Norse dwarves

Norse dwarves

Dvergar or Norse dwarves (Old Norse "dvergar", sing. "dvergr") are highly significant entities in Norse mythology, who associate with stones, the underground, deathliness, luck, magic, and technology, especially forging. They are identified with Svartálfar ('black elves'), and Døkkálfar ('dark elves'), due to their apparently interchangeable use in early texts such as the Eddas. While Dvergar relate etymologically to "dwarves", the Norse concept of Dvergar is often unlike the concept of "dwarves" in other cultures. For instance, Norse dwarves may originally have been envisaged as being of human size. They are not described as small before the 13th century, when they started appearing in the legendary sagas, often as a humorous element.

In later Scandinavian folklore, other kinds of nature spirits ("Vættir"), like the Troll and the Nisse, seem to take over many of the functions of the Dvergar.

In the Dvergatal section, the Völuspá divides the dwarves into what may be three tribes, lead firstly by "Mótsognir" their first ruler, secondly by "Durinn", and finally by "Dvalinn". Hávamál mentions Dvalinn brought the rune writing to the Dvergar.


None of the early Norse sources describe dwarves as particularly small beings. In artwork made during the Viking Age and even later, both dwarves and humans are the same height. (See image.) Several images survive that depict scenes from the saga of the Norse hero Sigurðr, where Sigurðr is a human, but his foster father Reginn is a Dvergr, a Norse dwarf.

No early Norse source describes dwarves as little. ['Dwarves' in "Cassell Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend", ed. (Andy Orchard 1997, ISBN 0-30434-520-2).] The Prose Edda (Gylfaginning 14) says plainly: 'The dwarfs had the likeness of a human, although [they] live in earth and in stones'. The Old Norse term for 'likeness' ("líki") refers to the body.

Only in later sources - such as the legendary sagas of the 13th to 15th centuries with notable influence from German Medieval literature - the dwarves are described as small, and often ugly. In these sagas, they often play a humorous role. ['Zwerge' in Rudolf Simek, "Lexikon der germanischen Mythologie", (Stuttgart, 1984)]

Going against the theory of dwarfs being the same height as man is the word itself, thought to derive via the Proto-Germanic *dweraz, from the Proto-Indo-European *dhwergwhos meaning 'something tiny' [ [ Online Etymology Dictionary ] ] , suggesting the dwarves were thought of as small beings from the beginning. Perhaps it was assumed by Norse poets that the name itself left no need for further explanation on a dwarf's height.

Skin color and hair color

Norse texts describe the skin color of Dvergar as 'pale' ("fölr"), like a corpse. [ [,M1|The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mythology, p.213] ] The hair color is 'black' ("svartr").

In the Poetic Edda, the poem Alvíssmál tells how Þórr mocks the 'pale' white skin of a Dvergr. Þórr was furious to discover his daughter was promised in marriage to a Dvergr named Alvís (literally 'all wise', referring to the magical knowledge of the Dvergar) and insults him.

What [kind of] fellow is this?!
Why are you so pale about the nose?
Were you [spending time] with the dead in the night?
To me, [I] think you to be the likeness of a giant (Þurs)!
You were not born for [my daughter to be your] bride.

"Hvat er þat fira?!
"Hví ertu svá fölr um nasar?
"Vartu í nótt með ná?
"Þursa líki
"þykki mér á þér vera!
"ert-at-tu til brúðar borinn."

The insult summarizes a number of concepts relating to the appearance of the Dvergar. Notably, this Dvergr has a 'pale nose'. In other words, he has black hair and a bushy black beard, and in the midst of this blackness, his white nose glares prominently. Note Norse culture values 'milk white' skin. However the complexion of the Dvergr is unhealthy, with a ghastly palor, and Þórr accuses him of being a corpse who spends time 'with the dead'. Moreover, Dvergar are pale because sunlight is lethal to them. In the same way corpses are buried in mounds and never contact sunlight, the Dvergar too live underground and avoid all contact with the sunlight, on pain of death. This Dvergr visits Þórr above ground, only during nighttime, and at the conclusion of the poem, the dawn breaks forth killing the Dvergr, .. thus preventing the daughter from marrying him. Þórr says the Dvergr has the body of a giant, a Þurs, because of his monstrous pigmentation. Of course, Þórr is famous for killing Þursar – and calling the Dvergr such is a threat! A Dvergr is simply not fit to marry the daughter of Þórr. While Þórr seems cruel, his concern may be the corpse-like lifestyle is unsuitable for his daughter. Dvergar live in utter darkness, and, like stones and corpses, spend much of their life without moving. Þórr saves his daughter from a nightmarish arranged marriage. That Þórr could be cunning enough to outwit a Dvergr, by tricking him into staying outdoors until the sun kills him, testifies to the saving strength of Þórr, even mental strength.

