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The Álfar and Associated Wights, from a Freysgoði’s Perspective
(Submitted for publication in 2010 in The Troth's journal, "Idunna")
I’ve been asked to write about the Álfar from my perspective as a Freysgoði, since Freyr is seen as Ruler of Álfheim, having received it as a tooth-gift (gift given to children when their first tooth came in). This is not a research paper; I’ll mention extant lore from memory and only as needed. Any errors are entirely mine and I would greatly appreciate comments and questions. I have used the word “Landwights” instead of “Landvaettir” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LandvÃ¦ttir since the English version is commonly used among Heathens and is not ambiguous. I have refrained from using the word “Elves,” choosing ”Álfar” instead, since the former term immediately brings to mind for many, at least on a subconscious level, the idea of beings who hang out with Hobbits and/or assist shoemakers! Please also note that I have included the links to Wikipedia articles and to other Internet pages as a convenience, using those which seemed well-done from my perspective as a longtime Heathen and a trained research scholar (master’s degrees in Spanish/French and in Library Science). Wikipedia is user-written and edited and I make no broad endorsement of any article, especially since it may have been edited between the time I found it and the time you go there.
I’ve been asked specifically on how I view and have experienced the Álfar: as landwights, or as the (male?) guardian Dead (possible male counterparts of the Dísir), or otherwise. I’m not sure that the differences are all that cut-and-dried. Information on these Wights that has come down to us originated in cultures which emphatically did not organize the Wights around them, corporeal or non-corporeal, into neat, well-delineated categories such as genus and species. This system, invented by Carolus Linnaeus the Elder, i.e. Carl von Linné, a Swedish naturalist, and only dates from the publication of his Systema Naturae in 1735. I am not sure that these Wights can readily be placed into such a system. An example of this is that the Old Norse word “Álfkarl,” meaning “male elf” was borrowed into Irish (Gaelic) as “alcaille,” meaning “ghost of the Dead.” http://heathengods.com/temple/modules/newbb/viewtopic.php?topic_id=267&forum=10 Álfar, of course, in Heathen lore and in popular folklore often appear as non-human but human-appearing Wights, and in at least two kinds (“Dark” and “Light”)!
Freyr is commonly known as “God of the World.” Etymologically, the word “world” means “human existence, affairs of life”(http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=world). This puts Freyr squarely in the Innangarðr, the area under human control, not the Utgarðr, or wilder parts of Earth. The perceived extension of Freyr’s domain into that latter realm may be an innovation of modern Heathenism, derived perhaps from the conclusion that since those area’s don’t usually come across as Jotun-territory, that they are more likely to be ascribed to Freyr, especially, perhaps given his marriage to Gerðr, a name for Earth.
Now that all this has been said, I will henceforth concentrate mostly on my own experiences with spirits here in Midgarðr in an ordinary, non-trance, state of consciousness (or at least experienced without my deliberately putting myself into a trance), which go back more than a decade and a half, occasionally supplemented by those of other individuals, mostly but not entirely Heathens, whose input I deem worthy of inclusion. One of my first contacts with Wights associated with the land occurred at my first Álfablót over 15 years ago, held in a rather special area of a local wooded park. This was a remnant of a farm woodlot converted into a city park when the land around it was converted into single and multi-family housing 20 to 30 years previously. Yes, I’ll admit it, I had one of Steve McNallen’s blótbooks with me, since I was very new to Heathenry at the time and didn’t want to botch the blót. My partner reported afterwards that the Landwights were there and seem pleased, but had commented with some amusement “He’s reading it out of a book!”
I have a working hypothesis that when an area becomes hostile due to development, Landwights of various sorts often move into refugia (a term I have borrowed from biology; the singular form is “refugium” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refugium_(population_biology)
and refers to remnants of former habitat in which associated species have in essence taken refuge. This happened in conjunction with the Ice Ages, and the species subsequently spread from these refugia when conditions were again favorable for them elsewhere. The area was a round one where the invasive Wintercreeper Euonymus vine and Amur River honeysuckle bush taking over the rest of the woodlot’s understory and ground was almost entirely absent. There was also a small, human-sized oblong mound of unknown origin in that area.
Landwight experiences are also common on the grounds of the local Unitarian Universalist church, which are several acres of savannah-type lawns with mostly native trees and a small human-planted woodlot featuring native species. I once saw one which was loping across the lawn at sunset. It basically looked like a weasel about six feet long. A Heathen blót was held there another time and some of us were drinking a bit of beer afterwards. I was walking around with mine and tripped, spilling most of my beer. Another Heathen present saw a “little brown man” come up out of the ground and trip me, presumably to get the beer! I don’t have these experiences very often, so I’m inclined to take these seriously! I presume that if I were hallucinating, I would do so much more often! Another Heathen present on the site on another occasion checked out a spot on the grounds that seemed odd to me. She reported the presence of a dying female Landwight, for whom she did some healing/energy work.
