Ancestors or Alfar?

The Princess and the Trolls by John Bauer
The Princess and the Trolls by John Bauer

In our mythology, there is a blurred line between the two categories of beings known as Alfar. We have Alfar who dwell with Freyr in Ljosalfheim who are Elvin (Okay, that’s a simplistic way of describing them, but I’m sure you get my meaning.) and their kin, the Svartalfs (aka Dwarves), who dwell in Svartalfheim. They both tend to wander here in Midgard when they wish. However, the spirits of male ancestors are also called Alfar. There has been lots of speculation over the years as to whether there’s any relation between the ancestor Alfar and the more elven Alfar. I’ve never read anything, however, that really satisfied me until I was reading a non-Heathen book and something finally clicked.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s book, The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance, throughout Europe, from the Ukraine to Denmark, ancient peoples buried their dead with a ritual meal of panspermia or “all-seed.” This is a dish made of all the seeds and grains grown (cultivated and wild) in the area, in the form of gruel or cakes. The food was buried with the dead.

Panspermia grain cakes were also a ritual last meal given to those who were (possibly) sacrificed in bogs throughout Northern Europe. At least ten of the bog bodies’ stomach contents from Ireland to Poland show that they had eaten a last meal consisting of seeds and grain that sprout in spring, such as wheat, flax, and flower seeds.

According to the 1965 book, The Bog People: Iron Man Preserved by Peter Vilhelm Glob:

 The dead man’s last meal, taken perhaps half a day or a day before his sacrifice, . . . consisted of an abundance of just those grains and flower seeds which were to be made to germinate, grow, and ripen [in] the spring landscape. In the three meals which it has so far been possible to analyse [as of 1965] there has been not the slightest trace of summer or autumn fruits . . . ; and it is more plausible to suggest that they were given a special meal of the wild and cultivated plants of the district before being sacrificed . . . than to suggest that they were vegetarians.[1]

Jane Harrison wrote about panspermia meals buried with the dead in her book Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Dr. Harrison stated that the dead:

took that “supper,” that panspermia, with them down to the world below and brought it back in the autumn a pankarpia [all-fruit]…It is sown a panspermia, it is reaped a pankarpia.[2]

In other words, the ancestors would tend to the crops and wild plants underground, as their descendants tended them above ground. Perhaps our ancient Indo-European ancestors (since this kind of ritual was indeed practiced across Europe and possibly beyond) associated planting seeds with “planting” the bodies of their dead.


One of the other pan-European rituals associated with panspermia is that it was eaten by the living when honoring their ancestors. Some Europeans still eat these types of panspermia dishes around Yule or as part of funeral practices, such as the frumenty eaten in England up to the modern day.[3]

The people who began the tradition of offering grain & seed gruel to their dead were Neolithic farmers, as were the peoples of Northern Europe who fed grain & seed cakes to those they were about to sacrifice in the bogs. This tradition began long before the pastoral herders brought their methods of animal husbandry and their Aesir to the North. The Neolithic farmers were the original worshipers of Nerthus and Freyr. And as we know Freyr is the ruler of Ljosalfheim, home of the Light Alfar, as well as the Lord of the Mound… burial mound, that is.[4] Perhaps these beings are closely related, if not the same, after all.

A lot of what we know about dealing with the Alfar in our times actually comes from what we know of the Irish and British Celtic sidhe (pronounced “she”). As Kveldulf Gundarsson wrote in Elves, Wights, and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry: Vol. I:

The distinction between mound-alfs, as the dead who have reached a state of might between the worlds in their howes, and sidhe was known in the Viking Age: the Old Norse word álfkarl (male alf) was not translated as sidhe by the Irish, but as alcaille, “ghost of the dead.”[5] The worship of the mound-dead goes back at least to the late Stone Age in both Scandinavia and Ireland, at which time the material cultures were virtually identical: it is possible that the sidhe and some of the alfs may once have been related, but long-separated.[6]

I do not think it coincidental that the ancient farmers of Northern Europe gave ritual last meals of panspermia cakes to those they meant to sacrifice. Given the archaeological and anthropological evidence, it is my belief that it was the ancestors sacrificed in such a way who originally became the Alfar of Ljosalfheim and, therefore, had at least some of the powers usually attributed to land wights – power over the fruitfulness of the land and over the prosperity of their descendants. Over the millennia people forgot their part in creating Alfar. As people began burying their revered dead in mounds or cairns the term became associated with ancestors and the wights as separate beings.

Somewhere along the way, the Disir, the spirits of female ancestors, became a distinct group of revered dead. This may have come about due to influence from the Romano-Celtic cult of the Matronae, which reached from the Mediterranean to modern day Denmark. So while the Alfar assisted their descendants with the fertility of the land and occasional advice, the Disir ensured the fertility and protection of their descendants.

I’m still trying to puzzle this out in my head. I’m open to other ideas and opinions, so feel free to comment.

[1] Bog People: Iron Man Preserved. (New York: New York Review of Books), 163.

[2] Harrison, Jane. Epilegomena to the Study of Greek Religion; and Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion. (New York: University Books, 1962), 292.

[3] Barber, Elizabeth Wayland. The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance W. W. Norton & Company, 2013), Kindle Locations 5585-7037.

[4] Of course, this makes me curious whether or not the farmers buried in the ancient mounds, such as the Egtved Girl, were buried with panspermia of some sort. I may have to do more investigating in this vein, though after 3,000 years the chances of there being a seed cake or bowl of gruel to survive is not very likely. I’ll look into it though.

[5] de Vries, Jan. Altnordisches etymologisches Worterbuch, 2nd ed. (Leiden: Brill, 1962), 6.

[6] Gundarsson, Kveldulf. Elves, Wights, and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry: Vol I (New York: iUniverse, Inc., 2007), 2.




2 thoughts on “Ancestors or Alfar?

  1. This really makes sense to me, and it’s something I’ve wondered about for a long time. Before coming to heathenry, I studied fairy lore for a few years. I found it fascinating that both fairies and spirits of dead local people were said to teach magic to accused witches, and the line between encounters with the sidhe and the dead often seemed blurred. This came to a head when I read The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, which asserts that fairies are the same as the spirits of the dead that were contacted by Spiritualists. I couldn’t deny it makes a sort of sense, but doesn’t explain the connection of the Fae or Alfar with the fertility of the land. Your article suggests that the explanation may just lie further back in our history. Thank you!

    1. Oooo… I’m going to have to read the Evans-Wentz book you mentioned. Thanks so much! I’m glad to hear this makes sense to someone else.

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