Alfablot: What is the Elven Holiday and Ways to Celebrate Today
To our ancient Norse ancestors, the time between Autumn and Winter was hallowed. It was sacred. A liminal time when the ancestors stirred and therefore were to be appeased if we wished for fortune and protection. When you walk the path of our Norse and Scandinavian ancestors, you might hear the words Alfar, Elf, and Alfablot. In this post, we meet the Alfar (Elves) and dig deep into the Heathen celebration of Alfablot. We’ll determine an Alfablot date, learn of its mysterious history, and offer ways to celebrate this elven festival today.
First, Who are the Alfar?
In old Norse and Scandinavian mythology and religion, the Alfar are mysterious spirits who live in a reality parallel to our human one. The terms Alfar (plural) and Alf (singular) may translate to “light” or “bright one”. And are closely related to words like Alp (as in the Alps mountain range) and Albion (as in an early name for Great Britain). Essentially, the Alfar in Heathen religion refer to what we modernly know as the Elves or Elven race. Yes, they could also be classified as “faerie” folk and there is a lot of crossover between elves and fairies in Celtic mythology, as well.
It might surprise you to know that many of our names given today derive from the words Alf and Elf. Names like Albert, Alfred, Elvis, Elvira, Alvin, Alfonso, and Alfreda. And many more that actually mean Elf or Elf-like including Aubrey, Fae or Faye, Jennifer, Olivia, Puck.
The Elves ARE Our Ancestors
But what are they, exactly? Are they fairies? Are they gods? The truth is, we don’t know enough about them to determine their true nature. However, digging into the Sagas and Eddas and acknowledging the belief of modern Heathens, the Alfar are our ancient male ancestors. They are not the short, chubby worker bee elves who work for our modern Santa. Sure, the concept of Santa and his elves may derive from Odin and our Alfar ancestors, but they are not the same. And the Alfar are not cute and happy…at least not most of the time.
They were described as being human-sized and human-like, and as being either Light Elves (Liosalfar) as bright as the Sun. Or Dark Elves (Dockalfar) as black as pitch, according to the Eddaic writer Snorri Sturluson. JRR Tolkien’s portrayal of Light and Dark Elves in the LOTR trilogy is as close to the mythos as modern literature comes. The Alfar were well known and beloved for their skills in archery, art, and healing. And our ancestors frequently sought their help in these matters with offerings and by “sitting out” on top of Elven mounds at night. Let me also point out that these Elven mounds were frequently ancestral burial mounds. The Alfar could be either benevolent or malevolent, like their female counterparts the Disir.
The Bronze Age Princes and Kings of Elfland
One of my favorite writers, Linda Raedisch, explores the concept of the Alfar being our Bronze Age ancestors from Northern Europe. Her book, The Lore of Old Elfland: Secrets from the Bronze Age to Middle Earth, goes into detail on this. To quote her on the Alfar’s mounds, “the prehistoric mounds have long been associated with the otherworldly races. The prospect of treasure kept the mound peoples’ descendants tunneling into those graves and returning with the artifacts of a forgotten culture – the odd sword, razor, or hoop earring – and more importantly, stories of the people who made this fine objects, the princes and princesses who were buried under all those tons of earth and who were thought to still enjoy some sort of existence in the adjacent land of the dead. In other words: Elves.”
King Olaf Geirstad-Alf, an early Swedish King, is mentioned in the Kings Sagas as being worshiped after his death. His name translates to Olaf, the Elf of Geirstad. So, here we have a royal male ancestor who, after passing, was worshiped and called an Elf. Freyr and Freya, two of the major gods in the Norse pantheon, are also believed to be of the Elven race. Though they are typically referred to as part of the race of gods called the Vanir, who are a race of Elves. Some scholars claim the Vanir is just another name for Alfar, while others say they are two separate types of Elves. Again, we have no clear distinction in the Sagas or Eddas. But we also know that Freyr is referred to as ancestor to a line of ancient Swedish kings called the Yngvi.
What is Alfablot?
At one time, before Christianization, the Norse and other Scandinavian peoples honored the Alfar, their ancestors, with sacrifices, rituals, and offerings left at their burial mounds. In fact, there was an entire festival or holy-day dedicated to the Alfar, known as Alfablot. Alfablot meaning Alfar and blood sacrifice. So essentially, this was an observance that consisted of giving offerings or sacrifices to the Alfar, ancient male ancestors.
Unfortunately, the actual traditions and rituals performed at Alfablot are shrouded in mystery. And what we have on record was written by a Christian skald who stumbled upon a Swedish family conducting their Alfablot ceremony in their barn. When the Skald tried to enter, he was abruptly denied access. Which makes sense since the ritual of honoring one’s familial ancestors was a personal experience and still is. Not one to be shared with outsiders, no matter their status or religion. I believe each family’s Alfablot might have looked different than the next for the reason that every family was honoring their personal Alfar.
