Written by Dyami Millarson
Being related to Latin albus white, Old Norse Álfr, of which the plural is Álfar, originally means White One. Therefore, it seems a tautology when we encounter Ljósálfar and a paradox when we encounter Svartálfar and Dökkálfar. We still encounter the old meaning in Old Norse, which implies the original association with white is not entirely lost, but we also encounter cases where the original meaning has made way for a more generic meaning, namely that of Spirit. To understand Ljósálfar, Dökkálfar and Svartálfar, we have to apply the generic rather than the original meaning of Álfr.
It is striking about the trinity of the Álfar types that the distinction is based on a gradation of basic colour distinctions associated with the presence or absence of light; namely, the distinction runs from light (ljóss) all the way to black (svartr) with dark (dökkr) as an intermediate stage, just like the distinction between day and night with twilight (i.e. dusk or dawn) as an intermediate stage.
The primary distinction is the ljóss–svartr pair, as that primordial colour distinction is based on the presence or absence of light; the Ljósálfar and Svartálfar consequently also happen to be the best distinguished in the lore. The ljóss-svartr duality is seen everywhere in nature, just as the male-female duality may be seen everywhere in nature (see my article on the Germanic Isis), and may thrrefore be conceived of as a naturally united lair, of which the unity parallels that of the concept dægr, which is used to denote both night and day. Given the primordial nature of the ljóss–svartr pair, the trinity of Álfar types may be analysed as “2 + 1,” so that the holy pairing is rendered complete with a third element, i.e. the two holy elements augmented by the third holy element are the holiest combination.
The third basic colour tone, namely dark (dökkr), may be brought into connection with dökkna darken and dökkva darken, the latter of which may be used in an impersonal expression as found on page 113 of Cleasby’s and Vigfusson’s Icelandic-English dictionary: “Dag dökði.” (It darkened the day, i.e. it became dark). Also when I think of tsjuster dark in Shire Frisian, I think of the expression: “It wurdt tsjuster.” (It is becoming dark.) As a young child living in Amsterdam, the expression with donker that I was most familiar with was “het wordt donker” (it is becoming dark). This image always left a deep impression on my mind: magical event of the darkening itself and the mysterious relationship of the “it” with the “dark,” of which my mind was trying to make sense in relation to what I observed.
The ancestors, when they were once children, must have learned words for colour distinctions from their parents while observing nature, thus impronting natural images in association with colours on their psyche. Given that humans must have learned basic colour distinctions from nature, it should, then, be no surprise that colours, particularly basic colour tones which may be regarded as primordial colours, have an inherent association with natural imagery; colours ought to be analysed in close relation to images of nature which are important to the human consciousness, the human individual, as this consciousness grows up surrounded by nature and develops an understanding of the world based on its natural surroundings. In ancient times as in modern times, the most significant image associated with “dark” must be the darkening of the day. Therefore, we may assume that when the Old Norse speakers thought of dökkr in relation to Dökkálfar, they must also have intuitively connected it with dökkna and dökkva, and therefore with . Likewise, they must have connected Ljósálfar intuitively with ljós (sun)light, therefore with dagr day, and Svartálfar with night, of which one may describe the colour as pitch-black in English, and which reminds me of the description of the Dökkálfar as being “blacker than pitch,” although one may make better sense of that by reinterpreting it as applying to the Svartálfar; for the Ljósálfar are, based on their association with colour tone, likewise brought in connection with the sun when it is said in the Younger Edda that they are fairer than the sun.
We may, then, suppose an inherent natural connection of the primary Ljósálfar-Svartálfar pair with dægr, which comprises of both dagr day and nótt night. Likewise, we may suppose a natural connection of Dökkálfar with rökr dusk, twilight and Old Norse terms with like meaning. For instance, Old Norse kveld may he understood in the sense of twilight when it is used in the terms kveldvaka time inbetween bedtime and twilight and kveldriða twilight-rider. Having brought the basic pair and the third element in connection with dægr and rökr respectively, we may reason about the natural forms of the Álfar: since if, for example, Dagr, Sól, and Nótt can be manifestations of day, sun and night, may, then, the Álfar also not be manifestations of, perhaps more minor, phenomena in nature? If so, then what may the Álfar be manifestations of in nature?
