For those of you that are familiar with minecraft, you know they title of this blog is a blatant reference to the song by Yogscast. For those that are not familiar, I ask if you have been living in a hole?! (And not a dwarf hole). Please see the song in the references section immediately. It is catchy, fun and you will sing it in your sleep. Trust me.
For today’s blog I will be offering a survey of Armann Jakobsson’s “The Hole: Problems in Medieval Dwarfology.” Now you understand the title? Of course you do!
The best introduction to this survey comes from Jakobsson himself; ” When trying to understand Old Norse dwarfs, one problem is knowing too much. Almost everyone comes to the old texts with some preconceived notions, if not from Lord of the Rings, then from romances, folktales, and from modern novels, all presenting their own consistent view of dwarfs.” (Pg 53) Guilty as charged on my account. Me, I am a Tolkien man. I know what a dwarf is right? Gimli is my hero, rugged, and a fine drinker.
The fact Jakobsson is getting at that our image of dwarfs in modern times is quite skewed, from one source or another. The image and idea of the dwarf has changed quite a bit since the Old Norse Sagas. The medieval romance period changed the image of dwarfs quite a bit. They took on a whole new look, and a different role in the stories.
Jakobsson breaks down dwarfs into three different groups; (1); Individual Eddic Dwarfs, (2); Dwarfs as a race and dwarf names. Edda derived. and (3); Later medieval Romance and Renaissance dwarfs. Inspired by Eddic Dwarfs, but belonging to a different literary tradition or imaginative invention. The first two are covered in the article, the third is not covered in the article. His focus is on individual dwarfs, and by extension dwarfs as a people. (Pg 54)
He goes on to detail how dwarfs are mostly absent from Icelandic folklore, and do not seem to have survived the Christianization of that land. Jakobson also notes that unlike the elves, the dwarfs to did not seem to be venerated. There is little evidence to suggest a cult for dwarfs. They do show up in Snorri’s prose Edda, and in the Codex Regius of the Poetic Eddas. Notably in the Voluspa, dedicates 8 whole verses to dwarfs. Jakobson says; ” As the Voluspa is concerned with matters of utmost importance, such as the beginning and end of the World, as well as its history and cosmology, all these dwarf names might seem curiously superfluous. Once can only imagine our reaction if a filmmaker made a two hour film about the origins, history and end of the world, and then decided to dedicate about fifteen minutes to showing dwarfs without a voice, and without any apparent relevance to the plot line.” (Pg 55). I would be in a rage, that would be my reaction. Why these dwarfs, and why can’t they talk? How are they relevant to the overall narrative? It is obvious that they are important to the world order, or else why would they appear in a poem like the Voluspa? Big questions, and most of them without answers.
As Jakobson points out; “And yet, as scholars have remarked, dwarfs seem to have a limited role in Old Norse mythology. As Lotte Motz (1983: 92) has put it they; ” are not drawn in the fullness of life, but in the narrowness of their employment.” (Pg 55) Jakobson then cites other scholars as how dwarfs appear in the stories as creators of precious objects for the gods, or in servile and inferior roles to the gods. To put this another way, they appear in the working class roles, when they appear at all.
I think it is important to pause here to think about this. There is much to say here about the structure of Norse society at the time. During the height of the Viking Age, there was a class based society in place. From a social and mythical and perspective, at the top of the “World Tree” or the social ladder were the Aesir gods, the warrior and noble elite. In the middle was the common man, farmers and landowner. At the bottom were the dwarfs. I ask why? It would seem, they were little better than slaves. This begs a whole host of questions.
Jakobsson goes on through the article to detail individual dwarfs in individual stories, the Voluspa, Alvissmal, Prose Edda, and others. I will not be dwelling on these details, as I have covered some of these stories in previous post and they are widely available on other sites. He says that; “these narratives cast dwarfs as ‘reluctant donors’, subtle smiths and artisans whose services are obtained through deceit, trickery or bribery.” A working class of producers, a class that provides costly treasures for the elite, the gods.
Jakobson (Pg 59) directly quotes another scholar, Kevin Wanner; “Accordingly, Norse myth presents us a situation in which the Aesir, the most privileged social class, lack direct control over either the skills or the materials necessary for the manufacture of weapons, vehicles, jewelry, cauldrons, horns, fetter, ect. despite the fact that such goods and objects are highly valued, and, in fact, are necessary for the construction and maintence of the gods’ culture and way of life. In short, the gods are not producers, but rather consumers of forged items and artifacts of cultural value.” (Wanner 2001; 206)
In the social order of the time, the dwarfs are little more than servants of the gods, though their most striking trait is a noted absence of their culture, habits or general method of living. In other words, there is an absence of dwarven identity. The question is why?
Jakobson says this in conclusion; ” If giants and dwarfs are metaphors for the past, representing its different natures, it is not surprising they emerge in Old Norse legends at the beginning of time and at the end of history. It is also consistent with the fact that they are creators and makers, rather than users. Their part is over as soon as the future has taken over from the past. It is also no surprise that dwarfs should be elusive and negative. Since they are our past, their most important role is to vanish to make way for us.” (Pg 70)
Ouch. That is a bit harsh, but it makes sense. Here is what I think, in regards to the dwarves. Dwarfs in fact have two different creation stories, but I am going to use the one from the Prose Edda. In the beginning of time, after the death of Ymir, the gods gave manlike life, mind and spirit to the maggots crawling in Ymir’s flesh. This is one origin of the dwarfs, and in context of the narrative, they are created before humanity. In this way, are dwarfs a predecessor of a sort, a kind of ancestor. It should be noted that the Germanic Peoples, and the Old Norse, are invaders and conquerors. They are not, in the general sense of the word, indigenous to Scandinavia. The ice receded from Scandinavia 10,000 years ago, and the peninsula was colonized by people not long after. The Indo-Europeans did not come to Scandinavia until sometime during the 3rd or 2nd millennium BCE. The Germanic people, as a descendent language group from IE, appeared sometime around 500 BCE. In short, there is a long period of time that predates the Aesir, the Germanic culture that flourished during the Viking Age.
Jakobson gets the last word here; ” The dwarf would be a different kind of ancestor, much smaller, and might be regarded as an earlier state of ourselves.” Pg (67)
I would argue that dwarves represent an earlier people, a people subjugated and conquered by the Aesir. They were relegated to an inferior position, to a lower class of society. Diminished, in story and in stature. All but their names were struck from the stories, and their services to the gods. Like the giants, they belong to a Pre-Aesir past. Before the conquers, before the Vikings, there were dwarves and giants.
Before the Christians came and assimilated/converted people from the Old Norse religion, perhaps it could be said that the Old Norse did the same thing to the resident cultures? Perhaps the dwarfs are not too far removed from the Sami, or from the Native Americans when the Europeans came? A people diminished to little more than an after thought.
To the victor go the spoils. Or at very least, control of the narrative.
Minecraft Song “Dwarf Hole” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fR7EAdPUqvQ’
Jakobson, Armann. “The Hole: Problems in Medieval Dwarfology.” I downloaded this from Academia.edu.