The original concept of Dwarves is very difficult to determine. Sources have gradually given Dwarves more comical and superstitious roles. Dwarves were certainly humanoid, but sources differ over their lifestyles, and their similarity to Elves. They may have had a strong associations with death: paled skin; dark hair; connections with the earth; their role in mythology. They followed animistic traditions, showing similarities to such concepts of the dead. They were similar to others from the 'Vættir' family, such as Elves.
The term 'dwarf' can now describe very short humans, regardless of its mythical origins. The universal modern description of a Dwarf is something short, usually associated with magic, fantasy, and fairy tales.
The English word dwarf descends from Old English dweorȝ (plural dweorgas), itself from a Common Germanic *dwergaz. Germanic cognates include Old High German twerg and Old Norse dvergr. The oldest attestations of the Old English word are 7th to 9th-century glosses, giving dweorȝ as translation of Latin nanus, pygmaeus, pumilio, humiliamanus (midget, pygmy, little person). It is important to note that the English term, unlike its German and Scandinavian cognates, had been devoid of any mythological sense, referring to people of stunted growth, from its earliest attestations until the application to the Norse dvergar by loan-translation in the later 18th century, beginning with Thomas Percy's Northern Antiquitites of 1770.
A Proto-Indo-European predecessor may be *dhwérgwhos, based on comparison with Greek σερφος (from *τϝερφος) "midge". An Indo-European root etymology connects *dhwer "to harm, injure" (Sanskrit dhvaras-, a type of mischievous female demons in the Rigveda).
The word-final f in English is the regular phonetic continuation of the word-final Old English ȝ, as the /f/ in enough /ɪ'nʌf/, rough /rʌf/, etc. The spelling with f appears in Middle English from the 14th century and is established by the 15th century, besides dialectal (Scottish) spellings with ch (duerch, duergh, dorch). The plural, however, became Middle English dwerwhes, dwerwes. The inflected stem dweorȝe- gave rise to yet other forms, such as dweorȝe- gave dwerȝhe, dweryhe, dwerye, dwery, and levelling between these forms yields numerous variant spellings throughout the Middle English period. The Middle English plural dwerwes would regularly have yielded a Modern English plural dwerrow or dwarrow, but in actual usage the plural was levelled to dwarfs by the Early Modern English period.
An alternative plural dwarves has been recorded from the early 18th century and was in occasional use throughout the 19th century, especially in the context of Norse mythology. The form came to wider attention with its use by English philologist J. R. R. Tolkien in his fantasy novel The Hobbit which features a number of Dwarves with names taken from the Eddaic Dvergatal. Tolkien noted that he would have preferred to use the hypotetical regular plural dwarrow but in the end restricted himself to using it in a toponym, Dwarrowdelf. The plural forms dwarfs and dwarves both remain in current use. The form dwarfs is generally used for people affected by dwarfism and in reference to Dwarf Stars in astronomy; the form Dwarves is used more generally and for the mythical people described by Tolkien and others.
Dwarves of Germanic Paganism
Norse Dwarves (Dvergar) are the earliest source for our understanding of original Dwarves. However, the concept of Dvergar may have mutated to some degree. This makes it hard to draw a uniform concept of early Dwarves. For most of Norse mythology, the skin color of Dvergar was 'pale' (fölr), like a corpse. The hair color is 'black' (Svartr). The Norse depiction of the deathly complexion of Dvergar resembles the modern depiction of vampires, with early Dwarves fatally susceptible to sunlight. Dvergar are skilled craftsmen, and most of their magic involves labour, craftsmanship, and metallurgy. They are a family of Vættir, or nature spirits. From the later information on Dwarves, from similar mythical creatures, and from the nature of Germanic mythology and its roots, we can get a good idea of early Dwarves. Elves are a race with very close associations to Dwarves. 'Alf' often appears as part of dwarf names (eg.: Álfr, Gandálfr, and Vindálfr), and Dark Elves have deep parallels with Dwarves. Elves are often described as humans elevated after death, and descriptions of them often have them passing through physical objects. Other Norse creatures and Vættir have similar connotations of death. Trolls are deathly creatures who rise from beneath the earth and often require to be put back to rest. Nisse have the same labourer image as Dwarves, and they lived in burial mounds. Death is a recurring motif in Norse Mythology, and ancestor worship is a prevalent practice in animistic religions. Norse mythology has images such as the dwarves growing from maggots from Ymir's flesh and the inevitable murder that comes from a Dwarf weapon. All of this suggests dwarves were a form of spirits of the dead.
Dwarves seem to be associated with age and wisdom. They are consistently pictured with beards, and have great knowledge, particularly of craftsmanship (a major occupation in Norse society). The connection between the elderly and death helps strengthen the link between dwarves and spirits of the dead.
It is worth noting that the mythical Dwarves are never specifically referred to as short, however their name (Dvergr in Old Norse, Dwarf in English) does suggest that they are(see below). Circa the 13th century, it became a trend for mythical creatures to be small and dwarf-like(see: fairies; elves; gnomes) and that they gained a mischievous and comical nature.
The words Dwarf and Dvergr to derive via the Proto-Germanic "*dwergaz", from the Proto-Indo-European "*Dhwergwhos" meaning 'something tiny', suggesting the Dwarves were thought of as small beings from the beginning. Perhaps it was assumed by Norse poets that the name itself left no need for further explanation on a Dwarf's height.
North Germanic Dwarves
Norse Dwarves vary throughout our sources of them. The differences between early and late Norse Dwarves are surprisingly large; outside influences, such as the onset of Christianity, acted as a catalyst for these changes.
Along with being physically deformed, Dwarfs were known as being excellent craftsmen, whose ability is partially god-like; this has parallels with stunted and ugly craftsmen and wise people (witch and oracles) from other mythologies. Dwarves were magical creatures with huge skill at metallurgy, taking fame for making great artifacts of legend. Dvergar are famous for having created Skíðblaðnir, Gungnir, Draupnir, Mjolnir, etc.
The Dwarves of shared Germanic Mythology have left a heavy influence on modern fantasy and folklore. Concepts such as Dwarven short height, ugly features, and exceptional craftsmanship are commonplace in modern literature. The remnants of the original Dwarf formed later fairy tales and folklore (see English folklore, German folklore, and Dutch folklore).
Dwarves in Folklore, fairytales, and early Literature
Dwarves are generally described as being about 3 to 4 feet tall, big-headed, and bearded. Nidavellir is the land of the dwarves in Norse mythology. Some Dwarves of mythology and fairy tales include: Rumpelstiltskin, the Dwarves from Snow White, Dvalin, Lit, Fjalar and Galar, Alvis, Eitri, Brokkr, Hreidmar, Alfrik, Berling, Grer, Fafnir, Otr, Andvari, Alberich. Regin from the Volsung Saga sometimes appears to be a Dwarf, though he is usually a human. In some version of the Sigurd myth, Regin is replaced by a Dwarf called Mimir.
Though most Dwarves in the Arthurian Romances of Chrétien de Troyes seem to be short humans, there is a reference to a kingdom or kingdoms of Dwarves, which may suggest a non-human race, in "Erec and Enide". The following passage is from Carleton W. Carroll's translation:
"The lord of the dwarves came next, Bilis, king of the Antipodes. The man of whom I'm speaking was indeed a dwarf and full brother of Bliant. Bilis was the smallest of all the dwarves, and Bliant his brother the largest of all the knights in the kingdom by half a foot or a full hands'-breadth. To display his power and authority Bilis brought in his company two kings who were dwarves, who held their land by his consent, Gribalo and Glodoalan, people looked at them with wonder. When they arrived at court, they were very cordially welcomed; at court all three were honoured and served like kings, for they were very noble men."
More ambiguous are the Dwarfs found in attendance on ladies in Medieval Romances. Although these might be humans afflicted with dwarfism, who were often kept as curiosities by courts and nobles of the era, the ladies are often of uncertain origin themselves; many enchantresses were in original stories Elves, and their attendants might likewise be non-human.
Folktales featuring Dwarves include: 'The Adventures of Billy McDaniel', 'Aid & Punishment', 'Bottile Hill', 'Chamois-Hunter', 'The Cobbler and the Dwarfs', 'Curiosity Punished', 'Dwarf in Search of Lodging', 'Dwarf-Husband', 'Dwarf's Banquet', 'Dwarves Borrowing Bread', 'Dwarf's Feast', 'Dwarves on the Tree', 'Dwarves Stealing Corn', 'Laird O' Co', 'Sir Thynnè',Snow White, The Three Little Men in the Wood, The Yellow Dwarf and many other tales.
Places connected with dwarves include:
- The Dwarves' Cavern in Hasel (Germany) was supposedly once home to many Dwarves. This legend gives the cavern its name.
- Harz Mountains in Germany), have localized folklore featuring Dwarves. On the north and south sides of the Harz mountains, and in areas of the Hohenstein region, it is said that many Dwarves lived in the area. It is said that Dwarf caves still exist in the clefts of the mountainside.
- In Northumbria, Dwarves are associated with the Simonside Hills and other areas. The Dwarves of Simondside are said to cause the deaths of hikers.