In this regard, I said the following in my article on the etymology of Tomte and Tufte: “Holy Beings of Nature, souls associated with whiteness and therefore sunlight, perhaps manifesting in nature as shadows which result from sunlight in the forests and as the beams of light creating the shadows, namely the Álfar.” We may bring Ljósálfar and Svartálfar, the primordial ljóss-svartr (i.e. light and black) pair, in connection with the Nótt-Máni (i.e. night and moon) pair and the Dagr-Sól (i.e. day and sun) pair respectively. After all, Álfar have a connection with specific times of the day in both modern and ancient folklore, and they are also associated with sunlight and moonlight. We know from the Norse lore that Dvergar die upon coming into contact with sunlight, and Dvergar are counted among the Álfar. We may, then, suppose that the different types of Álfar have different rationships with light and consequently with time; as Beings of Light and Time, the Álfar appear and disappear/hide at specific times of the day as a result of their specific relationships with light. They are thus akin to daytime and nocturnal animals — which is a natural motif. The duality of appearing and disappearing, which is closely associated with the Álfar, is reminiscent of the image of lights and shadows in the natural world. All things considered, we can surmise that the Svartálfar are shadowy figures, while the Ljósálfar luminous figures; the former are as hideous as night, the latter as fair as day — although not the direct inspiration for this poetical way of explaining the different Álfar‘s relationship with beauty, compare the Dutch idiomatic expression “zo lelijk als de nacht” (as ugly as night). The primordial pair of Álfar types, namely the Svartálfar and Ljósálfar, can be regarded as the consequences of the appearing and disappearing of Sól ok Máni Sun and Moon, Dagr ok Nótt Day and Night; these consequences are the lights and shadows observed in the natural world; and as they are magical consequences of dualistic major natural phenomens, the primordial pair of Álfar types can be regarded as followers, who have a lower rank in the order of the cosmos while their leaders, namely the Sól-Máni and Dagr-Nótt pairs, have a rank naturally higher; and it should be noted that the identification of Ljósálfar and Svartálfar with lights and shadows makes perfect sense from not only the perspective of cosmological hierarchy but also the perspective of natural dualism, namely just like the dualistic natural forces to which they are subservient, shadows and lights are dualistic natural phonemena, which exist due to interaction.
Recalling that svart is associated with absence of light and ljóss with presence of light and that shadows cannot exist without light, how can Svartálfar be interpreted as Shadow-Beings and Ljósálfar with Light-Beings? We must also recall that the Álfar are associated with moonlight, which is a fact also shown in modern folklore. Moonlight can create shadow figures as well, and when moonlight shines upon a forest, one may see figures of beings, which one may identify as Svartálfar. Forests, which have always been prominent in the Germanic landscape and with which the natives of the land traditionally have an intimate relationship, are full of lights and shadows. There ought to be no doubt that the Germanic peoples traditionally regard the forests as peopled with Numinous Beings; such beings, which are strongly associated with forests, are still prominently featured in modern folklore. Therefore, while we know for sure that such beings are traditionally observed in the forests by the Germanic peoples since time immemorial, the only question is what Norse-speaking people would be prompted to call those beings, and considering both modern and ancient evidence, the best candidate is really Álfar. There is only a limited set of terms available to describe forest beings, and this motivates one to identify Álfar with the forests. Therefore, if one observes light-figures and shadow-figures in the forests, and wishes to call them by the names which the ancestors gave to them, then one may identify them with Ljósálfar and Svartálfar. The ancestors certainly had a name for all these beings, as they did not have a habit of letting magical things go unnamed, and thus diligently named magical weapons, animals, and so on.
Given that the Álfar represent different, naturally playful interactions with light, I am led to the following conclusion: the Ljósálfar and Svartálfar are synonymous with what I would call schaduw- en lichtspellen in Dutch. These words are not usually encountered in the plural in Dutch, but it seems appropriate to use the plural in order to properly match them with the Ljósálfar and Svartálfar. The Dutch term schaduwspel literally means game or play of shadows, and may be interpreted as effect(s) of shadows, working(s) of shadows, dancing of shadows, shadow spectacle; lichtspel likewise literally means play of lights, and may likewise be interpreted as effect(s) of lights, working(s) of lights, dancing of lights, light spectacle. Since Álfar are associated with dancing in modern folklore, I like interpeting spel as a dance in English, although it should be schaduwdans and lichtdans in Dutch in that case, which also actually seem fitting in this context. So, then, we may observe the beautiful dances of lights and shadows in the natural world, and we may identify these with the Álfar. Thus, one may say in Old Norse: “Svartálfar ok Ljósálfar eru skuggar ok ljós.” (Black Spirits and Light Spirits are shadows and lights.) We may also say: “Svartálfar eru skuggasamligar, Ljósálfar eru bjartar.” (Black Spirits are shadowy, Light Spirits are bright.) These seem examples of a cultural concept so obvious that it need not be expressed explicitly, since everyone, who is part of the culture where that cultural concept comes from, already understands. A Dutch term I would like to bring up in relation to schaduwspel and lichtspel is schimmenspel, which means shadow puppetry. Schimmen means shadows, spectres, ghosts in Dutch, and Álfar may be thought of as Schimmen. Schimmenspel is performed by humans, who have mastered art of manipulating lights and shadows, and this is an art which humans have performed since time immemorial. While humans perform this art, we may wonder what its relationship with nature is apart from manipulating the natural phenomena of lights and shadows: since the Gods are manifestations of the natural world according to the Germanic worldview, we may interpret the Gods as performing the aforementioned magical art for mankind: Therefore, we may say that both Æsir and Álfar play their respective cosmic-hierarchical roles in the cosmic schimmenspel, namely the Æsir as controllers of the Schimmen play a higher role in the cosmic schimmenspel, while the Álfar as Schimmen play a lower role in the cosmic schimmenspel .
