Ancestors Part 1 – Dwarves, Elves and the Dead

I can finally get some writing done here, now that my other project(s) have come to an end for the time being. It has been a long year, but now I have pushed a 250,000 word project on to editing. It is nice to have a little time to breathe. My mind now turns to my other project. A revision of the Wanderings, which is in for a complete overhaul. My plan at least is that it will be part story, part thesis when all this is done.
Which is where most of my blogs will be drawing inspiration from. They are my current attempt to get my thoughts and order, and start putting together the pieces for the next edition of Wanderings. I am even considering changing the title. It just doesn’t convey what I want it to. But that is another matter entirely.
My spiritual path has been a winding one, and it started nearly a decade ago. While that recap is going to be glossed over heavily, I wanted to say that my ancestors have been a core and central aspect of my path. They have defined my path more than any other aspect. I started as a Wiccan, without any real sense of heritage or foundation. That was around the same time I got into genealogy. As my understanding of my ancestors developed, so did my spiritual path. I traced them back to Ireland, Scotland and England. My path turned from Wicca to more Celtic and Druidic. But the buck did not stop there. Once the paper trail dried up I went to DNA testing. That took my ancestors back to Scandinavia, Norway specifically. I turned to the Northern Tradition/Heathenism after that.
To put a fine point on it, my ancestors have been foundation. Every sense of heritage or spiritual practice I currently steams from them. They are core and center of most of what I do right now. Long and short, I owe everything to them, from my flesh and blood to my spirit and heritage. I would not be who I am today if it was not for my ancestors. And that is a term that has gotten much wider for me lately. That may be a whole other post entirely.
With Winternights come and gone, I have been contemplating the ancestors quite a bit lately. I have a lot of work to do in this area, and certain new revelations have come forefront. But recently I read “The Ancient Heathen Afterlife” about all the places the spirit can end up. In summary, it is quite complicated. Here is just an overview. A great deal has been written about these, so I will not go into great depth here.

Hel and Helheim;
The goddess of death and her dwelling in the underworld, literally “Hel’s Home.” She often takes those that die of old age, famine or the “common” dead. She favors the poor and the elderly, and the common folk. As a good transition; “While Odin and Freya divide fallen warriors and Thor gets the common folk, Hel receives those who die of sickness or old age…” (Norsemyth.org Part 6)

Valhalla and Folkvang
The halls of Odin and the Freya’s dwelling. Both of them like to “split” the dead that fall in battle. Odin brings his chosen warriors to dwell with him in Valhalla, and Freya takes her share and, generally, they become the Valkyries.

Thor
See above. I have read this before somewhere else, but Thor was considered the champion of the common folk. He has multiple dwellings, including Thrudvangr (thunder/power fields) and Bilskirnir, his palace, which is said to have 540 rooms. A lot of rooms for just Thor and his family I’d think.

But the multiplicity does not end there by any means. We find other places like Nastrond, where the evil dead go. Also there is Svartalfheim and Alfheim, the homes of the dwarves and elves respectively. This is things really get interesting. The lines between dwarves, elves and the ancestors is sometimes blurry. In the long view, they are all related. I will do my best to make distinctions between the three. I wills start with the dwarves

Svartalfheim (I prefer Dvergarheim as a term) and Nidavellir (The Downward Fields)

Once again, I will not be recapping the vast stores of knowledge that have something to say on the dwarves. Dwarves are the most ancient of mortal ancestors. They are the “first” created of the gods, formed in far ancient times from the flesh of the earth (Ymir). There are a few stories on this regard, creation myths aside. In my opinion they are not unlike the neanderthals, having live far in the ancient past before modern man came into the North. They are shorter than modern man, but stronger and more crafty. Their intelligence often exceeds our own, as they are an ancient people and have accumulated much knowledge and wisdom over their long existence.
In several sources, dwarves and closely connected with the dead. It is my interpretation that the dwarves are one kind of ancestor. I consider them near-human ancestors, like the neanderthals, beings that once had a mortal existence, though that not longer reside in the Middle World (Midgarde) as we know it. Over the long years we have interbred with them and they have been absorbed into human lines, and pushed entirely into the Underworld. They now have an almost entirely “otherworld” existence. Nidavellir is one realm within Dvergarheim, and its name means “The Downward Fields.” In my meditations this world appears to me as a mirror of the upper world, a place of rich forests and mountains. There are animals there, and humans and dwarves. I have met several of my ancestors in this place, and I would propose it as another “option” in the manifold afterlives.