Although the Dvergar are often called "black", in Old Norse the descriptive term 'black' ("svartr") refers to hair color, not skin color. (It is analogous to the English term 'brunette', which always refers to brown hair and never brown skin.) To describe black skin, Old Norse uses the term 'blue' ("blár"). The concept of 'blue' skin to describe dark skin derives from the appearance of a corpse. As the blood flow stops, gravity drains away the blood from the upper area and collects it at the lower area. Thus a corpse can be described either as 'pale' referring to the upper portion or as 'blue' referring to the lower portion. The Prose Edda describes Hel, the deity of death, as having half her face pale 'flesh' color, and the other half 'blue', like the corpse of a woman who died while reclining on her side. By extension, when sagas refer to an African from Nigeria, he is called a 'blue man' ("blámaðr"), referring to his 'blue' skin.

The Dvergatal mentions the personal name, 'The Blue One' (Bláinn), which is a nickname for the primeordeal giant Ýmir, who Óðinn and his two brothers killed. The giant's corpse is called 'blue'. Some suggest the name 'The Blue One' may refer to a Dvergr. While unlikely, if so, this individual would seem to have black skin like a corpse, thus called 'blue'. Compare some other Dvergar whose names refer to their (pale white) corpse-like appearance, like 'The Dead One' (Dáinn) and 'The Corpse' (Náinn).

Svartálfr or 'Black Elf'

The Prose Edda equates the homes of Dvergar ('dwarves') and Svartalfar ('black elves'), and most likely uses the terms interchangeably, implying that they are one and the same.:Skáldskaparmál 43:Loki .. swore this, that he will travel to the Svartálfar, so that they will make Sif ladyhair of gold, which would grow as [her] other hair. After that, Loki traveled to those Dvergar who are called the Sons of Ívaldi, and they made the ladyhair.:"Loki .. svarði þess, at hann skal fá af Svartálfum, at þeir skulu gera af gulli Sifju hadd þann, er svá skal vaxa sem annat hár. Eftir þat, fór Loki til þeira dverga, er heita Ívaldasynir, ok gerðu þeir haddinn."In this passage, Loki swears an oath to visit Svartalfar with the intent of acquiring golden hair by their making, and receives this golden hair from Dvergar. This strongly implies that they are one and the same, though they can be interpreted to mean that Loki set out to receive the hairfrom one source and actually received it from another. The term 'black' ("svartr") may refer to dwarven black hair, but often connotes the fact they live in blackness, avoiding sunlight on pain of death.Fact|date=December 2007 "Álf" could simply be an honorary title within the name (see below).

:Gylfagynning 34:Then [Óðinn] the Allfather sent that one who is named Skírnir, the messenger of Freyr, from-above into Svartálfaheimar to some Dvergar, and caused to be made that bondage which is called Gleipnir.:Þá sendi Alföðr þann, er Skírnir er nefndr, sendimaðr Freys, ofan í Svartálfaheim til dverga nökkurra ok lét gera fjötur þann, er Gleipnir heitir.

Note in both occurrences, the author Snorri Sturluson, connects the term 'Svartálfar' (in Svartálfaheimar, or "Black elf-home") with the name of the place where the Dvergar live. 'Loki will travel to [the place of] the Svartálfar', and Óðinn 'sent Skírnir from above into Svartálfaheimar'.

Álfr ('elf') as an honorary title

Many names of the Dvergar contain the syllable "álf", from "Álfar" ('elves'). Though there is a distinction between the race of elves and dwarves in Norse texts, the presence of "álf" in dwarven names seemingly serves as a title, in the sense they can be understood as a source of good luck, or even as guardians or deities. Several names mentioned in the Dvergatal reflect this function: Álfr, Gandálfr, and Vindálfr. In some poems, namely Hrafnagaldur Óðins, Dvergar are referred to directly as Álfar, it serving as a stand-alone title. There may be points of contact between Dvergar and Álfar, where one Dvergr called Dáinn may be the same individual who taught runes to the family of the Álfar (Hávamál 142). Note the divine connotations of the personal names of specific Dvergar: Norðri, Suðri, Austri, and Vestri, who support the four cardinal points, which are sometimes called "Nýi" and "Niði" govern the waxing and waning lunar phase. The frequent death imagery of Dvergar connotes both the luck of sacred ancestors as well as magic trances. Finally, the Dvergar are artisans of such divine power, even the Æsir must rely on them for their magic items.

Døkkálfar or 'Dark Elves'

In one famous passage, the Prose Edda describes the Dvergar by the nickname Døkkálfar or 'dark elves', in contrast to the Álfar who are oppositely nicknamed Ljósálfar or 'light elves'. The Old Norse standardized spelling is Døkkálfar with the letter ø, but often is transliterated with a less precise alternative letter ö, Dökkálfar. The Prose Edda uses the name 'dark elves' as a nickname for the Dvergar.:Gylfaginning 17:Many worshipful places are there [in heaven] . That one place is there which is called Álfheimr. There dwell that people which is called the Ljósálfar ('light elves'). But Døkkálfar live below in the ground, and they are unlike them [in] appearance and much more unlike [them in] experience. Ljósálfar are fairer [brighter and more beautiful] than the sun [in] appearance. But the Døkkálfar are blacker [than] pitch.:"Margir staðir eru þar göfugligir. Sá er einn staðr þar er kallaðr er Álfheimr. Þar byggir fólk þat er Ljósálfar heita, en Døkkálfar búa niðri í jörðu, ok eru þeir ólíkir þeim sýnum ok miklu ólíkari reyndum. Ljósálfar eru fegri en sól sýnum, en Døkkálfar eru svartari biki." [ [ Parallel transliterations of manuscripts of Gylfaginning] ]

Creation of the Dvergar

In the Poetic Edda, Völuspá transmits a difficult but important passage, involving the creation of the Dvergar. But the wording is ambiguous: possibly the Dvergar are being created in human forms, but probably the Dvergar are creating human forms.:Völuspá (Ambiguous Old Norse wording):"9. Þá gengu regin öll á rökstóla, ginnheilög goð, ok um þat gættusk. Hverr skyldi dverga dróttir skepja, ór Brimis blóði ok ór Bláins leggjum?:"10. Þar var Mótsognir mæztr um orðinn dverga allra, en Durinn annarr. Þeir mannlíkön mörg um gørðu, dvergar, ór jörðu, sem Durinn sagði."

Possible interpretation: the Dvergar were created in the likenesses of humans

In the sense of the Dvergar being created, the passage may translate as follows.:Völuspá:9. Then all the rulers – the awe-holy gods – went and took council on their judgment seats. [They asked] , "Who should shape the troops of the Dvergar, out of the blood of Brimir and out of the legs of Bláinn?":10. There was Mótsognir the master of the word [being most famous] of all the Dvergar. But Durinn was another. They constructed many human likenesses – the Dvergar out of the earth – as Durinn said.

The nicknames Brimir and Bláinn refer to the corpse of the cosmic giant Ymir, who Óðinn and his brothers killed and out of his body created the cosmos. Brimir ('brim') describes the watery blood that fills the ocean to the brim of the shores. Bláinn ('the blue' corpse) includes the stony legs that forms solid earth.

Snorri Sturluson in his Prose Edda (Gylfaginning 14), interprets the passage to mean the Æsir asked rhetorically, "Who should shape the Dvergar?" because the Dvergar already came into existence by themselves, by means of spontaneous generation like maggots in a corpse. However, the Æsir then 'constructed' these maggots into the bodies of humans, thusly made many Dvergar. Snorri explains his interpretation.:Gylfaginning:14. There next, the gods sat themselves up in their seats and rendered their judgement, and mentioned when the Dvergar had [become] enlivened, in the ground and under in the earth, as even maggots [do] in flesh. First the Dvergar had taken shape and enlivened in the flesh of Ymir, and were as maggots. But by a decision of the gods, they acquired knowledge and human consciousness and had the likeness of a human, although [they] live in earth and in stones.:"14. Þar næst settusk guðin upp í sæti sín ok réttu dóma sína ok mintusk hvaðan dvergar höfðu kviknat í moldunni ok niðri í jörðunni svá sem maðkar í holdi. Dvergarnir höfðu skipazk fyrst ok tekit kviknun í holdi Ymis ok váru þá maðkar, en af atkvæði guðanna, urðu þeir vitandi mannvits ok höfðu manns líki, ok búa þó í jörðu ok í steinum. Mó [ðso] gnir var dvergr ok annarr Durinn."

Notably, Snorri's interpretation takes for granted Dvergar look like humans, being as tall as humans. Their 'likeness', meaning their body, is that of a human. In any case, Snorri assumes the Æsir created the Dvergar, rather than the Dvergar created the humans, and must make intellectual somersaults, about how Dvergar preexist as maggots, to explain what was for him dissonant wording in Völuspá.

Probable interpretation: the Dvergar created the likenesses of humans

Probably Snorri misunderstood the text of VöluspáFact|date=June 2008. The Dvergar were not being created. Rather the Dvergar were creating the likenesses of humans. Immediately afterward, Völuspá says the Æsir found these likenesses and brought them to life. As such the Old Norse translates as follows.:Völuspá:9. Then all the rulers – the awe-holy gods – went and took council on their judgment seats. [They asked] , "Who of the Dvergar should shape the troops [of humans] , out of the blood of Brimir and out of the legs of Bláinn?":10. There was Mótsognir the master of the word [being most reputable] of all the Dvergar. But Durinn was another. They, the Dvergar, constructed many human likenesses out of the earth, as Durinn said.:17. Until therefore three Æsir came, potent and merciful, out of the generation from their house. [They] found [the likeness of the male human] Ask and [the likeness of the female human] Embla, on the land [with] little might and fateless.:18. They owned no breath [of spirit] . They had no fury [of inspiration] . [Neither] warmbloodedness nor voice nor good complexion. Óðinn gave breath [of spirit] . Hœnir gave fury [of inspiration] . Lóðurr gave warmbloodedness and good complexion.

Thusly, Völuspá does not mention the origin of the Dvergar, which remains unknown. Like the Vanir and the Álfar, the Dvergar simply preexist. The Dvergar are master artisans. Thus the Æsir ask them, 'Who of Dvergar should shape the troops' to fight on behalf of the Æsir? Apparently, the Æsir hold a competition to see which Dvergar can 'construct' the best soldier. Many 'likenesses of a human' were made in the competition. Accordingly, the Dvergr called Mótsognir ('rage singer' or battle yeller) seems to have built the likeness of the male soldier Ask, and Durinn the female Embla, which was just as good. The Æsir accept the handiwork of both contestants. It is a tie.

Humans are essentially a statue carved out of wood, then brought to life. The male's name is Ask ('ash tree'). The female's name is Embla ('elm tree'). The wood comes from the trees that formed out of the hair of the corpse of Ymir. Dvergar skill produced these statues, thus they are more sophisticated and miraculous, like an automatons with the watery blood and stony bones of Ymir, for suppleness and strength. What the statues lack is conscious life. So the three Æsir imbue these qualities, and the first humans become living beings. Hereon, Óðinn and Freyja assemble the best warriors from among humans to fight in the final battle during Ragnarök.

Both the Æsir and the Dvergar are divine beings. The story in the Völuspá of the creation of humans, highlights both the expertise and limitations of these two families. The Dvergar can create devices of miraculous power and complexity, but cannot give life. Conversely, the Æsir cannot create such devices, but can give life. The Dvergar govern technology, while the Æsir govern spirit.

Famous Dvergar


Dvalinn as ancestor of all Dvergar

Norse texts imply Dvalinn is the ancestor of all Dvergar. In poetry, his name may stand for any or every Dvergr. For example, the Poetic Edda calls female Dvergar the 'daughters of Dvalinn' ("dœtr Dvalins") (Fáfnismál 13), and calls the sun the 'game of Dvalinn' ("Dvalins leika") in the sense it is deadly to any Dvergr who must dodge it every dawn (Alvíssmál 16). The Dvergatal lists a lineage of (firstborn?) sons from Dvalinn to Lofarr (Völuspá 11–16). The Prose Edda reiterates the 'daughters of Dvalinn' ("dættr Dvalins") (Gylfaginning 23), and calls the Mead of Poetry the 'drink of Dvalinn' ("drekku Dvalins") because two Dvergar brewed it, Fjalarr and Galarr (Skáldskaparmál 10). As the primordeal progenitor of all Dvergar, the qualities attributed to Dvalinn may represent all Dvergar as well.

Dvalinn as discoverer of runes

In the Poetic Edda, the Rúnatal section of the poem Hávamál identifies Dvalinn as a discoverer of runic writing. The mastery of runes suggests both knowledge and magical power.

Like Óðinn discovered runes and transmitted the art of written language to the Æsir, Dvalinn discovered runes and transmitted them to the Dvergar.:Hávamál:142–143. You will find runes – and abundantly counseled letters, abundantly great letters, abundantly firm letters – which the immense-orator stained, and awe-rulers made, and Hroftr [Óðinn] of the rulers engraved: Óðinn with the Æsir (gods), Dáinn for the Álfar (elves), also Dvalinn for the Dvergar (dwarves), Ásviðr for the Jötnar (giants). I [Óðinn] myself engraved some.:"142–143. Rúnar munt þú finna, ok ráðna stafi, mjök stóra stafi, mjök stinna stafi, er fáði fimbulþulr, ok gerðu ginnregin, ok reist Hroftr rögna. Óðinn með ásum, en fyr alfum Dáinn, Dvalinn ok dvergum fyrir, Ásviðr jötnum fyrir, ek reist sjalfr sumar."

Apparently, the discovery of runes by Dvalinn was independent of that from Óðinn. Elsewhere in Hávamál, Óðinn describes how he was paradoxically both the victim and the beneficiary of a human sacrifice, 'myself to myself' – in a kind of shamanic trance transcending death and life – to achieve the power of language over reality itself.:Hávamál:138–139 (139–140). I [Óðinn] grant that I hung [by the neck] on [the World Tree] Vindgameiði of all nine nights, wounded by the spear and given [as a sacrifice to] Óðinn. Myself to myself. I took up the runes. Shrieking I took them. From there, I fell back.:"138–139 (139–140). Veit ek, at ek hekk vindgameiði á nætr allar níu, geiri undaðr ok gefinn Óðni, sjalfur sjalfum mér, á þeim meiði .. Nam ek upp rúnar, æpandi nam, fell ek aftr þaðan."

Óðinn achieves the power of runes through a deathlike trance. Probably Dvalinn also achieved the power of runes through a deathlike trance. Similar to the way the name Óðinn (from "óðr") means 'the possessed one' and refers to an ecstatic trance, the name Dvalinn means 'the unconscious one' (compare Old Swedish "dvale" 'unconsciousness') also refers to a deathlike trance.

The Old Norse term "runar" literally means 'secrets', and by extension means runic 'alphabet' in the sense its letters transmit knowledge silently in a way that requires decoding. But "runar" can also mean the 'secrets' of magic in the sense of safeguarded knowledge. The poem Hávamál plays on both of these senses. While runes are the normal Norse alphabet and nonmagical in themselves, nevertheless they can mediate linguistic power over reality. The poem views the written runes as an aspect deriving from ultimate reality that transcends the temporal mundane reality of death and life. As such, Norse magic often uses mundane runes as part of its trance-inducing meditative technique. In Norse magic, verbalization or 'enchantment' ("galdr") spontaneously describes the current reality that a mage intends to change. By extension, runes may record this verbalization, thus become a physical vehicle of the enchantment.

In sum, the mastery of runes by Dvalinn suggests mastery of written knowledge and magical enchantment, thus similar mastery by all of the Dvergar, being his descendants.

Dvergatal: the list of the Dvergar

Into the story of the creation of humans in Völuspá, scribes interpolated a list of Norse dwarves, usually called the Dvergatal or catalogue of the dwarves. The list below translates a reconstructed text, based on [ two early manuscritps] which differ slightly, 13th-century "Konungsbók" and 14th-century "Hauksbók". The Völuspá mentions the names Mótsognir and Durinn, and to these two names the Dvergatal adds the following. The Konungsbók manuscript lacks the names in accolades ({}), added later to Hauksbók.:Völuspá:11–12. Nýi and Niði, Norðri and Suðri, Austri and Vestri, Alþjófr, Dvalinn, Bífurr, Báfurr, Bömburr, Nóri, Án and Ánarr, Ái, Mjöðvitnir, Veigr and Gandalfr, Vindalfr, Þráinn, Þekkr and Þorinn, Þrór, Litr and Vitr, Nár and Nýráðr, Reginn and Ráðsviðr — now I have told the list of Dvergar right.:13–15. Fili, Kili, Fundinn, Náli, Hepti, Víli, Hanarr, Svíorr, {Nár and Náinn, Nípingr, Dáinn, Billingr, Brúni, Bíldr and Búri}, Frár, Hornbori, Frægr and Lóni, Aurvangr, Jari, Eikinskjaldi.:14–16. To tell the talk, the Dvergar in the generation of Dvalinn were [as] a race of [conquering] lions up to [the generation] of Lofarr. They sought settlements from the halls of stone [to] Aurvangr ('plot of mud') to Jöruvöllr. There was Draupnir and Dolgþrasir, Hár, Haugspori, Hlévangr, Glóinn, {Dóri, Óri, Dúfr, Andvari,} Skirvir, Virvir, Skáfiðr, Ái, Álfr and Yngvi, Eikinskjaldi, Fjalarr and Frosti, Finnr and Ginnarr. So [they will] remember while the eras [of humans] live, the list of the long descent [of the ancestors] of Lofarr.:"12. Nú hefi ek dverga .. rétt um talða. .. 14. Mál er dverga í Dvalins liði ljóna kindum til Lofars telja, þeir er sóttu frá salar steini Aurvanga sjöt til Jöruvalla. .. 16. Þat mun uppi, meðan öld lifir, langniðja tal Lofars hafat."

The list of Dvergar seems to divide into three separate interpolations. The first from Nýi and Niði to Reginn and Ráðsviðr, who are perhaps involved in the creation. A second list from Fili to Eikinskjaldi comprising additional Dvergar without comment. Finally a third list recording the ancestral line from Dvalinn to Lofarr. Note, Eikinskjaldi who appears in the second list also occurs in the third list as one of descendants of Dvalinn. Later scribes inserted even more names, from Nár to Dáinn, and from Billingr to Búri, into the second list, and other later manuscripts from Dóri to Andvari into the third list.

Magic and technology

Metal work

The Dvergar are skilled metal-workers and the makers of most of the artifacts of the gods, both Æsir and Vanir. Among their most famous creations are:
*The ship Skíðblaðnir of Freyr
*The golden hair of Sif
*The spear Gungnir of Odin
*The golden ring Draupnir of Odin, that self-replicates more gold rings
*The hammer Mjölnir of Thor
*Freyja's necklace Brísingamen
*The helmet Huliðshjálmr ("concealing helmet"), or sometimes a cloak Fact|date=July 2008, that enabled invisibility (compare later folklore, where the Nisse made a red hat enables invisibility)

"Hervarar saga" tells when King Svafrlami had forced the two Dvergar, Dvalinn and Durinn, to forge the magic sword Tyrfing. In retaliation for the slavery, the Dvergar cursed it so it would bring death to Svafrlami and cause three evil deeds.

"Ynglingatal" tells how a Dvergar lures and traps King Sveigder inside a stone.


"Dweomer", according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the Old English word meaning 'witchcraft' that derives from the Old Norse term "dvergmál" literally meaning 'dwarf talk' ("dvergr" dwarf + "mál" talk), referring to the secret knowledge of magic among the Norse dwarves. See for instance the entry, "dweomercræft". A related Middle English word that derives from the phrase 'dwarf talk', "dwergma", means 'echo', crediting the dwarves who live in the stones with the sound.

Personality of Dvergar

Role during Ragnarök

While the Dvergar are not said to be the enemies of the Æsir, neither do they seem enthusiastic supporters. Their role during Ragnarök is not clear, Völuspá only mentions that::"How fare the gods?":"how fare the elves?":"All Jotunheim groans,":"the gods are at council;":Loud roar the dwarfs:by the doors of stone,:The masters of the rocks;:"would you know yet more?"

'Dark elves' as non-dwarves

Snorri Sturluson in his books of the Prose Edda, occasionally uses Svartálfar ('black elves') or Døkkálfar ('dark elves') as an alternate name for the Dvergar ('dwarves'). However, later, especially in modern times, a concept of 'dark elf' evolved as distinct from 'dwarves', which sometimes frames the reinterpretation of the Prose Edda and other Norse texts.

Modern 'dark elves' as anti-elves

Modern fantasy literature sometimes features a 'subspecies' of elves, known as 'dark elves', who are often portrayed as the antithesis of elves, especially under the influence of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game with its popular villains called "dark elves" or "drow" who have black skin and white hair. It was originally the intellectual property of the TSR corporation, now Hasbro. Its designers invented this concept of 'dark elf' while drawing on the folklore of several cultures.
*The D&D game borrows from the epic fantasy novels of J. R. R. Tolkien, who academically reconstructed the concept of elves as human-sized (drawing from the Norse Vanir and Alfar). In Tolkien's fictional setting, Middle-earth, the Elves of Darkness (the Moriquendi) are, in essence, Elves who did not join the Great Journey over the sea to behold the light of the Two Trees in Valinor. The Elves of Twilight (the Sindar) or Dark Elves who remained behind in Beleriand were not included because it was said their king Elu-Thingol already saw the light of the trees in the face of Melian. These Dark Elves are not more evil than Light Elves, but simply have less knowledge and skill and are less "noble" and potent. The most famous of the Dark Elves is Eöl who is the only character in "The Silmarillion" called "Dark Elf" by the other Elves, Celegorm and Curufin, the sons of Fëanor.
*Dungeons and Dragons designer Gary Gygax says that the name 'drow' in the game derives from the 19th-century book, "The Fairy Mythology", [Thomas Keightley, "The Fairy Mythology, Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries" (aka "The World Guide to Gnomes, Fairies, Elves and Other Little People"), 1828.] which lists the Scottish drow, who is a tiny fairy that lives in caves and forges magical metal items. ["Books Are Books, Games Are Games" in "Dragon Magazine", Nov. 1979, vol. 31.] Generally linguists derive the etymology of Scottish "drow" from Old Norse "troll", and thus it is a cognate with a different British fairy called "trow", but some caution it may derive from Old Norse "dvergr" and compare the Old English cognate "dweorh".
*These fictional 'dark elves' named 'drow' are then blended with the Prose Edda, whose description of 'dark elves' as 'black' ("svartr") was misunderstood to mean 'black-skinned' (rather than 'black-haired'). The first gamebook to list the drow, "Fiend folio", presents it as a mysterious creature who is antithetical to elves and rarely ever encountered outside of 'Norway'. ["Fiend Folio", TSR 1981.] The invention of the glamorously evil black-skinned 'dark elf', by the TSR corporation, seems to resonate with modern popular culture. Many enthusiasts project this modern version of black-skinned 'dark elves' onto their reinterpretation of ancient texts.

