Volundr and the Elves

Today I will be surveying Armann Jakobsson’s article “The Extreme Emotional Life of Volundr the Elf.” I think this is a good topic for discussion, because as will be covered, elves are not very developed in the grand scheme of Nordic cosmology. Their role is not very clear cut, and there is a lot of overlap with gods, giants and even dwarves. Elves tend to be fleeting characters, yet it is clear they were venerated at one time. Let us begin with an introduction to the primary text;

Jakobsson says; ” Volundarkvida is the tenth of twenty nine poems in the Codex Regius MS of the Poetic Edda… Most scholars believe it is one of the oldest Eddic poems. ” (Pg 1) He goes on to detail that there has been quite a few studies on this particular poem, and it tends to be thought of as heroic instead of mythological poetry. However, he also points out that it falls between characteristically mythological poems of the Thrymskvida and the Alvissmal.

(As a note, I apologize for the ‘anglicanization’ of all the Norse terms. I tend to leave out accents and special characters, as they are a real pain to copy and paste over and over again.)

Jakobsson  says; ” Three times in Voludarkvida, Volundr is referred to as alfr. In stanza 10, he is called “alfa liothi” while in stanzas 13 and 23 he is called ‘visa alfa’ by his enemy King Nidudr. The word ljodi seems to mean literally “of a (certain) people” while visi means ‘leader, king'” (Pg, 3). Jakobsson also says the ljodi is not attested in any other source. Also, while it is clear he is an elf, his royal/noble status seems to be of little importance to the story. In addition, while Volundr is mentioned in several sources outside the Volundarkvida, his elvish origins are hardly mentioned outside the poem.

Notably, Jakobson says in his footnotes that not all scholars believe Volundr is an elf; “To Motz (Lotte Motz), he is a dokkralfr, which means a dwarf or supernatural smith. She is perhaps the most detailed theorist of Volundr’s origins and her conclusion is that Volundr is originally a legendary craftsman of supernatural origin. While she stresses his supernatural status, she nonetheless believes his elvishness to be secondary.” (Pg, 3) I am still trying to get a copy of Motz’s ‘Of Elves and Dwarves’ for review. So here is suggested the possibility that Volundr may be a dark elf/dwarf. Though it is ultimately to Snorri that such a division between light and dark elves can be traced, we cannot ignore the possibility.

He goes on to say that; ” The position of the Volundarkvida (referred to as V. henceforth), between the mythological and heroic, along with Thrymkvida and Alvissmal,  might also be also be significant to the question of his (Volundr’s) identity, as it may reflect a conscious effort by the editor or editors of the Codex Regius to make the giants, elves, and dwarves intermediaries between the gods and the mythical heroes.” (Pg, 4) This is something I have hit on before in my earlier posts, the interrelation of gods, giants, elves and dwarfs. This is something to keep in mind going forward.

Something else Jakobsson points out; “In the prose introduction to the poem in Codex Regius, Volundr and his brothers are said to be ‘synir Finnakovngs’ (sons of the kings of the Lapps)” (Pg, 4) Here is another curious bit of information. A tenuous connection between elves and the Sami. In previous posts I have hit upon a connection between the dwarves and the Sami, and here might be a suggestion that the elves could be connected to them too, or at least to some kind of Pre-Aesir mythos. However, Jakobsson as well as myself urge caution to not take this too far. As the prose introduction to V. is thought to be an interpretation of the poem, and not part of the poem itself. Within the poem Volundr is only referred to as alfr, and not as a Sami prince.

What follows in the article is a long description of the various sources of information about the elves and their nature and relations to other beings. I will not detail this here, as it is quite comprehensive. However, at the end of his comprehensive analysis of the sources, Jakobsson does offer some conclusions; ” All in all, alfar are scare and ill defined in Old Norse sources. It is possible the word ‘alfr’ referred to minor deities or to a special race of supernatural beings with vague characteristics. Perhaps the alfar were never a clearly defined race. Yet if we try to weigh the evidence, we may come to the following tentative conclusions;

1. A fair number of Old Norse sources agree that alfar had some kind of cult in the heathen and early Christian period; about this cult they are vague..

2. Alfar seem to resemble humans. There is no indication of dwarfish or gigantic size, they are to have sexual intercourse with humans (though few do) and even ride horses.

3. The origins of the alfar are unsure. Unlike giants, dwarves, and men, there is no Old Norse creation myth about alfar.  Olafr Geristadaalfr suggests the possibility of humans becoming alfar after their death, a proposition that might fit with the depicitions of alfar as spirit-like creatures. However, this notion has no support in the Eddic texts where alfar are usually mentioned along with the Aesir but sometimes with the Vanir as well, indicating, thus that it was at least not generally accepted that the Vanir and the alfar are the same thing.

4. In the romances, at least some of the alfar, seem to be much darker creatures, sometimes equated with monsters and evil spirits. Snorri Sturluson resolves this apparent contradiction by dividing the alfar into two sub types; one good and one evil.

5. According to Snorri, the good alfar and bright and beautiful.

6. Some Eddic poems (Alvissmal) also suggest that alfar were believed to be merry, optimistic, gentle, and tender creatures of brightness and goodness. ” (Pg, 11)

Admittedly by Jakobson, this is not much. Not at all. However, there are a few points I would like to make here. Concerning number 3, the suggestion that humans can become elves after death. To me at least, this indicates that humans can ‘ascend’ after death and become like the elves, some kind of semi-divine being. I like to think of them as revered ancestors, or ascended masters. Saints might be another possible term. However, this is not to say that all elves are ancestors, just that some of them are.

Concerning number 4, and perhaps I will explore this more in another post, Jakobson and much of the folklore seems to indicate that the good/bad nature of elves tends to be relational. Humans that treat them badly are treated badly in turn, whereas good relations with the elves typically results in good neighbors. Golden rule and all that.

I also wanted to circle back and consider Volundr as a dark elf/dwarf for a second. If indeed he is a dwarf, could it be said that dwarves, being mortals of an older kind, could also in the elves at death? Could dwarves be granted a place among the heavens as well? If many of the old stories are taken at face value, heroes and giants could be welcomed in the heavens. Could dwarfs and men be as well, in the form of elves? Some food for thought at least.

In truth, there is much more to the article in question, but the rest of it concerns Jokobssons analysis of Volundr as a character. I think for the time being, what has been written will suffice. Certainly there is a lot more that could be said here, but I am going to let it stand as it is.

Thanks for reading!


About Nicholas Haney

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

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