Fantasy genres and elves seem to go hand-in-hand. They are rooted in our culture in movies, video games, books, television shows, and anything in between. While many elven characters such as Tolkien’s Galadriel or Solas of Dragon Age have beautiful features and live in the sunlight, there is another subrace of elves that climb out from the darkness to murder and enslave. The dark elves. But where did the concept of these violent elves originate from? And what exactly defines a dark elf? Here is research into the history and evolution of these characters from their origination to what they are like today.
1. The Genesis of Dark Elves
The root of all “elfdom” can be traced back to Norse mythology. To the Norse, elves were practically demi-gods. Beautiful, slender, magical – they were everything humans should strive to be. Their pointed ears helped their exceptional hearing and differentiated them from mere mortals. Norse light elves were good and helpful, living in their elven world known as Álfheimr.
But the dark elves, or Dökkálfar, were very different. They dwelled deep underground in a realm called Svartálfaheimr. But often they would emerge from the shadows at night to sit on sleeping people’s chests and cause nightmares. Their skin was blackened from living near underground forges. In his research on Norse mythology and the elves, Snorri Sturluson wrote:
The dark elves live below the earth, in caves and the dark forest and they are unlike (light elves) in appearance – and much more unlike them in reality. The Light Elves are brighter than the sun in appearance, but the Dark Elves are blacker than pitch.”
So who were these dark elves? While positively malevolent, they were not inherently evil, sometimes siding with the light elves for the greater good of all beings. They have recently worked their way into pop culture. They were depicted in Thor: The Dark World in 2013 and are in the newest installment of the video game, God of War. It’s interesting to note that since much of Norse mythology was an oral history, there are debates about translations from Snorri. In these Norse stories, dark elves and dwarves are incredibly similar: both live underground, both are associated with forges, and both hate the light elves. It has led to theories that they are one and the same. And this is not the first time our gray-skinned friends have existed in a kind of limbo between races.
As these Norse stories were the very beginning of elves, it’s quite interesting to see how tales of dark elves evolved since.
2. Other Mythologies & Folklore
The Celts seemed to have some version of these creatures in their stories. Their word Daoi-Sith means dark elf, and their word Du-Sith means black elf. Unfortunately, due to their oral history, there are no surviving Celtic stories about why these distinctions exist and what they were.
But western Europe was ripe with such tales, and the northern isles also had their own version. The Orkney and Shetland Isles had stories of dark elves, often referred to as trow, dtrow, or drow. They lived underground and worked forges (another interesting dwarvish correlation), which cause their skin to turn black. They were thought to be very ugly and cruel. The tales from the Orkney Islands just had drow as mean, while the Shetland Islands made them out to be downright evil.
In both cases, they remained underground and only ventured out at night, for the sunlight would turn them to stone, which is an interesting fact that has been associated with trolls in modern times. It was said this drow would hold lavish celebrations below the ground, often kidnapping or luring musicians to come to perform for them.
Jacob Grimm (yes, that Grimm), attempted to make sense of these varying versions of dark elves. His solution was a three-pronged approach. He decided there were light elves, dark elves, and black elves. Dark elves were, in fact, dwarves. But black elves were their own thing. His description was:
. . . not so much downright black, as dim, dingy”
3. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Influence
Tolkien was an Anglo-Saxxon scholar and was heavily inspired by Nordic and Germanic mythology. So it’s no surprise that elves play a crucial role in the stories of Middle-Earth. But his take on dark elves is very different than what came before.
Dark elves were defined as those who had never seen the light of the Two Trees of Valinor – which was initially the only light aside from the stars. The trees’ destruction brought about the creation of the Sun per Tolkien’s creation myth. As far as it is written, they do not have gray or black skin but instead are pale with silver or black hair. It seems likely they lived in dark places, as well. Tolkien’s early concepts of dark elves said:
[I] imagined [them] as wandering about, and often ill-disposed towards the ‘Light-Elves’ . . . [or the name] sometimes applied to Elves captured by Morgoth and enslaved and then released to do mischief among the Elves”
One line specifically in The Silmarillion states:
. . . they call the Moriquendi, Elves of the Darkness, for they never beheld the Light that was before the Sun and Moon.”
There is one well-known dark elf in Tolkien’s stories. Eöl of Nan Elmoth from The Simarillion. He was explicitly referred to as a dark elf from many characters. He was cruel, lived deep in the forest, and stayed away from the light. We do know that the term ‘dark elf’ was an insult, as it was used by the Sons of Fëanor against King Thingol. Thingol did live underground, but by the apparent definition of Tolkien’s dark elves, this was more of an off-handed insult and not a technical term. He does not fit the description.
Tolkien’s elven-based stories in the 1950s launched a new era of fantasy. And the dark elves seemed to find their own middle ground between what Tolkien wrote and what these ancient myths created.