Dark elves in Renaissance Era

Curiously, one late poem, "Hrafnagaldr Óðins" ("Odin's raven-galdr"), probably composed in the Renaissance Era in the 16th or 17th century, but written in the Eddic style, mentions the Dvergar ('dwarves') and the Døkkálfar ('dark elves') side by side. Perhaps unlike the Prose Edda, this later concept of 'dark elves' is not identical with the Dvergar. These 'dwarves and dark elves' are grouped with other nocturnal Vættir, who go to sleep when the sun dawns and who inhabit the Arctic north.:Hrafnagaldr Óðins 25:In the northern border of [the earth] Jörmungrund, under the outermost root of [the World Tree] Aðalþollr, the Gýgiur and the Þursar, the corpses, the Dvergar and the Døkkálfar go to their beds.:"Jörmungrundar í joðyr nyrdra, und rót yztu Aðalþollar, gengu til reckio gýgjur ok þursar, náir, dvergar ok døkkálfar."

Note the corpses are at the northerly cave ("Helgrind") whose tunnel leads to the Underworld.

Caution is necessary. In this group of icy nocturnal spirits, both Gýgiur (female giants) and Þursar (monstrous giants) belong to the family of the Jötnar ('giants'). Likewise, it may be both Dvergar and Døkkálfar belong to the family of the Dvergar.

But the poem may also identify 'black elves' as actual 'elves', not 'dwarves'. It identifies Iðunn, an Æsir goddess associated with eternal youth, as one 'of the family of elves' and 'of the children of Ívaldi'. The Poetic Edda identifies Ívaldi as one of the 'dwarves' and 'black elves' (Skáldskaparmál 43, Gylfaginning 43). Possibly, the poem means she is the child of an elven mother and a dwarven father. But also possibly, her black-elven father is actually an elf, not a dwarf.:Hrafnagaldr Óðins 6:The curious Dís dwells in valleys declining from the ash-tree Yggdrasil. [She is] called Iðunn, of the family of the Álfar ('elves'), the youngest of the elder children of Ívaldi [who is a 'black elf'] .:"Dvelur í dölum dís forvitin, Yggdrasils frá aski hnigin; álfa ættar Iðunni hétu, Ívalds ellri ýngsta barna."

Ívaldi appears to have married twice, thus these 'elder children' belong to his previous wife. Though a Dvergr, the father Ívaldi may be called a member of the 'family of elves' poetically, as an honorary title, in the sense of 'black elves'. Note the so-called 'elven' daughter Iðunn has, according to the Prose Edda, apples that preserve the youthfulness of the Æsir, and they are dependent on her: this scenario maintains verisimilitude with other stories that involve the distinctive technological magic of the Dvergar.

Nevertheless, the possible distinction between 'dwarves and dark elves' plus the possible identification of Ívaldi as a member the 'family of elves', persuades some scholars to suggest the author of this circa 16th-century poem believed 'dark elves' were actually a kind of 'elves' and not 'dwarves' at all.

The opening of the poem lists how various Vættir anticipate the final battle Ragnarök, including a cryptic sentence about the Álfar.:Hrafnagaldr Óðins 1:The Álfar distinguish.:"Álfar skilia."

The Old Norse verb 'to distinguish' ("skilja") can mean 'to separate, to split', or 'to discern, to analyze'. If the first sense was intended, it could mean, 'the Álfar separated' into opposing factions in a civil war. Then, these divisive Álfar could be identified with the 'ill Vættir' or evil wights, rather than the more probable Jötnar, who use their 'magic' to shapeshift into wolves and evoke disastrous winter storms to destroy Yggdrasill. Per this poem, the Arctic activity initiates the onset of Ragnarök.

In sum, Hrafnagaldr Óðins possibly evidences a concept of 'dark elves' who were actually 'elves' rather than 'dwarves', during the Renaissance Era. But the evidence is inconclusive, and they may well have been 'dwarves'.

Modern 'dark elves' as human sacred ancestors

Some adherents of the modern Norse religion (Ásatru) accept the phrase 'black elves' found in the Prose Edda must refer to the Dvergar, but dispute the phrase 'dark elves' must. Instead, they hold 'dark elves' to be an honorary title for human sacred ancestors. These ancestors serve as a kind of guardian spirit and source of good luck for future descendants, and in this sense are called 'elves'. While buried in burial mounds, they exist in sunless darkness, and only in this sense are called 'dark'. Emphatically the spirits of these dead are protective, compassionate, helpful and good. Thereby, the phrases 'dark elves' (Døkkálfar) and 'mound elves' (Haugálfar) become identical, with both describing human ancestors.

The 13th-century hagiography, "Helgisaga Óláfs konungs Haraldssonar" ('Holy Saga of St. Olaf Haraldsson King of Norway'), mentions a previous king, Óláfr Gudrødsson. After his burial in a grave mound at Geirstaðr, he acquired the nickname Geirstaðálfr or 'Elf of Geirstaðr', apparently worshiped as an Álfr. The reference to this king provokes scholars into a number of inquiries, but relevant here are the affinity between:
*Álfr seems to be a nickname used as an honorary title, for some being who is credited as a source of good luck, and perhaps deified.
*Sacred ancestors are perceived to be similar to nature spirits (Vættir) and counted among them.
*Burial mounds are sacred sites, credited with good luck, and in this sense may also become the residence of non-human nature spirits, including Álfar. Perhaps, the phrase 'mound elf' (Haugálfr) can refer to either a human corpse or to the nature spirit Álfr, or perhaps in very early times these two concepts were once thought to be identical.

Popular Culture

Norse-style dwarves, as with Norse-style elves, are a staple part of modern fantasy, prominently portrayed in literary works such as J. R. R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit" and "Lord of the Rings", and Christopher Paolini's "Inheritance Cycle". Most fantasy dwarves take their names from the dwarves of Norse mythology.

Magic the Gathering's expansion Eventide features some dwarf cards identified as duergars.



*Acker, Paul (2002). "Dwarf-Lore in "Alvíssmál"," in "The Poetic Edda: Essays on Old Norse Mythology" (ed. Paul Acker & Carolyne Larrington) 213-228. Routledge: NY, ISBN 0-8153-1660-7.
*Battles, Paul (2005). "Dwarfs in Germanic Literature: "Deutsche Mythologie" or Grimm's Myths?," in "The Shadow-Walkers: Jacob Grimm’s Mythology of the Monstrous" (ed. Tom Shippey), 29-82. Tempe, Ariz: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, ISBN 0-8669-8334-1.
*Gould, Chester Nathan (1929). "Dwarf-Names: A Study in Old Icelandic Religion," PMLA 44:939-67.
*Liberman, Anatoly (2002). "What Happened to Female Dwarfs?," in "Mythological Women: Studies in Memory of Lotte Motz (1922-1997)" (ed. Rudolf Simek & Wilhelm Heizmann) 257-263. Fassbaender: Wien, ISBN 3-900538-73-5.
*Motz, Lotte, (1993a). "The Host of Dvalinn: Thoughts on Some Dwarf-Names in Old Icelandic," Collegium Medievale 6:81-96.
*Motz, Lotte, (1993b). "Supernatural Beings 1. Elves, Dwarfs, and Giants." Entry in "Medieval Scandinavia, an Encyclopedia" (ed. Phillip Pulsiano), 622-23. Garland: NY and London, ISBN 0-8240-4787-7.
*Motz, Lotte, (1973-74). "Of Elves and Dwarfs," Arv 29-30:93-127 .
*Motz, Lotte, (1973). "New Thoughts on Dwarf-Names in Old Icelandic." Frühmittelalterliche Studien 7:100-117.
*Simek, Rudolf (1984). "Dictionary of Northern Mythology" 67-69. D. S. Brewer: Cambridge, ISBN 0-85991-513-1.
*Turville-Petre, G. E. O. (1964). "Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia" 230-235. Holt, Rinehart & Winston: NY, ISBN 0-8371-7420-1.

ee also

*Fjalar and Galar

ee also

* Dwarf (Dwarves from later folklore)
* Elf
* Jotun (Norse giant)
* Troll
* Wight

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