The Teutonic forms of the English word “dwarf” are: ON dvergr, OS dvärgher, AS dweorg, OHG twerg, OF dweorh. These can be traced back for at least twelve centuries, showing that the belief in dwarfs must have been held by the undivided Teutons. The word may be connected etymologically with the idea of hurting or oppressing, as by the nightmare spirit, or with that of deceiving or hurting through deception — a root-meaning akin to that of the various forms of the word “elf.”

Eddic cosmogony tells of the origin of the dwarfs. A later addition to Voluspa shows the gods in council. Who would shape the dwarf race from Brimir’s blood and the bones of Blaenn? Motsognir, mightiest of dwarfs, was created, then Durin. At Durin’s command the dwarfs made many figures of human form in (or out of) the earth. Then follows a catalogue of dwarfs’ names.1 Brimir and Blaenn may be names of Ymir, from whose flesh and blood earth and sea were made. The phrase “figures of human form” does not make quite clear whether these were men created by dwarfs, or, more likely, dwarfs created in human form by the chief dwarfs.

Snorri quotes these stanzas, but gives his own prose version. The gods sitting in council recalled that the dwarfs had quickened in the mould and underneath the earth, as maggots in flesh. They had received shape and life in Ymir’s flesh, but now, by the gods’ decree, they had human understanding and form. They dwell in the earth and in stones.2 Snorri had already told how the gods placed under each corner of the overarching Heaven a dwarf — Austre, “East”; Vestre, “West”; Nordre,


“North”; and Sudre, “South,” names which appear in the Voluspa catalogue. Heaven is therefore called “Task or Burden of the dwarfs” or “Helmet of Austre,” etc.3

With this Eddic account of the origin of the dwarfs may be compared that in the German Heldenbuch. God made dwarfs for the cultivation of waste lands and mountains, and made them artful and wise to know good and evil and the uses of all things. They erected splendid hollow hills. Giants were created to kill wild beasts and dragons and so to give security to the dwarfs. Heroes were also created for their aid.4 This must be based on some older pagan myth.

Of some of the dwarfs Voluspa says that they went from stone dwellings through moist fields to sand fields — a poetic account of a dwarf migration or of their power over various parts of nature, rocks, earth, and moisture. Snorri quotes the passage, and then divides dwarfs into those dwelling in mould and in stones, and those who proceed from Svarin’s mound to Aurvangr on Jöruplain.5 There is no doubt that the dwelling of dwarfs is underground, within hills and rocks.

Some of the Norns are said to be daughters of the dwarf Dvalin. Dvalin is a representative dwarf, since other dwarfs are “Dvalin’s host”; the sun is called by dwarfs “Dvalin’s deceiver”; and Dvalin gave magic runes to the dwarfs.6 The dwarf Thjodrörir, otherwise unknown, sang before Delling’s doors a magic song which gave strength to gods, ability to elves, and wisdom to Odin.7 Other dwarfs are named as doing certain deeds or are otherwise singled out for notice. There are the nine who, with Loki, built Menglod’s palace. Daenn and Nabbe made the boar Hildesvini for Freyja. Lit was kicked by Thor into Balder’s pyre. Fjalar and Galarr slew Kvasir and thus obtained the mead of poetry. Alviss, “All-knowing,” is prominent in Alvissmal. The dwarf Sindri’s race possess a hall of gold in Nidafell, according to Voluspa. This is apparently in Hel, and near it is the giant Brimir’s beer-hall. The verse is a later interpolation. Snorri calls the hall itself Sindri,


and makes it a future abode of righteous men.8 Other dwarfs are named in myths cited in this Chapter.

