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Dwarf (mythology)


Dwarf (mythology)

Two dwarfs as depicted in a 19th-century edition of the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá (1895) by Lorenz Frølich

In Germanic mythology, a dwarf is a being that dwells in mountains and in the earth, and is variously associated with wisdom, smithing, mining, and crafting. Dwarfs are often also described as short and ugly, although some scholars have questioned whether this is a later development stemming from comical portrayals of the beings.[1]


  • Etymology and usage 1
  • Norse mythology and folklore 2
  • Anglo-Saxon medicine 3
  • Scholarly interpretations 4
  • In popular culture and games 5
  • See also 6
  • Notes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Etymology and usage

The modern English noun dwarf descends from the Germanic languages, including Old Norse dvergr and Old High German twerg. According to Vladimir Orel, the English noun and its cognates ultimately descend from Proto-Germanic *đwerȝaz.[2]

Beyond the Proto-Germanic reconstruction, the etymology of the word dwarf is highly contested. By way of historical linguistics and comparative mythology, scholars have proposed theories about the origins of the being, including that dwarfs may have originated as nature spirits, as beings associated with death, or as a mixture of concepts. Competing etymologies include a basis in the Indo-European root *dheur- (meaning 'damage'), the Indo-European root *dhreugh (whence, for example, modern English dream and German Trug 'deception'), and comparisons have been made with Sanskrit dhvaras (a type of "demonic being").[1]

Modern English has two plurals for the word dwarf; dwarfs and dwarves. Dwarfs remains the most commonly employed plural. While recorded as early as 1818, the minority plural dwarves was popularized by the fiction of philologist and author J. R. R. Tolkien, originating as a mistake (hypercorrection) and employed by Tolkien since some time before 1917 (for Tolkien's beings, see Dwarf (Middle-earth)).[3] Regarding the plural, Tolkien wrote in 1937 that "I am afraid it is just a piece of private bad grammar, rather shocking in a philologist; but I shall have to go with it".[3]

Norse mythology and folklore

Norse mythology, as recorded in the Poetic Edda (compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources) and the Prose Edda (written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century) provide different mythical origins for the beings. The Poetic Edda poem Völuspá details that the dwarfs were the product of the primordial blood of the being Brimir and the bones of Bláinn (generally considered to be different names for the primordial being Ymir). The Prose Edda, however, describes dwarfs as beings similar to maggots that festered in the flesh of Ymir before being gifted with reason by the gods. The Poetic Edda and Prose Edda contain over 100 dwarf names, while the Prose Edda gives the four dwarfs Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri (Old Norse 'North, South, East, and West') a cosmological role – they hold up the sky.[1] In addition, scholars have noted that the Svartálfar (Old Norse 'black elves') appear to be the same beings as dwarfs, given that both are described in the Prose Edda as the denizens of Svartálfaheimr.[4]

Very few beings explicitly identifiable as dwarfs appear in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda and have quite diverse roles: murderous creators who create the mead of poetry, 'reluctant donors' of important artifacts with magical qualities, or sexual predators who lust after goddesses.[5] They are primarily associated with metalsmithing, and also with death; as in the story of King Sveigðir in Ynglinga saga, the first segment of the Heimskringla, the doorways in the mountains that they guard may be regarded as doors between worlds.[6] One dwarf, Alvíss, claimed the hand of the god Thor's daughter Þrúðr in marriage, but when kept talking until daybreak, turned to stone much like some accounts of trolls.[7]

After the

External links

  • Gilliver, Peter. Mashall, Jeremy. Weiner, Edmund (2009). The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199568369.
  • Gundarsson, KveldulfR Hagan (2007). Elves, Wights, and Trolls. Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry, 1. iUniverse. ISBN 978-0-595-42165-7
  • Gygax, Gary (1979). "Books Are Books, Games Are Games". Dragon, 31. Repr. (1981) in: Kim Mohan, ed. Best of Dragon, Volume 2: A collection of creatures and characters, opinions and options from the first four years of Dragon magazine. Dragon, ISBN 9780935696943
  • Griffiths, Bill (1996). Aspects of Anglo-Saxon Magic. Anglo-Saxon Books. 1-898281-15-7
  • Hafstein, Valdimir Tr. (2002). "Dwarfs" as collected in Lindahl, Carl. McNamara, John. Lindow, John. (2002). Medieval Folklore. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-514772-8
  • Jakobsson, Ármann (2005): "The Hole: Problems in Medieval Dwarfology," Arv 61 (2005), 53–76.
  • Liberman, Anatoly (2008). An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology. University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816652723
  • Lindow, John (2001). Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515382-0
  • Motz, Lotte (1983). The Wise One of the Mountain: Form, Function and Significance of the Subterranean Smith: A Study in Folklore. Göppinger Arbeiten zur Germanistik, 379. Kümmerle. ISBN 3-87452-598-8
  • Orchard, Andy (1997). Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend. Cassell. ISBN 0-304-34520-2
  • Orel, Vladimir (2003). A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. Brill. ISBN 9004128751
  • Simek, Rudolf (2007) translated by Angela Hall. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. D.S. Brewer ISBN 0-85991-513-1
  • Storms, Godfrid (1948). Anglo-Saxon Magic. Nijhoff. OCLC 462857755


