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.

Beyond these “humble” origins, the dwarves have a small collection of core stories in Norse myth. Most of them involve their dealings with the gods, which tend to be filled with betrayal and cruelty. The god Loki tricks two dwarf brothers into making magical weapons for the gods, then welches on the bet. The dwarf Alviss tries to steal Thor’s daughter only to be tricked and killed by Thor. The goddess Freya wants to buy a beautiful golden necklace that four dwarves made, but they refuse all payment except for sexual favors. Thor, in his grief, kicks one dwarf into the funeral pyre of the god Balder.

The general takeaway from these stories is that while dwarves were wise and incredibly skilled craftsmen, making items even the gods desired and needed, they were also treacherous, cruel, lustful and vengeful. There’s no love lost between them and the Norse gods, and their relationships with human beings and the giants are not much better. The giants played a big role in the Scandinavian myths, but there’s only one myth where they meet the dwarves, and it involves murder, betrayal, and ransom. Dwarf encounters with humans are firmly in the realm of heroic legend, and in most of them the dwarves either take advantage of humans who they plan to betray, or they’re abused by humans and seek revenge. For example, the dwarf Regin raises his human foster-son Sigurd to slay a dragon but plans to kill him afterward,  and the human king Svafrlami forces the dwarves Durin and Dvalin, at sword point, to make him a new magical sword which they promptly curse.

You may have noticed, the demeanor of these dwarves is very different from dwarves in modern literature, and changes extend beyond mere personality. In the earliest stories there is no mention of a dwarf’s height, and in one piece of Scandinavian art from the 12th century Regin is depicted as being the same size as Sigurd. There’s rarely any mention of beards, and there’s never any indication that they are physically robust, beyond their smith-work, which often seems to be accomplished with magic. They do have some defined physical traits, though. Nordic dwarves are supposed to be particularly pale, which fits with both their maggot origins and the fact that they live underground. Like Norse trolls, they’re wholly nocturnal, turning to stone (or exploding) if exposed to sunlight, which is how Thor killed Alviss. There’s no mention of vast underground cities or structures; one has to keep in mind the Norse largely built in wood, and mines were pretty primitive at the time, so the concept would likely have seemed foreign to them. In short, many of the concepts we associate with dwarves would show up in the legends of later centuries, like the beards and small stature, but seem to have not existed in the earliest material.

The Norse dwarves are also an extremely magical bunch. Descriptions of them living inside stones and boulders involve them mysteriously popping in and out of the things, often without any sort of door or opening. The dwarf Hreidmar was a powerful sorcerer, who captured three gods (including the chief god, Odin) in unbreakable chains, forcing them to pay a ransom for killing his son. Several dwarves were shapeshifters. Their most common activity, forging magical weapons and items, was sometimes metaphysical, like when the gods asked a group of dwarves to create the unbreakable rope Gleipnir. The dwarves complied, and to make the rope they used ingredients like the sound of a cat’s footfall, the roots of a mountain, the breath of a fish, the beard of a women, and other things that either don’t physically exist or would be seemingly useless for making a rope. With all this taken into account one could easily categorize the dwarves of Norse mythology as a nature spirits, yet their earthy nature and base impulses make them seem very human and physical. Of course, older cultures didn’t always make as big a division between a “spirit” and “physical” being as we sometime do today. Norse ghosts in particular tend to have a dominating physical presence.

So now that I’ve laid all this groundwork, let’s talk about what you can do with it all. The most immediate way to work this material into a story is to play against expectations. People often expect dwarves to be short, stocky, and hairy. The Vikings may have once pictured dwarves as of normal human height, with a ghostly pale complexion, relatively clean shaven, and with the bulging eyes of a nocturnal creature; it’s not exactly the mental image that springs to mind for most people these days. You could even make a joke about the height. Modern humans are taller then our medieval ancestors, due to better nutrition and healthcare. If dwarves were only about five feet tall, we might consider them short, but the Old Norse might not.

Another idea is to go with the “dwarves as nature spirits” concept. The Norse believed in a lot of different types of nature spirits, collectively called landvaettir, and the dwarves could be counted amongst them. After all, they’re beings of rock and soil, who are supernaturally skilled at working the gifts of the earth, especially metal. You could even use this approach in pure historical fiction, with a superstitious Viking who just happens to believe there are dwarves living under every stone. For fantasy, dwarves as spirits who haunt the wilderness might be a nice change of pace. A story might involve characters searching out the spirits of the mountain for their vaunted wisdom. A blacksmith might worship local dwarf spirits, leaving offerings for them on a large boulder alongside a difficult piece of work that he hopes they’ll fix for him. Of course, such dealings with these spirits may be filled with the same caprice and vengeance of the myths.

On the other hand, if you did want to make a living culture out of the old dwarves, there’s plenty to work with. For example, you could include the history of divine antagonism. If the dwarves in your story have been treated as badly by the gods in Norse mythology (or believe they were, at any rate), perhaps many of them would be atheists or misotheists. Many settings and modern stories depict dwarves as being unskilled or mistrustful of magic, but examples like Hreidmar show the Norse had no such impressions. Aside from that, you may want to include some of their other magical attributes, such as turning to stone/exploding in daylight, shapeshifting, or forging intangible concepts into physical items. A race of entirely nocturnal dwarves, who fear the fatal touch of sunlight, might be interesting.

Speaking of their  artisanship, it’s easy to picture them as traders or craftsmen, though that’s territory well worn by other writers. To spice things up, perhaps you could borrow a little more from the culture of the Norsemen who created them. Smiths might be greatly respected in dwarf society, but there’s no reason they’d be the dominant profession. Make them explorers and raiders like the Vikings, sailing across vast underground lakes or coming out of the ground at night to loot and pillage human villages. Alternatively, make them great sages, having extensive knowledge of many things, not just blacksmithing. You could totally have their ruling class be wise old wizard-dwarves. As for where these communities live, the Norse seemed to view them as a rustic people, living in or under boulders. Maybe each rock hides the entrance to a dwarf cottage. Maybe deep under the earth the dwarves carve out dwellings that reflect the sort of things Norsemen did with wood, with many-pillared mead halls ruled by cruel dwarf jarls. You could have a nice interplay between the feudal dwarves who live further down, and the surface dwarves who live like frontiersmen, sending wood and furs and crops back down to the old country.

Overall, there are plenty of options in the Norse traditions, especially if you’re looking to try something new or offbeat. Next week we’ll take a look at the dwarves of the later medieval romances and folktales, who may seem a little more familiar, but have quite a few unique quirks of their own. See you then.


2 Responses to “DWARVES, PART II: Maggot-Men of the Mountains”

  1. 1 WeaverGrace April 26, 2015 at 11:14 am

    A dwarf appeared in a story that I just started writing. It was born like a maggot. I shared it at https://plus.google.com/u/0/+WeaverGrace/posts/EW2EYxL3TYp
    You gave me some great thoughts to build on.

  2. 2 Anonymous May 5, 2017 at 10:14 pm

    Great stuff! I’ve done years of research on many of your subjects, and you are so right about their being a fine line between the many mythical races of lore. It’s nice to find one site with so much dedication to all these topics I’ve been delving into.

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