Some modern Heathen sources claim Alfablot is meant for men only, and Disablot for women only. But I disagree with this concept. The one actual record we have of an Alfablot states that the “lady of the household” was conducting the sacrifice. So, based on the Skaldic poems of that age, we know women were definitely included in the Alfablot rituals.
When is Alfablot held in modern times? Since our modern calendar is different from the Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon calendars, we don’t know exactly when the original Alfablot would have been held. We do know that Alfablots, smaller sacrifices, could have happened at any time, when the need for the Alfar’s guidance arose. And we believe that the official Alfablot was held on the Winter Nights festival…which was a time that marked the end of Summer (today Autumn) and the beginning of Winter. Therefore, modern Alfablot is frequently held at the end of October, near the Celtic Samhain, October 28th-31st. Though some celebrate and dedicate the entire month of October to the Alfar.
6 Ways to Honor Your Ancestors at Alfablot
Obviously since we don’t know exactly what was performed at the ancient Alfablot rituals, we can’t mimic them to a T. However, we can honor our ancestors with different offerings, sacrifices, and rituals at Alfablot. Here are a few ideas to try.
1. Unique Alfablot Ritual
How you decide to honor your ancestors on Winter Nights is truly up to you. We recommend a well-planned and thought-out Alfablot ritual. One that includes a feast with a place set at the table for your ancestors. Now, this seems an awful lot like the Dumb Supper we hold at the Celtic Samhain, but that’s okay! If you’d like to go more traditional, find a hill or mound on which you can have some privacy and call on your Alfar there in ritual.
2. Sitting Out, “Utesitta”
In the days where the Alfar and gods reigned, people asked them for inspiration, knowledge, and healing. A ritual known as Utesitta, or sitting out, was performed by an individual. This meant sitting on top of your ancestors’ burial mound, an Alfar mound, on top of a hill, or in the middle of a forest. Wherever the individual felt they could speak to their ancestors freely and receive their guidance through dreams, visions, and signs. Consider an Utesitta this Alfablot by staying outside all night. You might not be able to sit on your ancestors’ graves, but you can go camping and sit in the forest or on top of a hill. Make sure you are touching the ground to make contact with the earth.
3. Alfablot Feast
One of the simplest ways of celebrating Alfablot is by cooking and eating a feast. This doesn’t have to be a ritual but a celebration of your ancestors and bloodline. Choose seasonal foods that symbolize the end of Autumn including gourds, corn, wheat, wine, apple, cinnamon, etc. Or make a dish that your recently deceased ancestors enjoyed. Be sure to offer your ancestors a plate and cup, either at the table or on your ancestral altar. Some folks might even leave it on a hill or at a grave. Don’t leave anything that isn’t biodegradable and go back to check/clean it up later.
4. Burn Juniper
Burning a juniper bundle is simple and evokes an ancient time when Norse shamanic practitioners known as Volva used plants to purify and call on our ancestors. Investing in juniper herb bundles for cleansing purposes is good for the environment too, instead of buying white sage which seems to have become a problem in recent years. Juniper clears the way for any Alfablot ritual, cleanses one’s home from negative energy, and blesses the family.
5. Sacrifices for the Alfar
Just because sacrifices were made in blood in ancient times (don’t get upset here, nearly every ancient culture practiced this grisly tradition at one time or another), doesn’t mean we should engage in this act today. We can, however, sacrifice things in our lives to show our appreciation to the ancestors. For example, giving up alcohol, sweets, etc. for a month, week, or just for the Alfablot dates. Not only are you showing your appreciation to your Alfar, you’re also clearing your mind and heart to aid in a purer channel of communication.
6. Simply Study and Meditate
If you’re unable to do a fullblown Alfablot ritual, at the very least you can simply study the Alfar and Alfablot origins. Pick up a book on Norse Mythology, like the one written by Neil Gaiman. Or dive into heavier reading like the Eddas and Sagas. Meditate and ask your ancestors to speak to you and send you signs. Record your experiences and any notes on the Alfar you find inspiring.
More on Norse Ancestors:
- Disablot: How to Honor your Disir (Your Female Ancestral Spirits)
- Elder Futhark Runes: How to Read the Runes
- Hel: Norse Goddess of the Dead
- Encyclopedia of Spirits by Judika Illes
- Heimskringla or The Lives of the Norse Kings by Snorri Sturluson
- The Lore of Old Elfland by Linda Raedisch
- Fairy Mythology by Thomas Keightley