Dwarf (folklore)

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

In Germanic folklore, including Germanic mythology, a dwarf is an entity that dwells in the mountains and in the earth. The entity is associated with wisdom, smithing, mining and crafting. Dwarfs are sometimes described as short and ugly. But some scholars have questioned whether this is a later development stemming from comical portrayals of the beings.[1] Dwarfs continue to be depicted in modern popular culture in various media.


The modern English noun dwarf descends from the Old English dweorg. It has a variety of cognates in other Germanic languages, including Old Norse dvergr [ˈdwerɡz̠], Old Dutch and Old Frisian dwerch, and Old High German twerg. According to Vladimir Orel, the English noun and its cognates ultimately descend from Proto-Germanic *dwergaz.[2] A different etymology of dwarf traces it to Proto-Germanic *dwezgaz, with the r sound being the product of Verner's Law. Anatoly Liberman connects the Germanic word with Modern English dizzy: allegedly, dwarfs inflicted mental diseases on humans, and in this respect did not differ from elves and several other supernatural beings.[3]

For forms earlier than the Proto-Germanic reconstruction, the etymology of the word dwarf is highly contested. Scholars have proposed theories about the origins of the being by way of historical linguistics and comparative mythology, including the idea 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 Dutch bedrog "deception"), and scholars have made comparisons 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. The minority plural dwarves was recorded as early as 1818. However, it was later popularized by the fiction of philologist and legendarium author J. R. R. Tolkien, originating as a hypercorrective mistake. It was employed by Tolkien since some time before 1917.[4] Regarding his use of this plural, Tolkien wrote in 1937, "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."[4] (For Tolkien's literary creations, Dwarf (Middle-earth).)

Norse mythology and later folklore[edit]

Norse mythology provides different origins for the beings, 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). 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 residents of Svartálfaheimr.[5]

Very few beings explicitly identifiable as dwarfs appear in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, and they 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.[6] 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.[7] One dwarf named Alvíss claimed the hand of Thor's daughter Þrúðr in marriage, but he was kept talking until daybreak and turned to stone, much like some accounts of trolls.[8]

After the Christianization of the Germanic peoples, tales of dwarfs continued to be told in the folklore of areas of Europe where Germanic languages were (and are) spoken.[9] In the late legendary sagas, dwarfs demonstrate skill in healing as well as in smithing.[10] In the early Norse sources, there is no mention of their being short; in the legendary sagas, however, they are "small and usually ugly".[1] Anatoly Liberman suggests that dwarfs may have originally been thought of as lesser supernatural beings, which became literal smallness after Christianization.[11] Old Norse dwarf names include Fullangr ('tall enough') and Hár ('high'), whereas Anglo-Saxon glosses use dweorg to render Latin terms such as nanus and pygmaeus ('pygmy').[12][13]

Dwarfs in folklore are usually described as old men with long beards.[13] Female dwarfs are hardly ever mentioned. Dvalinn the dwarf has daughters. The 14th-century romantic saga Þjalar Jóns saga gives the feminine form of Old Norse dyrgja, but the few folklore examples cited by Grimm in Teutonic Mythology may be identified as other beings.[14][15] However, in the 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.[16]

Anglo-Saxon medicine[edit]

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 which is the etymological source of the word "nightmare" or possibly that the word had come to be used to mean "fever".[12][17] In the Old English Herbal, it translates Latin verrucas, warts.[12]

Middle High German heroic poetry[edit]

In Middle High German heroic poetry, most dwarfs have long beards, but some may have a childish appearance.[18] In some stories, the dwarf takes on the attributes of a knight.[19] He is most clearly separated from normal humans by his small size, in some cases only reaching up to the knees.[20] Despite their small size, dwarfs typically have superhuman strength, either by nature or through magical means.[21] Many dwarfs can make themselves invisible, typically via a "Tarnkappe" (cloak of invisibility), which seems to be an ancient attribute of the dwarfs. They also possess other magical objects and often appear as master smiths.[22] Typically, they live inside of hollow mountains, though in some cases, they may live above the ground.[23] Depending on the story, they may be hostile or friendly to humans.[24] Male dwarfs are often portrayed as lusting after human women. In contrast, female dwarfs seek to possess the male hero in the legends.[25]

The dwarf Alberich plays a vital role in the Nibelungenlied, where he guards the Nibelung's treasure and has the strength of twelve men. He is defeated by Siegfried and afterwards serves the hero. In Ortnit, Alberich seduces the queen of Lombardy, thereby spawning the hero Ortnit. The dwarf then aids Ortnit in his adventures after revealing to the hero that he is his father. In Das Lied vom Hürnen Seyfrid, Siegfried is aided by the dwarf Eugel, who is son of the dwarf king Nibelung, originator of the Nibelung's treasure.

