Alfar (elves or dwarfs) In Norse mythology, the elves or dwarfs ruled over by the god Frey. The Prose Edda gives an account of their origin:

Then the gods, seating themselves upon their thrones, distributed justice, and bethought them how the dwarfs had been bred in the mould of the earth, just as worms are in a dead body. It was, in fact, in Ymir’s flesh that the dwarfs were engendered, and began to move and live. At first they were only maggots, but by the will of the gods they at length partook both of human shape and understanding, although they always dwell in rocks and caverns. Modsognir and Durin are the principal ones.

From Alfar are derived all small creatures, such as alvors, elves, brownies, and ras found in northern myths and legends. Two groups of Alfar are cited, the liosalfar (light elves) who live in Alfheim, and the dockalfar (dark elves) who live underground and are mostly of an evil nature. Other names used are huldu folk (hidden folk) and liufliger (darlings). The dark dwarfs were so ugly, with their dark skin, green eyes, large heads, short legs, and crows’ feet, that the gods forced them, under penalty of being turned to stone, to live underground and never show themselves during the daytime.

Although less powerful than the gods, the dwarfs were far more powerful than men. In northern folklore and legends, dwarfs transport themselves easily from one place to another. They wear red capes that can make them invisible. They like to hide behind rocks and mischievously repeat the last words of every conversation they overhear. Echoes are therefore called “dwarfs’ talk.”

In various countries of northern Europe their ruler is called Andvari, Alberich, Elbegast, Gondemar, Laurin, or Oberon. Generally, dwarfs in northern legends and tales are kind and helpful. Sometimes they knead bread, grind flour, brew beer, and perform countless other tasks. If ill-treated, however, or laughed at, they will leave a house. When Christianity replaced the northern gods, the dwarfs, in anger, left forever to punish the people for their lack of belief in the old gods.

According to some northern legends, dwarfs envied man’s taller stature and often tried to increase their race’s height by marrying human wives or stealing unbaptized children and substituting their own offspring for the human mother to nurse. These dwarf babies were known as changelings. To recover the true child and rid herself of the changeling, a woman had either to brew beer in eggshells or to grease the soles of the changeling’s feet and hold them so near the flames that, attracted by their babies’ cries, the dwarf parents would come to claim their own child and bring back the human child.

Female dwarfs were believed able to change themselves into maras (or nightmares). If a victim succeeded in plugging the hole through which a mara made her entrance into his room, she was then at his mercy—he could even marry her. She would be his faithful wife as long as the hole by which she had entered was plugged. If it was open, she would escape. The Prose Edda gives an account of the origin of the Alfar. Offerings of milk, honey, or a small animal was made to the Alfar.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow-Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante