Dwarfs in Norse Mythology: Origins, Role, Powers, & Abilities
The word for dwarf in Old Norse is “dvergr”. According to the myths, the dwarfs were considered some of the most intelligent and skillful creatures in all of the nine realms. They were master craftsmen who famously crafted powerful objects like Thor’s hammer Mjölnir, Odin’s spear Gungnir, and Freyr’s ship Skidbaldnir.
But how much is known about them in Norse mythology? Let’s take a look at the major myths ascribed to the dwarfs in Norse mythology, including their origins, role, and interactions with the various Aesir and Vanir gods.
Dwarfs in Norse Mythology
Other names: Fullangr (in Old Norse), Hár (in Old Norse), Dweorg (in Anglo-Saxon), Svartalf (black elf), Twerg, Dvergr, Dvergar
Abode: Reside in the mountains and in caves deep in the earth
Most famous for: Wisdom, smithing, mining, crafting, and healing abilities
Appearance: Short, hairy, quick-tempered, and sometimes ugly
Symbols: gold, precious gems and metals, hammers, forges, bellows, anvils
In Gylfaginning – the first part of the Prose Edda – the dwarfs are said to have emerged from the decomposing corpse of Ymir, the first frost giant. They were basically born without any distinguishable form or any iota of intelligence. Disgusted by their looks, the Aesir gods transformed them into a more human form. Additionally, the Aesir bestowed upon them a very high level of intelligence, in some cases, even higher than some of the Aesir gods.
The first dwarfs in Norse mythology
Following the murder of Ymir – the first jötunn and the progenitor of all giants – Odin and his brothers Ve and Vili fashioned the sky out of the giant’s head. In order to prevent the sky from falling down to the Earth, the dwarfs Norðri, Suðri, Austri, and Vestri were sent to the four corners (Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western respectively) of the world to hold up the sky.
Considering the crucial role that they played in the beginning of the creation of the Earth, it is often held that those four dwarfs were the first dwarfs in Norse mythology.
Appearance, skills and abilities
The shape that the Aesir gods gave to the dwarfs was a very peculiar one – they were made extremely short with a dark skin and a long beard. According to early Norse myths, they were often made small and ugly thereby making them inferior to other powerful beings in the nine realms.
When compared to the Aesir and Vanir races of gods, the dwarfs are behind in terms of trickery, wisdom, and spiritual enlightenment. In the poem Alvíssmál (‘The Song of All-Wise’) in the Poetic Edda, the Norse god of thunder Thor outwits the dwarf Alviss by purposely keeping him up all night until dawn at which point Alviss turned into stone.
Both the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda describe dwarfs as having the tendency to act in a brut and vengeful manner, even sometimes acting in a murderous and sexually devious manner. The latter trait sometimes resulted in them lusting for beautiful Aesir and Vanir goddesses like Frigg and Freyja.
According to some tales from post-Christianized Germanic tribes, dwarfs possessed healing and prophetic abilities besides their expertise in metalsmithing. In other accounts, they were famous for having the ability to make themselves invisible.
With very high level intelligence, the dwarfs in Norse mythology took to engaging in a host of craft works, including mining, forging, and other forms of metallurgy.
Above all, the dwarfs are most known for being very industrious and hard working beings. This is sometimes soured by their inclination to be greedy.
Some dwarfs in Norse mythology were also imbued with the ability to shapeshift. In some accounts of the story, the dwarfs shape shifted into an animal in bid to aid the cause of the Aesir gods. Take for instance the dwarf Fafnir who transformed into a fierce dragon. Then there is also Andvari who shapeshifted into a fish. A dwarf called Otr, who had transformed into an otter, was killed by the trickster Norse god Loki.
The Mead of Poetry
Another very important role of the dwarfs was the brewing of a mythical beverage known as the mead of poetry. According to the myth, anyone who drinks of the beverage was granted the ability to recite poems and solve problems quickly. The drinker thus became a very wise scholar or poet (“skáld eða frœðamaðr“).
The dwarfs brewed the Mead of Poetry from honey mixed with the blood of Kvasir, the wisest being among Aesir gods. After murdering Kvasir, the dwarfs deviously said that the creature died as a result of having too much knowledge and wisdom.
Weapons made by the dwarfs in Norse mythology
In Norse mythology, dwarfs were primarily responsible for crafting exquisite weapons, jewelry and furniture for the Aesir gods. For example, a group of dwarfs known as the Sons of Ivaldi famously crafted Odin’s spear Gungnir, the god Freyr’s ship Skidbaldnir, and Sif’s golden hair. Similarly, the dwarfs Brokkr and Eitri famously crafted Odin’s magical golden ring Draupnir in response to Loki’s dare that could not make an object as magnificent as the ones crafted by the Sons of Ivaldi.
Attested in the book Gylfaginning of the Prose Edda, the dwarfs are credited with forging Gleipnir, the enchanted and unbreakable chain that was used to bound the mighty wolf Fenrir.
Did you know: the name of Odin’s magical ring, Draupnir, evokes the meaning of “dripper” due to its ability to duplicate itself?
Thor and the Dwarf Alvíss
In some accounts, the dwarfs were said to turn into stone whenever they come into contact with the sunshine. This probably explains why they often hid themselves in caves and mountains. For example, the dwarf Alviss, also known as the “All-Wise”, turned into stone upon coming into contact with the first beam of the day’s sunlight. Alviss had stayed up all night responding to the questions of Norse god of thunder Thor.
Thor, Odin’s son and heir to the throne of Asgard, purposely used such devious technique in order to prevent Alviss from marrying Þrúðr, one of Thor’s daughters.
Where did the dwarfs reside?
Dwarfs reside in Nidavellir, one of the Nine Realms of the Norse cosmos. Their homes and halls are said to have the most precious stones and minerals in all of the nine realms. It is also known that dwarfs preferred not to marry into another race, say the Aesir or Vanir.
The eight other realms in the Norse cosmos are: Asgard (Realm of the Aesir), Vanaheim (Realm of the Vanir gods), Jotunheim (Realm of the giants), Alfheim (Realm of the Bright Elves), Niflheim (Realm of Ice), Muspelheim (Realm of fire), Midgar (Realm of humans), and Svartalfheim (Realm of the Black Elves).
Other interesting myths about Dwarfs in Norse mythology
- Although the male dwarfs are the ones usually mentioned in Norse mythology, there existed female dwarfs as well. The poem Fáfnismál (in the Poetic Edda) makes mention of the daughters of the dwarf Dvalin.
- Dwarfs in Norse mythology were sometimes associated with the death and the underworld. In the Ynglinga Saga – the 13th-century Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson’s story of Sveigðir (the Swedish king of the House of Yngling) – the dwarfs are believed to stand guard at the boundary between the land of the living and the land of the dead.
- It was said that the dwarfs forged Gleipnir – the chain that was used to shackle the mighty wolf Fenrir. The also created the goddess Freya’s magnificent necklace – Brisingamen.
- In some cases, the dwarfs in Norse mythology were referred to as the Svartálfar (‘black elves’), differentiating them from the white elves. According to the Prose Edda all the elves resided in a place called Svartálfaheimr.
- An Elven blacksmith by the name of Volundr who lived in Alfheim (Home of the Bright Elves) is said to have acquired his skills in smithing from two dwarfs.
- The Aesir gods killed a dwarf for his disrespectful behavior during the funeral of Baldur, the Norse god of light. The dwarf is said to have danced in a very ecstatic manner at the ceremony, an action that Thor considered impolite and disrespectful to his dead brother Baldur. The god of thunder cast the dwarf straight into the burning pyre, offering the small creature as a sacrifice to Baldur.