Academic journal article Mythlore

The Origins of Dwarves

Academic journal article Mythlore

The Origins of Dwarves

Article excerpt

In Mythlore #109/110, Helios de Rosario Martinez writes: "it is probable that the particular idea of smallness as a feature of fairies was connected to the conflation of elves and dwarfs."

It may well be true that elves/fairies acquired their small size by being associated with dwarfs, but that merely pushes the question back one stage. Where did dwarfs get their diminutive size?

It's no good saying that occasional dwarfs occur in all human populations (one for every fifty thousand or so). The fact that real dwarfs exist, or even that they are perceived as uncanny, does not make them the prototypes for a mythological race. Real dwarfs occur rarely and at random, and they do not form communities. Besides, dwarfism is only one of the many disfigurements that flesh is heir to. Where are the mythological races of albinos, or stutterers, or twins, or left-handed people, or idiot savants?

The best answer to the question, "Why were the miners and metallurgists of mythology envisioned by the ancients as dwarfish in size?" is, I suspect, "Because the real miners of prehistory were stunted." Colonies of miners have existed throughout European prehistory. Mining, even prehistoric mining, is a specialized and capital-intensive craft. Miners quickly develop their own law and their own technical jargon, unintelligible to outsiders. They jealously guard their trade secrets. They hand down their art to their children but do not teach it to strangers. They stick together and evolve their own customs and superstitions.

In mining as in chimney-sweeping, littleness is an advantage. Before explosives, the cost of a tunnel was roughly proportionate to its cross-sectional area. That means the square of the user's height. A tunnel to accommodate a six-footer is more than twice as expensive as one to serve a four-footer.

A colony of miners, once formed, will perpetuate itself every generation until the ore runs out. Tall children will be encouraged to migrate elsewhere to find work suitable for them. Short children will go to work in the mine and perpetuate their kind. In a few generations the miners will be markedly shorter than the surrounding agriculturalists. …

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