Álfr is the Old Norse word for elf, Álfar is plural. While the modern-day concept of elves is derived mainly from Germanic mythology, similar creatures have appeared in various cultures around the world. The Anglo-Saxons considered elves (ælf) to be wise and long-lived, invisible, magically powerful and capable of bad deeds as well as good. They were believed to live in the woods or below the ground and, over time, were equated to faeries and nymphs, and blamed for certain types of illness.
Old Norse lore, however, paints quite a different image, though information on how elves were viewed is sparse. Álfheimr (Home of the Elves) was one of the Nine Worlds of Norse cosmology, thought to be among the heavens of Yggdrasil. It was described as a beautiful place with forests and meadows, inhabited by beings that were tall and slender and fairer than the sun to look at. The Álfar were associated with magic, fertility and clairvoyance, and were long-lived. The golden apples that kept the Norse gods from aging were provided by Idunn, herself said to be descended from the Álfar.
One of the most debated points of Norse mythology relates to the Álfar. Of the two main historical sources (the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda), the latter mentions the existence of three types of elf: Ljósálfar (Light Elves), Dökkálfar (Dark Elves) and Svartálfar (Black Elves). The former, however, does not. The physical descriptions and dwellings of the dark elves and black elves closely match those of the dwarfs, and scholars argue that the three are simply different names for the same race. Furthermore, it is claimed that the man who compiled the Poetic Edda and composed the Prose Edda may have been influenced by Christian beliefs, and the later additions of distinct elves reflect the attributes of angels.