October 30, 2020 — We have been asleep. That is how it happened. When they slaughtered our neighbors, we did not wake up.
When they pulled down our holy sites and built foreign temples in their place, and banned our rituals — we did not wake up then either. But we are awake now — knowing even sleeping atheists get superstitious when darkness descends after dusk. Which begs the question; from where comes the nightly force that thins the veil between the material plane and the otherworld?
In ancient times, the people of northern Europe believed the dead continued to exist in places like Valhalla, Helheim, and Fólkvangr, to name a few. Although burial customs in the Old North differed depending on region and social status (kurgan mounds, stone ships, cremation sites, buried Viking ships,) heathens generally believed dead kin had the power to influence the fortune or hardship of the living.
Unlike modern-day funeral practices, ancestor worship was important and not a thoughtless act. Honoring the deceased held important social functions that cultivated kinship values, reinforced family loyalty, and provided tales of ancestral deeds to inspire the young. By venerating the dead through sacrifice, people hoped their family fortune would be positively influenced in an age of unrest and violence, thus securing the family bloodline’s future.
Blood to the Elves
We know of two rites that venerated the dead in the Viking Age and earlier times — álfablót and dísablót — both took place at the beginning of winter, the former being shrouded in secrecy and reserved for males, and the later a public sacrifice that was likely reserved for women, at least in prehistoric times. In one version of the Hervarar saga, there is a description of how the dísablot was performed: Alfhildr, the daughter of king Alfr of Alfheim, was kidnapped while she was reddening a horgr with blood. A horgr was a sacred area for seiðkonar and vǫlur, female seers and “shamans” which suggests the dísablót rite was, at some point in ancient times, arranged by women. By contrast, the lesser-known álfablót — which literally means ‘Blood to the Elves’ — was held separately, at each homestead, for local spirits and deceased ancestors’ souls — and explicitly excluding strangers. In Saga Ólafs hins helga it is described how strangers would not be let in during an álfablót for a homestead’s fear of Óðinn’s wrath. People would make offerings of food and drink to the alfr, especially apples, which were associated with the realm of the dead at the time. The tradition of putting out food and mead has survived even into modern times in some parts of Scandinavia.
Related to the word álfablót, elf in Old Norse is alfr, which can mean flowing or river, and is a word for which no known female counterpart exists. Unlike the protective spirit of the Norse fylgja, whom most historians and folklorists consider a female family spirit who watched over her descendants, the alfr (elf) is believed to have been a deceased warrior or gudja priest who could not act in the capacity of a spirit guardian like the fylgja.
The male nature of the álfablót sacrifice can be explained by the fact alfr (elves) are always mentioned in the sagas in conjunction with deeds of long-gone warriors and chieftains, skálds (poets), and male priests. In contrast, the dísablót was a sacrificial veneration held in honor of female spirits and deities, including dísir and valkyrjur (valkyries). It might sound hard to believe, but the dísablót lives on to this day as an annual fair called the Disting in Uppsala, eastern Sweden.
Another variant of the elven sacrifice is described in the Kormáks saga, one of the Icelanders’ sagas. The álfablót ritual involves the blood of a sacrificed bull being poured out over a burial mound, which is essentially a Fennoscandian kurgan. Unfortunately the saga provides rather sparse information on this type of blood sacrifice, but perhaps it suggests an older, more genuine burial practice. As Christianity became more entrenched towards the end of the Viking Age, it is said the Kurgan-style álfablót could no longer be practiced openly.
Since the elves were collective powers with a close connection to ancestors and fertility, it is likely the Álfablót concerned ancestor worship and the collective life force of the family or clan. If the dead were taken care of and respected, they would protect the homestead and its people, and in return, the ancestors would guarantee fertility. That the benefits of álfablót applied to the entire homestead or clan is important to note since the Viking Age view on ‘family’ in this sense includes anyone with favorable connections to the deceased individuals — not just blood-related members.
The Significance of Sacrifice
Ancestor veneration, honoring the dead, and the Álfablót in particular, were important parts of daily life across Scandinavia. It is not difficult to see why — these practices represented an expression of love for departed relatives. As was the case in other cultures, significant benefits were gained in the process and equally significant penalties if respect was withheld. These sacrifices and acts of reverence for the ancestors took on many forms, notably ensuring the dead’s spirits were elevated to the afterlife to keep their memories alive with various food offerings. Perhaps this flexibility helped the practices survive after Christianity tried stamping them out since families could continue their offerings and rituals in the sanctity of their own homes in ways that met their own needs.