The Dwarfs of Old Norse Myths

Of Dwarfs and Men

Dwarfs – Limiting the Limitless

Article with analysis and interpretation of the dwarfs of the Edda poem Völuspá by Maria Kvilhaug. See youtube talk on this subject here.

Usually, when we think about the dwarfs of folklore and myth, we tend to see them much as they appear in Disney`s Snow-White – rude yet charming little forest creatures working in metal and mining. Of course, the image of the dwarf is taken from ancient sources and draws heavily on very ancient mythical themes. The metal-working dwarf living underground is akin to the dark-elf [dökkalfr] who lives below ground, forging metals. They are associated with the souls of the dead, haunting the burial mounds.

The dwarves appearing in the Völuspá are quite different beings. Their importance is testified by the number of stanzas that they occupy – nine stanzas, which is a lot, beginning with stanza 9. Most of these stanzas only render the many names of the dwarfs.

The only way to possibly understand what the dwarfs  represent in the poetical allegory of the Edda poem, is to interpret their names. This is easier said than done, since there are often many different possible translations, and few are absolutely certain. Most translations of  the poem into modern languages simply let the Norse names stand as they are, often even changing the spelling so as to appear smoother on a modern tongue.  It thus appears that most translators assume that the dwarf`s names are meaningless gibberish intended to create rhythm and sounds rather than convey meaning. Even those translators who do attempt to make translations, make only a few, the ones that they can be most sure of. This is understandable.

I am, however, completely convinced that the names are meaningful, as is every line and verse of the Poetic Edda. I have tried to offer a possible way of translating and understanding what the dwarfs mean. Some of my translations may be faulty or questionable, but as a whole, I believe that my interpretation of the dwarf lore in the Völuspá makes sense.

Snorri explained that the dwarfs originated like germs in the flesh of Ymir the world giant, whom I have before interpreted as primeval sound on the basis of his name, which I am convinced is derived from the word ymr (m.sg.), “sound”. According to Snorri, the dwarfs were given consciousness and shape from “the power words of gods”.

In the Poetic Edda, dwarfs appear on the cosmic scene after three giantesses, “much knowing”, have arrived at the court of the Aesir. The three giantesses probably represent fate, being the same as the “much-knowing” norns that appear after human beings were created after the dwarfs. So it is fate that demands that the gods must create the dwarfs. The entry of the giantesses leads to all the powers meeting to a first cosmic parliament:

9.Þá gengu regin öll                              9. Then all the powers went
á rökstóla,                                               to the high chairs of fate
ginnheilug goð,                                      the sacrosanct gods
ok um þat gættusk:                               to discuss this:
hverr skyldi Dverga                                Who owed the King of Dwarfs
Drótt um skepja                                     to be shaped
ór Brimi blóðgu                                      from the blood of Fire                                                                  ok ór Bláins leggjum                              and the limbs of the Dead[1]?

The fifth and sixth line in the verse forms a question: Who owes The King of Dwarfs to be shaped? What is to be shaped is the King of Dwarfs, and the question is, who is to shape him? The riddle can only be answered if we understand who – or what – the King of Dwarfs is. The King of Dwarfs is a kenning for something else, something that we have yet to identify. The clues to understand who this dwarf is, comes when we hear the ingredients that make up the king: the blood of Fire [Brimir[2]] and the limbs of the Dead [Bláinn].

It is interesting to note that the two names are typical dwarf names. But setting aside the charming forest creature concept and trying to see the underlying meaning here is necessary if the riddle is to be deciphered. It is necessary here to look at Snorri`s description of the creation of the world.[3]

Wandering Learner [Gangleri] asked: “What was the origin? How did it all start? What was before?” (…) Equally High [Jafnhár] replied: “It was many ages before the Earth was created that Misty World [Niflheimr] emerged. In the middle of that world lies a well (water-source) called Resounding Mill, from it runs the rivers [of the universe]”

In Snorri`s account, the first “world” – cosmic realm – is actually Misty World, the world of the dead. This is the land of the “frost giants” [hrímÞúrsar] with whom Snorri a few lines before declared that the creator god had lived among before time itself. That was when he was known as Þunð – “Thin Mist”[4].

