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.

For example, in Germany there was a belief in beings called kobolds or wichtlein, old, bearded, and ugly dwarves that lived in mines. Britain had similar beings called tommyknockers or bluecaps, among other names. Back in the Viking Age mines tended to be small and put out a relatively meager amount of metal; your average Viking was much more likely to use an axe or a spear instead of a sword, simply because they required less metal and were cheaper. This is probably why, despite living underground and being associated with metalwork, there’s few connections between old dwarf traditions and mining. However, as the Middle Ages progressed, mining became increasingly large scale and elaborate. It also became much more dangerous, and this was embodied in the kobolds.

These mine spirits were a fickle bunch. They usually stayed out of human sight, with a miner sometimes glimpsing a shadowy little figure in an alcove at the end of a tunnel, before it melded back into the wall. The spirits punished anybody who sought out more than that. The smelting process for the element cobalt lets off poisonous fumes, and death or illness resulting from inhaling the toxins was blamed on vengeful kobolds. Indeed, that’s where the element gets its name; cobalt derives from kobold. At the same time, these sorts of spirits could be helpful, tapping on the inside of the mine’s walls to warn miners that a rich vein was nearby, or that a cave-in was imminent. Frequently, though, their morality was not clear cut. The mine spirits might punish or reward on a whim, with no obvious logic behind it.

What’s interesting about kobolds in particular is that they weren’t limited to mines. They were also house spirits. Some buildings were thought to have a resident kobold, and if you left out food for him he’d tidy the place up and complete minor chores when nobody was looking. Giving him gifts, however, or trying to get a look at him, would enrage the kobold. He might punish the offender by leaving the building and no longer working for him, or in some cases by causing harmful pranks. In rare instances, the kobold would deal out vicious beatings with invisible hands, or even commit murder. Many other house spirits in Europe share these same basic characteristics, serving humans for no obvious reason (or for very arbitrary and paltry benefits), while maintaining strange, strict rules that invite potential disaster if broken.

Now, the house spirit is a concept so widely spread in the world that it can’t be directly tied to Norse dwarves. Even the ancient Romans and Chinese sacrificed to minor household gods and spirits. In many parts of Europe, they’re indistinguishable from fairies. Still, in Northern Europe it seems likely that Teutonic traditions blended with this concept. Russia in particular has a whole host of house spirits, the most famous being the domovoi, who lived inside the household oven. Almost all of them are hairy and dwarfish, and it’s worth noting that Russia takes its name from the Nordic Rus peoples, who sailed upriver and settled in the region.

So, as before, what can we do with these strange variations? Well, it would be very easy to have the old Norse dwarves or the later medieval romance dwarves appear alongside the mine and house spirits. Perhaps there is a hierarchy in the underworld, and the kobolds and tommyknockers serve the other dwarves as slaves or a servant class, toiling in their mines and cleaning their halls of stone. There’s a lot of potential drama in class disparity, after all. This take would also provide an easy explanation for why the mine spirits and house spirits come near to the surface to work for humans: it beats the alternative of working for their dwarf masters. Given their ability to stay just out of sight, they might work quite well in urban fantasy as well, fitting neatly into settings where the supernatural is omnipresent but hidden.

One theme I’ve harped on a lot in these articles is that in the past dwarves tended to be viewed as spirits, strange entities somewhat removed from the world of flesh and blood. Yet they are also very human, in their way. The dwarves of Norse myth and Germanic legend might have incredible powers and live in strange places, but they’re cowardly and cruel, proud and diligent. Like the old Greek gods they act and think in a very human way, despite their inhuman qualities. This is less true of the mine and house spirits. They follow their own alien patterns, responding to slights with horrible punishment, or offering exorbitant rewards for a small kindness. Folklore is often contradictory and illogical, since it’s an amalgam of many different regional beliefs. This mysterious and inconsistent nature is how people of the time who actually believed in spirits would have thought of them. The legends and myths are stories where the gods and spirits can be characters, but folklore is where they are forces of the world, as dangerous and unpredictable as the weather.

