild’s ancestors, and their whole lineage, were descended from Alf the Old. They were at that time called the kinsfolk of Alf.
(Alfhild Gandolfsdatter was the mother of Ragnar Lothbrok, Vikings fans.) Alf the Old had many other descendants with álf– in their name, suggesting that an álf could also be the founder of a dynasty, like Ingve-Freyr with the Ynglings of Sweden.
It seems like there are various connections between álfar, Freyr and the sun-goddess, which probably have their roots in the Bronze Age. The sun’s prominence in Bronze Age art (including in Alfheim) suggest a mythos of her journey through the underworld each night and a far more important role than in later myths. Some of her life-giving role survived, as did her title Álfroðull, but as her importance faded much of this lore was lost.
1. John Lindow says the name comes from a word for gravel under a field, but Terry Gunnell disputes this, saying it could hardly apply to the whole area. The brightness of álfar and rivers (IE *albh) may be the source of the name Alfheim.↩
References and Links:
Edda, Snorri Sturluson/Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Press, Penguin, 1992. (reprint)
Gunnell, Terry How Elvish Were the Álfar?” in Constructing Nations, Reconstructing Myth: Essays in honour of Tom Shippey, eds. Andrew Wawn, Graham Johnson and John Walter, Brepols. (academia.edu)
Hall, Alaric 2004: The Meaning of Elf and Elves in Medieval England, diss. (found here)
Kaul, Flemming 2013: “Mythological aspects of Nordic Religion,” in The Handbook of Religions in Ancient Europe, eds. Lisbeth Bredholt Christensen, Olav Hammer, David Warburton, Acumen Publishing Limited: 90-7.
Lindow, John 2001: Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals and Beliefs, OUP, New York and Oxford.
The Cleasby-Vigfusson Icelandic Dictionary for Álfroðull and Fagrahvel
Sögubrot Af Nokkrum Fornkonungum (from the Wayback Machine archive)
The Sagas of Thorstein, Vikings Son and Fridthjolf the Bold (Internet Archive)
A video about the rock carving in Tanum
Swedish Rock Art Research Archives (images)
If you like the image at the top, click here.