Myths of the Norsemen From the Eddas and Sagas

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“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.”

Faerie Queene (Spenser).

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 [243]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.

Another famous weapon, which according to tradition was forged by the dwarfs in Eastern lands, was the sword Angurvadel which Frithiof received as a portion of his inheritance from his fathers. Its hilt was of hammered gold, and the blade was inscribed with runes which were dull until it was brandished in war, when they flamed red as the comb of the fighting-cock.

“Quick lost was that hero

Meeting in battle’s night that blade high-flaming with runics.

Widely renown’d was this sword, of swords most choice in the Northland.”

Tegnér’s Frithiof (G. Stephens’s tr.).

The Passing of the Dwarfs

The dwarfs were generally kind 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 to ridicule, these little creatures would forsake the house and never come back again. When the old gods ceased to be worshipped in the Northlands, the dwarfs withdrew entirely from the country, and a ferryman related how he had been hired by a mysterious personage to ply his boat back and forth across the river one night, and at every trip his vessel was so heavily laden 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 carried the dwarfs across the river, as they were leaving the country for ever in consequence of the unbelief of the people. [244]


According to popular superstition, the dwarfs, in envy of man’s taller stature, 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 recognisable 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 Troldtinderne, Romsdal

The Troldtinderne, Romsdal

From a photograph by S. J. Beckett, F.R.P.S.

The troll women were 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 wed 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.

The Peaks of the Trolls

Naturally, traditions of the little folk abound everywhere throughout the North, and many places are associated with their memory. The well-known Peaks of the Trolls (Trold-Tindterne) in Norway are said to be the scene of a conflict between two bands of trolls, [245]who in the eagerness of combat omitted to note the approach of sunrise, with the result that they were changed into the small points of rock which stand up noticeably upon the crests of the mountain.

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 Phœnician 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. [246]


Chapter XXV: The Elves

The Realm of Faery

Besides the dwarfs there was another numerous class of tiny creatures called Lios-alfar, light or white elves, who inhabited the realms of air between heaven and earth, and were gently governed by the genial god Frey from his palace in Alf-heim. They were lovely, beneficent beings, so pure and innocent that, according to some authorities, their name was derived from the same root as the Latin word “white” (albus), which, in a modified form, was given to the snow-covered Alps, and to Albion (England), because of her white chalk cliffs which could be seen afar.

The Elf-Dance

The Elf-Dance

N. J. O. Blommér

The elves were so small that they could flit about unseen while they tended the flowers, birds, and butterflies; and as they were passionately fond of dancing, they often glided down to earth on a moonbeam, to dance on the green. Holding one another by the hand, they would dance in circles, thereby making the “fairy rings,” which were to be discerned by the deeper green and greater luxuriance of the grass which their little feet had pressed.

“Merry elves, their morrice pacing

To aërial minstrelsy,

Emerald rings on brown heath tracing,

Trip it deft and merrily.”

Sir Walter Scott.

If any mortal stood in the middle of one of these fairy rings he could, according to popular belief in England, see the fairies and enjoy their favour; but the Scandinavians and Teutons vowed that the unhappy man must die. In illustration of this superstition, a story is told of how Sir Olaf, riding off to his [247]wedding, was enticed by the fairies into their ring. On the morrow, instead of a merry marriage, his friends witnessed a triple funeral, for his mother and bride also died when they beheld his lifeless corpse.

“Master Olof rode forth ere dawn of the day

And came where the Elf-folk were dancing away.

The dance is so merry,

So merry in the greenwood.

“And on the next morn, ere the daylight was red,

In Master Olof’s house lay three corpses dead.

The dance is so merry,

So merry in the greenwood.

“First Master Olof, and next his young bride,

And third his old mother—for sorrow she died.

The dance is so merry,

So merry in the greenwood.”

Master Olof at the Elfin Dance (Howitt’s tr.).

The Elf-dance

These elves, who in England were called fairies or fays, were also enthusiastic musicians, and delighted especially in a certain air known as the elf-dance, which was so irresistible that no one who heard it could refrain from dancing. If a mortal, overhearing the air, ventured to reproduce it, he suddenly found himself incapable of stopping and was forced to play on and on until he died of exhaustion, unless he were deft enough to play the tune backwards, or some one charitably cut the strings of his violin. His hearers, who were forced to dance as long as the tones continued, could only stop when they ceased.

The Will-o’-the-wisps

In mediæval times, the will-o’-the-wisps were known in the North as elf lights, for these tiny sprites were [248]supposed to mislead travellers; and popular superstition held that the Jack-o’-lanterns were the restless spirits of murderers forced against their will to return to the scene of their crimes. As they nightly walked thither, it is said that they doggedly repeated with every step, “It is right;” but as they returned they sadly reiterated, “It is wrong.”

The White Elves

The White Elves

Chas. P. Sainton, R.I.

By Permission of the Artist. All Rights Reserved

Oberon and Titania

In later times the fairies or elves were said to be ruled by the king of the dwarfs, who, being an underground spirit, was considered a demon, and allowed to retain the magic power which the missionaries had wrested from the god Frey. In England and France the king of the fairies was known by the name of Oberon; he governed fairyland with his queen Titania, and the highest revels on earth were held on Midsummer night. It was then that the fairies all congregated around him and danced most merrily.

“Every elf and fairy sprite

Hop as light as bird from brier;

And this ditty after me

Sing, and dance it trippingly.”

Midsummer-Night’s Dream (Shakespeare).

These elves, like the brownies, Huldra folk, kobolds, etc., were also supposed to visit human dwellings, and it was said that they took mischievous pleasure in tangling and knotting horses’ manes and tails. These tangles were known as elf-locks, and whenever a farmer descried them he declared that his steeds had been elf-ridden during the night.


In Scandinavia and Germany sacrifices were offered to the elves to make them propitious. These sacrifices [249]consisted of some small animal, or of a bowl of honey and milk, and were known as Alf-blot. They were quite common until the missionaries taught the people that the elves were mere demons, when they were transferred to the angels, who were long entreated to befriend mortals, and propitiated by the same gifts.