Dökkálfar and Ljósálfar

In Norse mythology, Dökkálfar and Ljósálfar are two contrasting types of elves; the dark elves dwell within the earth and have a dark complexion, while the light elves live in Álfheimr, and are "fairer than the sun to look at". The Dökkálfar and the Ljósálfar are attested in the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, and in the late Old Norse poem Hrafnagaldr Óðins. Scholars have produced theories about the origin and implications of the dualistic concept.


''Prose Edda''

In the Prose Edda, the Dökkálfar and the Ljósálfar are attested in chapter 17 of the book Gylfaginning. In the chapter, Gangleri asks the enthroned figure of High what other "chief centres" there are in the heavens outside of the spring Urðarbrunnr. Gangleri responds that there are many fine places in heaven, including a place called Álfheimr. High says that the Ljósálfar live in Álfheimr, while the Dökkálfar dwell underground and look—and particularly behave—quite unlike the Ljósálfar. High describes the Ljósálfar as "fairer than the sun to look at", while the Dökkálfar are "blacker than pitch".
As chapter 17 continues, Gangleri asks what will protect the beautiful hall of Gimlé, previously described as "the southernmost end of heaven", when the fires of Surtr "burn heaven and earth". High responds that there are in fact other heavens. The first called Andlàngr, he says, is "south of and above this heaven of ours" and "we believe" Gimlé is located in the third heaven "still further above that one", Víðbláinn. High adds that "we believe it is only light-elves who inhabit these places for the time being".

''Hrafnagaldr Óðins''

There occurs an additional mention of the dökkálfar in the late Old Norse poem Hrafnagaldr Óðins, stanza 25.

Theories and interpretations

As the concept is only recorded in Gylfaginning and the late poem Hrafnagaldr Óðins, it is unclear whether the distinction between the two types of elves originated with Snorri, or if he was merely recounting a concept already developed.

Question of Christian influence

The sub-classification perhaps resulted from Christian influence, by way of importation of the concept of good and evil and angels of light and darkness. Anne Holtsmark aired this view, though with some reservation, since "good vs. evil" dualism is not confined to Christian thinking. Aside from some additional observations to encourage the hypothesis, Holtsmark has been credited with demonstrating that Snorri borrowed from Christian writings, specifically that "Snorri’s description of Víðbláinn was almost certainly influenced by the account of the angels in the Elucidarius."
Dissenters of the view that elves were a later invention, such as Rudolf Simek and Gabriel Turville-Petre, feel rather that "dark" and "light" aspects of the same beings not inherently unlikely, death and fertility cults often being closely related.


Since the Prose Edda describes the dökkálfar as being dwellers, they may be dwarves under another name, in the opinion of a number of scholars such as John Lindow.
The Prose Edda also uniquely mentions the svartálfar, but there are reasons to believe these also refer to merely dwarves.
Consequently, Lindow and other commentators have remarked that there may not have been any distinction intended between dark-elves and black-elves by those who coined and used those terms. Lotte Motz's paper on elves commingles, and hence equates "dark-elves" and "black-elves" from the outset.

Grimm's trinity

surmised that the proto-elf was probably a "light-colored, white, good spirit" while the dwarves may have been conceived as "black spirits" by relative comparison. But the "two classes of creatures were getting confounded", and there arose a need to coin the term "light-elf" to refer to the "elves proper". This was counterpart to the "dark-elf".
Preferring it over duality, Grimm postulated three kinds of elves present in Norse mythology.
But Grimm's "tripartite division" faced "trouble" in Snorri's statement that dark-elves were pitch-black, as this would lead to the "first reduction" that "dark-elves = black-elves". As a solution, Grimm "pronounce Snorri's statement fallacious", and hypothesizes that "dark elves" were not really 'dark' but rather 'dingy' or 'pale'. And while conceding that "such a Trilogy still decisive proof," draws parallels from the white, brown and black subterranean in Pomeranian legend, and the white, pale, and black troops of spirits come to claim souls in the tale of Solomon and Marcolf.

Explanatory notes