In this text I am going to discuss the origins of elves. Where do they come from? What were they originally? What does the term itself mean? Why are they misunderstood and misrepresented today?
The elf was originally a term used by Scandinavian peoples for their ancestral spirits. They believed in reincarnation and therefore buried their dead with their belongings in burial mounds, to enable them to return to life later on – as explained in detail elsewhere on this blog (see here Sacred Objects). The elf would exist in the burial mound, waiting for rebirth, but at times the elves left the burial mounds, to sing and dance in the meadows. They needed the song, the poetry and the stories, in order for them to remain in the memory of the living. As long as the dead and their deeds are remembered, they can return to life (see here: Sorcery).
"There is no death for the honourable, only a change of bodies"
But even after the forced Jewification ("Christianization") of Scandinavia the Scandinavians kept practising their own Pagan traditions. When discovered by the Judeo-Christian clergy, they were not at all happy by the fact that the "Christianized" Scandinavians were still Pagans, practising their own traditions, so these ancestral spirit, the elves, were demonized and cursed by the Judeo-Christians, as "malignant" and "mischievous" and ultimately turned into a "goblin" or "kobold".
Thus, when you look up the meaning of the word "elf", you find such ignorant and disparaging definitions, instead of the original "ancestral spirit". Thankfully though, in Scandinavia, those of us with some basic education still know what elf means, what an elf really was, thanks not only to memory and tradition, but also to the work of XIXth and early XXth century scholars, who wrote excellent books about our ancestral cult. Books such as "Fedrekult" ("Ancestral Cult"), by Emil Birkeli.
The elves were thus actually the spirits of the dead ancestors of the Scandinavians, but the word itself has a specific meaning. Modern Scandinavian alv ("elf") derives from Norse alfr, from proto-Nordic *albaR, from proto-Germanic *albaz, from proto-Indo-European *albu– or *albo-, meaning simply "white". We see the same word, with the same meaning in Latin, albus and Ancient Greek, ἀλφός (alphos), "whiteness", and a few modern languages too.
The reasons why the ancestral spirits were called "white" are many: when you die you pale and turn white, all that is left of you after some time in the burial mound are but white bones, the dead were buried in white clothing, the spirits are understood as white light, etc. However, they were also called "white" because only the good, pure and innocent of the dead ancestor was left. Only that would be remembered and brought back to life, when the elf reincarnated in the kin, one day.
Yes, this brings us to the topic of "Dark Elves", another extremely misunderstood term. A dark elf is of course better known in modern English simply as a dwarf. A small, bearded creature residing in holes in the ground, and very fond of gold and riches. To understand what this is require some background knowledge, that most people today simply have no access too, thanks to the massive misinformation about the Pagan heritage of Europe from the Judeo-Christian establishment, the last hundreds of years.
Like I said, elves were ancestral spirits, and the whole point of the Pagan tradition was to enable ancestors to return to life, reincarnated, with the same spiritual strength, courage and wisdom that they had before they died. The dead were placed in burial mounds, with their belongings, and since time tears down everything they tended to bring items of gold with them into the burial mound. Not because they needed it in some fictional "realm after death", but because they needed these items to remind them of who they were, and in order to do so these items had to survive – some times for thousands of years in a damp burial mound. As explained here: Sacred Objects.
In role-playing game terms, this tradition enabled the ancestors to return to life with plenty of XP, so that they did not have to start all over, as level 1 characters.
When a child had found back to themselves, they would enter the burial mound itself and collect the items they had possessed in previous lives. They would also bring out the thigh bone (a symbol of life) and the skull of the dead (their wisdom, XP if you like), and when they left the burial mound, reincarnated, they held this head up above their heads.
Think about it for a while. How would that look? A 7 year-old child leaving a burial mound, with a dead ancestor’s head above the head?
Yes, they were small, and hair does not easily disappear from the dead... so the skull would often be bearded. Hence that image of dwarves as small creatures...
They also collected the sacred objects in the burial mound, that was often made up of gold or other riches, and this was needed for them to remember themselves. To really become reincarnated. Thus we say these dwarves loved gold.
They went underground to collect these sacred objects, and this might be the right time to tell you that dwarf actually means "opening in the ground". This is where they went, to collect the sacred objects; into opening in the ground. The burial mound.
Calling them "dark elves" might seem odd to some, because it means "dark light", a clear oxymoron, but the distinction is clear. The elves were "light elves" when they resided outside the burial mound, for example as light in the Northern Light, but they were called "dark elves" when they resided in the dark and gloomy burial mound. The opening in the ground.
The children entering and later leaving the burial mound with their ancestors’ bearded heads were the ancestors themselves. They had become reincarnated. So yes, they were dark elves.
Now, I talk much about Scandinavians here, but this ancestral cult stems from the Neanderthals, and was practised all over Europe, in Asia and later on in America as well, amongst all the peoples descending from the Neanderthals, more (like the Europeans) or less (like others). The term elf though is itself Germanic, and other (very similar, in both meaning and symbolism) terms were used elsewhere.
In the end I will add that I have left out some information about bees here, and how they are related to the elves (with their "arrows" that sting) and why the Northern Light (Aurora Borealis) was called "Alvedans" ("Elf Dance") or "The Way of the Bees", but at least for now, this will suffice. My purpose was to explain what an elf really was, originally, what the term means, originally, and also explain why and how they have become so misunderstood over the years.
Thank you for reading.
PS. If you want a really good book (written by my wife) about our Pagan heritage, I highly recommend this one.