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The Magical, Mythical Elves and Dwarves of Norse Legend


Jan 12, 2023

Right this moment if one thinks of both elves or dwarves, the very first thing to return to thoughts is prone to be the works of J.R.R Tolkien. Due to him, fantasy fiction goes hand in hand with elves and dwarves. But what many individuals don’t understand is that he took his inspiration for them from Norse mythology. Each elves and dwarves performed essential roles in Norse mythology. A number of Norse myths function dwarves crafting valuable objects, whereas Outdated Norse poems function elves accompanying the gods. Right here is every little thing it is advisable to know concerning the elves and dwarves of Norse delusion.

Origins of Dwarves in Norse Mythology

In fantasy fiction, dwarves are predominantly related to craftsmanship and smithing, in addition to dwelling deep beneath the earth underneath mountains. Look-wise, they’re often depicted as being quick and unattractive.

This matches how they’re portrayed in Norse mythology . Whereas the previous myths don’t go into a lot element as to their look, they’re described as “dvergr of voxt” (quick like a dwarf). The dvergar, or dwarves, of Norse mythology do have one skill not shared with their fashionable counterparts nonetheless: the power to shapeshift.

The origins of the dwarves are defined within the Norse creation poem Völuspá, which is the primary poem of the Poetic Edda. Earlier than the gods, there was a large referred to as Ymir, from whom the gods created the Earth. Within the poem’s ninth stanza, it states the gods needed to determine who would lead the dwarves “out of Brimir’s blood and the legs of Blain”. It’s believed that Brimir and Blain are two different names for Ymir.

The enormous Ymir predated the elves and dwarves within the Poetic Edda. Portray of Ymir’s delivery, circa 1777. Dwarves emerged from Ymir like maggots. ( Public Domain )

Within the subsequent stanza, two potential candidates for the chief of the dwarves are talked about, Motsognir and Durin. Stanzas 9-16 act as a listing of dwarf names. Tolkien really used the names that seem between stanzas 9 and 16 as inspiration. Gandalf comes from the Norse Gandalfr which implies magic elf. He additionally referred to the dwarves of his books as Durin’s folks, a transparent reference to the Durin of stanza 9.

Different essential elves embody Norþri, Suþri, Austri, and Vestri, who characterize the factors of the compass and are answerable for holding up the sky. There’s additionally Lofar, who leads the dwarves from the mountains to discover a new dwelling, and Dvalin who, within the Hávamál, offers the remainder of the dwarves magic runes that grant them their craftsmanship skills.

The Prose Edda describes how the dwarves first appeared from Ymir’s flesh like maggots however had been granted sentience by the gods. It explains that they will reside in soils or rocks. That is backed up in one other story, Sörla þáttr . This tells how the goddess Freyja slept with some dwarves to obtain a splendid collar. On this story, it’s said that the dwarves resided in rocks and caves.

Freyja in the dwarfs' cave, book illustration from 1891 (Public Domain)

Freyja within the dwarfs’ cave, e-book illustration from 1891 ( Public Domain )

Not every little thing is clear-cut, nonetheless. The Prose Edda’s writer, Snorri, additionally makes references to light-elves and darkish elves. The distinction between the 2 is that the sunshine elves reside in Alfheim, whereas the dark-elves reside underground. This has led some students to conclude that dwarves and dark-elves are both the identical or intently associated.

Dwarves are often depicted as being all male, however there may be proof that some had been feminine. The Fáfnismál part of the Poetic Edda tells the story of how the Norse hero Sigurd killed a dragon. Earlier than it died, the dragon advised Sigurd that a number of the Norn (feminine Norse deities who might predict the long run and determine males’s fates) had been associated to Dvlain, one of many major dwarves.

Two dwarves as depicted in a 19th-century edition of the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá (1895) by Lorenz Frølich. (Public Domain)

Two dwarves as depicted in a Nineteenth-century version of the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá (1895) by Lorenz Frølich. ( Public Domain )

Dwarven Craftsmanship

The first position of the dwarves in Norse mythology is to craft uncommon or magical objects for the gods. A major instance of that is the story of how Thor obtained his hammer within the Skáldskaparmál of the Poetic Edda.

The story begins with the trickster god Loki chopping the hair of Thor’s spouse, Sif, leaving her bald. Thor, as he was vulnerable to do, reacted by forcing Loki to go to the darkish elves and making him ask them to craft her new hair created from gold. These darkish elves, often called the sons of Ivaldi, had been those answerable for smithing Odin’s mighty spear, Gungnir, in addition to Freyr’s ship, Skidbladnir.

