Little Men

In the first chapter we saw how the black elves, dwarfs, of Svart-alfar, were bred like maggots in the flesh of the slain giant Ymir. The gods, perceiving these tiny, unformed creatures creeping in and out, gave them form and features, calling them dark elves on account of their swarthy complexions. These small beings were so homely, with their dark skin, green eyes, large heads, short legs, and crow’s feet, that they were told to hide underground and never show themselves during the daytime under penalty of being turned into stone. Although less powerful than the gods, they were far more intelligent than men, and as their knowledge was boundless and extended even to the future, gods and men were equally anxious to question them.

They were also known as trolls, kobolds, brownies, goblins, pucks, or Huldra folk, according to the country where they dwelt.

“You are the gray, gray Troll,
    With the great green eyes,
But I love you, gray, gray Troll —
    You are so wise!

Tell me this sweet morn,
    Tell me all you know —
Tell me, was I born?
    Tell me, did I grow?”


The Tarnkappe

These dwarfs could transport themselves with marvelous celerity from one place to another, loved to conceal themselves behind


rocks, and mischievously repeated the last words of every conversation they overheard. Owing to this well-known trick, the echoes were called dwarfs’ talk, and people fancied that the reason why they were never seen was because each dwarf was the proud possessor of a tiny red cap which made the wearer invisible. This cap was called Tarnkappe, and it was owing to it only that the dwarfs dared appear above the surface of the earth after sunrise without fear of being petrified.

“Away! let not the sun view me —
    I dare no longer stay;
An Elfin-child, thou wouldst me see,
    To stone turn at his ray.”

The Magic of the Dwarfs

The dwarfs as well as the elves were ruled by a king, who, in various countries of northern Europe, was known as Andvari, Alberich, Elbegast, Gondemar, Laurin, or Oberon. He dwelt in a magnificent subterranean palace, all studded with the gems which his subjects had drawn from the bosom of the earth, and, besides untold riches and the Tarnkappe, he owned a magic ring, an invincible sword, and a belt of strength. At his command his subjects, who were very clever smiths, fashioned marvelous jewels or weapons, which he bestowed upon favorite mortals.

We have already seen how the dwarfs fashioned Sif’s golden hair, the ship Skidbladnir, the point of Odin's spear Gungnir, the ring Draupnir, the golden-bristled boar Gullin-bursti, the hammer Miölnir, and Freya’s golden necklace Brisinga-men. They are also said to have made the magic girdle which Spenser describes in his poem of the “Faerie Queene,” — a girdle which was said to have the power of revealing whether the wearer were virtuous or a hypocrite.

“That girdle gave the virtue of chaste love
And wifehood true to all that did it bear;
But whosoever contrary doth prove


Might not the same about her middle wear
But it would loose, or else asunder tear.”

The dwarfs also manufactured the mythical sword Tyrfing, which could cut through iron and stone, and which they gave to Angantyr. This sword, like Frey's, fought of its own accord, and could not be sheathed, after it was once drawn, until it had tasted blood. Angantyr was so proud of this weapon that he had it buried with him; but his daughter Hervor visited his tomb at midnight, recited magic spells, and forced him to rise from his grave to give her the precious blade. She wielded it bravely, and it eventually became the property of another of the Northern heroes.

The dwarfs were generally kindly and helpful; sometimes they kneaded bread, ground flour, brewed beer, performed countless household tasks, and harvested and threshed the grain for the farmers. If ill treated, however, or turned into ridicule, these little creatures forsook the house and never came back again. When the old gods ceased to be worshiped in the Northlands, the dwarfs entirely withdrew from the country, and a ferryman once said that he had been hired to ply his boat back and forth across the river one night, and that at every trip his vessel was so laden down with invisible passengers that it nearly sank. When his night's work was over, he received a rich reward, and his employer informed him that he had helped all the dwarfs across the river, for they were leaving the country forever to punish the people for their unbelief.


According to popular superstition, the dwarfs envied man's taller stature and often tried to improve their race by winning human wives or by stealing unbaptized children, and substituting their own offspring for the human mother to nurse. These dwarf babies were known as changelings, and were recognizable by their puny and wizened forms. To recover possession of her own babe, and to rid herself of the changeling, a woman was obliged either to brew beer in egg-shells


or to grease the soles of the child’s feet and hold them so near the flames that, attracted by their offspring’s distressed cries, the dwarf parents would hasten to claim their own and return the stolen child.

The female trolls were also said to have the power of changing themselves into Maras or nightmares, and of tormenting any one they pleased; but if the victim succeeded in stopping up the hole through which a Mara made her ingress into his room, she was entirely at his mercy, and he could even force her to marry him if he chose to do so. A wife thus obtained was sure to remain as long as the opening through which she had entered the house was closed, but if the plug were removed, either by accident or design, she immediately effected her escape and never returned.

A Conjecture

Some writers have ventured a conjecture that the dwarfs so often mentioned in the ancient sagas and fairy-tales were real beings, probably the Phoenician miners, who, working the coal, iron, copper, gold, and tin mines of England, Norway, Sweden, etc., took advantage of the simplicity and credulity of the early inhabitants to make them believe that they belonged to a supernatural race and always dwelt underground, in a region which was called Svart-alfa-heim, or the home of the black elves.