Alfheim

The Alfar and the Disir, being male and female elves respectively, are another type of ancestor. Alfheim is a place for the honored ancestors, those of great wisdom and courage who are honored among the living. They are not unlike saints, or folk heroes. They are those that did great deeds for their people and the well being of others. Here they dwell as semi-divine beings, to watch over and aid their descendants in need. Shamans, priests, teachers, mentors of all sorts. These are the wise folk, and those that live revered lives in their communities may end up here. In my experience, dwarves, humans, giants and many others may be counted among the “elves.” The Alfablot and Disirblot were to honor ancestors of this type.

In conclusion, there is a lot of the places the spirit can end up in the Northern Tradition. All of these realms can be subdivided, and I am sure there are others that have not been uncovered or have no names. Nor is this survery exhaustive by any means. The word ancestor, does not only mean blood relations. Gods, giants, spirits, dwarves, elves, humans, plants and animals may be counted among ancestors. At the spiritual level at least, a fair amount of intermixing appears to be possible.

In some way, I would propose, that there are a great many of possible afterlife destinations. It would depend greatly on the gods you serve, and your ancestors. Chosen by Odin? Valhalla may be your destination? A devotee of Freya? There is always Folkvangr. Thor could pick his own, as could the dwarves, the elves, Ullr, Skaid, Njord, Heimdall and the rest of them. Loki could take his own, and Angerboda hers. Those with dwarven ancestry may end up in Nidavellir. A wise wo/man may end up in Alfheim. Could it be said there is a certain amount of choice where we end up? I would say so. Morality plays a part as well, but once again, a topic for another time.

In the next part of this series, I will look at gods as ancestors.

Sources;
http://sacrediceland.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/the-ancient-heathen-afterlife-not-as-simple-as-you-think/
http://www.norsemyth.org/ “The Gods and Goddesses Parts 1-6)
http://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/ancestors/
http://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/elves/
http://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/dwarves/

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About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

8 responses to “Ancestors Part 1 – Dwarves, Elves and the Dead

  • Sarenth

    I am interested to see how the Disir are related to the Alfar in your sources, as I have read about the Alfar and the Alfablot being related to male Ancestors, especially powerful ones, whereas the Disir from my readings were not related to the Alfar at all.

    • Nicholas Haney

      Perhaps it would help to clarify that is my interpretation. At least to me, the Disir have a great deal of overlap between the norns, the hamingje, the valkries and the elves. They were usually protective spirits of some kind, often over a family, tribe or clan. They also had influence over fate and luck. To me, that would put them in the ancestor category. Fate and luck were often considered to be inheritable. Once again my logic, but that leaves the choice between more honored, semi-divine like the elves, or more common such as the dwarves or spirits of the dead generally. Could even be leaning towards the goddess category, but that seems a stretch to me, considering their more ‘localized’ nature. Not to say that is black or white, as there is a spectrum of course. I went with the former, seeing the Disir as semi-divine revered ancestors of a group, family or community, and therefore elves by my logic. It just made more sense to me.

      • Sarenth

        Gotcha. I can see where you’re coming from here. I think you’re correct: the problem with (or perhaps, a liberating situation) is that a lot of terms are muddy, The above oddity is why I use the German word for Fathers in place of Alfar, while keeping Disir as-is. I see the Alfar as Their own peoples, and conflating it with the powerful male Ancestors is a bit confusing to me.

      • Nicholas Haney

        To me at least, they are a little bit of both. They are their own people in a very real sense, but also a type of ancestor. Perhaps that just muddies things a little more. I would be interested in hearing more about your thoughts on this. I like the compare/contrast that results from comparing different ideas and beliefs.

        Thanks for your comments!

  • Sarenth

    A very good post; I am looking forward to Part 2!

  • Nick Bell

    Hey,im a little late to this blog but your ideas here really helped me solidify my interpretation of the alfar and disir. This is the best explaination for these concepts that ive come across

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