ÁLFAR (elves) are a supernatural race in Scandinavian mythology. Old Norse álfr corresponds to Old English ælf and Old High German alp, designating a spirit with a nature both beautiful and monstrous. Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241) divides the elves into two groups. The light elves are allied with the gods and share their dwellings in the sky (for example, the home of the god Freyr is called Álfheimr, "elf home"). A poetic circumlocution for "sun" was álfrǫðull (ray of the elves). Although the function of sky-dwelling elves is not specified, eddic poetry accentuates their alliance with the gods through the recurrent phrase "Æsir and elves" (e.g., Vǫluspá, st. 48, and Þrymskviða, st. 7). (The Æsir are the dominant group of gods.) An Old English charm also couples them with the Æsir, suggesting that in early times they had stood nearly on a par with the gods. The dark elves are skilled in smithcraft like the dwarves and are sometimes indistinguishable from them. Late medieval prose narratives depict the álfar as earth-dwelling spirits of great potency and sometimes describe female álfar as skilled in weaving magic cloth or as endowed with seductive beauty.
Elves were the recipients of cultic worship. The álfablót (sacrifice to the elves) was performed in Sweden in late autumn on individual farmsteads, according to the Icelander Sighvatr Þórðarson, who in 1018 was traveling there on a mission for King Olaf Haraldsson of Norway. Coming to one farm, he found the housewife standing in the doorway. She told him to make off; she feared the wrath of Óðinn if he stayed, as she was holding a sacrifice to the elves. The account gives the impression that the housewife herself was conducting the sacrifice and that it was a private ceremony to which no strangers were admitted. From the tone of the poem that Sighvatr composed about the Swedes' lack of hospitality on the occasion, it appears that the álfablót was not performed in Christian Norway or Iceland. An earlier Norwegian king, Olaf, ruler of the district of Geirstaðir during the pagan era, was believed to bring prosperity and good harvests if sacrifices were made at his burial mound; this led to his posthumous nickname Geirstaðaálfr (elf of Geirstaðir). This suggests that elves, dwelling in mounds, had come to be identified with the dead.
Scholars consider the álfar to be forces either of sterility or death. But the álfar show such divergent qualities that it is not possible to obtain a clear image of their nature, although they were obviously potent forces of enduring significance. The West Germanic concept of elves began to differ from the Scandinavian one even in the early Middle Ages, and in the Anglo-Saxon area an independent tradition in folklore developed as a result of Celtic influence. But as in the Scandinavian sources, the elves are grouped with the monsters eotenas and orcneas in the Old English poem Beowulf, whereas other Old English texts preserve the term ælfsciene (beautiful as an elf).
See John Lindow's Scandinavian Mythology: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1988). Among the handbooks, Hilda R. Ellis Davidson devotes a chapter to the álfar in The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature (1942; reprint, New York, 1968), and the álfar are also discussed in Gabriel Turville-Petre's Myth and Religion of the North (London, 1964). The encyclopedia-style entries of Rudolf Simek's Dictionary of Northern Mythology (Cambridge, UK, 1993) and John Lindow's Handbook of Norse Mythology (Santa Barbara, Calif., 2001) are very detailed.
Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (2005)