1922 illustration of the sons of Ivaldi crafting gifts for the gods (Public Domain)

1922 illustration of the sons of Ivaldi crafting presents for the gods ( Public Domain )

The dwarves crafted Sif her new hair and he or she was delighted, however Loki wasn’t carried out. He made a wager with a dwarf referred to as Brokk that Brokk and his brother Eitri couldn’t make three objects higher than those above. If they might, Loki would give them his head.

After all, being Loki, he tried to cheat. Loki reworked right into a fly and did his greatest to distract the 2 dwarf craftsmen. He landed on Brokk’s eyelid and bit it, inflicting him to make a mistake as he added the ending touches to Mjolnir, Thor’s hammer. This resulted in Thor’s hammer being a lot shorter than a typical Norse conflict hammer.

In addition to Mjolnir, the 2 brothers crafted the good ring Draupnir, which produced 9 extra rings each ninth night time, and Gullinbortsi, a magic boar that might run sooner than any horse. The gods had been delighted with these presents and deemed the 2 dwarves the victors of the wager.

Brokk then requested Thor to seize Loki in order that they could take his head as a reward. Loki, nonetheless, proved himself a trickster as soon as extra by stating he had wager his head, not his neck. The dwarves obtained the final chuckle; Brokk’s different brother, Alr, sealed Loki’s lips shut.

"The third gift — an enormous hammer" by Elmer Boyd Smith. The dwarves Sons of Ivaldi forge the hammer Mjolnir for the god Thor while Loki watches on. On the table before them sits their other creations: the multiplying ring Draupnir, the boar Gullinbursti, the ship Skíðblaðnir, the spear Gungnir, and golden hair for the goddess Sif. (Public Domain)

“The third reward — an infinite hammer” by Elmer Boyd Smith. The dwarves Sons of Ivaldi forge the hammer Mjolnir for the god Thor whereas Loki watches on. On the desk earlier than them sits their different creations: the multiplying ring Draupnir, the boar Gullinbursti, the ship Skíðblaðnir, the spear Gungnir, and golden hair for the goddess Sif. ( Public Domain )

Elves in Norse Mythology

In comparison with the dwarves of Norse mythology, we all know comparatively little concerning the elves. They appeared in loads of myths and all through the poems of the Poetic Edda, however the literature devoted little or no house to describing them.

We all know that the elves had been divided into two separate teams: the sunshine elves, and darkish elves, who’re most likely additionally the dwarves. The sunshine elves, who reside in Alfheim, are often depicted as being near the gods and divine in nature. Specifically, they’re described as being “extra stunning than the solar”.

Elves had been most intently related to the Aesir god Freyr, who was mentioned to rule over Alfheim. The elves had been depicted as typically accompanying the assorted gods, becoming a member of them in council and after they went to conflict. Within the Lokasenna of the Poetic Edda, it was defined that the elves had been so divine they typically accompanied the gods as each ingesting companions and lovers.

Some students have gone as far as to assert that the elves and the gods had been the identical. Within the Vǫluspá of the Poetic Edda, it seems that the phrases Aesir and elves are synonymous with each other, implying that the elves had been certainly gods. Different students have put this right down to a technical poetic system slightly than proof. That is backed up by the truth that different poems clarify delineations between the elves and gods.

The elves weren’t simply depicted as interacting with the gods; that they had an ambivalent relationship with humanity. Within the tales of Norse mythology, elves are sometimes proven inflicting human sicknesses however are then additionally generally proven therapeutic them, for the precise worth.

In Norse mythology, people and elves had been in a position to interbreed and produce hybrid offspring. Their kids had been mentioned to have the looks of a standard human however had the magical powers and instinct of an elf. Some poems additionally make references to people having the ability to turn into elves after loss of life.

Numerous Nordic sagas make references to burial grounds being haunted by elves, and there was appreciable overlap between the worship of individuals’s ancestors and the worship of elves.

The worship of elves really outlived the worship of the Nordic gods. Centuries after most of Europe had transformed to Christianity, folks had been nonetheless worshiping elves, main medieval regulation codes to ban the observe.

The Boy and the Elf, 1907 illustration by John Bauer (Public Domain)

The Boy and the Elf, 1907 illustration by John Bauer ( Public Domain )

Wayland the Smith

Of all of the elves, essentially the most well-known was Wayland the Smith. The Völundarkviða of the Poetic Edda tells the story of how he was attacked by a human king, Nithuth, and the way the elf obtained his revenge.

Within the story, Wayland was the son of a king and a grasp craftsman. He and his brothers married a number of the Valkyries (feminine Norse warrior spirits), however after a number of years the Valkyries flew away.

