It is closing in to the time of the Sacrifice to the Elves, the “elves” in Norse not meaning Faerie but referring to spirits that are both of nature and of the souls of departed men who still live on in mounds, where they can still be sought and communicated with. The Dökkalfar (Dark Elves) live underground, akin to the Huldrefolk and other creatures from beneath the Earth.
These were Powers of the dark and hidden things, death, the mysterious. These spirits were the most powerful during the dark winter-months and their power was of a kind that made people decide that it was best to keep them on our side. They entry to the first month of darkness is an offering of friendship to the powers of the dark time so that they be benevolent rather than malevolent towards us, so that they will assist us in surviving through the dark cold to come, so that they will be strengthened in their efforts to impregnate the Earth with life once more – and we call especially upon the powers of our male ancestors who still live among the elves, call on them to protect us and be our ambassadors among the dark powers.
The female ancestors have their own time of celebration at winter solstice (Yule), if you wondered why the ancestral elves are all male ancestors.
The dark powers are not evil, but they will not offer any assistance unless we ask them to and honor them for it. Today, Mexicans offer assorted favorite foods to their dead anestors. The Norse Heathens offered what they thought anyone would want most on a dark and cold night: Beer and meat.
The Sacrifice to the Elves
In the autumn of 1018, the Norwegian and Christian skald Sigvatr Þórðarson traveled to Sweden and reported that he was continuously refused entry to the farms he tried to visit because the alfablót – the Sacrifice to the Elves – was being held.
After a long and tiresome journey, Sigvatr and his companions arrived at a homestead called Hof (“Temple”). They expected to be received well, according to the laws of hospitality, but the door remained shut. Sigvatr had to stick his nose down into a narrow opening in order to present himself, but the people of the household refused him by saying that the place was hallowed. Sigvatr retorted that the trolls should take them, and continued to the next homestead.
At the following farm, he met a lady who told him to go away and said “Don’t go further inside unlucky man! We are afraid of Óðin´s wrath; we are pagans!” Then, she chased him away as if he were a wolf and said that they were having the Sacrifice to the Elves at the homestead.
They tried three more times to find a place to rest, but all the times they were dispatched by men who called themselves Ölvir. The title means “Beer-Man” and the “Beer-Man” was probably a guardian of the ritual. Sigvatr and his men, in desperation, decided to seek out the man who was reputedly the most hospitable man in the district. The last man only scowled at them, and calling the man the “guardian of the pickaxe”, Sigvatr stated that if that man was the “best man”, the worst man must have been truly evil.
As far as we can see from Sigvats account, the harvest rite of the Alfablót was a time when ordinary rules of hospitality were put aside in favor of a very private and sacred family celebration where outsiders could not expect entry. It took place after the harvests, towards the end of October and the beginning of November.
But what was the ritual about? What kind of powers were the elves?
Another source, the Kormaks saga (ch.22), describes how the injured hero Þórvarðr is told by a woman who is the lady of great household, to pour the blood of a sacrificed bull onto a hill inhabited by elves and to prepare a meal for the elves from the meat of the sacrificial bull – in order to heal his injury. According to the saga, this incident took place sometime towards the latter half of the 10th century, although the saga itself was written down very late (13th century), so that the source is uncertain. The story suggests that the lady of the household held knowledge about the healing powers of the elves, who were said to live in hills and mounds, and that it was possible to sacrifice to them individually also when the annual celebration of the elves was not happening.
The elves and their connection to the harvest suggest a link to the cult of Freyr. Indeed, Britt Mari Näsström has suggested that just as Freyia was the lead character at the annual spring celebration of the dísir – the dísablót – “sacrifice to the goddesses”, so Freyr may have been the lead character at the annual harvest celebration of the elves. And just as the dísir were strongly associated with an older cult of ancestral mothers known on the Iron Age continent as the “matron cult”, so it seems that the elves were associated with ancestors – perhaps, primarily, with the ancestral fathers, since the word for elf, álfr, is distinctly masculine and offers no feminine version.
According to Snorri´s Gylfaginning, Freyr is foremost among the Aesir:“Njǫrðr of the Ships´ Harbor later had two children, the son Freyr and the daughter Freyia; they were beautiful in appearance and very powerful. Freyr is the foremost among the Aesir. He rules rain and sunshine, and by this he rules the harvests of Earth. He is good to invoke for the purpose of a good harvest and peace. He also rules the welfare among people.”