We may also consider the disposition of the Ljósálfar and Svartálfar towards mankind. Is ljóss associated with a favourable disposition, and svartr with a negative disposition? In other words, is ljóss associated with good, and svartr associated with evil? As expected from observations of nature, shadows have an association with darkness in Old Norse, as seen in skuggamikill dark; and shadows being dark produces negative associations, as seen in skuggaligr suspicious-looking. Black has negative associations in Old Norse as well. For instance, there is a strong association between black and the Goddess of Death in Old Norse: Hęlblár as black as Death, blár sęm Hęl as black as Death, and Hęljarskinn Hell skin, i.e. black skin. It becomes apparent from these examples that the Goddess of Death herself was thought of as having a Hęljarskinn. Death cannot be counted as a positive association, and such a close association between black and death puts this colour tone firmly in the same category with other unpleasant, negative and taboo things. Further negative associations with darkness are found in the close association between darkness and the Dvergar; for they die when they come into contact with light. Although interactions with Dvergar can yield positive results, they are undeniably viewed quite negatively on account of their unpleasant natures, in stark contrast to the positively depicted Álfar who serve as companions of the Æsir. There is some room for ambiguity in the pagan worldview, but we can safely conclude that black represents evil, white represents good even in the Germanic pagan worldview, and the evil-good duality associated with the natural duality of light and black is therefore not alien to the Germanic peoples. Such traditional views based around attributing positive connotations to light and negative connotation to black are also encountered among other Eurasian peoples, such as the Chinese, and the Germanic peoples are thus by no means alone in their interpretation of light and black. Since we can connect the black-light duality, which is found in nature, with an ethical duality of good and evil, we can also regard the Ljósálfar and Svartálfar as the good and evil forces inherent in nature; so we can say that the Germanic peoples traditionally view the cosmos in an ethical light, namely as being a place of a constant struggle between good and evil. The same cosmic struggle, which has apparently inherent ethical connotations, can also be seen in the relationship between the Æsir and Jötnar.
The Germanic worldview has monistic, dualistic, and pluralistic elements, since nature is complex. We have discussed the primordial pair of the Álfar trinity at length; one may now be tempted to think that dualism, as observed between opposing natural forces, is the ultimate reality of the Germanic worldview. Superficially there are two, but when inspecting closer, there is one more: the third, which, as an expansion from the original pair, has the symbolic function of affirming natural pluralism. As much as Germanic people have a traditional preference for pairings, they do view groups of three as symbolising wholeness, and consequently holiness. This is not to say that the number one does not play a role either. Ýmir, from whom the world is fashioned, represents such a number one; Divine Couples represent the number two; and Holy Trinities, such as Othin and his brothers, represent number three. All these numbers are represented, showing different sides of life and hence of nature. We can, therefore, say that Germanic religion, owing to its adoption of natural complexity, has monistic, dualistic, and pluralistic tendencies.
