It was around the year 1019 when we traveled eastwards into Sweden with our cloaks tightly bound in search for warmth, Sigvat the Poet and I. Winter’s icy grip was strengthening over the land as summer faded with the leaves, but King Olaf II of Norway (now known as St. Olaf) had sent Sigvat there on a mission regardless of the weather, and I merely followed along. He was sent to speak with Jarl Rognvald of Sweden, gather news of King Olaf of the Swede’s intentions, and seek a settlement with him on behalf of King Olaf II—but such a mission is only peripheral to the story I want to recount for you all now.
We hadn’t been in Sweden for very long before trouble found us. Sigvat was already complaining about the journey by the time we reached Eidar (perhaps near modern-day Trollhättan), especially since we had to journey over the river there on a rather unreliable ferry boat, of sorts. After traveling across Gautland through the woods nearby, Sigvat decided to lead the company to a placed called Hof, which could have been either a farm or an old heathen temple (or both, perhaps). We looked for shelter there, since it was custom among the Norse to provide weary wanderers (such as ourselves) with shelter when the need was great—but the entrance remained shut to us, barred by the folk within. As Sigvat said:
Small response I got there;
sacred they called it; heathens
held me back; I bade ogresses
bandy words with them.
Sigvat was often a grumpy and difficult man—that much is obvious from his tendency to complain alone—but he was also Christian, although he often cursed trolls and ogresses upon people, as poets liken to do. He spoke about these folk with vile contempt, using whatever harsh words he could muster, pagan in origin or not. So we left there and sought out another dwelling to take shelter in, but the results were hardly any different.
When we came near the next farm, Sigvat went up to the hall while I stood back waiting. He banged on its wooden door as the cold wind howled like a ghostly wolf, but when the door opened he was not greeted by the warm fire of its hearth. Instead, a disgruntled housewife stood imposingly in the doorway, blocking him from the hall’s warmth. Then I heard her voice break through the eerie sounds of the night:
“Don’t come any further into my home, cursed fellow,” the woman cried. “I’d fear Odin’s anger if you tried, for we are heathens.”
Then she slammed the door shut.
To this Sigvat spat on the ground (certainly as a gesture of ill-will) and walked back to me, speaking this verse:
They were holding, the hateful
hag said, she who drove me
off like a wolf unyeilding,
elf-sacrifice in her farmhouse.
Both wonder and curiosity seized me then, and I found myself exclaiming: “Sacrificing to the elves?!” But Sigvat took no heed of me. He was not fond of my interest in old spirts and things. He was, after all, a Christian man who turned his back on the Old Ways (or so that’s how he has been written and remembered). Nevertheless, even though we were turned away from the next two halls that we had tried, I cared very little. My mind was too busy pondering elves and wondering what these sacrifices we like and what they were for, especially since they were (apparently) so sacred and important that even weary wanderers were refused a place to warm up and rest while they were underway.
When I eventually returned to my own hall, I immediately took to my trusty tomes. Pages turned and papers flew in my fervor to quench my mind’s thirst, but to my dismay, very few sagas mention elves, let alone the sacrifices that were made to them. Only one saga, it seems, uses the Old Norse word álfablót, which means ‘elf-sacrifice’.
When it comes to early sources about elves (medieval or older), there is but a mere stump of information left in the world—the tree that once harbored more wisdom has long been lost to us. This has led to a splintering of beliefs surrounding elves in today’s age, so be weary about everything you read about them (including now). Even I harbor my own unique ideas about them that cannot necessarily be proven true nor false. As I’ve been exposed to sagas and poems alike, I’ve come to conceptualize elves as fertility spirits, of sorts—not too different from the landvættir, or land-spirits, if you’re familiar with them (if not, read this post or listen to my podcast episode about them). I could cite some evidence defending my perspective, of course, but it wouldn’t be enough (at least not according to academic standards). We simply don’t have the material to know or argue anything for certain.
But while that may sound grim, it doesn’t mean we can’t still gather ’round the hearth, share our stories, and discuss them with our imaginations. After all, we do have at least one medieval saga that gives us some details about sacrificing to the elves, so why not start there and see where it can take us?
