by William Reaves, edited by Úlfgrim Vílmeiðson
Copyright © William Reaves
The Æsir and the Elves seem to share a special relationship. They are frequently named together in the lore:
Havamal 159: "If in the company of men I must enumerate the Gods, both Æsir and Elves. I know the distinctions of all... "
Havamal 160: "...Strength to the Æsir, and success to Elves."
Lokasenna 30 " Of Æsir and Elves seated herein..."
and elsewhere (such as in Thyrmskvida, when Thrym, who has stolen Thor's hammer asks "How is it with the Æsir and The Elves?")
The skalds often associate the Elves with the Æsir, yet seemingly little is known about the Alf-tribe, esteemed enough by the ancient skalds to be called "tíva," gods (Havamal 159). Through references in the Elder Edda we find that they are a third divine class, closely associated with both the Æsir and the Vanir, quite unlike the images that the word "elf" evokes among us today.
In Grimnismal, the homes of the Elves are intimately associated with those of the Æsir:
Grimnismal 4 (Benjamin Thorpe's translation, hereafter unless noted): Holy is the land, which I see lying to Æsir and Alfar near; but in Thrudheim Thor shall dwell until the powers perish.
Grimnismal 5: Ydalir it is called, where Ull has himself a dwelling made. Alfheim, the gods gave to Frey in days of yore as a tooth-gift.
These 3 dwelling places are named first, even before Odin's halls, and in intimate relationship to one another. The poet places the Elves in close connection with both Thor and Frey, the Æsir and the Vanir. Ull is named between these two representatives of the known god-clans and his home Ydalir is mentioned in the same breath, so to speak, as Alfheim. This is not without reason.
It would be a mistake to assume that all the dwelling-places named in the first several strophes of Grimnismal are located in Asgard. Alfheim is rightly considered a separate realm, (one of the nine worlds, if you will). So too, Thrymheim, Skadi's abode "where Thjazi dwelt, that all-powerful Jotun." (str. 11) Thus we must consider the possibility that Ydalir is not a hall in Asgard, but that it may lie elsewhere and in possibly in association with Alfheim.
We know Ull to be an archer and a snowshoe-runner. Snorri tells us in Gylfaginning 21 "One is called Ullr, son of Sif and stepson of Thor, he is so excellent a bowman, and so swift on snowshoes, that none may contend with him," (Arthur Brodeur, translation). The name of his home, Ydalir means literally "the yew-dales." Yew is the common wood used to make bows all over Northern Europe. Even Ötzi, the Ice-man's, bow was found to be made of this strong, flexible wood. It is no surprise then that Ull's home is called Ydalir, since he is famous as an archer. Of Ull's snow-shoes, Saxo tells us that they are of a most unique nature, a view confirmed by other Heathen sources. In chapter 3 of his Danish History, Saxo tells us that Ollerus (A Latinized form of Ull) "was such a cunning wizard that he used a certain a bone, which he had marked with awful spells, wherewith to cross the seas, instead of a vessel" (Oliver Elton's Translation). In otherwords, Ull was able to skate across open water by means of rune-risted snow-shoes. It also seems that they could be employed as a shield. This is confirmed by a kenning for a shield, calling it "skip Ullar," Ull's ship; and a paraphrase in the Edda says "Ullr àtti skip that, er Skjöldr hét," Ull owns the ship that is called Shield.
The Heathen records also mention other mythic personalities that show similar traits. In fact, we find a whole group of characters who are known as hunters and snowshoe-runners. Among them we find Skadi, Thjazi's daughter, "fastening on her snow-skates and taking her bow." (Gylfaginning. 24, I.A. Blackwell's translation hereafter unless noted). As a daughter of the giant Thjazi, Haustlaung 7 calls her "öndor-goðs," a paraphrase of Ull's own epithet "öndur-àss," the god of the snow-shoes (Vigfusson Dictionary, p. 764). Thus she too seems to share these unique traits with Ull. Nor is the list of such characters exhausted.
In the opening prose to Volundarkvida, the narrator names three brothers Slagfin, Egil, and Volund who "went on snow-shoes and hunted wild beasts." The text of the poem names Volund in particular as "prince of the elves" and a "wise elf." Thus we can assume that he and his brothers are elves. Volund, Egil, and Slagfin are directly called snow-shoe runners and hunters in Volundarkvida 4, 8, lest anyone question the prose. In other sources, Volund's brother, Egil in particular is remembered as an archer. I name the ones closest at hand here, there are several others:
Heimskringla (Harold Gråfälls s. chapter 18), herring are paraphrased as "örum sævar," arrows of the sea and arrows as "minar hlaupsildr Egils gaupna," the quick herring of Egil's hands. (I do not have an Old Norse text of Heimskringla, so correct me if I'm wrong. I am following Viktor Rydberg here, TM p. 850, and UiGM p. 367. I am only using this reference in particular because it will tie in later).