The world giant Ymir was created as icy rivers from this realm of the dead entered the Ginnungagáp where they met with and melted by hot streams from a flaming realm in the south, as Snorri describes:

Third [Þriði]said: “But first it was that world in the south of the world that is called Muspell, it is bright and hot, that sky is flaming and burning and impossible to traverse for those who are not natives. Acid [Surtr] he is called, who guards that land; he has a flaming sword (…)”

We know from the Völuspá st.2 that other worlds had existed before the present world, so that the existence of a realm of the dead even before this world was created makes sense: It is the frosty remnants of previous worlds, the dead worlds, that provides substance and matter in the shape of streams to the great zero point of creation.

Moreover, from the same realm emerges the frost giant Búri [Encaged One] who has been laying dormant beneath the ice of death, we must assume since the death of the previous world. As the hot tongue of the great cow Auðhumbla [Abundant Brew Ingredient] from the fiery south licks the ice of death in order to nurture herself, so that she may nurture the world giant created by melting ice, he reemerges from the death-ice and becomes the grandfather of the Aesir. The limbs of the frost giant make up the world.

What we are seeing here is a mythical formula for creation. Ice and fire, which could be translated to cold still death and fiery moving life-force, come together at the very beginning. The fire of life, represented by the cosmic cow, melts the cold of death and nurtures new life. This is the same formula applied in the creation of the “King of Dwarfs”. One would almost assume that the King of Dwarfs either refers to Ymir or to Búri – or to both, as they could very well be identical to each other.

Let us move to the next stanza  about the dwarfs. It begins by declaring that:

10.Þar var Móðsognir         Then was Móðsognir                               
mæztr um orðinn                
 the greatest and the highest
dverga allra,                         
of all dwarfs

Now we must try to identify Móðsognir. Since we are used to think of names as merely sounds, we will easily assume beforehand that this dwarf is a different one from that “King of the Dwarfs” we just heard about. However, it should be clear by now that a number of names may very well be referring to only one being, since names are merely metaphors describing the character, and to apply a new metaphor each time one character is referred to was a basic rule of Norse poetry. The name is difficult to interpret though.

The first part of the word could either be móðr [a.: “exhausted”, m.sg: “mind/ intent”, m.sg.: “courage”, m.sg. “mental turmoil”], or mót [n.sg: “mark/stamp/ image”, “shape/form/type” or n.sg.: “assembling/meeting/ counsel/fusion” or adv.: “against”].

The second part of the name is sognir, which could be derived from the neutral noun sog – which means “sucking” and refers specifically to the suction force of a submerged wave, an inverted vortex. It could also just refer to the ocean, which was in itself perceived as a potential “sucker” for drowned people.

It is also possible that the word is really sóknir, which could be derived from the feminine word sókn (f.pl.: sóknir), which means “application” or “seeking/ searching/praying/accusing”.

This is a good example explaining why translators are cautious about presenting a name in translation. It is hard to see what is the most plausible interpretation if none of the options make any sense from the standpoint of our modern worldview and without any certain knowledge about the ancient worldview. We need to look to the poem again and see if there are any clues as to which translation is the best. Further down in the same stanza, we read:

en Durinn annarr;              and Sleeper was the second (in rank);
þeir mannlíkun                  
 images of humans
mörg um görðu                 
 they made many of
dvergar í jörðu,                  
from earth, these dwarfs
sem Durinn sagði.            
As the Sleeper spoke it.

The sentence building is a bit archaic, so I will render a more modern sentence: “These dwarfs made many human images from earth, as the Sleeper (who was second to Mótsognir) spoke it.”

The human image theme is crucial, because we realize that one of the possible meanings of the name of the first dwarf refers to “images”, “stamps”, “marks”. The proper interpretation of his name should in my opinion be “image/marker-suction-vortexes” or “image/mark-searchers”. “Vortexes” or “searchers” are rendered in plural because of the word sógnir or sóknir being the plural form of the nouns. The plural within the one being is significant. This dwarf represents the greatest of all dwarfs, probably the King of Dwarfs himself, from which others seem to emerge. Another interesting thing is that it is almost impossible to distinguish the dwarfs from the “human images”. As we shall see, the dwarfs are in fact connected to the creation of human beings.

