Dwarves: Cantankerous Norse Craftsmen

Freyja_in_the_Cave_of_the_Dwarfs_by_H._L._MThe best known dwarves are the dvergar of Norse myth, although cognate beings are found in all Germanic cultures. Norse dwarves are associated with rocks, earth, metalworking, and mining. They are subterranean and nocturnal beings. The are sometimes depicted as having pale, chalky skin. At other times, they are said to be blue-skinned, suggestive of a dead body. Death and decay seem to be prominent themes in dwarf-lore. It is even said that they made from the maggots in the body of Ymir, the world-giant.

Dwarves are master craftsmen. In Norse mythology, they fashioned many of the magical items used by gods and heroes, including Thor’s magic hammer Mjölnir and the chain that bound the great wolf Fenrir. They are also ill-tempered, greedy, miserly, and grudging. They are known to curse objects they are forced to make or that are stolen from them. They almost never willingly teach their magical knowledge. They can be highly distrusting of outsiders.

At the same time, these beings can be surprisingly friendly and loyal to those who treat them kindly. Contrary to popular misconceptions, dwarves are not particularly illustrious warriors in the original mythology.

Dwarves are by nature subterranean and nocturnal creatures. According to some accounts, sunlight even has an adverse effect on them. One legend has it that the god Thor entered into a riddle contest with Alvíss, a dwarf, which lasted until dawn. Exposed to direct sunlight, the dwarf was promptly turned to stone.

It is not at all certain that dwarves were originally conceived as being any shorter than humans. This detail only arises in the 1200s and later, and usually adds a note of humor to their depiction. Another later development is that, in later legends, dwarves are sometimes depicted as accomplished healers as well as smiths and craftsmen.