In Volundarkvida 2 (Codex Regius), we learn that one of Volund's epithets is "Onnund;" (see the Old Norse text, as this is most often rendered simply as Volund to avoid confusion in English Translation)
In Saxo Gramaticus' History, he names one Annundus by the side of the archer Toko (Book 7). I will make no attempt to relate the events there to the myths, but know and can show that they are related. Further, in book 10, Saxo relates the famous story told of William Tell, who shot an arrow off his son's head, of the archer Toko. Vilkinasaga relates this same story of Volund's brother Egil. From these references it is clear that Egil-Toko, the brother of Volund-Annund is an archer, and probably a famous one.
A comparison of the Heathen records shows these characters, Egil and his brothers, in close association with Thor. First let's examine the record in regard to Egil.
In his adventures into the land of giants, Thor is often depicted as riding his goat-drawn chariot toward Jotunheim, but a careful analysis indicates that he never actually drives his precious span into enemy territory. Though the sources depict him as riding his goat-car toward Jotunheim, he meets his giant foes on foot. He has a stopping place along the way, where his car and goats are kept in safety until his return.Harbardsljod 3 indirectly refers to this fact when it speaks of Thor's wayfare as "sildr ok hafra," herring and he-goat, which he carries in a basket on his back. Thor indicates that he has been traveling in the land of the giants all day, (he is on his way back to "Odin's land," str. 56), but that morning he ate his breakfast "í hvílð," at leisure, in other words in safety, before departing. We have already seen that Egil is associated with herring, and below I shall demonstrate that Egil is also connected with Thor's practice of sacrificing and eating his goats. Thus when Thor is said to carry "herring and he-goat" as he travels in Jotunheim, the skald probably meant to refer to a well-known mythic circumstance
In regard to Thor and his goats, this is the evidence nearest at hand:
Hymirskvida 6 & 7 tells us that once, when Thor and Tyr travelled to Jotunheim in order to secure a kettle from the giant Hymir, they stopped and dropped off the goat-span before preceding to Jotunheim. The name of the húsbóndi is Egil.
Hymirskvida 6: "...Rapidly that day they drove forward from Asgard, until they came to Egil's"
(Thorpe translates "Egil" as "giant," but the Old Norse text reads "Egil," see Vigfusson's CPB, p. 220, Gudni Jonsson's Eddukvaedi, pg.131, and elsewhere. This is not in dispute. The text reads "unz til Egils kvamu")
Hymirskvida 7: "Thor stalled his goats splendid of horn, then turned to the hall that Hymir owned."
We know that a body of water separates the home of the sons of gods, from the homes of the sons of giants. Vafthrudnirsmal 16 calls this stream "Ífing." Ulf Uggesson in a strophe preserved in Skaldskaparsmal 4 calls the bay upon which Thor and Hymir row, Vimur. Thorsdrapa 3 characterizes this same stream as "Gandvik," the Magic bay. Hymirskvida 5 tells us that Hymir lives east of the Elivagar, (Icy-waves), "austan elivaga" and in strophe 17, he and Thor "à vàg roa," row out on the waves, which confirms that Hymir's home is located near a body of water. There seems to be no consistancy as to the name of this sea, but that is not unusual since it, like all things in the myths can be called by many names, as long as the name and circumstances are sufficent to distinquish it clearly. This is a hallmark of the skaldic art.
Strophes 36, 37, and 38 of Hymirskvida also speak of this body of water. While it does not specifically say that Thor crosses this sea, the description makes this sufficently plain. The poet need not directly mention it, since this was understood to be the usual habit of Thor when travelling to and from the land of giants. We gather this from the weight of the evidence: For example, in Harbardsljod, Thor must cross such a river. In Skaldskaparsmal 17, Snorri tells us that Thor once carried the hero Aurvandill in a basket on his back across the Elivagar river, when returning home from Jotunheim.(Here the Elivagar are conceived of as lying between the world of the gods and the home of the giants, compare this to the Hymirskvida stophes examined above.) In regard to the last statement, remember that Snorri says that the Elivagar flow up and out of Hvergelmir, one of the world-wells which feed Yggdrassil (Gylfaginning 5). To this we can compare Grimnismal 28, which names one of these rivers flowing out of Hvergelmir by the Old Norse name "Hraunn." (In some translations rendered as Hrön). Hymirskvida 36 & 38 use this same name, Hraunn, of the body of water in question.
When speaking of the giants in Hymir's gard, who persue Thor and Tyr, the skald says that Thor swung the murderous Mjollnir and slew all of "Hraunn-hvala," Hraunn's whales (Hym. 36). In other words, he killed the giants who swam or waded out after him into Hraunn, the boundry waters between the land of the giants and the homes of the sons of the gods. But upon regaining his goat-car (which we know was left in Egil's keeping), he finds that one of the goats is lame. In Hymirskvida 38, the skald says that anyone versed in the lore of the gods can tell what reward Thor got from the "Hraunn-bua," the Hraunn-dweller. Vigfusson and others render this as "the rock dweller," interpretting Egil as a giant. But in comparison to strophe 36, we find the skald means something quite different, he means Egil, the one who dwells by the river Hraunn.