As we have seen the Eddic dwarfs are hardly to be distinguished from the Dökkalfar and Svartalfar, although Odin’s Raven-song mentions dwarfs and Dökkalfar separately.9 Certain dwarfs’ names show a connexion with the elves — Alf, Gandalf, Vindalf, while Dainn is a name shared by both a dwarf and an elf. Alberich (alb = “elf”) was a king of dwarfs, and Volund, skilled in that smith-work for which dwarfs were famous, and himself taught it by a dwarf, was yet a “prince” and “lord” of elves. Grimm, who identifies dwarfs and Svartalfar, points to Pomeranian folk-lore which divided dwarfs into white, brown, and black, according to their dress.10 Dwarfs were skilled in smith-work and their work was often of a magical kind. Loki, having cut off Sif’s hair, and threatened with vengeance by Thor, swore to get the Svartalfar to make hair of gold for Sif. He therefore went to the dwarfs called Ivaldi’s sons, and they made the hair, as well as the ship Skidbladnir and Odin’s spear Gungnir. Loki wagered his head with the dwarf Brokk that his brother Sindri would not make three equally precious things. Sindri bade Brokk blow the bellows and not cease till the work was done. Loki, transformed into a fly, stung Brokk three times in hope of making him stop blowing, but he could not hinder the precious things from being forged. These were a bear with golden bristles, the ring Draupnir, and a hammer. Sindri sent Brokk to Asgard to claim the wager. Loki presented the spear to Odin, the gold hair to Thor, and the ship to Frey. Brokk also presented his gifts — the ring to Odin, the boar to Frey, and the hammer to Thor, telling the magical virtues of each. The gods sat in judgment on the gifts, and the decision of Odin, Thor, and Frey was to be final. They decided that the hammer was best of all, their sure defence against the Frost-giants, and that the dwarf had won the wager. Loki offered to redeem his head, but Brokk would not hear of this. “Take me,” cried Loki, but Brokk could



This Anglo-Saxon casket, presented to the British Museum by Sir A. W. Franks, is one of whalebone from Northumbria, and dates from the seventh or eighth century. There are several designs carved on it, and two of these represent incidents from the Volund story. This story was of Saxon origin, and is referred to in Anglo-Saxon poetry, e.g., Deor’s Lament. It was popular over all the Teutonic area, where it is sometimes associated with other legendary cycles, and in Scandinavia the Volundarkvitha in the Edda and the Velints-saga contained in the Thidriks-saga show that it had been adopted there. As told in the second part of the Volundarkvitha King Nithud learned that Volund was in Ulfdalir. He had him bound in his sleep and hamstrung. Then the prisoner was forced to make ornaments for the king. The king’s two sons came to see these, and Volund slew them and cut off their heads. Then he set their skulls in silver, fashioned gems of their eyes, and made a brooch of their teeth, presenting these to Nithud, his wife, and his daughter Bothvild, respectively. The illustration shows Volund holding one of the skulls with a pair of tongs as he makes a goblet of it. The headless body lies on the ground. Bothvild and her attendant are also shown, and Volund’s brother Egil is seen catching birds with whose wings or feathers Volund is later to fly off (as told in the Velints-saga). The design to the right shows the Magi at the cradle of the Holy Child. See pp. 259, 267. From a photograph, by permission of the British Museum authorities.


not, for Loki wore the shoes with which he went through air and over water. Brokk asked Thor to catch him, and he did so. Loki told Brokk that he might have the head but not the neck. The dwarf took a thong and a knife and would have bored a hole in Loki’s lips and stitched up his mouth, but the knife would not cut. Then Brokk wished for his brother’s awl, and at once it was in his hand and pierced the lips. He stitched the lips together, but Loki ripped out the thong, called Vartari.11 So the story ends, and apparently we are to understand that Loki outdid Brokk by his cunning. The dwarfs, as skilful artificers, were thus necessary to the gods for some of their most cherished possessions.

Regin, fosterer of Sigurd, was a dwarf in stature, wise, fierce, and clever at magic. He became king Hjalprek’s smith and taught Sigurd, making for him the sword Gram. It was so sharp that when he thrust it into the Rhine and let a strand of wool float against it, the strand was cut in two. With this sword Sigurd cleft Regin’s anvil, and afterwards slew Fafnir the dragon and Regin himself.12

Hogni’s sword, Dainslef, was made by dwarfs, and it caused a man’s death every time it was drawn. If one was only scratched by it, the wound would not heal.13 A dwarf forged a sword for Egil, who had lost his hand, and this sword, fastened to his elbow, was wielded by him as well as if his hand had grasped it.14 Volund fashioned seven hundred rings of gold adorned with gems, a wonderful sword, and also golden ornaments for king Nidud. When he afterwards slew the king’s sons, he set their skulls in silver, and made gems of their eyes and a brooch of their teeth.15 The Thidriks-saga tells how Velint (Volund) was placed for instruction by his father Vadi with the smith Mimir and then with two skilful dwarfs who dwelt in a hill. None could forge such swords, weapons, and armour as they. Velint slew them because they desired to kill him for being cleverer than themselves — a common folk-tale incident.16 Dwarfs also made the famous Brisinga-men.17


