The Alfar are a tribe of gods, people, or spirits, which may or may not be part of the Norse pantheon of combined tribes. By the time they are recorded in a recognizable form, the lore had already been heavily influenced and altered, so the original meaning and intent of the name Alfar has been largely lost to history.
Alfar are not typically individually attested by name, the exception being Völundr and his brothers in Völundarkviða of the Poetic Edda. They are very often associated with the Æsir, as attested in many poems by the repeated phrase Æsir ok Álfar (Æsir and Elves) and there are suggestions that they may be the same race, related races, or human-like and god-like in that they stand in opposition to the Jötnar.
Freyr is attested to as having been given lordship over the Alfar and the world of Álfheimr in Grímnismál. His worship at Uppsala as noted by writer Adam of Bremen, was described as the main pagan centre of Sweden and a good chunk of Scandinavia. Many of Freyr’s titles reference him being a “King of the Mounds” and indeed, the temple complex at Uppsala contains many large burial mounds and many more smaller ones.
A quirk in the language of the lore may in fact hold the key to this association of Freyr and the Alfar, as the name Vanir was not commonly used to denote a separate tribe of gods until Snorri’s time. Freyr might in fact be an Alfar, along with his whole clan, and the Alfar and Vanir may be the same tribe (this is generally disputed and still up for debate, however).
Throughout the sagas and later material, the Alfar came to be associated with the honoured ancestors of the people. Freyr kept his lordship over the general Alfar population, and Frigg assumed responsibility for the dísir, specifically the female ancestors. They were then further distilled into the family, house, and land wights popularly appeased with prayers and offerings. If the Alfar are indeed the ancestors, then it is apparent throughout the lore that they were venerated even above the gods – the ancestral lines of kinship were of great importance to the Ancient Norse.
Elves are mentioned in the Prose Edda as ljósálfar (light elves) svartálfar (dwarfs) and døkkálfar (dark elves), possibly a reference to angels and demons by Christian writer Snorri Sturluson. The Poetic Edda refrains from converting the Alfar into the Christian world view, and many Icelandic Sagas also mention them as equal to humans, with human forms, and often working human-like farms.
Thoughts on the Alfar
The Alfar association with mounds, and especially burial mounds, has a mirror in Celtic tradition, as the elves and fairies of the Celtic world (later distillations of the Celtic deities) are also said to dwell within the mounds. Called Aos Sí, they may have been a distillation of the Tuatha Dé Danann, or separate tribal entities.
There are many theories and explanations for the origins and nature of the Alfar, and even the origins of the word are still debated. What is generally accepted is that the Norse-Germanic word Alfar became our current English word “elf” and that most of what we know about early peoples’ understanding and worship of them comes from (as with most of our information) Norse stories as recorded by medieval Christian writers.
The most accepted origin of the word leads us to believe that the elves were so named for their “whiteness” (meaning either their beauty or their morality, not their skin colour) their association with swans, crops, and flocks. Some of the oldest examples of the word elf in use have been in names (Ælfric, Alfric, Alberich) and place names (Elveden, Eldon Hill, Alden Valley) though the variations of the word are so numerous, and so many words have similar spellings, that it makes it difficult to count how many names actually contain the word elf.
Invariably, the Alfar were absorbed by Christianity – either demonized or transformed into angels. Beowulf lists elves among the monstrous races springing from Cain’s murder of Abel. The late thirteenth-century South English Legendary and some Icelandic Sagas explain elves as angels that sided neither with Lucifer nor with God, who were banished to earth rather than hell. One famous Icelandic folktale explains elves as the lost children of Eve. The Celtic fairies and elves were also given over to Christianity, and the fay folk of the tradition were turned into fallen Angels.
Signs and Symbols
The colour white, as well as bright, beaming light. White flowers, especially funeral flowers. Stone memorials, carvings, and god poles. Burial mounds, barrows, and cairns. Images of the ancestors, heroic dead, and land spirits.
Elf, Ylf, Ælf, Huldra, Huldufólk, Alp, Alv, Ailbhín, Álpt, Álfur