Interestingly, the gods of Norse mythology often had little-to-no innate power when compared to the divinities of other mythologies. At times, the band of deities led by the High One, Odin, seemed to be merely equivalents to Greek or Roman demigods. A prime example is that the immortality of the Norse gods did not occur naturally—to stay alive, the gods were said to eat magical apples of youth, tended by the goddess, Idunn. Also, the gods of Norse mythology were some of the most vulnerable and mortal deities ever worshipped; almost all of the major Norse gods were prophesied to die at Ragnarok. Yet, despite all of their handicaps and vulnerabilities, the Norse gods did become incredibly powerful. Curiously, however, the brilliant workmanship of the dwarves played a huge part in making this happen.
In Norse mythology, the dwarves were the go-to craftsmen for the gods. The great Icelandic chronicler of Norse mythology, Snorri Sturlusson (1179-1241), wrote about several of the magnificent items that the dwarves created for the gods. From tools, to weapons, to livestock, the dwarves could create it.
In one story, the gods tried to raise a monstrous beast called the Fenriswolf. Yet, as the creature grew ever more huge, they began to fear it and decided, for their own safety, that it had to be restrained. The gods, themselves, made two different powerful fetters, yet each failed to hold the Fenriswolf. Finally, the dwarves were contracted to construct the ultimate dog leash. Using elements from a mountain and organic materials from bears, fish and even human hair, the dwarves fashioned a bond that was strong enough to hold the wolf, but still soft as silk. The fetter was predicted to hold until the time of Ragnarok, when the Fenriswolf would break free and eventually eat alive the leader of the gods, Odin.
The dwarves did not only work with solids, they also had a knack for making potions. In one gruesome story, two dwarves named Fjalar and Galar murdered and drained the blood from a wiseman known as Kvasir. They then mixed the blood into honey and let it ferment, ultimately creating a magical mead that would turn the drinker into either a scholar or a poet. Over a long series of events, the mead eventually fell into the hands of the giants, but was later pilfered by Odin and was brought back to the home of the gods in Asgard.
In another interesting story, a simple prank from Loki sparked one of the most important waves of dwarven creativity in Norse mythology. During one of Loki’s many pranks, the trickster shaved off all of the hair from the head of the goddess, Sif. In consequence, Loki was hunted down by an irate Thor, who happened to be Sif’s husband, and the trickster was only spared from a beating when he promised find an even more brilliant set of hair for Sif.
When the Norse gods need something built, they go to the dwarves. As such, Loki contacted the group of dwarves known as the sons of Ivaldi, and contracted with them to build several great items as an apology to the gods. This team of dwarves built three masterpieces. First, they made Skidbladnir, a ship created in a way that it could be folded down small enough to fit into a pocket, but when unfurled for use, it could accommodate all of the gods and their belongings. Furthermore, the ship always had a favorable wind that blew in the direction that the captain wanted to sail. Skidbladnir would eventually be given to the god of sun and rain, Frey. They also made a spear for Odin, which was given the name Gungnir. This weapon had a useful characteristic in that it always pierced its enemies cleanly, without getting stuck. And, of course, the sons of Ivaldi also saved Loki’s hide by creating a set of hair that would seamlessly and painlessly latch on to Sif’s head and then begin to grow naturally.
Loki was so pleased with his gifts that he challenged two other dwarf brothers, Eitri and Brokk, to try and make gifts as pleasing as those that the sons of Ivaldi had produced. In the end, Loki’s and Eitri’s gifts would be judged by the gods, deciding which set was more favorable. This is what Eitri and Brokk created: For Odin, Eitri and Brokk built Draupnir, a magical ring that spawned eight new rings every ninth night. For Frey, the brothers made a golden boar with bristles so bright that the light could overcome any darkness. Most importantly, the brothers created Mjölnir—Thor’s famous hammer that was unbreakable and could never be lost.
The gods ultimately praised the gifts of Eitri and Brokk as the best, and Loki had to pay a high price for his needless wager—his head. At the realization of his loss, the trickster fled the scene, only to be retrieved by Thor. When the victorious dwarves demanded that Loki be decapitated, the witty con man successfully argued that the dwarves could claim his head, but not his neck. With this desperate speech, Loki successfully saved himself from decapitation. Unperturbed by the god’s defense, the dwarf named Brokk exacted his revenge by using an awl to punch holes in Loki’s lips and then sewed the trickster’s mouth tightly shut.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Top picture attribution: (Cropped painting of Thor by Mårten Eskil Winge (1825–1896), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005.