Dwarves are typically individuals who are much below the standard size or stature of their respective group or species. In Norse myths and legends, you will come across several creatures, including dwarves, elves, spirits, and giants, among others. In this write-up, we will focus on the Norse dwarves and their mythology.
If you have come across fantasy novels such as the Lord of the Rings and other Germanic fairytales and folklore, then you have probably acquainted yourself with these wondrous beings known as dwarves. Throughout history, dwarves have played vital roles in the courts of sovereign individuals such as kings and dukes and the households of authoritative personnel. Some dwarves have been jesters, messengers, entertainers, and favorites. In Norse mythology, dwarves represent minor divine figures and are renowned for their agility, skills, and moral ambiguity. They are popular in several stories that explain Norse cultures, such as the one that talks about dragon Fafnir’s treasure and the forging of Thor’s hammer. What more should you know about Norse dwarves? Read on to find out!
In the pre-Christian mythology and religion of the Norse and other Germanic peoples, dwarves are identified as invisible beings. In fact, in these cultures, you may not come across an indication that a dwarf has anything to do with small stature or size compared to other creatures. Instead, the dwarves were thought to have lived underground in Svartalfheim, a labyrinthine complex of mines and forges, and appeared to be pitch-black. They are often identified as ‘black elves’ and in most instances, they are said to resemble human corpses or are described as dead. For this reason, we can deduce that they are a very blurred line between dwarves, elves, and dead humans.
Nodri (North), Austri (East), Vestri (West), and Sudri (South) are the four dwarves that hold aloft the four corners of the sky. Based on this belief, they are said to possess magical powers and colossal strength. Norse mythology depicts the dwarves as skilled arts men, smiths, and craftsmen; and further describes them as knowledgeable and wise. Several memorable treasures are associated with the Norse dwarves including, the spear of Odin, a magnificent necklace owned by Freya, the chain that bound the wolf Fenrir when all other fetters failed, and a ring owned by Odin, among others.
Norse and Germanic myths and legends feature several dwarves. Most of the dwarves inhabited Nidavellir, which was among the 9 worlds created by the Gods, while others lived in Midgard, which was the world of men. Snorri Sturluson tells a story of the origin of the dwarves, where he claims that the dwarves were transformed from the maggots that constantly fed on Ymir, the primeval giant’s flesh. Modsognir was the first dwarf. The second one was Durin, who were normal dwarves that lived on the land of the men. From them came another category of dwarves identified as the black elves, who lived underground in the world of Svartalfheim. In this section, we will discuss all the Norse dwarves. They were;
- Modsognir and Durin – The first dwarves
These were the first two Norse dwarves created by the Gods and became the first ancestors of all the Norse dwarves. Initially, they were maggots feeding on Ymir’s, the primeval giant, flesh to keep alive. They lived on the earth and coexisted with giants and humans. The name Modsognri means ‘frenzy-roarer’ or ‘battle roarer’. He possessed this title because eventually, he became the leader of the dwarves. Durin meant ‘sleepy’ which was directly attributed to his characteristics, and he was simply the deputy leader of the dwarves and was created to assist Mogsonir.
- Lofar – Among the early dwarves
Lofar was among the earliest Norse dwarves who lived with all their descendants in Loruvellir. Not much is mentioned about Lofar, but from him arose one of the leaders of the dwarves known as Dvalin, whose descendants are explicitly mentioned as the people of Lofar. His name meant ‘stooper’ or ‘praiser’, which directly reflected his characteristics.
- Dvalin – one of the leaders of the dwarves
Based on the poetic Edda and Prose Edda by Snori, Dvalin is mentioned as the leader, preferably the chieftain of the dwarves. Also, there is the notion that all the other dwarves were descendants of the leader dwarf and his daughters. The name Dvalin means ‘dawdler’ in Old Norse. He was given this name because most of the time, he always lagged, and at times, he would take so much time to do nearly everything.
- The sons of Ivaldi – the most skilled craftsmen
There were four sons of Ivaldi, whose names meant bowman. They were identified as master craftsmen, and their works were greatly treasured. They designed three gifts for Aesir, the gods of the principal pantheon in the Norse religion. They made a collapsible boat (Skidblandir) for Freyr (a god in the Norse religion associated with horse cult). The most unique thing about this boat was that if Freyr wasn’t using it, he would easily shrink it and store it in his pocket. They also created an aesthetic magic gold wig to replace Sif’s Hair (Sif was Thor’s wife). The third item they created was the invisible spear (Gungir) for Odin (a war god). The Gungnir was seen as the most enduring weapon and symbolized ultimate power and authority over the land. The sons of Ivaldi made it from strong Asgardian metal and filled it with several enchantments to magnify its power.
- Brokk and Eiti – dwarf brothers who were master craftsmen
Brokk and Eiti were dwarf brothers whose jealousy informed their skills and craftwork. The name Brokk meant ‘trotter’ while the name Eiti meant ‘poisonous’. They were jealous of the 4 sons of Ivaldi, so they felt the need to create more items for the gods. Among the treasured items they created were a ring of power for Odin known as Draupnir, golden bristles for Freyr known as Gullinbursti, and a magic war hammer for Thor, which was known as Mjollnir.