Wayland’s brothers set off to search out their brides, leaving him at dwelling. Wayland spent his time forging stunning golden rings embellished with valuable gems which he deliberate on gifting his spouse upon her return. Nithuth heard about this and despatched his males to seize the elf whereas he was dwelling alone.

Wayland was dropped at Nithuth’s fortress, the place he was stripped of his swords and one of many rings was given to Nithuth’s daughter. Unsurprisingly, Wayland reacted badly. Nithuth’s spouse remarked how “his eyes are glowing like glistening snakes”, and he “gnashes his tooth” each time he noticed the people dealing with his sword and ring.

The people started to concern the elf and reduce his hamstrings earlier than dumping him on an island. He was left there, compelled to work as a slave for the human king. He spent his days crafting stunning objects for the king, by no means resting.

Nithuth’s sons started visiting the island in order that they might watch the elf work. Throughout one in every of their visits, the elf killed them and hid their corpses beneath his bellows. He made silver cups from their skulls for his or her father, gems out of their eyes for the queen, and a brooch out of their tooth for his or her sister, Bothvid.

Afterward, Bothvild broke her ring and requested Wayland to repair it. Wayland agreed and the 2 find yourself ingesting collectively. Wayland managed to seduce the princess, making her his lover. He impregnated her earlier than one way or the other managing to flee the island.

Sadly, at this time the poem is incomplete, so we’re lacking some particulars as to how Wayland escaped the island, however it’s believed he could have carried out so by crafting an eagle costume with the assistance of one in every of his brothers. The story ends with the king summoning Wayland to clarify what Wayland had carried out to Nithuth’s sons.

Wayland agreed to inform the king so long as he promised to not hurt Bothvild or the kid she was carrying. The king was determined for revenge however agreed. The poem ends with Wayland confessing to killing the sons and flying off earlier than the king might damage him.

Close-up of the front panel of the Franks Casket, Auzon, France, 8th century AD. This part of the casket features an Anglo-Saxon depiction of the Wayland (Volund) legend. Wayland is depicted next to his forge and tools, with the decapitated body of one of King Niðhad’s sons before him. He is offering a goblet fashioned from the skull to a woman, probably the king’s daughter, Bodvild. The second female figure is either an attendant or Bodvild again. The male figure on the right side is either Wayland or one of his brothers. He is strangling geese to collect feathers for a flying machine. (Public Domain)

Shut-up of the entrance panel of the Franks Casket, Auzon, France, eighth century AD. This a part of the casket options an Anglo-Saxon depiction of the Wayland (Volund) legend. Wayland is depicted subsequent to his forge and instruments, with the decapitated physique of one in every of King Niðhad’s sons earlier than him. He’s providing a goblet common from the cranium to a girl, most likely the king’s daughter, Bodvild. The second feminine determine is both an attendant or Bodvild once more. The male determine on the precise aspect is both Wayland or one in every of his brothers. He’s strangling geese to gather feathers for a flying machine. ( Public Domain )

Within the story of Wayland the Smith, we see a standard motif that persists even at this time: Don’t anger an elf. To start with, Wayland is peaceable, however after being attacked by the people, turns into aggressive and vindictive. The story is probably going answerable for the previous perception that in the event you crossed an elf, there can be dire penalties.

The medical time period stroke comes from the previous notion that in the event you irritated an elf, they might smite you. It was additionally generally thought that dangerous luck basically was the work of malevolent elves. Later Christians related these previous concepts of elves with demons and devils. This was partially answerable for the church buildings’ ban of elven worship; it was seen as satan worship.


In most fashionable works of fantasy, the traces between elves and dwarves are clear-cut. However the Northmen who first advised tales about them weren’t as excited by making distinctions as we’re at this time.

The elves and dwarves loved an middleman place someplace above mortal males however under the gods. They had been doubtless seen as interchangeable, as seen by the confusion between the variations between dark-elves and dwarves and whether or not they had been the identical or not.

This confusion is made worse by the truth that our understanding of Norse mythology is incomplete. Most of the unique texts and sources have been misplaced, and we are sometimes left counting on later retellings of those early tales.

Whereas they range from their fashionable fantasy counterparts, the constructing blocks for Tolkien’s elves could be clearly discovered within the tales of Norse mythology. It’s humorous to suppose that Tolkien spent a lot time differentiating the 2 when the Nordic storytellers appeared so bored with doing so.

Prime Picture: Elves and dwarves performed essential roles in Norse mythology. Dancing Fairies, portray by August Malmström, 1866. Supply: Public Domain

By Robbie Mitchell

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