Such “refugia” Landwights are evidently not adverse to taking a bit of a trip when invited to do so. A group of Heathens including myself once held a commemoration for the Dead, starting with a “Dumb Supper,” a folkloric rite held among other places in the Ozark Mountains of the USA, and consisting of a meal eaten in silence in memory of the Dead. http://www.widdershins.org/vol7iss5/02.htm Many Pagans have adopted/adapted this rite for their own use, and we decided to give it a try, with very positive results. Being good neighbors, we went to the park beforehand (about ¼ miles from the site of the ritual) and invited the local Wights to attend as well. We also invited them at the beginning of the Dumb Supper. They showed up. When they did, the air became so thick with their presence that it became rather heavy, although not in a threatening sort of way. We did of course put out food and drink for any non-corporeal visitors. Folks who have tasted such food afterwards have found it seems to have lost “something” including but not always limited to flavor. The Wights had evidently taken what they wanted/needed from it. I personally dispose of such food and drink in an outdoor setting where animals can consume it.
I once had a rather less pleasant experience on the grounds of the previously mentioned Unitarian Universalist Church. I had a vegetable garden there and had the distinct impression that the Wights in it had decided that they could do with a bite or two of raw meat. I forgot to bring it, and cut myself rather nastily. Nothing dangerous, and no visit to a physician required, but they did get their blood meal. I also lost a gold ring given to me by my partner and never did find it! I don’t begrudge it to them, I still have my partner and the Wights there have been good friends to both myself and many other Heathens/Pagans!
In the light of all this, the “care and feeding” of local Landwights, Álfar, and others of their ilk merits a few words. Traditional folklore and extant Heathen lore can be useful, but I advise individual evaluation of these materials, since religious faith can shift gradually into folklore and then into superstition. Common courtesy is essential in dealing with any sort of sentient being, human or otherwise. That being said, a bit of thought in planning the menu of any non-corporeal Wights to whom you plan to offer is a good idea. Popular sources say that they don’t like caraway seeds, so why take chances! Ditto with skim milk! Many report that North American Landwights still greatly enjoy the tobacco and cornmeal they received from indigenous peoples over the centuries. I see no reason not to continue with those offerings. They are also reported to be rather partial to chocolate, but again, who isn’t?
Some controversy exists in North America due to the history of relations between indigenous peoples and Europeans and their descendants. Some advise against using Native American mounds, whether physically or by journeying there in trance states, for entering the Spae-Realms, and advise folks to be on the lookout for hostile Native American ghosts and associated Wights in such circumstances. Others advise against offering alcohol to North American (non-corporeal) Wights, given the disastrous effects of that substance on past and present Amerindian populations! Use your own best judgment there. I personally don’t worry much about those restrictions. Your results may vary!
Traditionally, Nithing Poles were used to scare away or otherwise interfere with local Landwights (making a place “Álfreka), http://www.experiencefestival.com/alfreka (scroll down to the definition) thus bringing hardships on their human neighbors. BTW there is someone on Facebook with that as her personal name, almost certainly by coincidence; however I don’t recommend it being given to a Heathen child or to any other for that matter! If you ever have need for a nithing pole, charge it to work some other way. Doing violence to innocent third parties in order to attack your enemies is despicable!
The local Wights are also said to be very upset when humans defecate in precincts dedicated to them. In one place in Iceland, visitors to a holy site were obliged to use a small rocky island for a toilet to avoid such a desecration. http://www.northvegr.org/lore/landnamabok/009.php Obviously, in times when access to any sort of latrine was very often impossible, this was a concern. In such circumstances, one must obviously “do one’s business” somewhere, but I would indeed avoid doing so anywhere near a sacred site or indeed any sort of odd stone or tree that might be especially prized by the local Wights. There is, I truly believe, no such thing as ground that is not holy, but everything in its due time and place. I would definitely bury bodily waste to keep the area pleasant for Wights both corporeal and otherwise! Defecating on a holy site is like doing so on the floor of someone’s living room and I suspect that the reaction to such a deed on the part of an Álf would be very much the same!
One other taboo or guideline in dealing with Landwights is the idea that they are frightened of the dragon-figureheads of longships. For that reason, they were removed in sight of land. I’m hundreds of miles from the ocean, and there aren’t many longships about these days, so this situation should very seldom arise today. That being said, I’m sure that Landwights are far more frightened of bulldozers and oil spills than of scary carvings, as well they should be!
