DVERGAR (dwarfs) are an all-male race of supernatural beings in Germanic mythology. Only in later sagas are they described as stunted and deformed. Molded from earth or quickened in the blood of giants in earlier eddic sources (Gylfaginning, ch. 13; Vo̜luspá, st. 9), the dwarfs were created by the gods. This was the most successful of the gods' experiments in producing life by nonbiological means, for the dwarfs were craftsmen like the gods and served their interests. Artisans in wood and metal and gifted with magical creativity, dwarfs produced precious objects such as Þórr's hammer, Óðinn's spear, Sif's golden hair, Freyr's boat, and Freyja's necklace and boar. A particularly useful item that they forged for the gods was the magical fetter that kept the monstrous wolf Fenrir bound until the gods' last battle at Ragnarǫk. Dwarfs also engaged in creative enterprises of their own, such as brewing the mead of wisdom and poetic inspiration (Skáldskaparmál, ch. 1).
Dwarfs occupied an intermediate position between gods and giants (Hávamál, st. 143). Active, inventive, and humanlike, as were the gods, they lived in earth or rocks and associated with death and cold, as did the giants. Also like giants, dwarfs were assigned a place in Germanic cosmogony. Four dwarfs (Austri [East], Vestri [West], Suðri [South], and Norðri [North]) were said to uphold the four corners of the sky, which was made from the skull of the primordial giant Ymir. But where the giants were generally hostile to the gods, dwarfs were generally friendly, becoming vindictive only when they were treated unfairly. For example, the gold guarded by the dragon Fáfnir had originally been taken from a dwarf by Loki. The dwarf put a curse on it, which led to the tragedies of the Vǫlsungs and the Nibelungs. Unmotivated hostility by the dwarfs is seen in their capture and killing of Kvasir, from whose blood they brewed the mead of poetic inspiration.
Dwarfs could not reproduce, but the eddic poem Alvíssmál describes how Alvíss (All-Wise) persuaded the gods to give him Þórr's daughter. Like the giants who sought Freyja and Iðunn for their brides, this dwarf tried to redress the social imbalance that forbade the goddesses to be married to anyone but gods. Þórr thwarted Alvíss's effort by starting a riddle contest with him, with questions continuing until dawn, when the rays of the sun turned the dwarf into stone.
Depicted principally as craftsmen and resembling priests in their possession of secret knowledge and magic chants (Hávamál, st. 160), dwarfs show affinity with the earth-dwelling forces of magical creativity of the Mediterranean regions, such as Ptah of Egypt, Hephaistos of Lemnos, and the Daktyls of Crete, but they are more likely to have originated as demons of death, as suggested by their underground home and names like Bláinn (Blue, black), Dáinn (Dead), and Nár (Corpse). Alvíss is described as having a pale nose and looking as if he had spent the night with a corpse. There is little to suggest that the dwarfs were venerated.
See John Lindow's Scandinavian Mythology: An Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1988), particularly for the studies by Lotte Motz. Mircea Eliade discusses the significance of the artisan in early societies in The Forge and the Crucible, 2d ed. (Chicago, 1978), and Margaret Clunies Ross takes a sociological approach in the first volume of Prolonged Echoes: Old Norse Myths in Medieval Northern Society (Odense, Denmark, 1994). The encyclopedia-style entries of Rudolf Simek's Dictionary of Northern Mythology (Cambridge, U.K., 1993) and John Lindow's Handbook of Norse Mythology (Santa Barbara, 2001) are very detailed.
Lotte Motz (1987)
Elizabeth Ashman Rowe (2005)