It is tempting to ask the question: “How would you have presented knowledge of genetic markers to a mythological minded audience?” But then, despite many interesting speculations about previous civilizations with a high level of technology, we must also consider the equally probable situation: That no such knowledge existed. However, we should not underestimate the intellectual capacities of human beings no matter what time they lived in. It is perfectly possible that some people without any technology other than their brain capacity, simply figured out that the creatures of the world emerged from basic markers, basic images created by the gods, a basic image multiplying into countless variations.

A third important aspect of this stanza is the dwarf Dúrinn – “Sleeper” – who is second to the first being. This reminds me of how Búri – grandfather to the gods, came second after Ymir, grandfather/mother to the giants, being, in fact, “sleeping” beneath the ice of death. The two might be one, but the second is an aspect that serves a particular purpose: He “tells” the “images of humans” as they are created from the Earth. In chapter II.9 we saw how the world seems to have been “told” into being as a huge “optical illusion” based on speech or story-telling. We recall how Snorri claimed that the dwarfs were given form by the power words of the gods.

The “speech” of creation follows by a long listing of dwarf`s names, which I now assume represent the “images of humans”, forms, ideas or models for different basic potentials in human beings. They are:

“Waxing and Waning, Northern and Southern, Easterly, Westerly, Ale-Thief, Hibernation, Death and Dying, Cousin and dead, Shaking, Vibration, Böm-Tree and Ship, Hope, Out-of, Without Beginning, Great Grandfather, Witness to Courage, Battle and Wand-Elf, Partly and Sharpener, Quarrel and Inventor, Choice and Vessel, Missed One, Beloved, and Strange New Counsel.

Color and Wisdom, Renewal and Warrior, Council-Tree, Dripper, Enemy Spear and Linen, Soul-Strife, Famous Thief, Glow and Old Age, Swaying, Give Away, Fetter, Gray and Spark, Faulty and Cage, Famous and Wind-Protected (=Immortal), Spiritless, Stiff Figure and Crazy Shields.”[5]

After this impressive list of subtle, cryptic names, the völva continues:

14. Mál er dverga I Dvalins liði          It is time to count the dwarfs of Hibernation                                           ljóna kindum i Lofars telja                  to count the people of the Laws                                 þeir er sóttu frá salar steini                They set out from the rocky halls                                       Aurvanga sjöt til Jöruvalla.                 From Out-of-Falseness to the Fields of Earth. 

A new list of names follow, meaning:

That was the Dripper and Battle-Spear, Life and Soul-Strife, Swaying and Handgrip, Glow and Age, Give-Away, Elf (=Soul), Fruit of Youth, Fine and Trickster and Famous Thief. As long as humankind exist, this long row of Law`s [Lofar] shall be remembered.[6]

Something interesting has happened. Out of the great mass of almost incomprehensible dwarfs come a special kind: The Dwarfs of Hibernation, who are also the people of “Laws”. We remember that the “images” were “spoken” by the “Sleeper”, whom I identified as Búri, who slept or indeed hibernated beneath the ice of death, and who became the grandfather of the Aesir. It turns out that the Aesir indeed belong to the “people of Laws”, as the next stanza reads:

17.Unz þrírkvámu ór því liði 17.                  17. Until Three came out of that flock                   öflgir ok ástkir æsir á húsi                            powerful and loving Aesir to the homes                                       fundu á landi lítt megandi                            They found on the shore, of little power                    Ask ok Emblu, örlögslausa.                           Ask and Embla, without destiny.

It has become clear that the Aesir indeed emerged from the flock of dwarfs that, supposedly, the Aesir shaped. It is only through the flock of dwarfs that the Aesir could enter the human world and offer them the gift of spirit, thought and vitality, as they proceed to do in the next stanza.

It all starts to make sense. Both “Hibernation” and “Sleeper” are good metaphors for the sleeping frost giant otherwise known as Búri, whose name means “Cage” and refers to him being “encaged” in the ice of the world of the dead – the frozen remains of the previous worlds. His descendants are the Aesir, who rightly could be called the “people of laws”, as they were the first to give order and laws to a chaotic universe. Like every other force of the cosmos, they all came from that one first universal being, the primeval Sound, born by the Wave (or the nine waves). But they were different from the first being because they emerged from the encaged dream-speech that contained the memory of previous world.