  1. ^ a b c d Simek (2007:67–68).
  2. ^ Orel (2003:81).
  3. ^ a b Gillver, Marshall, & Weiner (2009:104-108).
  4. ^ Simek (2007:305), Orchard (1997:35), and Hafstein (2002:111).
  5. ^ Jakobsson (2005).
  6. ^ Motz (1983:90–91, 105–06); Gundarsson (2007:81, 83).
  7. ^ Gundarsson (2007:74).
  8. ^ Lindow (2001:101).
  9. ^ Gundarsson (2007:87).
  10. ^ Liberman (2008:57).
  11. ^ a b c Griffiths (1996:54).
  12. ^ a b Gundarsson (2007:73).
  13. ^ Gundarsson (2007:77–78).
  14. ^ Liberman (2008:58).
  15. ^ Gundarsson (2007:78).
  16. ^ Storms (1948:168).
  17. ^ Motz (1983).
  18. ^ Lindow (2001:62–63).
  19. ^ Gygax (1979).


See also

In Terry Brooks' Shannara Series dwarves are an offshoot race created after the Great Wars. The Dwarves, who live in the Eastland, were one of the races that evolved from Humans. During the time of the Great Wars, the Humans who would later become Dwarves hid underground to avoid the devastation above the ground.

The ASCII game Dwarf Fortress involves building an underground home for dwarfs.

The dwarfs in Terry Pratchett's Discworld universe are also derived from Tolkien's.

Games including Warhammer, Magic: The Gathering, the Warcraft franchise, and The Elder Scrolls feature dwarfs, again largely patterned after Tolkien's.

Most modern fantasy media, beginning with TSR's Dungeons and Dragons, have continued this distinction; Dungeons and Dragons calls the dwarfs "dwarves" and the dark elves drow, which according to Gary Gygax derives from the Scottish being, the trow.[19]

In the Prose Edda, the dwarfs are equated with the svartálfar and dökkálfar ("dark elves"); in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, the dwarves (Tolkien's spelling) and the Elves of Darkness or Moriquendi are distinct.

In Brothers Grimm's fairy tale Snow White, there were seven dwarfs. The Walt Disney Company released an animated musical film in 1937 and became the first animated theatrical film. It is the best known adaptation today.

In popular culture and games

Some scholars have proposed that the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá may contain an account of the first human beings, Ask and Embla, as having been created by dwarfs. A preceding stanza provides a catalog of dwarf names, and stanza 10 has been read as describing the creation of human forms from the earth. This may potentially mean that dwarfs formed humans, and that the three gods gave them life.[18]

Lotte Motz theorized that the Germanic dwarfs, particularly as smiths and gatekeepers, constituted a reminiscence of the Megalithic culture in Northern Europe.[17]

Scholarly interpretations

The Anglo-Saxon charm Wið Dweorh, Against a Dwarf, appears to relate to sleep disturbances. This may indicate that the dwarf antagonist is similar to the oppressive supernatural figure, the mare, that is the etymological source of the word "nightmare", or possibly that the word had come to be used to mean "fever".[11][16] In the Old English Herbal, it translates Latin verrucas; warts.[11]

Anglo-Saxon medicine

Dwarfs in folklore are usually described as old men with long beards.[12] Female dwarfs are hardly ever mentioned. The dwarf Dvalinn has daughters and a 14th-century romantic saga, Þjalar Jóns saga, gives a feminine form, Old Norse dyrgja, but the few folklore examples cited by Grimm in Teutonic Mythology may be identified as other beings.[13][14] However, in one Swedish ballad, "Herr Peder och Dvärgens Dotter" (Swedish 'Sir Peder and the Dwarf's Daughter'), the role of supernatural temptress is played by a dwarf's daughter.[15]


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