When forced to exercise their skill, dwarfs would sometimes curse the weapon made by them so that it would bring disaster for generations after. Svafrlami, grandson of Odin, was hunting and saw two dwarfs standing by a stone. He forced them to make him a sword which would cut iron like cloth and always bring victory to its wielder. When he returned to get the sword the dwarfs told him that it would be the death of a man every time it was drawn, that it would be the instrument of three acts of villainy, and that it would cause Svafrlami’s death. Svafrlami struck at the dwarfs as they fled within the rock, into which the blade sank deeply. He called the sword Tyrfing. It shone like a sunbeam, and it could be sheathed only when human blood was still warm upon it.18

In parallel stories the sword or treasure of dwarfs or supernatural beings is forced from them as a ransom for their lives, and again these bring disaster to their new owners or their successors, like the treasure which Loki took from Andvari.19 This treasure is prominent in the Saga and the Eddic poems of the Volsungs, and the fulfilling of the curse is seen in these. In the German version the treasure belongs to the Nibelungs or Niflungar, who, though depicted as Burgundian kings and their people in some accounts (because these were the last possessors of the treasure), are in other versions, following an older tradition, subterranean beings, dwarfs or black elves. The Nibelungs are the “children of Nebel” or “darkness” (cf. Niflheim). Siegfried (Sigurd) acquired their hoard, a Tarnkappe or cloak of invisibility, and the sword Balmung.20

Besides skill in smith-work and possession of treasure, dwarfs are dowered with cunning, hidden knowledge, and supernatural power. Andvari was forced by Loki to tell what retribution will befall deceivers in the Other World, viz., wading through the stream Vadgelmir. Alviss can name earth, sun, moon, etc., according to the names given them by different orders of beings, and Thor says: “In one breast I have never found so much ancient lore.” The dwarfs Fjalar and Gallar collected the blood


of Kvasir, mixed honey with it, and so made the mead of poetry, or “the dwarfs’ drink.”21

The Eddic dwarfs and those of later folk-lore dwell in rocks or within hills, where they pursue their craft of metal-workers. Alviss is described by Thor as pale, as if he had lain with corpses, and he says that he dwells deep under the earth, his house is under a stone.22 Svegdir, a grandson of Frey, sought the home of the gods and of Odin. After much travelling he came to a stead called Stone in the east of Sweden, where was a huge rock. There he saw a dwarf sitting, and was told that, to find Odin, he must enter the rock. Svegdir ran into it; the rock-door closed, and he was never seen again, like many others who, in popular tales, enter concealed doors in hills into dwellings of supernatural beings.23 That mountains were an abode of dwarfs is shown by the Norse word for “echo,” dverga-mal, literally “speech of dwarfs,” the dwarfs being supposed to throw back the words spoken. Mountain-tops in Sweden are sometimes called Dvergemål-kletten, “Dwarf-speech summit.”24

In their subterranean region, as later Sagas and stories show, the dwarfs have a beautiful kingdom and are ruled by kings. They come forth at night, for sunlight is fatal to them, turning them to stone, as Thor says to Alviss: “Daylight is upon thee, O dwarf; now shines the sun in the hall.” The implication is that the dwarf was turned to stone, like dwarfs in other stories or the monstrous Hrimgerd.25 Hence, from dwelling underground, dwarfs are pale of countenance.

Nothing is said in the Eddas of the dwarfs’ hat or cloak of invisibility, the Tarnkappe, Tarnhut, Nebelkappe, or Helkappe of German dwarf traditions, though it must have been known in Scandinavia as the OS Helidhelm and ON Hulidshjalm show. This garment also gave its owner great strength, and if it fell into a mortal’s possession, he could compel a dwarf to do his will or relinquish his treasure.