Loki (the god of mischief) made a wager with the two brothers and told them that they couldn’t make any items better than the 4 sons of Ivaldi. The bet was that Loki would be beheaded if they did make something worthy and acceptable to the gods, especially if the items were better than those made by the sons of Ivaldi. So, once they were done with everything they had to make, Brokk and Eiti presented their gifts before the Aesir, who were indeed pleased, which meant that Loki lost his bet.
Even so, the gods rejected the proposal to behead Loki but instead chose to seal his mouth. Following their authorization, Brokk and Eiti chose to sew his mouth shut, but the god of mischief tried to escape. Thor brought him back, and the two dwarf brothers sealed Loki’s lips using wire. How interesting does this get?
- Brisings – the name of the four dwarven brothers who made the magnificent necklace that eventually caused a war in the world of men
The four dwarven brothers were Berling, Grer, Alfrigg, and Dvalin. The four of them created and designed an elegant gold necklace (Brisingamen). It was so magnificent that Freyja, the Norse goddess of beauty, fertility, and earth, wanted to keep it to herself. When the necklace was made Freyja was Odin’s mistress, and she felt as though wearing the necklace made by Brisings would make her the most beautiful woman in the world, which would match her goddess status.
She craved the necklace so much to an extent that she left her home one night in search of the dwarves. As usual, the god of mischief (Loki) followed her to see what she was up to. When Freyja saw the necklace, she offered to trade in a few jewelry items she had, but the dwarven brothers rejected her offer and asked her to sleep with each one of them instead. Out of desperation, she accepted to spend 4 nights with the dwarves for the necklace without knowing that Loki was spying on her. Without any hame, Loki quickly went back and reported her behavior to Odin, which was quite disappointing before his eyes. Odin asked Loki to steal the necklace from her for a great reward, which he did.
For Freyja to regain possession of the Brisingamen necklace, Odin ordered her to start a war between two kings, that is Hongi (King of Norway) and Hedin Hjarrandason over a woman known as Hild. Hild was Hongi’s daughter, so Frejya manipulated Hedin into abducting her, which caused a high-level tension, especially after Hild became Hedin’s wife. Their armies fought until the day of the Ragnarok.
- Fjalar and Galar – Norse dwarves who killed the Kvasir who was born of the saliva of two rival groups of gods, the Aesir and the Vanir
These two Norse dwarves proportionally mixed honey with Kvasir’s blood to create the mead of poetry. They also drowned the giant Gilling and murdered his wife but used the mead they had made as a token to Stuttung (Gillings’s son) in exchange for their lives.
- Andvari – the Norse dwarf who possessed the special gold ring
Andvari was among the most unique dwarves as he could turn himself into a salmon and had several magical powers. He owned a special gold ring (Andvaranaut) that easily attracted more treasures, but Loki eventually stole it, which caused Andvari to curse anyone who wore the ring. For this reason, the ring became the cause of treachery and violent death cycle in the Norse Homeland.
Norse Mythology and Later Folkare
Norse mythology gives a full account of the origins of different beings, including dwarves, giants, elves, gods, and men. The origins are recorded in the Prose Edda, written by Snori Sturuluson in the 13th century, and the Poetic Edda compiled in the same century. The two accounts, however, give different stories about the dwarves. The table below directly indicates the differences between the two.
|Account/ Feature||Prose Edda by Snori Sturuluson||Poetic Edda compiled in the 13th century|
|Description of the dwarves||Dwarves were simply the maggots that fed on Ymir’s flesh before the gods transformed them into different beings||Product of the primordial blood and bones of the primeval giant Ymir|
|Dwarf names||Features about 100 dwarf names but explicitly mentions the 4 dwarves (Nodri, Austri, Vestri and Sudri) and their cosmological roles||Mentions over 100 dwarf names only without any emphasis on cosmic roles and the likes|
According to both folklore, the dwarves had diverse roles and played an essential role in influencing the relations and interactions between gods and men alike. Some dwarves created and delivered artifacts with magical qualities that determined the status of the gods and men, others were sexual predators who tricked goddesses for pleasure, and some others were murderous creatures. They were guards, assistants, and blacksmiths, among so many other things.
As time went by, Christianity began spreading across the region, and most Germanic peoples became converts. But still, dwarves’ tales were told in nearly every place where Germanic languages are spoken. At first, there was no mention of dwarves being short creatures, but instead, they were identified as lesser supernatural beings compared to giants and gods. However, in later folklore, the late legendary sagas, and later sources, the dwarves are described as ‘small and ugly’. Also, you may notice that in nearly all accounts, it is rare to come across female dwarves, and there is not much to learn about them.
Generally, the concept of dwarves originates from Germanic folklore. Norse mythology describes dwarves as skilled craftsmen that lived underground in caves so that they can work efficiently. As you have seen in this write-up, they played an important role in the stories of Norse mythology. Today, the words ‘dwarfs’ and ‘dwarves’ are commonly used to describe brings, with the first one being associated with humans to describe the state of dwarfism. The latter is directly associated with creatures of myths or fantasy.