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Voices from the Viking Age
by Douglas "Dag" Rossman
October 2013


Svartalfheim




Alfheim




       The myths and folklore of most cultures are enriched by tales of little people and/or hidden folk. . . and Scandinavia is no exception. In Viking times the little people were represented by the svartalfar (literally "dark elves," but more often called dwarves) and the hidden folk by the ljosalfar("light elves"). In later years—after Christianity had had time to spread throughout Scandinavia—these mythic figures diminished in power and prestige. The dwarves came to be replaced by the nisser (Norway) or tomter (Sweden), and the elves by the huldrefolk.

During the Viking Age, the Norse told of four dwarves who supported and stabilized the "dome of the sky" (an early astronomical concept), while still others dwelt in the underground world of Svartalfheim. There they reigned supreme. . . and considered all mineral resources (especially gems and ores) to be their exclusive property! Understandably, this attitude led to bad feelings between dwarves and humans, who also wanted those resources. From time to time, however, a dwarf might be persuaded to part with one of his finely crafted necklaces or armrings or even (if one was very lucky) a magic sword! These always came at steep price, of course.

Dwarves rarely ventured above ground save at night—or on totally overcast days—because they found sunlight to be nearly as bad a threat to their well-being as it was to trolls. No, the sun's rays wouldn't turn a dwarf to stone. . . but it would cause permanent blindness! The Icelandic literature speaks of a dwarf named Dvalin who was nicknamed solblindi ("sun-blinded"); in the absence of a surviving story about him—or the event that resulted in the nickname-I was moved to write one ("Dvalin's Doom," Theft of the Sun).

Renowned fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien, a lover of Icelandic literature, drew deeply from the Eddas in creating his vision of Middle Earth and its inhabitants in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The names of the dwarves who accompanied Bilbo Baggins on his quest to the Lonely Mountain in The Hobbit all appear in The Poetic Edda, as does the name of the Odinic wizard Gandalf ('wand-elf')

The dwarves of Norse mythology were smaller than the ones portrayed in the movies that have been based on Tolkien's books (which have the even smaller hobbits to deal with—the Norse myths do not). The impression one gets from reading the early Norse literature is that our ancestors visualized the dwarves as standing no more than waist-high when compared to a human. How tall then were the elves? Here we have a little more to go on. The Poetic Edda tells us that Völund the Smith was both a "Lapp" (Saami) and an "elf-lord," so it would seem that the Viking Age concept of the elves may have been inspired by encounters with the short-statured Saami and hearing tales about the magical powers of their shamans. Physical anthropologists who have worked with the Saami report that the men average just less than five feet in height, the women about four feet, eight inches; thus I suggest similar dimensions for the elves as well. Certainly they were much larger than the diminutive, gossamer-winged fairyfolk of Victorian England.

The elves were the most mysterious inhabitants of the Nine Worlds; almost none were named individually, and they took no active role in any of the surviving myths. The elves have been said to be fair of face, and to be devoted to the world of sunlight, blue skies, and all things green and growing. Fond of music and dancing, they were also reputed to be fine weavers. The bow was their favorite weapon, which they apparently used primarily for hunting, there being no indication that they were aggressive or violent in their behavior. To the contrary, the elves were thought to be very wise and spiritual in nature.

During the Viking Age, ox-blood or milk was offered as a sacrifice (alfablot) to the elves in matters of fertility and childbirth, as well as for healing. These offerings were poured into cup-shaped depressions in stones, often in close proximity to a sun-wheel symbol. I was privileged to be able to see one these sacrifice-stones (but without the sun-wheel) on my wife's cousin's farm above the Sjoa River in Gudbrandsdalen, Norway. A belief in at least the "plausible" existence of elves and huldrefolk persists to this day in a majority of the highly literate Icelanders, so much so that sections of certain roads have been rerouted rather than disturb rock formations believed to be the homes of elves.

Frustrated by a lack of stories about the elves in the surviving Icelandic literature, J. R. R. Tolkien devoted most of his fictional efforts into creating a "history" for them (drawing not only on the Eddas but on the Celtic sidhe-tales as well). Experiencing a similar frustration, I was inspired to write my four elf-centric short-story collections (Theft of the Sun, The Dragonseeker Saga, Way of the Elves, The Walker in Shadows), which draw largely—though not exclusively—on the traditional Saami culture that I believe was the model for the Norse "light elves" in the first place.

    
© 2013  Douglas "Dag" Rossman

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