Before ever there was talk of hobbits and orcs, there existed tales of dwarves, ‘dvergr’ in the language of the Vikings, and of black elves, ‘svartálfr’, also known as dark elves, ‘dökkálfar’ and dusky elves, ‘myrkálfr’. These beings were described variously as being black as night, ‘pitch black’, or as pale and wan, making distinction between the two a difficult thing to decide.
Both races, if indeed there is a difference between the two, dwell below the ground, which may account for their dark or wan appearances.
Of the light elves, the ‘ljósálfar’, we know that they reside in the beautiful realm of Alfheim, high above Midgard and close to the homes of the gods in Vanaheim and Asgard.
They are luminous beings, called on by gods and mortals alike to intercede in worldly affairs. Their presence is radiant, and they are well disposed towards mortal beings. They assist the gods in their noble pursuits and are to be loved as much as feared and respected.
The character of dwarves and black elves is less clear and not so easily to be trusted. They prefer to live in shadows beyond reach of the beautiful rays of Sunna. It is said that they will turn to stone if they are exposed to the light of day.
Yet they will often answer the call of the gods to create powerful objects of magic for them that are beyond the capabilities of the Aesir and Vanir to create. They are renowned throughout the worlds for their knowledge and wisdom in the creation of magical artefacts.
Origins of the Dwarves
When Odin dismembered his fierce and prolific ancestor, the frost giant Ymir to create the worlds, he used the giant’s body to make the lands of Midgard. Our mountains and our fields are composed of the vast being’s flesh and bones. His cavernous skull forms the heavenly dome above us, his muscles, tendons and skin Odin used to shape the ground below us.
In the early times, before the world became hard and settled, this world flesh still rotted and out of it came maggots and worms. These worms grew and prospered in the earth below until they evolved into physically powerful and deviously clever sentient beings, far from their maggot origins. They are accustomed to darkness and to life below the surface of Midgard, residing in caves and digging vast mines within the remains of Ymir’s body, endlessly searching for riches hidden deep within the bones.
Svartalfheim and Nidavellir
The subterranean home of the dwarves is called sometimes Nidavellir, ‘fields of the new moon’ or ‘dark fields’ and sometimes Svartálfheim, ‘home of the black elves’. This double naming of their home gives rise to much confusion. Are they one and the same place? The skalds are unclear and yet when the gods seek out the dwarves to aid in crafting their magic instruments, it is often to Svartálfheim they go.
Whatever the name, their great forges and rich halls are deep below the surface of our world. There they store their vast hoards of precious gems, ores, and artefacts they have discovered or created.
The black elves, if they are a different species, also live below the earth in the realm of Svartalfheim. If they are not one with the dwarves then their relationship must be a close one as both shun the light and prefer their underground world to the light of day.
How the dark elves got here is unknown to us. Perhaps only such wise beings as Mimir or the Norns know the answer, or perhaps they are simply the same. Can it be that black elves are the sons of bright elves gone astray through lust for earthly wealth or other such vices? Were those maggots of Ymir’s flesh the spirits of bright elves tempted into the world through avarice and weakness? The Eddas and the Skalds tell us little.
Master Works of the Dwarves
If the cause is worthy the dwarves may indeed lend their skills to the gods. Without their artifice and wisdom, many of the great sagas would have ended in disaster for Odin and his people.
Most famous of all their handiwork is great Mjolnir, the indestructible hammer of mighty Thor, which he alone is capable of wielding and with which he causes thunder to resound across the skies. Even his wife Sif’s golden hair was created by the masterful folk of Nidavellir.
Freyr, the Vanir god of love, fertility and the hunt, owes them his ship Skidbladnir which always finds the way of its own accord and sails with the wind ever to its favor. Likewise, were they responsible for the forging of his golden boar Gullinborsti, who draws his chariot.
Freya, Vanir goddess of love, fertility and the hunt, sister to Freyr and Queen of Folkvang, owes the creation of her treasured necklace, the Brisingamen to dwarvish skill. It is so gleaming, so irresistible to her that she consents to spend a night with each of the dwarves who contribute to the making of the necklace, risking the anger of her consort Odin in so doing.
A masterwork of the Dwarvish craft that guarantees the safety of all creation is the indestructible chain that binds the vast, earth devouring wolf Fenrir to the ground. This chain, named Gleipnir was requested of them by the gods when all the bonds they had created themselves had failed.
Even the Allfather himself is possessed of a spear, the legendary Gungnir and his ring, Draupnir, that have been forged by dwarves. His power would be much the lesser without them.
Dwarves of Great Renown
The most famous of all are of course Nodri, north, Sudri, south, Austri, east and Vestri, west. These alone hold up the four corners of the heavens and without them, our world would fail.
Next are Modsognri, ‘battle-roarer’ and Durin ‘sleepy’, the first and second of all the maggot-dwarves to emerge from the rotting flesh of Ymir. They are the ancestors of all the dwarves whether they inhabit Svartalfheim or Nidavellir.
Other names that have come down to us are Lofar, Dvalin, Ivaldi, Brok and Eiti. Ivaldi had four sons who are responsible for the creating of many of the magical vessels, weapons and ornaments of the gods, including Freyr’s boat Skidblandir, Sif’s golden hair, and Odin’s spear, Gungnir.
Brok and Eiti are brothers and like Ivaldi and his sons, also master craftsmen of magical items. Loki challenged them to make greater artefacts than their rivals, the sons of Ivaldi and wagered his head in the bet. When the brothers had finished creating Mjolnir, Draupnir, and Gullinbursti, to name a few, it was time for Loki to lose his head. The gods, however, not permitting such a barbaric act, consented for the brothers to seal the trickster gods mouth shut with an unbreakable wire of their own devising.
Although the dwarves are less unequivocally benign than the bright elves, still they are more known individually than their light-filled cousins in Alfheim. The same is true for the black elves. Most of our stories introduce the wise craftsmen of Svartalfheim and Nidavellir as dwarves, there is, however, one brutal story, that names its tortured protagonist as the ‘Lord of Elves‘. Considering his mastery of metalwork and the vengeful and twisted nature of his story, we must conclude that this is no bright elf from the higher realms, but an unfortunate denizen of the lower worlds.
For those with a weak disposition, please skip the next section entirely. For those with the stomach to continue, the dark story of Volund and King Nidud is described below.
Volund, Smith God and Lord of Elves
Known as Völund, or Völundr to the Vikings and as Weyland to their Anglo-Saxon cousins, Volund is an entirely mysterious character whose progeny is unclear, perhaps even to the gods.
Some say that he is the son of Badi the giant and that his mother was a mermaid, others say that the master craftsman Ivaldi, the dwarf king was his father.
His wife is Alvit, a Valkyrie warrior and it is elsewhere recounted that he learned his mastery of craftsmanship from Mimir himself, the Aesir god of wisdom. His skill was such that in the manner of the black elves he was capable of creating supernatural artifacts, weapons, ornaments, unbreakable bonds, and other items of great value to gods and mortals alike.
But with great renown there comes jealousy and greed. So it was that King Nidud, a sovereign of ancient Midgard, decided that he would have all the elf lord’s riches and mastery for his own.
Thus, the king ordered the kidnapping of Volund while he slept. The great craftsman was bound, taken to a remote island and there the sinews of his feet and legs were cut, leaving him lame and hamstrung, that he might never escape his prison.
The king then took Volund’s magical sword for his own and gifted a ring cast for Volund’s wife to his own Queen.
The master craftsman was then compelled to work for the king, and so he dutifully created masterwork upon masterwork upon command, but all the while hatching the gruesome plan of his revenge.
The king and queen had two sons and a daughter and Volund plotted to gain their trust over time. Eventually, he lured the princes to his workshop with promises of unique and priceless gifts. Once there he beheaded them both and used the remains of their bodies to fashion ‘gifts’ for the boys’ parents.
Early did brother to brother call:
“Swift let us go the rings to see.”
They came to the chest, and they craved the keys,
The evil was open when in they looked;
He smote off their heads, and their feet he hid
Under the sooty straps of the bellows.
The Völundarkvitha (22-24)
He fashioned their eyes into pearls for the Queen’s ‘enjoyment’. Their skulls he crafted into decorated chalices for the King. Even their young sister, the princess, received a beautiful brooch from him, made from her brothers’ teeth.
Yet the elf lord’s lust for vengeance was still not sated. He conspired to bring the princess to his workshop and while there befuddled her senses with poisoned beer. While under the influence of the evil brew he raped the young woman out of hatred for her father.
To complete his revenge, Volund then fashioned for himself a magical feathered swan cloak and easily escaped the remote place to which he had been banished. Flying with the wings created by his elvish craft, he stopped to visit the king before his return home and relished explaining to him in full what had befallen his family and who exactly was responsible.
Some say the king’s men wounded Volund as he flew away to the upper realms in his swan cloak to reunite with his Valkyrie wife in Valhalla. Wounded or not, the smith god and elf lord continue there until now, forging weapons and magical talismans for the gods and others deserving of his skill.
We must ask ourselves, however, if Volund could escape at any time, why did he wait so long before flying away? Was it his lust for revenge that kept him at his forge long after he could have so easily left? Or did he execute his plan only as soon as he had completed his work on the swan cloak?
It seems that the vengeful elf was then rewarded with life in Valhalla where only honourable heroes’ dwell in the company of Odin. Was it fair that he should take the lives of two innocent boys and the virtue of an innocent princess in return for the injustice of his imprisonment and the mutilation of his legs?
It may be that there is more to the tale than has been passed down to us, but whatever the ultimate truth, this is the story of Volund, Lord of Elves.