The more evil aspects of dwarfs in their relations with men as shown in later belief is suggested by some of their names in


the Edda — Althjolf, “Mighty thief,” Hlethjolf, “Hill thief,” while in Thidriks-saga Alfrek (Alberich) is called “the great thief.”26 Their love for beautiful girls or women is illustrated by the desire of Alviss for Thor’s daughter and the amour of the four dwarfs with Freyja, just as in later German heroic poems dwarfs carry off maidens into their hills.27

In all Teutonic lands, especially in their mountainous districts, dwarfs have been a subject of popular superstition, and their traits as seen in the Eddas reappear along with many others. They are called Bjergfolk, Unterjordiske, Unterirdische, Erdleute, Bergsmiedlein, Erdmännlein, Stillevolk, Kleinevolk, and by other names. They seem now to be unknown in Iceland, though their name survives in place-names — Dvergastein, Dverghól, etc. Dverge are still known in Norway and the Danish Bjergfolk or Troldfolk closely resemble dwarfs, and dwell in mounds containing rich treasure. The Swedish Dvärg lives in the mountains with wife and daughters of rare beauty. Dwarfs are also known in the Faroe Islands; and in Orkney and Shetland the Trolls or Drows are akin both to dwarfs and fairies, but the older belief in Dvergar is shown by such a name as “the Dwarfie stone,” a huge boulder on Hoy.28

The dwarfs of Germany have, on the whole, a wider field of operation than the Norse dwarfs of the Eddas, perhaps because the older elben are blended with them. They have skill in smith-work and teach it to men, yet the hammering and machinery of men drove them away. They spin; they help men in harvesting and hay-making. They give freely to those whom they favour, but not to those who seek them out or annoy them. Tales of dwarfs abound in the mining regions: on the plains the Unterirdische are a kind of elfin equivalent of the mountain dwarfs. The dwarfs have great treasures in their underground dwellings, and music sounds from these places, whence they come forth at night to avoid the sun. In them they have control over metals and work at their smithies. An older description of the dwarfs’ hollow hills is found in the Heldenbuch, where the


dwarf king Laurin leads Dietrich and his friends into hills brighter than the sun because of their encrusted gems. They echo with the song of birds, and are full of dwarfs, singing, playing, and feasting.29

The dwarfs are like little men, sometimes no bigger than a thumb, deformed, with large heads, long beards, feet occasionally like those of a goose or goat. They are clad in grey, but their kings are more splendidly attired. These kings have large territories, and they and their subjects are often described in German medieval poetry and romance, which reflect on them the feudalism of the time.30 Old tradition depicts them as leading simple lives, and a dwarf in Ruodlieb complains of human faithlessness which, with unwholesome food, is the cause of men’s brief life. Dwarfs themselves are often of great age. Something of the old heathenism clings to them. They are even called “heathen,” and dislike the building of churches and bell-ringing, no less than they do agriculture and the clearing of forests.31

The smith or other work of dwarfs was made available to men who laid metal to be forged or wool to be spun, with a piece of money, before their holes. Next morning the work was found done. This custom, referred to in several tales, is connected with Weyland (Volund) the Smith in England. At an ancient sepulchral monument at Ashbury in Berkshire, supposed to be the dwelling of Weyland, a horse requiring a shoe was left with a piece of money. When its owner returned, the horse was shod and the money was gone. This monument was already styled “Welandes Smiththan” in a charter dating from before the Norman Conquest, the tradition thus belonging to Saxon times. A similar legend was told in Greece of Hephaistos, and we may regard the story as based on early custom and enshrining the mystery and fear attaching from long past ages to metalworkers. It is also connected with the wide-spread custom of “the silent trade.”32

The dwarfs sought human help when they required it, e.g.,


in dividing a treasure, as in an incident in the Nibelungenlied. The dwarf king Nibelung left his hoard to his sons who asked Siegfried to divide it, giving him the sword Balmung as reward. But as he was long at his task, they attacked him and he slew them. The folk-tale incident of a hero called in to divide magical things among disputants often describes these as dwarfs. The hero is able to make himself possessor of the things in question.33 Or again dwarfs seek human aid in their fighting, like the dwarf king who gave William of Scherfenberg a girdle with the strength of twenty men, on condition of his aiding him and keeping silence about their pact.34 Other services done to German dwarfs were sometimes rewarded with gifts which brought prosperity to a family as long as its representatives lived.35 The most usual service was that sought for from human midwives, who were well rewarded for their trouble.