In his Ynglinga saga, (ch.10) Snorri describes Freyr as a powerful Swedish king and priest, the founder of the temple of Uppsala which became a famous center of parliament and worship, thriving until the last days of Paganism:“Freyr took the kingdom after Njǫrðr, and he got the nickname “Lord of the Swedes”, and received gifts and taxes from them [the Swedes]. He was friendly and aged well, just like his father. Freyr built a huge temple complex by Uppsala and kept his main seat there, and to the temple he invested everything he owned, land and properties. Thus the Uppsala-Wealth was established, and it has kept ever after. In his days, there was a Peace of Wisdom [Fróðafríðr], it was then good harvests in all countries and the Swedes gave credit to Freyr for this, therefore he was worshipped more than other gods, and still more as long as the people of the country were richer during his realm than before, because there was peace and good harvests. Gerðr Gymis-Daughter was his wife, and their son was called Fiǫlnir [The One Who is Many]. Freyr had another name, Yngvi [Sacred Lineage], and the name Yngvi was since used as a name of honor in his lineage, and his descendants were called the Ynglings. Freyr became ill, and as his illness worsened, his men pondered the solution, and let people come and watch him, then they built a huge mound with a door and three windows. And when Freyr was dead, they carried him to the mound in secret, and told the Swedes that he still lived, and they hid him there for three years, and all the treasure they poured into the mound, the gold through one window, the silver through the second, and the copper through the third. Then the harvest and the peace were maintained.”
Freyr´s association to worship in the burial mound after his death may be one reason why he is also associated with the elves. In the Grímnismál, st.5, we learn that Freyr is the lord of Alfheimr – the World of Elves, the second dimension of “heaven”, after Þór´s realm Þrúðheimr [Power World]. We also learn that Freyr is associated with a very ancient Scandinavian god, Ullr, whose mythology is mostly unknown to us, except that he is associated with hunting, especially hunting with the bow and arrow, like Skaði also was. We only know that Ullr was widely worshipped because of his importance in the place-name material – countless areas were named after his sanctuaries and fields dedicated to him:5. Ydalir heita Yew Valleys it is called þar er Vllr hefir where Ullr has ser vm gorva sali; built his halls; Alfheim Freý Freyr received the World of Elves gáfo i ardaga in the days of origin tivar at tannfe. from all the powers, as a tooth-gift.
The yew [ýr, m.sg.] is a masculine tree and is thus a metaphor for man, in whose “valleys” (interiors) the god of hunting and bowman-ship has taken up his residence. The yew is also a reference to the bow that he uses to shoot with, since it was the wood matter most commonly used for bows. The association to masculinity, male potency and fertility is more than hinted at, an impression that is strengthened by the fact that of all gods, Freyr was the one most associated with sexuality and phallic symbols. We could say that Freyr on one level represents the essence of manhood and masculine power. That he is the ideal man model is strengthened by the image of the just king who provides peace, prosperity and fertility to his land and his people. He rides a horse or a boar, and carries a sword.
However, there is more to Freyr than the potency of life and procreation – he is also the Lord of Elves. The elves were objects of worship in the Pagan religion. During the annual alfablót – “The Sacrifice to the Elves” – the elves were probably honored as the spirits of dead ancestors. These were thought to reside underground and within the burial mounds or within mountains. The festival took place around the same time as the Halloween and the Day of the Dead is celebrated other places and is clearly related – a very ancient ritual in honor of the souls of the ancestors.
Some elves were particularly honored: When King Olaf Guðrǫðsson of Vestfold, brother to Halfdan the Black (810-860 AD) died, his burial mound at Geirstad became associated with great fortune for those who went there to pray. It was thought that the soul of Olaf heard their prayers. The dead king was referred to as the Geirstaðalfr – “The Elf of Geirstad”.
Thus we see that in Old Norse lore, the elves are strongly associated with souls. There were Light Elves and Dark Elves. In the Gylfaginning, Snorri describes the Dark Elves as darker than tar and offers a very sombre vision of them, in contrast to the Light Elves:“There lives the people called Light Elves [liósalfar]; but the Dark Elves [dǫkkalfar] live beneath the ground. These two elfin kinds are very different to look at, and even more unlike within. The Light Elves are brighter than the sun to look at, whereas the Dark Elves are blacker than tar.”
Yet, the sources to our knowledge about the Sacrifice to the Elves and other references to elves as the souls of dead people give a more complex picture; the Dark Elves are not evil, they are simply the souls of the dead that reside in the underworld, perhaps ready to be reborn at some point. I am not going to discuss the subject of reincarnation here – for now, let us say that the elves appear to represent souls and that there is considerable evidence that the Pagans believed in reincarnation.
The Dark Elves represent the souls of the dead that still reside in the world, albeit in the underworld, still able to communicate with the living. They may have been kept in the world by their descendants, who prayed to them and sacrificed to them for their wisdom, their guidance, their healing powers and their protection – exactly as it was said that people could pray to Freyr in his mound after his death.
Pagans would sit on burial mounds or on the sacred hills and mountains where the dead were thought to reside, meditating until communication with the dead could be obtained. Their darkness is the darkness of the unknown, that which is not seen by the living, of the hidden reality that is death.
The Light Elves, on the other hand, may very well refer to the souls of the dead that have achieved immortality. Perhaps they have become shining bright and transparent through a descent (or ascent) in the Well of Origin – a feat achieved through spiritual training and initiation, leading to the transformation and the immortality of the soul?
