Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

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Alfablot: Honoring the Spirits of the Earth and the Dead

“‘Do not come any farther in, wretched fellow’, said the woman; ‘I fear the wrath of Óðinn; we are heathen.’ The disagreeable female, who drove me away like a wolf without hesitation, said they were holding a sacrifice to the elves inside her farmhouse.” (“Austrfararvísur”)

Feast of Spirits

The Alfablot is an ancient Norse holiday celebrated around this time of year, the end of the harvest and the start of the winter season. As for many other peoples across the world, offerings to the spirits were in order during seasonal shifts, especially when advancing into the most challenging season.

While many Germanic celebrations were communal, the Alfablot was a private, household-centered event. Strangers were not welcome, and the ceremony took place on the homestead rather than in a public space. Because of this, not much is known about the details of the feast, although Hilda Roderick Ellis has suggested that it may have involved an animal sacrifice of some sort, the blood of which was poured on a sacred hill or cairn (111). While the meat may also have been left for the alfs, it’s also possible that the meat was consumed by the people as part of a feast to honor them. There is an account from 14th-century Norway that mentions women bringing food to cairns or caves, consecrating the meal to spirits, and then consuming the food themselves (Sagas of the Norsemen 25). Beer was also a significant feature of this holiday: certain men were dubbed Ölvir, “beer men” (“Austrfararvisur”). So, it isn't much of a leap to envision an animal sacrifice followed by a feast of the animal's meat as well as beer, punctuated with toasts to the alfs and ancestors of the household -- a popular pattern of heathen celebration. There seems to have been an element of fear -- perhaps connected to the Wild Hunt, as Odin was mentioned in the quote above -- which necessitated a taboo against strangers participating in the festivities. Perhaps there was a tradition that ill-meaning spirits would masquerade as nondescript travelers, plaguing the household with disaster if allowed inside during the feast. It could very well have been something like a mixture of our modern Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Who are Alfs?

Alfs, or elves, are mysterious beings with strong ties to the earth. In Scandinavia, they were worshipped on hills or mounds, which were also the abodes of the dead. The differences between the two – ancestors and alfs – are not entirely clear in folklore and literature, but Ellis is at least partly convinced that they were not (always) one and the same (112-115). Yet at least one king was honored as an elf within a mound after death: King Olaf, the Elf of Geirstad. It may be accurate to assume that sometimes people could become elves – perhaps due to especial goodness in life, or from great spiritual power – but there isn’t enough evidence to determine one way or another.

Alfs are not only remembered in Scandinavia. In Germany, despite early Christianization, alfs remained associated with household productivity and wealth. Claude Lecouteux writes that “when a pauper in East Prussia suddenly becomes rich in an inexplicable way, he is quickly suspected of owning an alf” (185). As a household spirit, it keeps to itself in an out-of-the-way room or outbuilding, preferably with a dirt floor, or in the chimney. Only the master of the house is allowed to enter the abode of the alf, and offerings are left there: “milk, scrambled eggs, prunes, or birch flour broth” (ibid.) It may help out around the house in addition to bringing wealth.

Lecouteux mentions an interesting concept: that the alf needs to live with people. It will appear “in the form of a chicken half-dead from the cold” to incite sympathy in homeowners, who find him to be a loyal helper if they bring him home and care for him (ibid.) The alf may also appear “in the form of…a gray goose, or a bird resembling an owl. …It is also simply called ‘the alf bird.’ More rarely, it is described as a black cat or a calf” (ibid.) The alf will stay with the family even after the original master dies, as long as it is treated well and respected. Poor treatment may bring financial ruin (as the alf makes away with all of the wealth it brought) and/or destruction of the home by fire. Hauntings are attributed to alfs who have lost their owners (186). All in all, the relationship is based on reciprocity and mutual respect.

Mounds, Hills, and Mountains

Elevated places are holy places in heathenry. When the volva comes to prophecy in the Saga of Erik the Red, she is given the high seat to perform her services. Before the slave is sacrificed at her king’s funeral in Ahmed ibn Fozlan’s famous account, she is raised above something resembling a door frame and recites phrases that suggest (or mimic) the power of seership granted to one approaching death (Ellis 46). Additionally, the attested practice of utisetta –“sitting out” to divine with the dead, sometimes involving sleeping on it overnight – takes place on burial mounds. In addition, mountains are well-known abodes of giants and other powerful spirits (108). So it is natural that sacrifices would be made on hills, mountains, and burial mounds, where participants may look out over the surrounding area and see from a broader perspective.

Honoring the Hidden Powers

The worlds beneath the earth are mysterious and taboo. The powers of death lurk there, and yet they hold the essential keys to life: wealth, fertility, and even rebirth. As we descend into the dark half of the year, it is only natural that we should first honor those who occupy that liminal place, ask for their support and aid through winter’s challenges. Think of it as an extension of friendship and respect to the hidden ones, who embody the powers of life – light and warmth – even in the darkness and cold.

 

Works Cited

“Austrfararvisur.” Skaldic Poetry of the Scandinavian Middle Ages.

      http://skaldic.abdn.ac.uk/db.php?id=1351&if=default&table=text&val=edition.

Ellis, Hilda Roderick. The Road to Hel. Greenwood, 1968.

Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.

“The Saga of Erik the Red.” SAGABD.org. http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en.

Sagas of the Norsemen: Viking and German Myth. Myth & Mankind, Vol. 5, No. 20.

      Time Life Education, 1998.

 

Image: "Elves in a Wood" by Arthur Rackham

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic and Slavic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

Comments

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Thursday, 11 October 2018

    Having read Journey to Ixilan by Castaneda and Supernatural by Graham Hancock I am inclined to view the Elves as primarily the spirits of hallucinogenic plants. I suppose that Fly agaric grows in Scandinavia and Germany but I don't know what other hallucinogens are native to the regions.

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