They also gave help to mortals, e.g., by means of their magic power, as in the well-known story of “Rumpelstiltschen,” though here an equivalent was sought in return. As wise counsellors they advise men or warn them of danger, and those coveted magic articles which produce unfailing abundance are sometimes given by them to men. Frequently dwarfs or little red men come out of a magic snuff-box, or appear at the blowing of a flute, or when the ground is knocked on, and perform otherwise impossible tasks for him who summons them.36

Yet they were often hostile to men, and many stories relate how dwarfs, like other elfins, carry off women or girls to be their wives. They also, like fairies, substitute for mortal children stolen by them their own deformed offspring. The changeling is called Umskiptungar (Iceland), Skiftingar (Denmark, Norway, from skipta, “to exchange”), OHG wihselinga, German Wechselbalg, Kielkröpf. Dwarfs also steal from men — corn and pease from the field, loaves from a baker, and the like.37

Less animistic than elves, the dwarfs seem to be more akin to men. Does this mean that they are a folk-memory of an actual



After Volund had by craft seduced Bothvild, he apparently made himself wings, or, as in the Thidriks-saga, his brother Egil shot birds, out of whose plumage a feather-dress was made. Then he revealed to Nithud all he had done to his sons and to Bothvild, and now rose aloft in the air, escaping his vengeance. In the Thidriks-saga Egil is made to shoot at him by Nithud. A bladder full of blood was concealed under Volund’s arm. When the bladder, as arranged beforehand, was pierced by the arrow, Nithud thought that the blood was Volund’s, and believed that he was dead. The incident is shown in this design from the Casket. These designs form the earliest record of the Volund story. From a photograph, by permission of the British Museum authorities.


race of small people? This theory has been seriously held or has been regarded as a possibility by different scholars. Dwarfs were an aboriginal, small race, driven to the hills by new-comers, but regarded by them with awe as being in league with the gods of the land and possessed of powerful magic. They and their deeds became more and more unreal as time passed on, until tradition made of them a supernatural folk, with greater powers and knowledge than men. We must remember, however, that dwarfs and pygmies belong to universal folk-lore, not only to that of the Teutonic or even of the Indo-European people. Even if an actual pygmy people, as in Africa, may be regarded by their neighbours as more or less supernatural,38 the theory does not account for all the facts, and it is equally possible that a race of spirit-beings might have been invested with traits of an actual race.

The existence of pygmy races at the present time, Negrillos and Negritos, as well as their probably wide-spread existence in Neolithic times, has given support to this theory, especially when it is proved that certain characteristics of dwarfs are also those of these races. If traditional dwarfs are a folk-memory of actual people, then the tradition must be an early one, coming down through the generations from prehistoric times. But while some traits of dwarfs and of elfins generally may be traced to those of actual races of men, others are purely animistic in origin. Even where, as in Polynesia, Melanesia, or Africa, certain groups of fairy-like beings seem to be an actual race thus transmuted, many things ascribed to them are non-human — their tiny size, the supernatural powers of glamour and invisibility, their spirit nature. With every allowance for the facts, the existence of an early pygmy race cannot be the sole cause of the belief in dwarfs and elfins. The belief in the soul as a manikin, no less than general animism, has had great influence in its formation. What is said of dwarfs and fairies is also said of groups of beings with no human ancestry — Greek Nereids, Slavic Vily, foxes in Japan, vampires, ghosts, etc., and many fairy-like beings —


Nixies, mermaids, swan-maidens — have no link with an older human race.39

Primitive animistic or pre-animistic ideas are the basis of dwarf and fairy beliefs, attached now to groups of purely imaginary beings, now to all kinds of supernaturals, now linked with traditions of actual people. Much also must be assigned to the free-working fancy of imaginative men in the past, its results quickly assimilated by their fellows. And there is much in the saying that “the wish is father to the thought.” Men wished to be invisible, to transform themselves, to fly, to possess magic weapons and other articles, abundant treasures, knowledge of the future. What more easy than to believe that certain beings had such powers and gifts, and that favoured mortals could obtain them on certain terms, and had actually done so from time to time!