Alfheim: The Home of the Elves
Norse mythology often seems to be confusing and contradictory for modern readers. Poetic language and vague descriptions leave many concepts open to interpretation.
This is complicated by the fact that most of what we know about Norse mythology comes from later sources. With obvious outside influence and written for an audience that did not necessarily believe in the pagan religion, there is debate over how much some of their stories can be trusted as authentic.
Even popular themes and images from Norse mythology are, therefore, often questioned. Some of the most popular aspects of Viking Age tradition are believed by many scholars today to be of uncertain authenticity.
Elves and their homeland, Alfheim, loom large in the popular imagination. Thanks to later folklore and their incorporation into modern media, the elves are often believed to have been prominent in Norse belief.
The surviving literature, however, tells a different story. Elves are rarely mentioned and Alfheim is known to us through only a few short passages in later works.
How, then, have images of elves and their lands become so identifiable with Old Norse religion?
Norse mythology often mentions the Nine Worlds that are inhabited by different races. Alfheim, which translates as “The World of the Elves,” is usually named among them.
Although Alfheim is often listed as one of the Nine Worlds, however, there are no sources that directly name it as such. In fact, there are very few sources that mention Alfheim at all.
The homeland of the elves is mentioned in passing only twice in Old Norse sources. The Poetic Edda and Prose Edda each contain just one passage that references Alfheim by name.
One line in the Poetic Edda says that Alfheim was given to the god Freyr as a tooth gift. These were gifts presented to an infant when their first tooth came in, meaning that the Vanir god was made lord of Alfheim when he was only a few months old.
Snorri Sturluson had more to say about Alfheim in the Prose Edda, although he still gave an incomplete description of the land.
He confirmed that Alfheim was the home of the elves. He specified, however, that the light elves, which he called ljosalfar lived there while the dokkalfar, or dark elves, resided below the earth.
The Prose Edda says that these two groups of elves were “unalike in appearance, but by far more unalike in nature.” Many have assumed that these dark elves were the same race as the svartalfar, or black elves, mentioned elsewhere.
Although neither source described Alfheim itself, descriptions of the elves themselves likely provide insight into what their world would have been like.
The light elves were said by Sturluson to be beautiful, radiant beings. Most interpretations of Alfheim suppose that the land these elves lived in would be similarly bright and fair.
Another passage in the Prose Edda is often assumed to refer to Alfheim, although the name is not specifically given.
The text explains Norse cosmology and mythology explained through a character who recounts what he knows in a test of knowledge. When asked about the heavenly realms that will survive Ragnarok, the character names three and says that the highest of them is called Vidblain.
Vidblain, “Wide Blue,” is where the character believes that the hall of Gimle lies. After Ragnarok, Gimle will become the heavenly abode of the honored dead.
Now, however, the character says that only the light elves live in the land of Vidblain.
Because the light elves live there, scholars believe that Vidblain and Alfheim may have been one and the same. Because the sources have so little information about either, however, this cannot be proven for sure.
There are many theories about Alfheim, the elves that were said to live there, and why there is so little written about them.
For most of their history, the Germanic cultures of northern and central Europe had no system of writing. Although runes were developed in some places as early as the 3rd century, they were primarily used for inscriptions and shorter invocations rather than writing longer narrative works.
While these early inscriptions sometimes mentioned individual gods or people, they did not provide in-depth information about mythology. If longer works were written in a runic script, they have not survived into the modern era.
Instead, the literature that is still available to us was written after Christian monks and scholars had made the Latin alphabet the standard method of writing for educated Scandinavians. The areas that had been inhabited by the Norse people, particularly Iceland, were among the last in Europe to be Christianized.
While Snorri Sturluson was Icelandic and wrote in the Old Norse language, he did not write the Prose Edda until the early 13th century. Although paganism had not been as brutally repressed in Iceland as it had been in many other parts of Europe, the country had still been officially Christianized for over two hundred years.
Snorri Sturluson came from a wealthy family and had been educated by Christian priests. Although he had knowledge and fondness for pagan mythology, the influence of Christianity is readily apparent in his writing.
Many scholars now believe that Sturluson’s classification of the different types of elves in one way in which Christian belief was incorporated into his work. Rather than being an original feature of Viking Age belief, they think that the separation of light and dark elves was inspired by Christian notions of angels and demons.