4. Dungeons & Dragons
This mega-popular tabletop role-playing game established much of what is considered a dark elf in modern fantasy. The dark elves, or drow, first made their appearance in a 1977 adventure module titled Against the Giants. From there, they evolved into a playable race and even got a large chapter dedicated to their culture in Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes in 2018. But perhaps the catalyst for drow becoming so popular in D&D is the publishing of the book series The Legend of Drizzt by R.A. Salvatore in 1988, which features a dark elf as the protagonist.
These drow have gray or black skin, white hair, typically red eyes, and are beautiful and lithe. They live below ground in what is called the Underdark and only venture out at night to steal items or people for slavery. These are possibly the evilest interpretation of dark elves, with their society focused on blood sacrifice, torture, physical and sexual abuse, demon summoning, and oppression in a violent matriarchal system.
5. Other Modern Interpretations
After Dungeons and Dungeons, many versions of dark elves followed.
The video game series The Elder Scrolls debuted in 1994. Their dark elves, or dunmer, have nearly black skin with red or black eyes. Early dunmer were also slavers, but after the revolt and Accession War, the race was scattered across the land, known as Tamriel, and became more peaceful with other races. While their backstabbing politics is similar to the drow of D&D, the dunmer do not live underground.
The MMO World of Warcraft launched in 2004. There are no precisely named dark elves in the game, but there does seem to be influence pulled from them. With a wide range of elven subraces, the Druchii, Night Elves, and even Void Elves have similarities. All are very beautiful and graceful. The Night Elves are, as the name would suggest, more powerful at night, drawing back to some of the most basic fundamentals of a dark elf. Void Elves, as well, have a heavy shadow-theme to them.
In 2009 a new tabletop RPG came about called Pathfinder, which was heavily influenced by Dungeons and Dragons. They, too, had the drow, which lived underground, were extremely violent, and shared a similar appearance to D&D drow.
6. What Makes a Dark Elf?
So with all of this information and history before us, we are down to a question: what makes a dark elf? There seem to be clear connections throughout history. They typically have grayscale skin, prefer the darkness, often live underground, and are vicious and cruel. In the myths regarding dark elves, there does seem to be an interesting dwarf and even troll correlations. Like these dark elves exist somewhere in between elf and another race. There is also a history of a war that appears to define them.
In Dungeons and Dragons, they were forced underground after a war between the elves. In World of Warcraft, the Druchii lost a civil war that forced them from the elven homeland. The dunmer in Elder Scrolls lost the Accession War against their slaves, and the drow of Pathfinder hid below ground to escape death from a cataclysmic event while the rest of the elves fled.
Going back further, Tolkien’s dark elves were sometimes the product of capture and torture by Morgoth, and the Nordic light and dark elves were often at odds. For the folklore at the Orkney and Shetland Isles, there is a captivating real-life connection. It is thought that the tales of these cave-dwelling dark elves come from the Norse invasions of the isles. The Vikings sent the indigenous, smaller, dark-skinned Picts away from the land and into hiding in the sea caves. It’s believed the Picts would emerge at night to steal from the invaders.
But that isn’t the only interesting connection . . .
7. A Spiderweb to Follow
Many of these dark elf stories correlate with spiders. Dungeons and Dragons’ drow worship the spider goddess Lolth. This likely influenced the Pathfinder drow worshipping spider god Rovagug – although it’s interesting to note that this is a male deity as spiders are matriarchal. One of the gods, the dunmer of Elder Scrolls worship, is Mephala, the spider goddess. And the spider goddess in World of Warcraft is called Shadra and is worshipped by trolls, which is fascinating given the early connotations between dark elves and trolls.
Norse mythology is a bit more difficult to pin down, given the questions about its translation. But going off of guesswork and assumptions, scholars believe the trickster god Loki could have dark elf ties in his heritage. That’s made even more impressive since his name is loosely translated to “knot” or “tangle,” and he made fishnets in many of his myths. Because of this, the Norse often referred to spiders as loki.
Going back to Tolkien, a spider did have a significant influence on the dark elves. Ungoliant, the beginning of all giant spiders and weaver of darkness, partnered up with the evil Morgoth to destroy the two Trees of Valinor – the first light of the world. Since dark elves are defined by never having seen the light of the trees, Ungoliant, in a sense, is their creator.
8. The Future of Dark Elves
The history of this race of subterranean-dwelling, violent, beautiful beings has grown and transformed throughout history. Modern fantasy isn’t going anywhere soon, with series like The Witcher and the upcoming Amazon Lord of the Rings-based television series, elves will stick around with us, as well. As dark elves continue to be a part of this evolving narrative, we will get to see how often they climb out of their shadowy tunnels to spark a bit of chaos and intrigue into our lives.