The Prose Edda provides a comprehensive description of elves, or álfar, which are presented as tall, mysterious, magical beings. Sturluson actually mentions 2 types of elf: light and dark. The light elves are “fairer than the sun to look at,” while the dark elves are “blacker than pitch.”
The Poetic Edda also mentions elves, with 1 poem, Völundarkviða, featuring an elf as the main protagonist. However, the Poetic Edda makes no reference to light elves and dark elves. This has led some historians to question whether this division was invented by Sturluson, perhaps as a result of Christian influence, considering the clear parallels with the Christian concept of angels and demons.
The elves seem to have had a positive relationship with the gods, especially the Vanir, whereas their relationship with humans was more enigmatic. In some sagas, they are the cause of human illnesses, while in others, they offer cures.
The dwarves, or dvergr, were master metalworkers who lived deep underground in networks of mines and tunnels, and who turned to stone if they came into contact with the sun. They provided the gods with many valuable, magical items including Thor’s hammer, Mjöllnir, and Freyr’s gold-bristled boar, Gullinbursti. These were both produced after Loki initiated a challenge amongst the dwarves to see which of them could craft the most impressive object.
The Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda give conflicting accounts of the origin of dwarves. The Poetic Edda describes how the dwarves were made from the blood of Ymir, the first jötunn. The Prose Edda, meanwhile, suggests that the dwarves were maggot-like creatures who burrowed through Ymir’s flesh, until the gods discovered them and decided to imbue them with reason.
There is no indication that the dwarves in Norse mythology were small in stature, no more than the jötunn were large. It is unclear when the word ‘dwarf’ became attached to the concept of shortness, but, in the modern world, this idea has become firmly established.
The Valkyries were the ‘Choosers of the Slain:’ a group of female spirits who would ride across battlefields on the backs of horses, deciding which warriors were deserving of a place in Odin’s hall of Valhalla. In certain accounts, they would also choose which warriors should live or die in the first place, an idea which gave them a sinister, fatalistic aura.
The Valkyries were also vicious fighters who could engage in a battle when they were needed, as described in the Poetic Edda: “Helmeted valkyries came down from the sky / – the noise of spears grew loud – they protected the prince.” There is no suggestion that the Valkyries were immortal or invulnerable, but they were probably too powerful to be slain by any human hand.
Some historians believe that the concept of Valkyries must have been based upon real women warriors. This interpretation grew in popularity in 2017, when DNA analysis of an exhumed Norse warrior found evidence that the warrior was female. However, those findings have since been challenged, and the idea of female warriors within Norse society remains a controversial, unproven theory.
Jörmungandr, or the World Serpent, was an immense snake whose coils encircled the entirety of Midgard, the realm of humans. The Norse believed that Midgard was a wide, flat disk with an ocean around the edges, and Jörmungandr lay at the bottom of this ocean with his tail tucked into his own mouth.
Jörmungandr’s father was Loki, and his sister was Hel. According to the Prose Edda, Odin was nervous about the dangerous nature of Loki’s children, and eventually decided to banish them. Hel was sent to live in the underworld, while Jörmungandr was thrown to the bottom of the sea.
Despite this banishment, Jörmungandr is never presented as Odin’s enemy. Instead, the World Serpent is the recurring enemy of Thor. Several poems in the Poetic Edda describe confrontations between the god of thunder and the World Serpent, and they are prophesied to one day kill each other in battle.
Fenrir was a giant, monstrous wolf, the son of Loki and sibling to Jörmungandr and Hel. He was an important figure in Norse mythology, as evidenced by the number of references in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, as well as depictions of a monstrous wolf on several runestones unearthed by modern archaeologists.
Fenrir was so large and dangerous that the gods made efforts to bind him. No normal chain would have been capable of such a feat, so they turned to the dwarves for help. According to the Prose Edda, the dwarves made a chain for Fenrir using 6 magical ingredients: “the noise a cat makes when it moves, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, the sinews of a bear, the breath of a fish, and the spittle of a bird.”
This chain, Gleipnir, was successful, but the Norse did not expect it to hold Fenrir forever. They believed that, at the end of the world, the chain would break and Fenrir would devour Odin.
Sleipnir was Odin’s horse, a fast and powerful mount, easily distinguishable from other horses by the fact that he had 8 legs. The Poetic Edda states that “Odin is the best of the Æsir, Sleipnir [the best] of horses.” His name means ‘slippy’ or ‘slippery one,’ probably based on the idea that he was too fast for anyone to catch.
Sleipnir’s origin story is an interesting one. His father was Svadilfari, another magical horse who was famed for his great strength. According to the Prose Edda, Loki transformed himself into a female horse, then used this form to seduce Svadilfari. Loki, still disguised, went on to give birth to Sleipnir. This story is a clear indicator of Loki’s chaotic personality, as it does not follow the usual rules of nature.
In Norse culture, horses were a symbol of strength and virility. They also had a divine quality to them, and some people believed that horses had the power to communicate directly with the gods.
Huginn and Muninn
Huginn and Muninn were a pair of talking ravens who lived on Odin’s shoulders. The Prose Edda describes how, every morning, Odin sent them to fly over the human realm of Midgard. They would return to his shoulders at the end of the day with news and information.
The association between Odin and ravens is extremely old – a helmet from the 6th century, discovered in a Swedish grave, depicted a figure accompanied by a pair of birds – and this long standing connection is easy to explain. Ravens are associated with death and battlefields, while they are also extremely intelligent. These same characteristics are often attached to Odin, which makes ravens an appropriate match.
The names Huginn and Muninn are the Norse words for ‘thought’ and ‘memory.’ This has led some historians to argue that the ravens were never conceived of as real creatures. Instead, they might have been a metaphor for Odin’s Hugr, or ‘mind,’ which he was able to send out into Midgard while his physical body stayed behind in Asgard.
Níðhöggr was a giant dragon who lived under Yggdrasil, the World Tree. He would chew on the tree’s roots, hoping to kill it, and to drag the cosmos into a state of chaos. Some myths suggest that he was trapped by the roots, and that, if he ever broke free, it would mark the end of the universe.
The Poetic Edda explains how Níðhöggr also played a role in the afterlife, chewing on the bodies of murderers and adulterers for all eternity: “There Níðhöggr sucked / the blood of the slain.” However, this idea may have been a late addition to Norse mythology, with the concept of eternal suffering probably inspired by Christian teachings on the afterlife.
In terms of physical form, Níðhöggr was closer to a giant snake than to our modern conception of a dragon. Archaeologists are yet to discover any physical depictions of him, but the Prose Edda includes his name on a list of serpents.
Auðumbla was a primeval cow who fed Ymir, the first jötunn, with her milk. She is only ever mentioned in the Prose Edda, so modern historians must rely on a one-sided account of her role in Norse mythology.
This role, it seems, was to nourish the universe’s first beings. This should come as no surprise, considering the importance of cows within Norse society as providers of milk and meat. As well as Ymir, who drank from 4 rivers of milk which flowed from her udder, Auðumbla was also heavily involved with the birth of Búri, grandfather of Odin. The Prose Edda explains how she licked a salt stone for 3 days, eroding it away until she discovered Búri hidden within.
Ymir was the progenitor of all jötnar, while Búri was the progenitor of all gods, and it is interesting to note how Auðumbla served as a link between the 2 factions. In later stories, they were usually pitted as enemies to one another, but, at the beginning of time, the gods and the jötnar shared a common relationship with Auðumbla.
Hafgufa was a monstrous sea creature with jaws so large that it could swallow a ship. Its name appears briefly in the Prose Edda, as part of a list of whales, but no further information is given.
For a full account of the creature, historians must turn to Konungs skuggsjá, or ‘King’s Mirror,’ another Old Norse work written in the mid-13th century. This text explains how the Hafgufa lived off the coast of Iceland, and, when sitting still, could easily be mistaken for an island. It hunted other creatures by belching vomit into the surrounding water, then waiting for hungry fish to swarm. When a suitable number of fish had gathered, the Hafgufa closed its mouth and swallowed them in a single gulp.
It is arguable whether or not the Hafgufa should be included on a list of mythical creatures. At the time, it was never associated with the gods, or magic, or other realms. The Norse simply believed that it was a dangerous creature who inhabited the deepest ocean, no less real than a shark or a whale. In hindsight, we can label Hafgufa as a mythical beast, but to terrified sailors setting out on long journeys, it was probably anything but.