dwarf dwarf dwarf

All right, ladies and gents.  It’s time to talk about dwarves.

We tend to know our dwarves from their modern interpretations.  They like malt beer and red meat off the bone.  They have impressive facial hair and axes.  They mine (in a mine, where a million diamonds shine).  When it comes to gold, they don’t mind if they do.  They are stout little men in little clothes.

Somehow the handsomest dwarf in this post!

The Witch’s Prophecy offers a description of the creation of the Norse dwarves, whom we’ll find don’t necessarily have all that much in common with the charmers we know/love.  Indeed, one might say the ink spilt over dwarves in the poem is disproportionate to their importance, and one probably wouldn’t be wrong.

In a poem of some sixty-two stanzas spanning the ENTIRE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, eight are devoted to dwarves.  Mainly, the stanzas just list their names, which leads scholars to think they’ve just been added later by some homunculus-happy interpolator to what is otherwise a well-crafted, streamlined account.

A little too abstract...and pixelated.

Here’s a sidenote which you probably already know: this litany of dwarf-names include a bunch that may sound awful familiar.  Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, Nori, Thorin, Oakenshield, Fili, Kili, Dwalin.  It’s not the full set, but all these names (including two smooshed together as “Thorin Oakenshield”) appear as names of dwarves in The Hobbit.  And the real kicker is a name that shows up right in the middle of all this crew: Gandalf, that is, “wand-elf.”  It’s speculated that this linguistic mystery of what a staff-elf (read: wizard) is doing amongst all these dwarves planted the seed for The Hobbit in the mind of Tolkien, a lover of Old English and Old Norse, as well as philology in general.  I shared that detail with my middle school Mythology class today, and a few of them saw where I was going as soon as I started name-dropping, which warmed my heart!

But, as I mentioned, the image Tolkien gives us of armored axe-men isn’t necessarily straight from his source material.  There are a couple of different origin stories regarding the Norse dwarves.  Would you like to hear about them?


A little closer, I guess?

You may remember that the Norse creation myth involves Odin and his bros tearing apart the body of the primordial frost giant and leaving them all over the place as rocks and sky and ocean and clouds.  I…I don’t know if you’ve ever smeared brains and arm meat and toes and eyeballs and butts around your living room and hoped for the best, but I’ll tell you this much for free: you will get SO MANY of MAGGOTS.  Moving wallpaper, basically.  Nice!


Well, that’s what happens.  You can’t have maggots all over your brand new world; that is failure.  If you had maggots all over your living room, you’d buy a pet bird.  If you were Odin, though, you’d do something better (a statement that is broadly true and applicable):

“They remembered the maggots that had squirmed and swarmed in Ymir’s flesh and crawled out over the earth.  Then they gave them wits and the shape of men, but they live under the hills and mountains in rocky chambers and grottoes and caverns.  These man-like maggots are called dwarves.  Modsognir is their leader and their deputy is Durin.”  (The Norse Myths, Kevin Crossley-Holland [highly recommended!])

Crossley-Holland includes in the later stories a couple more pleasant moments with these guys:

“Freyja’s distaste for the dwarves –their ugly faces, their pale noses, their misshapen bodies and their small greedy eyes – was great, but her desire for the necklace was greater.”  (from the story of how Freyja got the necklace of the Brisings)

“In the gloom the dwarves’ eyes glowed like glow-worms; they whispered and schemed and set to work.”  (from the story of the binding of Fenrir)

For more evocative descriptions of these pleasant little chaps, be sure to check out the terrific Myths Retold, as I’m sure you already have.

So there’s this one tradition, in which they’re made from maggots.  But there’s also another that we get from The Witch’s Prophecy.  We often think of dwarves as having a particularly organic connection with the earth. According to this poem, it’s because that’s what they’re made of: the same giantflesh that composes almost everything else.  In Dronke’s translation:

Then the powers all strode      to the thrones of fate

Sacrosanct gods,         and gave thought to this:

Whether they should create    companies of dwarfs

From Brimir’s blood   and Blainn’s limbs.  [both alternate names for Ymir]

They fashioned many              figurines,

These dwarfs,  out of earth…

So, strictly speaking, we really have three different ways we can imagine the gods building the dwarves: (1) from the maggots that spontaneously generated in Ymir’s corpse, (2) from the literal flesh of Ymir, or (3) from the figurative flesh of Ymir, that is, earth, stone, water, and so forth.  Any contemporary listener would have known all these stories.  Not only will my readers not be familiar, but if they have any image of dwarves at all, it will likely be the rather unhelpful one of tiny, bearded, armored axemen.  Is there a way to encompass all these stories in a couple of verses?

I think there is.  Tune in next time to find out what it is!


1 Comment

  1. mordicai said,

    July 15, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    First, kudos to Professor Tolkien for locking down modern mythology. Second, that dwarven forge game? Unplayable! Third, whenever the norse maggot story comes up I can’t help but think about The Cheese & the Worms by Carlo Ginsburg.

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