Dwarfs, like the Alfar, are a confusing part of the lore, and so widespread and integrated into our culture, that it’s hard to pin down where they originated. They may be a separate race of their own, or a part of another race. Almost certainly, they evolved into their current form from a now unknown point in ancient history.
Dwarfs are attested in the Poetic Edda and the Prose Edda, as well as throughout many sagas, poems, and Skaldic verses. They turn up in artwork and folklore, and are listed in great detail by name (over 100 of them!) in the Eddas. They are not counted among the Æsir, Vanir, or the giants, nor do they seem to have married into any of the tribes of gods.
In Völuspá, we learn that the dwarven race originated from the sundering of Ýmir’s body, when the three brothers – Óðin, Vili, and Vé – killed him and turned his body into the various parts of the earth and sky. Maggots swarmed from the rotting flesh of the great jötunn, growing in size until they became the beings known as dwarfs.
While they are usually described as industrious, greedy, and subterranean, the Norse dwarfs can be exceptionally brilliant smiths. The six treasures of the gods were created by dwarfs, tricked by Loki into producing masterworks of legendary beauty and purpose. These included Draupnir, Mjölnir, and Gullinbursti, created by the brothers Brokkr and Eitri. As well as Skíðblaðnir, Gungnir, and Sif’s golden hair, crafted by the famous Sons of Ivaldi. Freya’s treasured necklace, Brísingamen, may have been dwarven-crafted as well, and in either case, she traded a few nights in the sack to a group of dwarfs in exchange for it.
Draupnir – Óðin’s ring, given to Baldr on his funeral pyre. It produces eight rings of equal weight every ninth night.
Gullinbursti – Freyr’s golden boar. It could run through air and water as easily as land, and the glow from its mane and bristles illuminated even the darkest gloom.
Gungnir – Óðin’s magic spear. It could strike any target, no matter the skill or strength of the wielder.
Mjölnir – The mighty hammer of Thor, capable of leveling mountains. It always returns to the hand that throws it.
Sif’s Golden Hair – Golden hair crafted to replace Sif’s shorn hair. It attaches to her head, grows like real hair, and flows like water.
Skíðblaðnir – Freyr’s miraculous golden ship which needed no wind to sail, and which folded up to fit in a pocket.
Other prominent dwarven characters include Fajalarr and Galarr, the asshole dwarfs who murder Kvasir and make the Mead of Poetry out of his blood. Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri are described as the four dwarfs who hold up the corners of the heavens.
As gatekeepers between realms, dwarfs maintained an influence over boundaries, precious earth elements, and death. Like other creatures of otherworldly origin, such as trolls, they were deathly allergic to sunlight. A dwarf named Alvíss approached Thor and insisted on marrying his daughter Þrúðr. Thor distracted him all night with a game of riddles, until dawn broke and the would-be suitor turned to stone.
Our concept of dwarfs as short has no support in the lore, but in many sagas they are called small and ugly. As lesser spiritual beings in the pantheon of gods, post-Christian writers may have reduced them to short, runty little beings. This continued through the Victorian era, and it looks like J.R.R. Tolkien is mostly responsible for the modern idea of dwarfs as burly blacksmiths, constantly drinking and stuffing their faces. Throughout the older material, dwarfs seem to be almost exclusively male, with females rarely mentioned.
In Snorri’s Prose Edda, the race of Svartálfar (Black Elves) appear to be the same beings as dwarfs, as he has recorded them as both living in the realm of Svartálfaheimr. Because of the conflicting stories and depictions of the dwarfs, and the fact that they are often inter-mingled with the Alfar, it’s easy to see how they got lumped in with Fairies, Elves, Pixies, and other Fay creatures as time went on.
Thoughts on the Dvergar
There are two plurals for the word dwarf, with dwarfs being the grammatically correct one. J.R.R. Tolkien was in part responsible for popularizing the term dwarves in his writings. He wrote in 1937, “I am afraid it is just a piece of private bad grammar, rather shocking in a philologist; but I shall have to go with it.”
Professor John Lindow has suggested that in Völuspá, an alternate translation of stanza 10 results in Ask and Embla having been created by dwarfs, with Óðin and his brothers giving the creations life after. This may help bring light to the confusion between the Dwarfs, Alfar, and Svartálfar, possibly giving grounds for combining the races into one.
Snorri, as much as he obviously loved the Norse lore, loved to use light and dark Christian symbolism to flesh out the mythologies he recorded. If he did indeed split the ancestors into Alfar and Svartálfar/Dvergar, then it simplifies it a bit for us. As mentioned in the page on Alfar, ancestor veneration was a big deal to the Ancient Norse, and Elven blacksmiths like Völundr make a lot more sense. Völundr is one of the only named Alfar, and is considered an ancestor of the English people, as well as a god of smithing and crafting, who learned his trade from an apprenticeship with two dwarfs.
Signs and Symbols
Gems, gold, and precious metals. Blacksmithing anvils, hammers, forges, and bellows. Ornate and intricate patterns, etchings, and mechanisms.
Dvergr, Dwarf, Dweorg, Twerg