In Norse mythology, the svartálfar ("black elves") or dökkálfar ("dark elves") are supernatural beings (Old Norse "vćttir," wights) that are said to reside in the underground world of Svartálfheim. They, like the trolls, are often corollated with the dvergar ("dwarves") and their home is often considered to be the same as Nidavellir, the underground of Midgard, though not as far down as Helheim.


Dwarves as Black Elves

According to Kevin Crossley-Holland: "No valid distinction though can be drawn between the dwarfs and the dark elves; they appear to have been interchangeable." It should be noted that confusion between unrelated, mythologic entities often arises with the passing of time, as can be found in the stories of the trolls (ogre-like beings that are also confused with dwarves).

Svartálfar have acquired their name because they were seen as the light-avoiding counterparts to the common elf, living in Álfheim. Snorri Sturluson, author of among other things the Younger Edda, at times refer to these elves as ljósálfar ("light elves").

The term black/dark elf might rather be suggestive of their place of residence than of their presumed nature, although they are described as greedy and troublesome for humans, in comparison to the angelic (light) elves. Besides their underground lives, svartálfar had many of the same traits attributed to them as the dwarves. These include growing from the maggots of Ymir's flesh, turning to stone when exposed to daylight, and being human-like, but ugly and misshapen.

Later Influences

, by Swiss-English artist  () is probably influenced by the German idea of a wicked Alb (elf) sitting on a dreamers chest during .
The Nightmare, by Swiss-English artist Henry Fuseli (1781) is probably influenced by the German idea of a wicked Alb (elf) sitting on a dreamers chest during sleep paralysis.

Like many mythologic elves, regardless of morality (though much closer to the dire variaties in particular), dark elves are often said to be responsible for many of the maladies befalling humanity. In particular, bad dreams are said to be within the domain of the dökkálfar, as indicated by the German word for nightmare, "Albtraum" (Elf Dream). It is said that the dark elves will sit upon the dreamer's chest and/or whisper the bad dreams into the sleeper's ears. In Scandinavia, the creature responsible for this is known as the Mara.

A horde of svartálfar appears in Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, and are contrasted with liósálfar (Light Elves). In this story, they dissolve under contact with iron weapons.

The Dualism of Light and Dark

The word álf (pl. álfar) derives from the same Indo-European root word from which the Latin albus (white) and Hebrew El (god, light) derive. The original meaning of the word is significant to the character of the álfar of Norse mythology, who retained their light-derived, divine status. Often related or compared to the Vanir (fertility gods) in nature, the elves can be found in association with divinities throughout the Eddas.

The álfar are divided, as are faerie beings in many mythologies, between "Light" and "Darkness," which are often related to the dualistic principle "Good" vs. "Evil," though that is a leap of logic. From the parallelism, though, we derive the two forms of álf: Light (or High) Elves and the Black (or Dark) Elves (compare the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of the Sidhe in Celtic mythology, the Angels and Demons of Christianity, and the Devas and Asuras of Hinduism). Do note that Dark Elves, for being dark and/or light avoiding, are sometimes characterized as evil and so are sometimes maligned, but at the same time are said to aid both Light Elves and the Ćsir at Ragnarök.

Further, it should be noted that the dualism of Light/Darkness correllates to the "struggle between Good and Evil," the Light Elves are often made into the "good guys," while the Dark Elves (and even Dwarves) are the "bad guys." Such a simplistic view, however, fails to evaluate the Eddas correctly, for the Elves (both Light and Dark), Dwarves, Ćsir, Vanir, and Jotuns are capable of "good" and "evil." The only truly "evil" beings in the Norse Mythos (if evil can be applied to a near elemental force) are the Fire Giants ("demons"), who are responsible for the destruction of the old, imperfect world at Ragnarök and the birth of the much better world in the space remaining (an ultimately good function).

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