“Redden the surface of the hillock…”
The saga I’ve been referring to is called Kormak’s Saga, which is one of the Sagas of Icelanders. It was probably originally written down in the early 13th century, but the earliest version we’ve got comes from a mid-14th century manuscript. Generally speaking, the saga follows the struggles of a skáld (poet) named Kormak who is kept away from his beloved Steingerd due to some nasty sorcery (and the not-so-clever Narfi…screw Narfi). The most prominent features of this saga are duels and love-verses, but in chapter 22, elves briefly come into the saga (which is quite rare).
Leading up to the elves, though, Kormak found himself facing yet another duel, this time against a man named Thorvald. But unfortunately for Kormak, Thorvald was a wimp who refused to fight fair—he bribed a sorceress named Thordis to use magic to aid him against Kormak. As a result, when the two faced each other, neither of their blades could actually cut, so they spent the whole duel beating each other up with (basically blunt) swords. Despite that, though, Kormak slammed Thorvald in the side enough to break a few ribs, so he ended up winning the duel anyway (as title characters tend to do).
Thorvald’s struggle to recover from that fight against Kormak, however, is when elves come into the saga. As soon as he was able to walk again (or stumble, rather), Thorvald travelled to Thordis and asked her what would be the best way for him to recover. Here’s what she said in reply:
There’s a certain hillock a short way from here, in which elves live. You are to take the bull that Kormak killed, redden the surface of the hillock with the bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast of the meat; then you’ll recover.
That’s basically all we get, though, because the saga simply says: “After that Thorvald recovered speedily.” It’s an interesting account…but not very helpful for us, is it? This sort of thing happens a lot with sagas, because, well…they weren’t actually written by pagans. The author of this saga probably didn’t actually worship elves and merely used them as a plot device. Magic and elves belonged to the pagan realm and therefore were considered ‘bad’ or ‘dark’ things by later Icelandic christians; Thorvald was the ‘bad’ guy here, so why not get him involved with sorcery and ‘demonic’ spirits? Seems fitting enough—for our author and their audience, that is.
I’m not trying to ruin a good story here, but it’s important to know where there sources are coming from before gleaning them for grains of plausible information. Removing elements that too-conveniently serve the plot, then, it’s possible that they actually did a) believe/remember that elves dwelled in hillocks and b) that elves accepted sacrifices of livestock. But why sacrifice to them? For that, we’ll have to broaden our scope a bit.
Unraveling Old Stories
If we take Kormak’s Saga literally (which I don’t really advise), then people may have sacrificed to elves for healing. Again, that seems to serve the saga’s plot more than anything else, so I’d rather consider a few other possibilities. According to other sources, it seems that the fertility god Freyr was connected to the elves at some point (but perhaps not in all variations of Norse spirituality and belief). In Grimnir’s Sayings, at least, we learn the following:
Alfheim [Elf-home] the gods gave to Freyr
in bygone days as tooth-payment.
We don’t exactly know what that means, but it seems to indicate that Freyr has had a connection with the elves since his childhood (which is unique here, since we rarely hear about a god’s childhood). Yet their similarities don’t actually end there, because both Freyr and (certain) elves are associated with the sun. To illustrate that point, we can turn to Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda for a moment:
Concerning elves, Snorri writes:
There is one place called Alfheim. There live the folk called light-elves, but dark-elves live down in the ground, and they are unlike them in appearance, and even more unlike them in nature. Light-elves are fairer than the sun to look at, but dark-elves are blacker than pitch.
And then concerning Freyr, Snorri writes:
Freyr is the most glorious of the Æsir. He is the ruler of rain and sunshine and thus of the produce of the earth, and it is good to pray to him for prosperity and peace. He also rules over the wealth of men.
