A strong association with craftsmanship is a major hallmark of dwarves. But there is no such equivalent hallmark to distinguish elves. In fact, the only speaking character ever referred to as an elf in Norse literature is a man named Volund. Yet everything about Volund suggests that he is much the same thing as a dwarf, with the dwarven proclivity for craftsmanship.
Elves Versus Dwarves
Contrary to most recent presentations, which are heavily inspired by the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, elves are not a well-defined category of being. In fact, some characters called ‘elves’ in Snorri’s Prose Edda are also called ‘dwarves’ in the same paragraph. So, the term elf is very vague, but it does not seem to be simply a synonym for dwarf.
The best we can probably do to define an “elf” in Norse mythology is just to understand it as a very broad category of benign supernatural beings that includes dwarves, and potentially also some other beings we know much less about today.
Volund’s story is preserved in the Poetic Edda, in a poem called ‘Volund’s Poem’, or ‘Volundarkvitha’. According to that poem, Volund and his two brothers were out hunting one day when they came upon three Valkyries weaving next to a lake, who had taken off the ‘swan skins’ that apparently allow Valkyries to fly. Volund and his brothers took the three women home for themselves, and the women stayed for nine years before they took their swan skins back and flew away to go back to judging battles.
Volund’s two brothers skied off to go looking for their wives, but Volund stayed home and waited in the hope that his wife would come back. Each day that his wife was missing, Volund made another golden ring that he looped onto a long rope.
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The Captured Volund
A Swedish king named Nithuth learned that Volund was alone at home and craved the services of this brilliant craftsman. The king sent soldiers to abduct Volund. When they arrived, Volund was not at home. The soldiers did see the seven hundred rings and they took one of the rings before they left.
That night, the chilly Volund came in from his hunting. He counted his rings, and noticed that one was missing. Believing falsely that it was his long-lost wife who had returned and taken a ring, he sat up all night waiting to see her, but at length he fell asleep and was captured by the men that King Nithuth had sent.
Awaking in chains, Volund’s Achilles tendons were cut—leaving him unable to walk. Volund was then imprisoned on a small tide island and forced to work there at the king’s behest.
A Horrific Vengeance
But, after a long time of working for King Nithuth on the island, Volund was visited by Nithuth’s two young sons one day. Volund saw the glimmer of wonder and greed in the boys’ eyes and told them that if they wanted to see some really special treasures in his secret chest, they would have to come back the next day, but tell no one that they were visiting him.
The two boys were totally taken in. The next morning, they stole out of their home and over to the tide island. Volund handed them the keys to his ‘special’ treasure chest, but what distinguished this one was the lid—sharpened to a razor edge. When the boys leaned their heads to look closer at the gold, Volund slammed it shut on their necks and decapitated them.
Full Strike Yet to Come
In time, Nithuth’s daughter, apparently a young adult, came to visit Volund as well. The young woman confided that she had come to Volund without anyone else knowing, maybe fearing that she would be judged for the risk of associating with this caged enemy.
And that risk was real, because once again, Volund took advantage of a visit from one of Nithuth’s offspring to strike back at the king. Volund gave her beer, so much that it dulled her mind, and he raped her. With that done, Volund put on some kind of flying suit that he had made in secrecy, and took off into the air.
He flew over to King Nithuth, who asked this so-called ‘elf-lord’ whether he knew what had happened to his sons. Yes, said Volund, but first you must swear me oaths not to harm my bride. The king did so. Now, with those oaths sworn, Volund told Nithuth that he had killed Nithuth’s sons, and made drinking cups out of their skulls, and jewelry out of their eyeballs and teeth.
And having said this, he revealed another evil truth: he had raped and impregnated Nithuth’s own daughter. This was the bride that the king had sworn not to harm. As Volund flew away laughing, Nithuth summoned his daughter, who confirmed the brutal truth.
So much for the only speaking ‘elf’ in Old Norse literature—Volund the craftsman, Volund the overzealous, psychotic avenger. But Volund is a terror only to the family members of those who have wronged him. A ‘troll’, to turn to yet a worse kind of supernatural being, is an indiscriminate terror to everyone.
Common Questions about Volund’s Poem
Volund, the elf, preferred to stay home with the hope that she would return one day. He also made around 700 gold rings counting the days that his wife was missing, a ring per day.
The reputation of Volund, the brilliant craftsman, had reached Nithuth, the Swedish king. So Volund was captured by the king’s soldiers, who chained him and cut off his Achilles tendons, making him unable to walk. Volund was then imprisoned and sent to an island to live all alone and work only at the king’s behest.
According to the ‘Volundarkvitha’, after king Nithuth wronged Volund, he took his revenge by killing the king’s sons and raping his only daughter. Unlike trolls that do wrong to everyone, elves could only be a terror to the family that wronged them. So Volund is considered an elf rather than a troll.