If our previous article on the origins of Halloween got you jonesing for the weirdness of death, perhaps you were wondering what the old Norse did to celebrate their dead and keep spirits at bay. Well, fear not! The Norse had their own beliefs about the season where the harvest comes to fruition and the world begins to die. And it’s just as metal and messed up as you were no doubt hoping.
This holiday was called the Sacrifice to the Elves and it involved some strange rituals. So strange, we don’t even really know much about them. But we’ll get to that.
First, you need to understand the elves of Norse Mythology. While the Norse elves are reportedly beautiful beyond imagination and while they were the inspiration for JRR Tolkien’s elves, they probably weren’t the Elronds and Galadriels you’re thinking of.
Ljósálfar (Light Elves) and the Dökkalfar (Dark Elves)
Like Tolkien’s elves, they were powerful immensely beings– demigod would be the best way to describe them– and they are constantly linked to the two types of Norse gods (the Aesir and the Vanir). Which means they probably had some kind of godly power.
Sometimes, the Vanir themselves are even described as elves. And like many magical creatures, there were two types: the Ljósálfar, or the Light Elves, and the Dökkalfar, or the Dark Elves. The Light Elves were not always good and the Dark Elves weren’t always bad. The distinction is that the Dark Elves lived beneath the Earth and the Light Elves lived in higher realms. The Dark Elves often had interactions with humans and other creatures in the realm. The Light Elves generally had better shit to do.
But what the elves actually are is a little ambivalent: they sometimes are kind of dicks to humans, causing illnesses or death. But they can also heal great wounds and sicknesses when they can be bothered. Of particular note when talking about the Sacrifice to the Elves: sometimes human become elves when they die, and some great ancestors are worshiped as elves.
Now, that leads us to the Sacrifice to the Elves.
These rituals were reportedly very secret and intimate for family members: the skald Sigvatr Þórðarson (also known as Sigvat the Skald) records coming across a town in the middle of the Sacrifice to the Elves and being turned out no matter where he went.
Now, Sigvat was pretty pissed off by this business, and perhaps he could have given us a little more information about why he was being turned out so rudely. But there was just one thing: he was an Icelandic Christian, so he didn’t know what was involved in this holiday.
He even approached the home of the man who was reported to be the most hospitable in all the village and was refused very rudely– leading him to reflect that he was glad he hadn’t gone to the home of the meanest man in the village.
So if Sigvat didn’t known what was going on, it’s pretty hard for us to know. But before that Cannibal Corpse album cover full of gore, demons, infanticide and more fun holiday activities sneaks into your head, we do have a little context from other events concerning elves.
For one, wounded heroes and sick folks were often told to make sacrifices to the elves on their very own, special elf mounds. These mounds were usually graves: if you’ve ever played Skyrim, you know what I’m talking about here.
Not everyone was honored with a flaming arrow on a boat set out to sea the way modern media wants us to think. The Norse often buried their dead in sort of mausoleums under the dirt, making big mounds on top. The mounds are sometimes called ‘barrows,’ or ‘tumulus.’
Cultures all of the world have used burial mounds since we first started realizing what death was and what it stole from us. For the Celts of our Halloween article to Native Americans, these places were often seen as a sort of veil between the worlds: a place where life and death were interacting with each other.
And when that happens? Things get all kinds of wonked up. Ghosts repeat their actions or interact with the dead– not unlike the Dark Elves who hung around the world. People get strange and divine inspiration, or act in ways that seem odd to the rest of the world– as though they were being influenced from contact with the unknowable– like the Light Elves.
So our best guess? Families probably made sacrifices on the grave mounds of their own dead. No doubt a bull or goat would be killed and the meat would be offered as food for the dead, the blood as drink.
As for many cultures, this was probably a good time to recall memories of the dead and reflect on our own mortal images. Which is still pretty hardcore.