Whatever the key to their position, the silent Light Elves dine with the gods and the immortals in the Hall of Aegir at Hlésey – The Wind-Shielded Island, where the history of the world is recounted and the nine Daughters of the Ocean provide the golden light of illumination for this mysterious banquet. The Light Elves belong to the three upper heavens, where not even the gods may dwell; shining, bright heavens to the south: The first of these heavens is called Gimlé – “The Glittering” – brighter even than the Sun, where “deceit-free” lineages live for all eternity. The second is called Andlangr – “Long Breath”, and the third is called Viðbláinn – “The Wide Death”, where only Light Elves may dwell.
As the Lord of Elves, Freyr is ultimately the Lord of Souls. What kind of soul or what aspect of the soul is an open question – the sources indicate that the elves are the souls of the dead, although there are instances where apparently living entities, such as Vǫlundr the smith, is referred to as an elf, even as the Lord of Elves.
We know that the feminine entities norns and fylgjur were also associated with souls – both with the souls of dead female ancestors and with the fate-spinning souls of all people. The word for elf in Old Norse, alfr, is a masculine word, and when elves are mentioned in Old Norse sources, they are mostly masculine, the souls of dead men. Like the fylgja, they may represent a dead ancestor, but unlike the fylgja, who then is an ancestress, the elf is a male ancestor. Unlike the fylgja, the elf soul does not seem to follow his descendants or play the guardian spirit, nor does he seem to appear or play a significant role within the soul of the living. The elfin ancestor resides in the burial mound and may be helpful to those who seek him there. To all appearances, the elf is the embodiment of the soul of a dead male. If he resides in the mound or in other aspects of the Underworld, he is a Dark Elf. If he resides in the upper heavens, he is the immortal soul of the enlightened, and is a Light Elf.
There are some elves that appear to be feminine, however. The Sun goddess is the Shine of the Elves [Alfrǫdull], and the goddess of eternal rejuvenation (i.e. immortality), Iðunn, is said to be of “elf-kind” [alfa kindar] in the Edda poem Hrafnagalðr Óðins. Neither Sól nor Iðunn are said to actually be elves – they are said to be associated with elves, with their bright shine and their “kind” – I suggest they are the female kindred of the male elves, that is, the feminine aspects of the soul of both sexes, and/or the souls of females.
We are starting to see the shape of a complex picture – the Old Norse concepts about the soul. Apparently, all human beings regardless of gender possess a female soul, a fate-spinning goddess who follows us, is within us, aligned with us, yet also one who may take on a shape of her own and call on the company and aid of other fate-spinning souls. She may be awake or sleeping. A dead woman could act in the world as a fylgja without a body attached, mostly in order to help her descendants or loved ones. Apparently, a man could not, but he could live on in the elf, a concept that at least seems to refer to the souls of dead men only.
When Freyr is the Lord of Elves, he is also the Lord of dead men, the lord of the realm where the souls of dead men linger. In a fashion, he represents or rules the soul of males. In the living, he is the source of masculine energy, potency and fertility. As a deity of these things, he not only begets fertility in the land, but also resides within all men and is a mold for men: What Freyr does is relevant to all men.
The only important myth about Freyr that we are aware of, is the Skírnismál story about how he wooed his wife, Gerðr. During the quest, Freyr offers up his “horse which can carry its rider high through the dark and flickering flames” and his “sword that can fight giants on its own, as long as it is carried by the fearless”. He gives these gifts to his symbolical “servant”, Skírnir [The Shining One], who then is able to enter the world of the dead, where the bride is hidden.
As we shall see, the marriage proposal constitutes and instigates a trial of initiation where the object is the union with the mysterious giantess of the illuminating arms within the sacred and, most importantly, breeze-less Grove of the Pine. The breeze-less grove is the same as the Wind-Shielded Island – a place of immortality, in union with the maiden within – the soul elf united with the soul fate. This difficult quest is the most important story about Freyr – and thus the most important story about all men who embark on the quest of the soul to become a Light Elf in the upper heavens.
It is interesting to note that these three upper heavens of immortality, brightness and Light Elves are counted as the three last among the twelve cosmic dimensions in the Edda poem Grímnismál. The remaining nine worlds belong to various gods, and we should bear in mind that Snorri stated that Hel – the personified Death – “rules in nine worlds”. In the Grímnismál, the ninth world is the place where Freyia rules the fate of people in life – and in death. This is where the goddess receives the souls of the dead, deciding which path they will take from that point. In the Edda poem Lokasenna, it is said that the goddess has held all the gods and Light Elves of the Hall of Aegir – the Hall of Immortality – in her embrace. It is time to have another look at Freyr´s sister.
To conclude, we may assume that the annual harvest celebration of the Elves was powerfully connected to the worship of dead ancestors, which may be the reason why it was such a private family holiday. It is likely that food (the meat of a sacrificed animal) and drink (the blood of the animal and beer) was offered to the elves who dwelled in the mounds and the hills. As such, we may be seeing a Viking Age version of the Halloween or the Day of the Dead.
Austrafararvísur, Sigvatr Þórðarson