In fact, while elves are popular figures today they are largely absent from earlier Old Norse writing. Very little is known about how pre-Christian Scandinavians viewed these figures or their homeland.
It is unlikely, for example, that the idea of a heaven that outlasted the end of the world was an original concept in Norse mythology. If the hall of Gimle was located in the land of the elves, it was probably based more on the Christian heaven than on a pagan tradition.
Some historians think that the Poetic Edda may give another clue about the elves and their world.
Although the Poetic Edda dates from roughly the same time as Snorri Sturluson wrote, it is generally believed to have been compiled from earlier existing sources rather than being a completely new work. Therefore, even though it was likely put together by a Christian, it is thought to be a more accurate representation of many of the myths.
The Poetic Edda mentions that Freyr ruled over Alfheim. This is surprising, since Freyr was one of the Vanir gods.
The Vanir were said to have lived in Vanaheim, although it is similar to Alfheim in that it is rarely referred to. While the concept of Nine Worlds was known, Vanaheim and Alfheim were among dozens of realms mentioned in various works.
Like the elves and other mythological races, the Vanir are mentioned by name in very few sources before the eddas. If Freyr, arguably the most popular Vanir god, ruled Alfheim the elves could have been the Vanir gods themselves.
There are many examples of other races, particularly the jotnar, being incorporated into the Aesir and Vanir pantheons. Many jotnar women such as Skadi and Gerd married one of the gods, for example.
In one source, the goddesses are specifically said to include jotnar and elves. While this applied to the female members of the pantheons, it does set a precedent that there was overlap between the races in popular thought.
Some historians believe that the term alfar, or elves, could have referred to the Vanir pantheon. The passage in the Poetic Edda would therefore not refer to Freyr being given lordship over another race, but being crowned the chief of his own people.
The common view of the elves as exceptionally beautiful and bright would be fitting for the Vanir gods, who were often associated with fertility and prosperity. Freyr in particular was said to be the god of sunny days while the elves in the Prose Edda were compared to the sun.
This would, however, be at odds with Sturluson’s description of light and dark elves. There are no records of a similarly dark and unpleasant race of gods.
It is possible that the tradition had changed or been forgotten by Sturluson’s time. Three hundred years after the height of the Viking Age, the original meanings of the words Vanir and alfar may have been lost.
Sturluson, looking at both older sources and Christian beliefs, may not have known that the two terms were once interchangeable. Filling in the gaps with their own imaginings, later writers may have created Alfheim as the world of a race that was not as separate as they believed it to be.
Alfheim, the home world of the elves, is mentioned only twice in Old Norse sources. The Prose Edda and Poetic Edda each contain just one line that directly names this world, and neither provides a description of it.
Another second in the Prose Edda, usually believed to have been inspired by Christian thought, refers to the elves living in Vidblain, a heavenly realm. While this is never directly named as Alfheim, it is often believed to be another name for the elvish world.
Alfheim is usually named as one of the Nine Worlds of Norse cosmology, but no contemporary sources confirm this. The traditional list of the Nine Worlds is compiled from places mentioned in known sources, so Alfheim’s inclusion is not definite.
Because Snorri Sturluson, the author of the Prose Edda, described the elves as beautiful, luminous beings, their world is often thought to have been similarly lovely. Even though Alfheim is not ever described in Old Norse writing, it is usually depicted as a lush, bright, peaceful realm.
Sturluson also said that Alfheim was home to the light elves but that another race, the dark elves, were entirely dissimilar to them and lived below ground. Because these groups are often believed to have been inspired by Christian ideas, Sturluson’s depictions are questioned by modern scholars.
Some historians instead look to the Poetic Edda for insight into the nature of the elves in older Norse thought. Its only mention of Alheim says that it was given to Freyr, a popular Vanir god, when he was an infant.
This has been taken to mean that the elves may not have been an entirely separate race. Citing other instances of the gods including several races and different names being used for those races, some people who study the era believe that the word alfar could have been another name for the Vanir group of gods.
Unaware of this older idea or by his own invention, Snorri Sturluson could have changed his elves to be more separate. Alfheim may have once been thought of as a region or territory but through later works came to be seen as one of the nine major worlds of Norse thought.