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An elf is a creature of Germanic mythology. The elves were originally thought of as a race of minor nature and fertility gods, who are often pictured as youthful-seeming men and women of great beauty living in forests and underground places and caves, or in wells and springs. They have been portrayed to be long-lived or immortal and as beings of magical powers.

Following J. R. R. Tolkien’s influential The Lord of the Rings, wherein a wise, immortal people named Elves have a significant role, elves became staple characters of modern fantasy.

In addition to these human aspects, they are commonly described as semi-divine beings associated with fertility and the cult of the ancestors and ancestor worship. The notion of elves thus appears similar to the animistic belief in spirits of nature and of the deceased, common to nearly all human religions; this is also true for the Old Norse belief in dísir, fylgjur and vörðar (“follower” and “warden” spirits, respectively). Like spirits, the elves were not bound by physical limitations and could pass through walls and doors in the manner of ghosts, which happens in Norna-Gests þáttr. It is said that elves are the Germanic equivalent to the nymphs of Greek and Roman mythology, and vili and rusalki of Slavic mythology.[citation needed]

The Icelandic mythographer and historian Snorri Sturluson referred to dwarves (dvergar) as “dark-elves” (dökkálfar) or “black-elves” (svartálfar); but whether this reflects wider medieval Scandinavian belief is uncertain.[10] He referred to other elves as “light-elves” (ljósálfar), which has often been associated with elves’ connection with Freyr, the god of the sun (according to Grímnismál, Poetic Edda). Snorri describes the elf differences as follows:

“There is one place there [in the sky] that is called the Elf Home (Álfheimr). People live there that are named the light elves (Ljósálfar). But the dark elves (Dökkálfar) live below in earth, and they are unlike them in appearance – and more unlike them in reality. The Light Elves are brighter than the sun in appearance, but the Dark Elves are blacker than pitch.” (Snorri, Gylfaginning 17, Prose Edda)

“Sá er einn staðr þar, er kallaðr er Álfheimr. Þar byggvir fólk þat, er Ljósálfar heita, en Dökkálfar búa niðri í jörðu, ok eru þeir ólíkir þeim sýnum ok miklu ólíkari reyndum. Ljósálfar eru fegri en sól sýnum, en Dökkálfar eru svartari en bik.”[11]

Further evidence for elves in Norse mythology comes from Skaldic poetry, the Poetic Edda and legendary sagas. In these elves are linked to the Æsir, particularly by the common phrase “Æsir and the elves”, which presumably means “all the gods”.[12] Some scholars have compared elves to the Vanir (fertility gods).[13] But in the Alvíssmál (“The Sayings of All-Wise”), elves are considered distinct from both the Vanir and the Æsir, as revealed by a series of comparative names in which Æsir, Vanir, and elves are given their own versions for various words in a reflection of their individual racial preferences. It is possible that the words designate a difference in status between the major fertility gods (the Vanir) and the minor ones (the elves). Grímnismál relates that the Van Frey was the lord of Álfheimr (meaning “elf-world”), the home of the light-elves. Lokasenna relates that a large group of Æsir and elves had assembled at Ægir’s court for a banquet. Several minor forces, the servants of gods, are presented such as Byggvir and Beyla, who belonged to Freyr, the lord of the elves, and they were probably elves, since they were not counted among the gods. Two other mentioned servants were Fimafeng (who was murdered by Loki) and Eldir.

Some speculate that Vanir and elves belong to an earlier Nordic Bronze Age religion of Scandinavia, and were later replaced by the Æsir as main gods.[citation needed] Others (most notably Georges Dumézil) argue that the Vanir were the gods of the common Norsemen, and the Æsir those of the priest and warrior castes (see also Nerthus).[citation needed]

A poem from around 1020, the Austrfaravísur (‘Eastern-journey verses’) of Sigvat Thordarson, mentions that, as a Christian, he was refused board in a heathen household, in Sweden, because an álfablót (“elves’ sacrifice”) was being conducted there. However, we have no further reliable information as to what an álfablót involved,[14] but like other blóts it probably included the offering of foods, and later Scandinavian folklore retained a tradition of sacrificing treats to the elves (see below). From the time of year (close to the autumnal equinox) and the elves’ association with fertility and the ancestors, we might assume that it had to do with the ancestor cult and the life force of the family.

In addition to this, Kormáks saga accounts for how a sacrifice to elves was apparently believed able to heal a severe battle wound:

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