The stories about the dwarfs have been carried throughout the centuries and their characteristics depicted in various forms of art. From the old folk stories written many centuries ago to modern-day fantasy movies and video games – dwarfs remain popular mythological figures.
Appearance & character
Folks and myths of different nations give a very mixed picture of the dwarfs. The characteristics have changed and evolved throughout the years. In a typical picture, a dwarf has a short, but bulky stature with a round head, big nose, and a long dense beard. He is rarely a good-looking creature. Despite their relatively miniature height, dwarfs are physically gifted beings and they usually have some supernatural powers and inhuman strength. Norse mythology portrays them as very diverse and wise creatures.
Old Norse Eddas have some polarizing views and stories on dwarfs. The creation myth features four important dwarfs – Nordri, Sudri, Austri, and Westri, created by gods to hold the heavenly vault on their shoulders. There is a story about Eitri and Brokkr, whose forged items were judged and highly praised by the gods in the Asgard. Dwarf blacksmith talents also appear in the story about the wolf Fenrir. Nothing could hold this terrifying creature, so gods ordered dwarfs to make a chain that could not be broken. On the opposite, there is a story of Fjalar and Galar – two brothers that killed the wise Kvasir, who was able to answer any question. After their evil deed, these vicious dwarfs made Mead of Poetry by mixing the honey and the blood of Kvasir.
Old Norse poems also depict the uneasy characters of dwarfs. After gods created their race, these wise creatures settled in the rocky caves and their mining skills were helpful in finding precious gems and metals. Dwarfs felt comfortable in a cold and dark environment. They rarely were friendly and greed made them hostile against the human race, who often was caught into a desire of taking those gems of the underground world.
Slightly different portrayal appears in the Irish, Swiss and Breton folk stories. Visual and skill characteristics might be similar to the Old Norse version, but in these fairy tales, dwarfs do not have the same wicked attitude against the human race. Dwarfs are seen more as helpful beings, rather than evil. They might help farmers in different labors and even make them wealthy if they treat them well. Usually, the dwarf does not ask much in return – just a shelter, food or simply human’s patience on the way to the wealth. However, if a dwarf feels mistreated, the human, who once was gifted with all the wealth from a dwarf – was sent back into the misery and lost everything.
Dwarfs and gnomes
These two often makes people confused. However, they are not really the same thing. Their timeline is different. The dwarf is a character from the earlier Old Norse sagas and European folk stories, while the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus was first to mention gnomes only in the 16th century. He described gnomes as the earth elementals. In Paracelsus description, the gnome was able to easily cruise through the earth.
The visual appearance of these two creatures share some similarities, but the dwarf is definitely a more brutal version of a gnome. In sagas, he is a very strong creature capable of killing, while gnomes remind the household deities, who are not as physically gifted and far from aggressive against other creatures.
As the literature got new folk and fantasy tales inspired works coming, there came up more and more stories about gnome-like figures, like lutins, brownies and leprechauns. Paracelsus terminology brought some diversity, but it was clearly inspired by the antecedent works and folk tales.
Dwarfs in the literary works
The famous German epic poem Nibelungenlied features dwarf Alberich as one of its characters. He is the guardian of the Nibelung treasures. He twice had to battle the poem’s legendary hero Siegfried and in both cases, Alberich had no success. Dwarf eventually became a vassal of the young hero and after Siegfried’s dead all the treasures were loaded onto ships and transported to the Rhine. It took 8000 men to remove the gold and precious gems from the mountain Alberich was so devotedly guarding.
Another German poem Laurin is dedicated to the legendary hero Dietrich von Bern and his fight against the dwarf King Laurin, who was very proud and protective of his wonderful rose garden. When someone dared to damage his garden, Laurin was ready to fight for it and in case of a victory demand the left foot and the right hand as a punishment. However, this does not work out well with Dietrich. Laurin fights him but eventually faces a defeat. A poem has different versions, there are different outcomes of this story. Some say that after suffering loss Laurin becomes a jester at Dietrich’s court, others are more positive and describes them eventually becoming friends.
Dwarfs (dwarves) also were one of the main characters in the popular J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have many dwarf heroes and most of their names were inspired by the Norse mythology. Balin, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Dain, Dori, Dwalin, Fili, Gloin, Kili, Nain, Nar, Nori, Oin, Ori, and Thorin – all these dwarf names are mentioned in the Old Norse Edda’s.
Sources | Mary H. Foster & Mabel H. Cummings. Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology (2011) | German of Villamaria. Tales and Legends of Giants, Dwarfs, Fairies, Water-Sprites and Hobgoblins (1877) | Daniel B. Shumway Translation. The Nibelungenlied (1909) | John Rhys. Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx (1900) | Breton Legends (2012)