Although we can’t glean as much as we’d like to from those quotes, we can at least surmise that both the elves and Freyr were associated with sunshine and soil somehow. While Snorri seems to write about the dark-elves as if they were evil spirits, it’s possible that they could have simply been associated with the fertility of the earth itself, rather than the sunshine above. Besides, Snorri’s overall negative tone makes sense when we remind ourselves of his own perspective on this material. As a Christian, Snorri would have considered light as a holy motif related to (and frequently used for) Jesus Christ. In his mind, then, spirits dwelling in the earth probably reminded him of demons that were banished from the light of God. That is my own speculation, of course, but it makes a fair bit of sense.
Nevertheless, given our sparse evidence, it seems that Freyr and the elves overlap quite a bit (at least in the traditions recorded and preserved in medieval Icelandic material): Freyr was given Alfheim in his youth, plus he rules over sunshine, which the light-elves are said to resemble, as well as the fertility of the soil below, which the dark-elves are said to dwell in. But while that is all quite fascinating and insightful, we still have to answer our initial question…why sacrifice to the elves?
If the elves are associated with Freyr, then perhaps the reasons for sacrificing to them are connected, as well. In another medieval Icelandic source called Gisli’s Saga, for instance, “there was to be a sacrifice to Frey” during “a feast at the end of autumn to celebrate the coming of Winter Nights.” In Old Norse, that celebration was known as Vetrnætr, and it was a particularly holy time of year in the Old Norse-Icelandic calendar, which usually occurred during mid-October. We don’t know much about it, of course, but it seems to have been a time when sacrifices were made to Freyr and other spirits, such as the dísir (female ancestral spirits). Socially speaking, communal games and weddings also took place during this time. All-in-all, it was a time to celebrate the end of summer and prepare (both mentally and spiritually) for the beginning of winter.
Now, think back to the tale that began this decision. What time of year was it when Sigvat and I were traveling through Sweden? The end of autumn…or rather, the beginning of winter. While we can’t know for certain, it doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that people were sacrificing to elves around the same time of year that Icelanders were apparently sacrificing to Freyr. To me, it seems that the people who barred their doors to Sigvat were sacrificing to the elves as part of their celebrations and preparations for Winter Nights. What would that imply? That the elves, like Freyr, could ensure that the sun and soil would recover from the darkness and death of winter. I suppose that is even a form of healing, too…healing for the earth rather than people like Thorvald.
So, at long last, we may be able to find some comfort in that conclusion, at least for the time being. People seem to have sacrificed to the elves either in their own homes or at nearby landmarks, such as hillocks. Cattle may have been the preferred offering, but it wasn’t necessarily the only option available to people (since our sources don’t always mention what was being sacrificed). In return, those people hoped for the elves to bring light and life back to the land after the dark and dread of winter had finally passed. That’s what álfablót was all about, it seems.
Of course, I could be terribly wrong about everything. Perhaps I’ve forgotten or left out an important source? Either way, I’ve given it a modern skald’s honest try, but perhaps time and further reading will enlighten us more someday. What do you think, though? Share your own thoughts and experiences below with a comment!
But until next time, keep wandering.
- Snorri Sturluson, Ólafs saga helga, in Heimskringla, vol. II, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (Viking Society for Northern Research: University College London, 2014), 89. [Online PDF] ^
- Ibid. ^
- Ibid. ^
- Rory McTurk trans., Kormak’s Saga, in The Compete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. I, edited by Viðar Hreinsson et. al., 179-224 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 217. [Chapter 22] [Online PDF of an outdated translation] ^
- Ibid., 218. [Chapter 22] ^
- Carolyne Larrington trans., Grimnir’s Sayings, in The Poetic Edda, 47-56 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 49. [Stanza 5, lines 2-3] ^
- H. R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (repr., 1964; London: Penguin Books, 1990), 156. ^
- Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman, 1995), 19-20. [Online PDF] ^
- Ibid., 24. ^
- Martin S. Regal trans., Gisli Sursson’s Saga, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. II, edited by Viðar Hreinsson et.al., 1-48 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 17. [Chapter 15] [Online PDF] ^
- Viðar Hreinsson ed., “Referrence Section,” in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. V, edited by Viðar Hreinsson et.al., 1-48 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 417. ^