We must now turn our attention to the Dökkálfar: if the Ljósálfar are associated with light spectacles lichtspellen and of the Svartálfar are associated with shadow spectacles schaduwspellen, then what natural spectacles are the Dökkálfar associated with? Twilight is a time when lights leave the world and make way for darkness; during this time, spectacles can be observed where, as the lights, i.e. Ljósálfar, are leaving, there is a blurring of shadows and lights, while everything is becoming vaguer. The Ljósálfar are the Álfar of the day shift, the Svartálfar of the night shift, while the Dökkálfar are the intermediaries, as the two parties are changing shifts. The Dökkálfar are the beings of the blurring between shadows and lights; They are the manifestations of the waxing shadows and the fleeting lights. The Dökkálfar are more dark than light; for They are shadows which grow before the night falls. What kind of disposition can we expect from the Dökkálfar compared to the Svartálfar and Ljósálfar? Svartálfar, presumably beings native to the darkest hours of the day, may be compared with the Mörur Nightmares, which are unambiguously evil beings of the night, associated with death and disease and therefore with the black-skinned Goddess Hęl, while Dökkálfar may be compared with the Dvergar, who, through being associated with the dark hours of the day, have an unpleasant nature but may still make contributions as skilled craftsmen, hence proving themselves to possess an intermediate nature between good and evil; and the Ljósálfar, who are undoubtedly good spirits, can be compared with the Æsir and Vanir, beings favourably disposed towards mankind. As intermediaries between the light and the dark, the Dökkálfar may be interpreted as possessing shamanic qualities, namely beings who transfer things between the Worlds of Darkness and the Worlds of Light, the Worlds of Death and the Worlds of Fertility, which are the dead, barren, inhospitable wastelands of Hęl, Svartálfheimr also known as Niðavellir, Jötunheimr, Niflheimr, Múspelheimr contrasted with the green, fertile, pleasant lands of Miðgarðr, Ásgarðr, Vanaheimr, Ljósálfheimr also known as Álfheimr; the Dökkálfar must, undoubtedly, be skilled in Seiðr, as the Germanic lore of all ages attributes magical abilities to the Álfar and Dvergar, and with such skills, we can surely interpret the Dökkálfar as Dark Shamans, who possess the ability to carry messages, that is to say omens, between the worlds. Unlike the Dvergar who have an intermediate nature, the Mara produces nothing of positive value, as the Mara only gives bad omens. In other words, the Mara, the Germanic incubus, only has the role of carrying bad messages to mankind and using magical abilities for bringing misfortune; the Mara is a Harbinger of Death, Disease, Destruction, hence a true native of the evil worlds outside the realms protected by the Benevolent Gods, namely the Ljósálfar, Æsir and Vanir. So when night falls, evil makes its entrance into the world. Since the Mörur are messengers of evil and beings who have magical abilities to cause death and disease, They are Black Shamans, devout servants of evil. The lore relates how the Gods encounter Dvergar in the home world of the Svartálfar, which poses no problem for our perception of Dökkálfar as an intermediary stage. In fact, Dökkálfar as waxing shadows may be thought of as growing into the very beings, with which the Ljósálfar exchange their shift. Furthermore, as beings native to the dark, one can expect the Dökkálfar to be just as comfortable in the Svartálfar‘s shadowy realm as the Svartálfar Themselves; as I said earlier, They are more shadow than light, because, I may add, that is what Their name literally suggests. Svartálfar and Dökkálfar both live in the dark; they are both natives of the dark hours of the day. As nocturnal beings, they rule the evening and night, while the Ljósálfar rule the day. One may, therefore, consider them Evening-Rulers, Night-Rulers, and Day-Rulers. Inspired by this tripartite division of the day, one may come up with the epithets Kveldálfar ‘Evening Spirits, Dusk Spirits,’ Nóttálfar ‘Night Spirits,’ Dagálfar ‘Day Spirits.’ Since the tripartite division of the day can be observed in nature, it seems most likely that that while the Álfar are connected with time and light, the Álfar must be connected with this natural observation. On page 340 of the 2019 book Red Dwarfs: Their Geological, Chemical, and Biological Potential for Life, which does not treat the topic of the Álfar, David S. Stevenson explains: “Next, think about temporal niches. On Earth, there are at least three: day, night and crepuscular (dawn and dusk).” So, to briefly rehearse what we have discussed regarding the Álfar thus far: during our search for patterns and forms in nature that are compatible with the features of the Álfar, we have found that the temporal niches of our planet help us to make sense of the tripartite division of the Álfar because after examining the Álfar‘s association with colour tones, light and time in the context of natural or cosmological phenomena observable to humans of all centuries past, present and future, we finally arrive at the view that the Álfar are Divinities of the Day, Night, and Crepuscular. Since we live on the same planet as the ancestors, we observe the same things in nature, and the earthly experiences we have in common with the ancestors, despite our distance in time, is what we can use to interpret the lore which we have inherited from them. The distinction between Nóttálfar and Dagálfar is the clearest; however, just as it may be hard to tell where exactly evening ends and night begins, the lines between the Kveldálfar and Nóttálfar are somewhat blurred. Since Álfar is a general concept for Spirits, the terms Kveldálfar and Nóttálfar may be considered generic descriptors for being active during the dark and darkest hours of the day; one may, for example, call a Mara a Nóttálfr due to the Mara‘s nightly activities. I have suggested earlier that it is possible to reinterpret the description of the Dökkálfar/Kveldálfar as being pitch-black as that the Svartálfar/Nóttálfar are pitch-black. We should, nevertheless, also consider the possibility that both these types of Álfar may be pitch-black; for they are both shadowy beings, averse to sunlight. After all, the shadows of night and twilight may have been considered pitch-black by the ancestors, implying that the Álfar of night and twilight, that is to say the Nóttálfar and Kveldálfar, must both be pitch-black based on their identification with shadows.