This version of dwarves shows up less often in modern fiction, and it’s because more human-like characters are easier to understand and relate to. If you want to tell a different sort of story, where dwarves are genuinely supernatural, the house/mine spirit approach might be the way to go. It’d be unnerving, to be working deep below the earth, or even in the middle of your kitchen, and turn around to find a hairy little man staring at you, seconds before he walks around a corner and disappears without a trace. It’s a question of how humanity deals with nature, personified in these underworld beings, who look a bit like us but are decidedly something other. Whether it’s something truly dangerous, like a gas pocket igniting in a mine and killing a dozen people, or just something annoying, like realizing your keys aren’t where you were sure you left them, human beings come up with superstitions to explain almost everything. Dwarves can embody that, putting a living face on bad luck and coincidence in a specific environment.

So, that’s dwarves. Their evolution in human belief and literature is a fascinating one, with a great number of offshoots and different interpretations. You’ve got your maggot-men who live under rocks and get screwed over by the gods, your proud yet diminutive nobles in glittering underground cities, and  the creepy little spirits who clean your floors in the dead of night. They all have their place, and you can use some of them or none of them, or combine and reshape features from all three to create something of your own. I’m just trying to give you the tools to do so.

Next week I’ll be back to stand-alone articles, maybe something about magic. You’ll just have to wait and see. Thanks for reading!


9 Responses to “DWARVES, PART IV: Welcome/Unwelcome Guests”

  1. 1 Michael August 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Another great article. I’m curious to learn if there are Native American Faerie beings as well. I’m familiar with the Windigo but that’s about it. Are there small magical beings as well?

    • 2 Fakefaux August 31, 2013 at 1:10 am

      There certainly are Native American stories about diminutive spirits, though I’d hesitate to call them fairies. Fairies are very much a European concept, although other cultures do have similar beings in their beliefs. The djinn of the Middle East, for example, have a lot in common with them.

      I’ll likely write future articles about Native American beliefs, but the article I did a while back about “Animal-People” might interest you, as it mentions some similarities to fairies, and Animal-People are a big part of numerous Native American traditions.

      • 3 Michael September 2, 2013 at 10:13 pm

        Thanks. I’ll check that out. I once read about Troll Maidens who were beautiful human-looking women and sometimes took mortal husbands. Have you heard of this?

      • 4 Fakefaux September 2, 2013 at 10:44 pm

        I have. I may get to them in an eventual troll article, but if you’re interested look up “wood wives,” “huldra,” and “skrogga.” They’re interesting creatures.

      • 5 Michael September 2, 2013 at 10:58 pm

        I saw the movie Thale, about a captured Huldra. I’ll look up wood wives. In a YA book series I’m working on, I want to use a Troll Maiden who is also a powerful and evil witch. The more info I can find, the better.

      • 6 Fakefaux September 3, 2013 at 12:29 am

        Well, trolls changed a lot over the years. If you want something a little more oldschool, look to Grendel’s mother for inspiration. Just imagine her as a witch, and you’ve got your average troll-dam from Norse sagas.

      • 7 Michael September 3, 2013 at 1:34 am

        In my fantasy/adventure series, the troll maiden will have a backstory that will make somewhat sympathetic, even though she has become evil. Also, she has hidden her heart away in a secret place that my female heroin will have to find and destroy in order to kill the witch. My target reader age range is 10-14 years so I can’t be too violent or dark in theme. Once my current book is done, I’ll dive into my fantasy series. A lot of what you post on this site helps me in my research.

      • 8 Fakefaux September 3, 2013 at 2:56 am

        Great to hear it! Good luck with your book.

  2. 9 WeaverGrace April 26, 2015 at 11:44 am

    You got me fueled up for the challenge of fleshing out the she-dwarf in the story that I just began writing!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: