Dwarves: the Norse Smiths
When you need a weapon, a magical device, or beautiful jewelry, where do you go? To whom do you turn? In Norse mythology, the gods and goddesses sought the dwarves for all their magical object needs.
How dwarves were created
In the Norse creation story, the first being was created from ice and fire–the frost giant, Ymir. When Ymir sweated, he produced Odin and his two brothers, Vili and Ve, which is pretty gross if you think about it. Odin and his brothers killed the frost-giant Ymir, and they used his body parts to create the world. The gods then went on to creating other beings, like the dwarves. The dwarves they made out of the blood and bones of Ymir. Gruesome!
A little about dwarves
In Norse mythology, dwarves are not the short men we have since come to associate with them. It wasn’t until later folklore and legend that they turned into what we think of when we think of dwarves–small, stocky little men with beards and deep, gruff voices. Like the later folklore tales, though, the Norse dwarves were very strong.
Dwarves were also smart, clever, and lustful…just like men! And just like men and the giants, the dwarves lusted after the beautiful goddess Freya (that will be the story of another blog).
Dwarves are referred to as “dark elves” or “black elves” but not because they are dark or evil, but because they live in a different world than the “light elves.” The “light elves” live in Alfheim which is in the upper world near to the gods in Asgard.
The “dark elves,” by contrast, live in Svartalfaheim which is a lower world closer to that of men. It is a dark, underground world between the world of men and the underworld. Think of it like a mine with tunnels and underground shafts.
A few stories tell of dwarves as shapeshifters. The dwarf Fafnir turned into a dragon when his lust for gold overcame him. Otr the dwarf liked to spend time as an otter, swimming and eating fish. Andvari shifted into a pike (fish). Both Otr and Andvari have run-ins with Loki, in which the trickster gets the best of them.
Alviss the All-Wise
Like trolls in later folklore stories, dwarves would turn to stone if caught out in the sun. In one story, a dwarf named Alviss (his name means All-Wise) wanted to marry Thor’s daughter, Thrud, and since Thor was not around when Alviss went to ask for her hand in marriage, the other gods promised her to him. When Alviss returned to claim his bride, Thor refused him, thinking Alviss looked “like a giant” (Thor hates giants) and like he’d been “lying with the dead.” Ouch.
Now, Alviss did not know he spoke to Thor himself, since he looked unkempt and scruffy, not what one would expect from a god, so Alviss challenged him about the refusal. Alviss even insulted Thor, calling him a “wandering man”.
Thor did not take this lightly and didn’t want this being to marry his daughter, so he demanded Alviss answer his questions, especially since Alviss thought he was so wise. That should have been Alviss’s first tip off that trouble was coming! You never, ever, provoke the gods. If you do, you’ll pay for it one way or another.
The dwarf and the god sat down to talk and Thor asked Alviss questions like “what do they call the earth?” and “what do they call the moon?” To his credit, Alviss gave beautiful answers, telling Thor what the different races of beings called everything, like the elves called the night, “sleep’s joy” or that the gods called clouds, “rain hope”. This went on for a long time with Alviss never wavering in his answers.
This should have been great for Alviss, but, alas, he forgot one thing. The sun was rising. As he and Thor talked, the sun came up and Alviss … turned to stone. He’d forgotten that his kind cannot handle the sunlight; they live their lives in an underground world where no sun reaches and they turn to stone in the sun.
Thor outsmarted Alviss, the All Wise dwarf.
When Odin and his brothers slew the frost giant Ymir, and used his body parts to make the world, Ymir’s skull became the sky. The Norse people were clearly not squeamish!
With their great strength, four dwarves hold up the skull/sky: Nordi, Sudri, Austri, and Vestri. They are North, South, East, and West.
Smiths to the gods
Because they live underground, the gods put the dwarves in charge of all the gems, precious metals, and stones that are found under the earth. The dwarves then became incredible metalworkers, smiths, and craftsmen, and the gods and goddesses often wanted pieces made by the dwarves.
The gods and goddesses also asked the dwarves for help when they needed something special. The dwarves made:
- Odin’s spear Gungnir—the word Gungnir means “shaker” which is the motion that someone might use to intimidate an opponent. One of Odin’s names is Spear Shaker. Nothing can stop Gungnir once thrown and it hits where it is aimed. Odin used the spear to hang himself on the World Tree when he desired knowledge of the runes, and runes mark the spear’s tip. At the beginning of the war between the Aesir and Vanir gods, Odin hurled Gungnir over the heads of the enemy horde with a battle cry. Norse warriors would do something similar for good luck.
- Sif’s hair—Sif is Thor’s wife and had beautiful golden hair. Loki cut it off as a prank, and Thor became furious, so he made Loki replace it. Loki went to the dwarves and they fashioned new hair for her out of gold.
- Frey’s ship Skidbladnir—his ship can sail on land, sea, or air, and will never veer off course. It is big enough to fit all the gods and their animals, but it folds up so small it will fit in a pouch.
- Odin’s ring Draupnir—the name means “the dripper” and it is a magic arm ring that can multiply itself. Every ninth night it “drips” eight new rings that are exactly the same as the original.
- Thor’s hammer Mjolnir—Mjolnir is very strong, it always hits its mark, and will always come back to Thor no matter where he throws it.
- Freya’s necklace Brisingamen—it has no magical properties, though it is very beautiful. The name means “fire torc” or “amber torc”, which signifies it was most likely made out of gold.
- Frey’s boar Gullinbursti—a golden boar who pulls Frey’s chariot. The name means “golden bristles” and the bristles shine like the sun.
The Norse dwarves were clever, strong, and very talented. And they are definitely the people to turn to when you need a little special something!
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The first two books listed are the translated source material.
In these books, author Neil Gaiman tells the stories in his own words. He narrates the audiobook.