Snorri further illuminates this passage for us. In Gylfaginning 45, he preserves a tradition which tells us that once while stopping at the home of a peasant (which he does not name), Thor slew his goats and served them as supper to the gathered folk, with the warning that they were to break none of the bones. But Loki, ever attempting to thwart the gods,convinced a young boy in the household, by name Thjalfi, to break open a bone and suck out the marrow. Hallowing the remaining goatskins and bones with his hammer, Thor caused the goats to spring to life, but now one of them was lame in its hindleg. To appease the god's anger, the peasant gave Thor his son and daughter, Thjalfi and Roskva as servants. Hymirskvida 38, says that the Hraunn-dweller, whom we know as Egil, paid "with both his children." Clearly Snorri and the Hymirskvida skald are here speaking of the same incident, famous among the ancient heathens. This is fully confirmed by the difficult poem Thorsdrapa which speaks of Thjalfi as a member of a household near this same body of water, there called "Gand-vik."
The key to understanding the difficult kennings contained in Thorsdrapa, which speaks of Thor's journey to Gerriod's gard, is to separate this tale from the one told by Snorri. Snorri relates that only Thor, Thjalfi, and Loki travelled into Jotunheim on this occassion, and that Thor carried weapons provided to him by the giantess Grid, as Loki had convinced him to leave Mjollnir behind. The two versions cannot be reconciled and though I will not discuss it here, from phrases in the poem, it is apparent that Snorri molded his tale of Thor's journey to the giant Gerriod from kennings found in the poem that he himself misunderstood.
The poem Thorsdrapa depicts Thor travelling into Jotunheim at the head a whole host of warriors. This is made clear by several passages in the poem, for example strophe 8 calls them the "wise men of the viking chalet, sworn to Guat (Odin)," eið-svara Guata setrs víkinga snotrir." They may be characterized as Vikings since they dwell by Gand-vik, the Magic-bay (and perhaps an allusion to Jormun-gand as well, for whom Thor and Hymir went fishing). Thorsdrapa 2 says that when the "Belt-wearer (Thor)", now as on former occasions, left Odin for Ymir's land, that he was "strengthened by the men of Idi's chalet on Gandvik." That the poet is speaking of the same mythic personalities as outlined above is made clear by two paraphrases for giants found near the end of the poem. The first is "Alfheims kalfa" (str. 19), the calves of Alfheim. That a giant can be called a Calf, has precedant in the name "Mist-calf," the clay companion of Hrungnir. The second epithet found in Thordrapa 19 is the stone-folk of "hval-làttrs Rygja," a paraphrase which seems to mean the stone-folk (a common paraphrase for giants) of "the whale-birthing coast."
This would indicate that the poet views the giants as sacrificial cattle for the warriors in Alfheim, who live on the opposite shore of the Elivagar river . Alfheim is conceived of as being in the east. Further east across the Elivagar rivers we find Jotunheim. Thus the Elves are the gods' first picket-guard against the forces of cold, and work in close association with them defending Midgard against their attacks. The presence of whales, both in Hymirskvida and Thorsdrapa, tells us that this is no mere "river," but rather the ocean. Thus Jotunheim lies across an open expanse of ocean eastward from Alfheim.
In his journeys to Jotunheim, Thor is conceived of as driving his goat-car from Asgard to Alfheim. It is a good day's ride. There Thor refreshes himself and spends the night before continueing on into Jotunheim. The common fare of the house seems to be herring ("sil"), which is not surprising as the house is situated on the shores of the ocean, and he-goat ("hrafa") supplied by Thor. When necessary, Thor can rally a troop of warrior elves, inhabitants of the house, to accompany him in his campaign against the giants. It seems that the elves themselves also make forays into Jotunheim, independant of Thor. The examples above are intended to illuminate this, by no means are they the only references to this mythic conception.
To gain further insight into this relationship between the Æsir and the Elves, we must examine the term "Iðjas setr" as a designation of a hall in Alfheim. This paraphrase which simply means "Idi's chalet" can best be understood in association with two other epithets found in close proximity. They are "Gang" in strophe 4, which forms part of the paraphrase "Gang's Vanir," used here as a kenning for the men of Idi's chalet, whom we have discovered are Elves, and the name Rognir in strophe 3. Once drawn together, these names -- Idi, Gang, and Rognir -- form a group of characters which at once remind us of All-valdi's or Öl-valdi's sons, most often called, Idi, Gang, and Thjazi (The Grotto-song and In the Younger Edda). They are elf-princes and smiths known elsewhere as the Sons of Ivaldi.
In my next post I shall attempt to identify the smiths known as the Sons of Ivaldi and show that the ancient skalds knew them, not only as giants (and there are reasons for this), but also as the elf-smiths, the Sons of Ivaldi, who forged Odin's spear Gungnir, and Frey's ship Skidbladnir. In the third installment, I will attempt to identify Ull as the son of the archer and elf-smith, Egil. Skadi as you already know is the daughter of Thjazi, most often called a Jotun. From the records left to us, we discover that this group of snowshoe-runners and archers are the Elves, the third divine class mentioned so often alongside the Æsir.
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