Finally, the question is: Why are giants and gods suddenly veiled and described as dwarfs? As long as we insist on reading the myths as literal renderings of childish fairy-tales, this poses a problem. We have gods there, giants here, and dwarfs are supposed to be different creatures entirely. When we integrate the fact that the ancient poets applied folklore to serve their own end: to use them as metaphors for deeper meaning, it is easier to see that these “racial” distinctions are of no importance or consequence, and serves only one purpose: to reveal what kind of force works in what kind of way under what kind of conditions.

According to Lotte von Motz, the Norse word for dwarf, dvergr (m.sg.), actually means “mutilated”, as in someone who has had a limb or part of himself chopped off, severed[7]. Motz uses this to illustrate how the dwarfs in the myths seem to play the role of priests, as do their mythical relatives, the smith and the dark elf. There is some evidence that priests had a part of their body mutilated during initiation, something which may have been reflected in the myth of Odin sacrificing his eye for the mead of wisdom, or in the sorcerers who seem to have suffered castration as part of their profession.

I wholeheartedly agree that dwarfs in other settings, together with smiths and dark elves, seem to represent typical pagan priests in many myths, but this is not the only way that they appear. In the Völuspá, I believe they represent the original images of human beings emerging from the one to the many. I believe that the term dwarf is used by the poets both because the concept dwarf brings to mind something that is “smaller”, and because the word itself means “mutilated” and indicates something that is not whole.

What we are probably seeing here is a version of an ancient and widespread philosophy, recognizable in the Indian poet Kamalakanta`s Syama Sangit (Songs to Kali), in which he describes the creator goddess in action, applying an age-old concept of creation: “limiting the Limitless.”


[1] Bláinn = ”The Blue” – a poetical way of describing a rotting corpse, the dead

[2] From brími (m.sg.) – ”fire”

[3] Gylfaginning, Prose Edda

[4] ”Odin I am now, Terrifying One I was called before, Thin Mist before that”, Grímnismál st.54, poetic Edda

[5] Völuspá st. 11-13. May be seen in Old Norse form on this website: http://etext.old.no/Bugge/voluspa/voluspa1.html

[6] Völuspá st.15 and 16

2 Responses to The Dwarfs of Old Norse Myths

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful article, Maria, it is a wonderful source for meditation and further reflection.

    Mvh,

    Nigel McBain.

  2. James says:

    Fascinating work……..I so wish that I had the foresight to dive into learning the ancient languages and thus have at least a glimpse of the ancient worldviews from my own mind and understanding ……I am limited by American English and all that goes with this crazy story here……..but I sure am glad that folks like you are doing it! Personally I find a great and mysterious connection in the word and various meanings of the word “moldu”. Especially in connection with the dwarves, death, dying, decay, mushrooms, soil, dirt, and by extension the life giving properties derived from the cycles of death and life…..Here on Earth we are in part a living end of the moldu, above it I think…….you do great and inspiring work!

    Ok þessi segir hon nöfn þeira dverganna:

    Nýi, Niði,
    Norðri, Suðri,
    Austri, Vestri,
    Alþjófr, Dvalinn,
    Nár, Náinn,
    Nípingr, Dáinn,
    Bífurr, Báfurr,
    Bömburr, Nóri,
    Óri, Ónarr,
    Óinn, Mjöðvitnir,
    Viggr ok Gandálfr,
    Vindálfr, Þorinn,
    Fíli, Kíli,
    Fundinn, Váli,
    Þrór, Þróinn,
    Þekkr, Litr ok Vitr,
    Nýr, Nýráðr,
    Rekkr, Ráðsviðr.

    En þessir eru ok dvergar ok búa í steinum, en inir fyrri í moldu:

    Draupnir, Dolgþvari,
    Haur, Hugstari,
    Hleðjolfr, Glóinn,
    Dóri, Óri,
    Dúfr, Andvari,
    Heftifili,
    Hárr, Svíarr.

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