Alfar

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.

Dvergar

Dvergr is the Old Norse word for dwarf, Dvergar is plural. Like elves, dwarfs originate from Germanic mythology, though the modern perception of them is quite unlike how they were thought of prior to the Christianisation of Northern Europe. The Anglo-Saxons used the word dweorg to denote a supernatural being which lived in the ground and may have been associated with smiths or illness. Old Norse mythology provides significantly more information on dwarfs – known as dvergar – though much of it is the subject of debate.

The race features heavily throughout folklore and the legendary sagas, and their roles and abilities are varied. For example, some tales say that they are wise, and moulded men from the earth so that the gods could give them life. Others have them holding the sky aloft, while a few call them fiendish murderers and treasure hoarders, or liken them to maggots. What most seem to agree on, however, is that dwarfs are master craftsmen of weapons, armour and other fine items. They are often described as bearded, and will turn to stone if exposed to sunlight. Their home is Nidavellir (“Dark Dwelling” or “Dark Fields”), one of the Nine Worlds of Norse cosmology, said at times to be a dry and mountainous landscape with sandy plains, and the halls and strongholds of the dwarfs are subterranean.

An interesting factor in this area of mythology is that there is little evidence prior to the Christianisation of Europe to suggest that dwarfs were described as short and ugly with big heads. The oldest historical source in which much of the details appear (the Poetic Edda) makes no mention of their unusual stature, and even gives them names such as “Tall Enough” (Fullangr) and “High” (Hár), while 12th century carvings depict men and dwarfs as equal in height. In the later Prose Edda, the existence of dökkálfar (dark elves) is established for the first time, and they are said to live underground in Svartálfheimr (Home of the Black Elves). It has long been argued among scholars that the dökkálfar and svartálfar share very similar traits to dwarfs, and thus may be interchangeable names for the same race.