The hero Dietrich von Bern is portrayed in adventures involving dwarfs. In Laurin, he fights against the dwarf King Laurin at the dwarf's magical rose garden. He later rescues a woman whom Laurin had kidnapped. A similar plot occurs in the fragmentary poem Goldemar. In Virginal, Dietrich rescues the dwarf queen Virginal from a force of invading heathens. The dwarfs Eggerich and Baldung play a role in aiding Dietrich in the poem Sigenot: Baldung gives Dietrich a magical gem that prevents him from being bitten when thrown into a snake pit, whereas Eggerich helps Dietrich and Hildebrand escape. In the Heldenbuch-Prosa, a dwarf takes Dietrich out of this world after the death of all the other heroes, a role given to Laurin in some different versions of Dietrich's end.

Scholarly interpretations[edit]

John Lindow noted that stanza 10 of the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá can be read as describing the creation of human forms from the earth and follows a catalog of dwarf names; he suggests that the poem may present Ask and Embla as having been created by dwarfs, with the three gods then giving them life.[26]

Modern influence[edit]

The Seven dwarfs sing "Heigh-Ho" in the 1937 Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

There were seven dwarfs in the Brothers Grimm's fairy tale Snow White. Walt Disney's 1937 film is the most well-known adaptation of the Brothers Grimm’s story today.

Most dwarfs in modern fantasy fiction closely follow those of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, where the dwarves (Tolkien's spelling) were distinguished from elves: most modern fantasy has continued this distinction. Dwarfs are also present in Tolkien’s great friend C. S. Lewis's Narnia stories. Dwarfs are also found in Terry Pratchett's Discworld. In the Artemis Fowl novels by Eoin Colfer, dwarves are portrayed as underground tunnelers who eat through dirt, digesting it to extract minerals, and excreting it as they continue tunneling. They have a deadly sensitivity to sunlight, and are known for a vicious rivalry with Goblins.

The emergence of fantasy video games has led to differing depictions and interpretations of dwarfs. In the universe of The Elder Scrolls, "dwarves" (or Dwemer) are presented as an extinct race of subterranean elves who differ from the traditional Tolkienesque conceptualization, in that they are not particularly short, and are completely extinct. The agnostic Dwemer culture, rather than blacksmithing, centered around science and engineering, as well as manipulation of magic to create mechanical automatons which were left behind after their disappearance were their only similarities to dwarfs from other pop cultural depictions as well as being their only legacies. Other franchises like Dragon Age and Warcraft present a more familiar image of dwarfs as stout, bearded mountain dwellers, separate from Elves. Warhammer retains the Dungeons & Dragons dichotomy between Dwarves and Dark Dwarves, referring to the latter as Chaos Dwarfs.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Simek (2007:67–68).
  2. ^ Orel (2003:81).
  3. ^ Liberman (2016:312–314).
  4. ^ a b Gillver, Marshall, & Weiner (2009:104-108).
  5. ^ Simek (2007:305), Orchard (1997:35), and Hafstein (2002:111).
  6. ^ Jakobsson (2005).
  7. ^ Motz (1983:90–91, 105–06); Gundarsson (2007:81, 83).
  8. ^ Gundarsson (2007:74).
  9. ^ Lindow (2001:101).
  10. ^ Gundarsson (2007:87).
  11. ^ Liberman (2008:57).
  12. ^ a b c Griffiths (1996:54).
  13. ^ a b Gundarsson (2007:73).
  14. ^ Gundarsson (2007:77–78).
  15. ^ Liberman (2008:58).
  16. ^ Gundarsson (2007:78).
  17. ^ Storms (1948:168).
  18. ^ Lütjens 1911, pp. 70–72.
  19. ^ Lütjens 1911, pp. 69–70.
  20. ^ Lütjens 1911, p. 74.
  21. ^ Lütjens 1911, pp. 79=80.
  22. ^ Lütjens 1911, pp. 80–86.
  23. ^ Lütjens 1911, pp. 91–92.
  24. ^ Lütjens 1911, pp. 94–98.
  25. ^ Lütjens 1911, p. 103.
  26. ^ Lindow (2001:62–63).


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