In dealing with living things, and Landwights, Álfar etc. are very much living beings in their own way, one must think not only of food, drink, hygiene and table matters. One must sooner or later turn to matters of sex! Heathen lore and folklore from the Old Homelands of most contemporary Heathens have a great deal to say about sexual relations with non-human, “supernatural” Wights, including Gods, Jotnar, Trolls, Huldfolk and perhaps others. One lady in Iceland even says that she is having ongoing sexual relationships with Álfar! http://www.disinfo.com/2009/12/icelandic-elf-sex-video/ (some graphic content is included, but limited to interactions between stick-figures in drawings!) If memory serves me, such relationships as described in extant Heathen lore and popular folklore might turn out very well or very badly!
Sexual relationships with our fellow humans can be emotionally very tricky; one can only imagine that crossing the “species” barrier for want of a better term by having such relations with a sentient being very possibly far more powerful than you but not necessarily fully aware of human emotional needs and patterns is fraught with even more pitfalls. Still, I’m not saying not to give it a try should the opportunity present itself. Before writing this article, just in case I might be drawing “someone’s” attention to myself by doing so, I got my partner’s permission to “go ahead” should such a situation present itself and should I be inclined to cooperate! However, I really don’t think it’s going to happen.
I guess I’m an agnostic when it comes to belief in such a thing actually, physically happening in our ordinary, physical Midgard reality. I have enough of a scientific background to want to know things like "what is the DNA sequence of Óðinn’s Y chromosome?" and "How does the mitochondrial DNA of the Huldfolk compare with that of humans?" However, that such things might well happen in other Realms, call them what you will: the “non-ordinary reality” of a contemporary shaman or spirit-walker, or something happening on the Spae-Realms or the other eight Worlds of the Norse mythological Universe, whatever, whenever, and wherever they may lie, which is something about which Heathens do not agree, is something I do not doubt for a moment! How such doings might manifest themselves in Midgard is something that I view as outside the scope of this article!
While Heathens seem to agree that we human-folk need the Álfar and associated Wights, what they want from us is a bit less clear. Surviving folklore suggests that Álfar, seen as a separate “species” from humanity, seem to need a periodic infusion of our more solid for want of a better term DNA to keep their lineage breeding successfully. On the other hand, such stories, often involving accounts of “changeling” babies http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changeling might also be folk explanations of birth defects, mental retardation, inexplicable wasting illnesses of infants, etc. Then again, both things could have happened, but in different instances! My own opinion is that the Wights live in a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship with humans, based on common interests and needs. They need a healthy planet to live on, and so do we! Many, perhaps most, humans feel the need for new experiences and unusual new friends. I don’t see why these other Wights, who dwell very “near” to us incorporeal as they may seem, would be any different! After I finish this article, I’ll do a small but important sort of offering to Earth, and to the Landwights, by recycling the hand-written outline and notes I made for this article!
All this having been said, what do I see these Wights as being, or more specifically, how have I experienced them? First of all, most of my experience in waking consciousness here on Midgard has been of Landwights. These sometimes take human form and other times do not. The ones I have encountered do not seem to have ever been human. I do have a fair amount of experience with ghosts, beginning more than twenty years ago. I first encountered them as “Earth-bound” or at least “Earth-visiting” spirits here on Midgard. They seem quite unlike Landwights. Since becoming a Seiðmaðr, I have also encountered the Dead in other Worlds, mostly Hel. They aren’t tied to the land at all, having relocated elsewhere.
The Huldfolk are a very interesting case. I don’t know quite what to make of them. Perhaps they are the most human of the Wights sometimes lumped together as Álfar, or perhaps they are based on memories of (very strange from the perspective of the Germanic peoples) tribes encountered by the Germanic peoples when they moved into new areas. I do believe that the Huldfolk got a very bad press from Christians, and that this probably accounts for their being said to have things like hollow backs and cow’s tails!
In conclusion, my experience with beings that our Heathen forebears might have called “Álfar” has been mostly with Landwights. I suspect whether they are perceived in human or non-human form is an indicator of how similar those particular ones are in their nature and personalities to human beings. I have experienced the spirits of dead humans, wherever they may dwell, be it Midgard or elsewhere, as something (some-ones?) quite different from them. When I think of Álfar, I think first of the Ljósálfar and Dökkálfar/Svartálfar inhabiting their own, non-Midgard realms. After that, I think of another sort of Álf, a male ancestral spirit, especially one filling a guardian role comparable to that of the female guardian/ancestral spirits known as “Dísir.” In that context, I think of “Álf” as more of a job description for certain dead male humans than as a specific “kind” or “species” of Wight.
Enough of my experiences and opinions! Now go have your own experiences and formulate your own opinions based on them. Exercise due caution, but don’t let fear keep you from actually doing the work. Heathenism is ultimately “hands-on.” I seek to find and help folks in need of such assistance to develop into my peers. I do not seek followers. So, go out there like I did, and come back and teach me something!
Thanks in advance!
last modified 05/15/2010