Norse Mythology: The Stories of Dwarves


By Jackson CrawfordUniversity of Colorado, Boulder

Not all the supernatural characters of the Norse myths are the high and mighty gods such as Odin and Thor. Nor are all the rest among their cosmically powerful enemies, the anti-gods. Instead, there are certain lesser supernatural beings who lack the magnificent powers of the gods and dwarves are the best-defined category in this class.

A group of dwarves gathering on a mountain
‘Dverg’ is an Old Norse word that means dwarf in English. (Image: John Bauer/Public domain)

What Is a Dwarf?

Depiction of two dwarves
Shape-changing and craftsmanship are two main characteristics of the dwarves. (Image: Lorenz Frølich/Public domain)

Now the English word dwarf is a translation of the related Old Norse word ‘dverg’. Dwarves are the master craftsmen who appear in many Norse stories to forge some spectacular weapon or other tool to aid a god or hero in his quest. The dwarves also have some powers of shape-changing, often assuming the form of animals such as fish or otters, or even inanimate objects like a needle. 

This shape-changing ability might make us think of evil beings who share it, like the anti-gods or Loki, but the dwarves are depicted as beings on the side of the gods, or at worst selfish neutrals. The dwarves’ prime role in the myths is as makers of weapons and treasures.

Dwarves: The Craftsmen 

The story of how they made the greatest weapons and treasures of the gods is told by Snorri in his Prose Edda. One time, Loki cut off all the hair of Thor’s wife, Sif. Thor was so angry about this that he swore he would break every bone in Loki’s body if Loki didn’t go to the so-called ‘dark elves’ and get them to make a new head of hair for Sif.

Depiction of the dwarven brothers making treasures for Loki
Meeting another group of dwarven brothers, Loki bet them his head that they would never make treasures as good as those he already had. (Image: Elmer Boyd Smith/Public domain)

Loki went to three dwarven brothers, and they made the head of pure gold hair just as Thor had requested, but they kept going and made two more treasures. The three dwarven brothers now made a spear, named Gungnir, a spear that “never stopped in its going”. And the dwarves made a ship that could be folded up and kept in its owner’s pocket.

Loki now went to another pair of dwarven brothers, and he bet them his head that they could not make three treasures as good as the three treasures these other three dwarves had made. This second pair of dwarves took the bet. So they made a magic pig that glows in the dark, a gold ring that copies itself every nine nights, and a hammer called Mjollnir that can break anything it touches.

The Dwarven Brothers against Loki

Now, the dwarves and Loki went to the gods’ enclosure. The three gods decided that this second set of dwarves were the winners and that Loki had forfeited his head. Loki said that they could not cut off his head, as he had wagered his head but not his neck. 

Then this dwarf remembered that one of his brothers was a needle. Using his brother, the needle, the dwarf was able to pierce Loki’s lips and sew them up. But as soon as Loki’s lips were sewn together, he gaped open his mouth to rip them apart again, and thus scarred his lips for life, at least in his normal form when he is not changed to some other shape.

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The Story of Egil and Dwarves 

One time, we read, a human warrior named Egil was traveling when he observed two trolls in a nasty fight. The male was beating the female he was fighting with, and Egil decided to come to her defense. But the powerful troll struck back at Egil with his own weapon, and then blew Egil in the wrist and cut his hand off. Egil fled through the forest to the shore where his men waited with their ships, and they sailed away.

Egil spent the next two nights on his ship in horrendous pain, but on the third night his crew made land again and Egil went ashore to see if sleeping on land would be any relief. But bedding down off the waves was no better for the torment in his wrist, and Egil walked inland into the forest to find a gentle creek where he hoped the water would cool the pain a little.

Makers of Fantastic and Un-ordinary Things

While Egil submerged his wrist in the cool water of the creek, he happened to notice a dwarf child emerging from a stone nearby. The child came down to the creek for water, and he noticed Egil as well. Egil used his teeth to pull a ring off his remaining hand and tendered it to the dwarf boy. The kid then disappeared back into his stone home with the ring, before re-emerging with his father. The adult dwarf asked who this man was who had given his child such a nice gift.

Egil introduced himself and explained his sorry state. So the dwarf took Egil into his stone home, and healed the stump from his missing hand. Then, the dwarf crafted a sword to fit over his forearm, which Egil found he could move just as deftly as if he had a normal sword in his now-missing hand. Once again we see that the primary role of a dwarf, in any story, is as a maker of fantastic and un-ordinary things.

Common Questions about the Stories of Dwarves in Norse Mytholgy

Q: What are the two characteristics of dwarves according to the Prose Edda?

According to Norse mythology, the most salient characteristics of dwarves are that they’re craftsmen who make extraordinary tools for gods and heroes, and they often live in non-humanoid forms such as animals and even tools. 

Q: What made Loki go to the dwarves, and what treasures did they craft for him?

After Loki cut off Thor’s wife’s hair, Thor forced him to go to the dwarves and get a new head of hair for his wife. Loki went to the dwarves and asked them to do what he wanted. Besides making a new head of hair, the dwarves made two more treasures: a spear that would never stop and a boat that could be folded up and kept in a pocket.

Q: What is the story of Egil and the dwarves?

Egil was a warrior, and he lost his hand in a fight with a troll. One day, while he was submerging his wrist in cool water to ease off his pain, he noticed a dwarf child nearby. Egil gave the child his ring, and in return, the little dwarf’s family healed Egil’s wound. Since craftsmanship is one of the dwarves‘ characteristics, they also crafted him a sword that fit his forearm.

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