Archive for August, 2013

DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests

Art of a medieval German mine

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

PART II: Maggot Men of the Mountains

PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)

Last week I talked about how in certain parts of Europe, the belief in dwarves introduced by the Vikings blended with pre-existing local beliefs in fairies, but that was hardly an isolated incident. Europe is host to many, many spirit-beings that are similar to dwarves. In some cases, a Norse influence is clear. In the first article of this series I mentioned a British dwarf called a duergar, a hostile being generally regarded as some sort of fairy or goblin, whose name is linguistically derived from the Norse term for a dwarf. In other cases, though, there’s no relation. The ancient Greeks believed in beings called dactyls, little men created by the titan Rhea, who lived under the mountains and taught humanity the art of metalworking. They sound very similar to dwarves, but there’s no evidence whatsoever of them being culturally related. Two different cultures just happened to come up with similar ideas.

There’s a lot of grey area between these two extremes. When a belief is introduced to a new culture, it can become almost unrecognizable as it fuses with other beliefs or gets spun off into unprecedented variants. Without direct linguistic or historical evidence, it’s hard to say which dwarf-like beings in European folklore evolved from dwarves, and which ones, like the dactyls, were created independently. Still, in Northern Europe, where the Norse influence was strongest, we can reasonably assume that similar traditions are probably related. Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests’

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DWARVES, PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)

Dietrich fängt den Zwerg Alfrich by Johannes Gehrts

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains

Scandinavia was one of the last regions in Europe to adopt Christianity, and even then it was a slow process. It was a top-down conversion, with kings and lords embracing the new ways first (often for politically advantageous reasons), and while their subjects might nominally do the same, they frequently did not do so in practice. The old ways endured, but they were altered. Saints were mixed up with old gods or heroes, priests changed the dates of holidays to work with existing pagan festivals, and so on. A lot of compromise and practicality was involved, as well as the occasional burning-at-the-stake.

The same process applies to mythical creatures as well. Spirits and monsters didn’t tie directly into the religion, so it was a little easier to hang onto them than the old gods, especially if a Christian rationale could be created. For example, supernatural spirits who were once probably elves or landvaettir were explained away as the descendants of children of Adam and Eve, who an embarrassed Eve hid from god after forgetting to bathe them. Evidently God was feeling a bit dickish that day, and he turned the children invisible. The hidden people were created. This probably included dwarves, though we don’t have a specific Christian rationale for their origins. Regardless, the pagan Scandinavians might have once imagined dwarves as human-sized earth spirits, with ghostly pale skin and a tendency to explode in sunlight, but that concept evolved.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART III: Kings Under the Earth (Who Can Also Comfortably Walk Under Your Kitchen Table)’

DWARVES, PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains

King Svafrlame Secures the Sword Tyrfing

PART I: A History of Hairy Little Men

In Norse mythology, the world was created when the primordial giant Ymir was murdered. His blood became the oceans, lakes, and rivers, the dome of his skull the heavens, his bones the mountains, and his flesh the earth and soil. There are two different accounts of how dwarves came into being during this violent rebirth. The eddic poem Völuspá says they sprang from the blood of Ymir and the bones of another giant named Bláin. Snorri Sturlusson, however, says that dwarves were originally a sort of maggot, who burrowed through the earth-flesh of the dead Ymir. The gods decided, for reasons of their own, that these maggot-beings should gain awareness. They became dwarves, and continued to live in the remains of Ymir’s corpse, dwelling inside rocks and beneath the ground.

Continue reading ‘DWARVES, PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains’