Dwarfs and She-Dwarfs in the Eleventh Century

 What the OE wið dweorh charm and the Latin Ruodlieb poem have in common

In the Early Middle Ages the belief in dwarfs was widely held among the Germanic speaking peoples of northwestern Europe[1]. The *dwerǥōs[2]were thought of as a liminal non-human race of  mountain dwelling artisans. They can be regarded as the mountainous counterparts to the forest dwelling creatures the Germanic speaking peoples called *alƀōs “elfs” (Hermann 1903 :114). In Old Icelandic literature they are sometimes called svartálfar and portrayed as the smiths of Germanic mythology and the custodians of treasures (see West 2007: 295-97). Vestiges of this belief surived into the Modern Period as evidenced by Grimm in his Deutsche Sagen (29-44), Deutsche Hausmärchen (e.g. 161 Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot) and Deutsche Mythologie (XVII Wichte und Elbe). Although non-scholarly conceptions of dwarfs are often coloured by romantic Tolkienesque visions of smallish folk integral to fantastic societies, we should not forget that to medieval contemporaries the “dwarf” mainly constituted the alien other; the heathen, the foreigner. They possessed knowledge far beyond the wit of man and, if offended, they could curse mankind with horrible diseases.

            In the capacity of  “bringer of harm” we find dwarfs mentioned in Anglo-Saxon charms that aim to alleviate dwarf induced illnesses. Consider this charm, to be found in Ha. (Harley) 585 (167a), a Northumbrian manuscript of the late eleventh century. It consists of an introduction, followed by the charm itself (see Grendon 1909 for an edition and translation).

Introduction lines 1-8


Man sceal niman VII lȳtle oflǣtan, swylce man mid ofrað, and writtan þās naman on ǣlcre oflǣtan: Maxianus, Machus, Johannes, Martinianus, Dionisius, Constantinus, Serafion. Þænne eft þæt galdor þæt hēr æfter cweð. Man scal singan, ǣrest on þæt wynstre ēare, þænne on þæt swīðre ēare, þænne ufan þæs mannes moldan. And gā þænne ān mǣdenman tō, and hō hit on his swēoran and dō man swā þrȳ dagas: him bið sōna sēl.


You must take seven little wafers, such as are used in worship and write these names on each wafer: Maximianus, Malchus, Johannes, Martinianus, Dionisus, Constantinus, Serafion. Then again, you must sing the charm which is stated below, first into the left ear, then into the right ear, then over the man’s head. And then let a virgin go to him and hang it on his neck, and do this for three days. He will soon be well.

In this introduction syncretic directions are given for an apotropaeic healing ceremony. The first direction involves inscribing sacramental wafers with the names of the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus (a Christian myth[3]), an instruction seemingly unconnected to the following directions. The following directions on the other hand do not have any connection to institutionalized forms of christianity. They state how the charm is to be chanted and what is to be done afterwards. The introduction ends with the instruction that the written charm should be presented to the afflicted by a virgin. The fact that a written version of the charm plays a role in the ceremony, attests to the power attributed to the written word in late Anglo-Saxon society.

            Enchantment lines 9-21

Hēr cōm in gangan, in spīder wiht,

            Hæfde him his haman on handa.

            Cwæð þæt þū his hængest wǣre.

            Legeþ hē his tēage an swēoran.

            Ongunnan him of þǣm lande līþan.

            Sōna swā hȳ of þǣm lande cōman,

            Þā ongunnan him þā cōlian.

            Þā cōm ingangan dēores sweostar.

            Þā geændade hēo and āðas swōr:

            Ðæt nǣfre þis þǣm ādlegan derian ne mōste,

            Ne þǣm þe þis galdor begyten mihte,

            Oððe þe þis galdor ongalan cūþe.

            Amen, fiat.

            Came right in here, the creature on a spider

            Had his harness in hand.

            Said that you would be his stallion.

            He put his rein on your neck.

            Immediately when they began to go to him

            they began to cool him.

            Then came in, the sister of the creature.

            She ended it and swore oaths.

            That he should never harm the sick.

            Nor whomever who should learn this charm,

            Or who could sing this charm.

            Amen, may it be done.

The incantation introduces the dwarf riding on a spider, who maliciously intents to ride his victim by use of magical reins[4]. After the reins have been put on the victim’s neck, the dwarf and the spider leave, which induces a fever, described in the OE text as cōlian “to cool”, presumably because of the identical symptoms (shivering, chattering of teeth)[5]. Then the sister of the dwarf arrives, probably the entity whose intercession is invoked. She ends the agony and swears oaths as to guarantee the safety of the victim, thereby protecting the victim from further harm. The charm ends with a christian amen and fiat.

            What struck me in this charm was the role of the female dwarf, who apparently restrains her brother in his malevolent deeds and vowes for the victim’s safety. This reminded me of another female dwarf, the spouse of the dwarf caught by the eleventh century hero Ruodlieb.

The Ruodlieb poem is an early Medieval Latin epic poem which was written halfway the eleventh century (1060-1070 CE) by a monk at Tegernsee (present day southern Germany, near to the border with Liechtenstein) in the style of the Latin epic (specifically Prudentius Symmachus). It consists of 2300 extant verses written in dactylic hexameter with leonine rhymes (the last syllable of each verse rhymes with the first syllable of the third foot of the verse). It recounts the adventures of a warrior[6] (miles) named Ruodlieb who serves a just king (rex maior) and displays chivalrous virtues like obedience and righteousness. The poem is often regarded as the first coutly romance of western literature, marking the new era of courtly novels known from the Arthurian cycle and Middle High German poems such as Der Arme Heinrich.

In fragment XVIII (Clm. 19486 fol. 34a) of the poem (XVII in Schmeller’s edition) Ruodlieb captures a dwarf who promises council in defeating two kings, Immunch and Hartunch, claiming their treasure and carrying off their daughter, a beautiful virgin called Heriburg. When the dwarf is confronted with Ruodlieb’s suspicion he offers his wife, a pretty female dwarf (parva nimis pulchra[7]), as security that he will hold true to his word. He calls his wife from a nearby cave and the dwarf woman prostrates herself in front of Ruodlieb and begs to be his hostage untill her husband has accomplished everything he had promised. Then the fragment breaks off.

Fragment VIII Ruodlieb and the Dwarf[8]

He leapt up and wanted to get away,
untill he fell exhausted and barely caught his breath.
When strength returned to him, to Ruodlieb he most humbly spoke:

“spare my wretched self, I tell you what I know you want.


If you do not kill me and if you free my hands,
I’ll show you the hoard of two kings,

Son and father, who will go to battle with you

The father’s name is Immunch, and the son Hartunch,

By you they will be defeated, both will die by your doing.


Then the king’s  daughter – the sole remaining heir

Of the entire realm, Heriburg, the most beautiful virgin,

Is to be won by you, but not without great bloodshed,

Unless you do what I advise, when I have been freed.”

Ruodlieb said to the dwarf: “you will not be killed by me.


I would have freed you quickly, if I could have trusted you;

If you do not cheat me, you will return unharmed from me.

When you are free, you will tell me nothing.”

“May it not occur that ever between us (dwarfs?) this deceit prevails:

Then we should neither be of great age nor of good health.


Among you humans no one speaks, unless with a cunning heart;
Therefore you will not come to great age. (like we dwarfs)

In accordance with the faith of each one are the times of his life.

We only speak the way we hold it in our heart,

Nor do we eat various foods that entail diseases,


That’s why we will remain sound longer than you.

Do not distrust me, I will act in such a way that you may believe me.

If you do not trust me, my wife will be a hostage.”

He called her from the cave, she immediately came forth from it,

Small but beautiful nonetheless, and adorned with gold and clothing,


She fell before Ruodlieb’s feet pouring laments:

“Best of all men, loosen the bonds of my husband

Hold me for him, untill he has accomplished all!”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .[9]

Before turning to the contents of the poem, a few remarks on the language are warranted. The Ruodlieb poem is quite unconventional for a Medieval Latin poem in language, form and content (Kartschoke 1990: 232) and a vernacular origin has often been assumed. This argument is strengthened by the fact the personal names are not latinized (in contrast to the latinized personal names in the Waltharius lied), the latinized vernacular fish names that are listed in fragment X (XIII of Schmeller’s edition), the vernacular glosses in the manuscript (this is noteworthy for the manuscript is taken to be an autograph, see Ford 1965: 3) and the OHG words in the wedding vow, which is worth quoting in full.

Latin translation
66 Dixit: dic illi de me de corde fideli She said: say to him from my faithful heart
67 Tantundem liebes, quantum veniat modo loubes Just as much liebes (love) may come to him, as there is loubes (foliage)
68 Et volucrum wunna quot sunt, sibi dic mea minna Just as much birds have wunna (joy), say to him, (just as great) is my minna (affection)
69 Graminis et florum quantum sit, dic et honorum As much there is grass and flowers, say (as great) is (my) honour

The vernacular words in this fragment suggest an original alliterating diction in the OHG vernacular with liebes “love” as the first stressed foot of the first stanza, and loubes “foliage” of the second stanza. Also line 6-9 may allude to a vernacular origin for they call to mind lines 3-5 of the Hildebrandslied (Hiltibrant enti Hađubrant, untar heriun tuem, sunufatarungo, iro saro rihtun, Braune Ebbinghaus 1962: 84). In the two poems we both find the alliterating names of the kinsmen, i.e. Immunch, Hartunch and Heriburg. Even more interesting, we find a latin equivalent (line 7 et patris et nati) of the OHG formula sunufatarungo. We may speculate that the original vernacular lines may have ressembled the following:

ih zeigu dir,     zweio chuningo hort,

sunufatarungo (…)

daz Immunch heizzi der vater, sunu Hartunch.

To my mind it seems reasonable to assume that at least this part of the Ruodlieb poem constitutes a Latinate rendering of a vernacular poem. Whether Schmeller was right in identifying the Ruodlieb of the poem with künge Ruotliebe of the MHG Ecken Liet (who is associated with the Germanic heroic age) is open to discussion (Grimm et Schmeller 1838: 220).

A thing of interest in the Ruodlieb poem is the mutual mistrust displayed by Ruodlieb and his captive. Ruodlieb expresses his suspicion by making the release of the dwarf conditional to the dwarf holding true to his word (line 17 Si me non fallis, a me sanus remeabis). The dwarf retorts by claiming Ruodlieb’s mistrust is unjustified, deceit being a human characteristic, whereas dwarfs speak as “they hold it in their heart” (line 24 corde tenemus). It is hinted at by the dwarf that part of human mistrust originates in human envy towards the greater lifespan of dwarfs. The dwarf however attributes the shorter lifespan of humans to their insalubrious diet (line 25 neve cibos varios edimus morbos generantes). The reciprocal relationship between the hero and the dwarf in the Ruodlieb poem is characteristic of the business between humans and dwarfs in general (see Grimm 1875: 377-78) for human philanthropy is always rewarded with dwarvish generosity (Hermann 1903: 117).

            Note that the role of the dwarf woman is identical to the role of the Anglo-Saxon deores sweostar (sister of the creature, i.e. the dwarf’s sister) in that they serve as security against dwarvish maliciousness and deceit. To Early Medieval contemporaries the female hostage acting as security against masculine violence and retribution was a common literary theme[10] sprung forth from contemporary custom. On a more anthropological level this feminine apotropaeism may be compared to similar invocations of feminine entities such as Frau Holle and Frau Perhta of German folklore. These female deities were associated with duties generally attributed to the female gender, such as parturition, weaving, cleaning, but also healing and medicine (see Motz 1993: 124-30).


In this post I have compared two eleventh century texts in regards to their portrayal of those creatures of Germanic mythology that are commonly called “dwarfs”. These two texts may very well be the oldest evidence for the belief in these creatures and both texts attribute a pivotal role to a female dwarf who is supposed to act as security against the possible malicious intentions of her male partner. The one text is an Old English charm against dwarf inflicted illness, the other text is a fragment from the Latin Ruodlieb epic, an East-Frankish epic that originally may have reflected parts of an older vernacular epic. Both texts shed light on what constituted the “dwarf” in Early Medieval folk belief and may contribute to our understanding of dwarfs in prechristian times, without resorting to late medieval Scandinavian sources.

P.A. Kerkhof

 [1] Thanks to Bas Clerkx and Godelinde Perk for commenting on a earlier version of this article.

[2] The etymology of PGmc. *dwerǥais controversial. A connection to PIE *dhreughseems unlikely because of the unwarranted Schwebeablaut. Note that a zero-grade to the root is attested in OIc. dyrgja “female dwarf” < PGmc. *durgjō. Liberman (46-47) assumes that we are dealing with the rhotacized form of a PGmc. root *dwezǥ-, which would be a Verner variant to PGmc. *dwes- as attested in OE gedwǣsnes “dementia”. The Gmc. material allows to reconstruct the ablaut variants *dwē1s- and *dwas- (cf. MDu gedwas “foolishness” if this word has not been subjected to secondary shortening), so the postulation of an e-grade and the velar extension would be without Gmc. parallels. I am tempted to adhere to an old etymology, namely going back to PIE *dher- “to harm” (cf. Skt. dvarás- “demon” ← Skt. dvárati “to harm”) with an old athematic diminutive suffix. In connection to this negative epithet it seems relevant that the dwarfs are often called by more neutral names, i.e. OIc. svartalfar and in Grimm’s work Bergmännlein, das stille Volk, das kleine Volk.

[3] Attesting to the popularity of the myth in the Early Medieval West are the insertions of the myth into the Historia Langobardorum by Paulus Diaconus in the 8th century and even earlier Gregory of Tours in his Passio Sanctorum martyrum septem dormientium apud Ephesum which dates to the second half of the 6th century.

[4] Mythical creatures riding humans were generally blamed for causing diseases in humans. The most famous of these creatures is no doubt the “nightmare” (OE mare, OHG mara), a female elf-like creature (cp. ModG. Alptraum) who torments men in their sleep by sitting on their chest, thus pushing the air out of their lungs.

[5] In this regard, also consider ModDu jicht “gout” < PGmc. *jekti (cf. MidE isykle “icicle” < PGmc. *īs-jekila-) and ModDu koorts “fever” Pre-Du *kurts- < PGmc. *kruts- (cf. Goth. kriustan  “to chatter with the teeth”, see also De Vaan 2010) and OS hrido “fever” (cf. OHG ridōn “to shiver”). That we are dealing with an affliction involving fever is corroborated by another wið dweorg charm (E 11, Cotton Vitellius C iii, 46a) which states that the dwarf may arrive by day or by night and that the cure might at first intensify the attack (the fever) before it abbates (Grendon 1909: 212-13).

[6] Lat. miles is often translated as knight, but considering the fact that in the eleventh century East Frankish empire a hereditary feudal nobility was not yet institutionalized, I deem the term anachronistic and prefer a more neutral “warrior”.

[7] Note that this cannot be taken as an unambiguous reference to the size of dwarfs, for it concerns a woman. In OIc. literature dwarfs are not characterized as being unusually small (see Simek 2006: 92)

[8] The Latin original text is published online: http://www2.fh-augsburg.de/~harsch/Chronologia/Lspost11/Ruodlieb/ruo_fr18.html. It should be remarked that not everyone is convinced that the fragment containing the dialogue with the dwarf is part of the Ruodlieb poem.(see Kartschoke 1990: 232).

[9] Latin text as found in Schmeller´s edition of the manuscript (Grimm et Schmeller 1838: 196):


Exiliens et abire volens salit undique clamans,
Dum lassus cecidit vix spiramenque recepit.
Cui vigor ut rediit, ad Ruodlieb humillime dixit:
«Parce mihi misero, scio quod gratum tibi dico.


Si me non occideris atque manus mihi solves,
Monstro tibi censum binorum denique regum,
Et patris et nati, qui tecum preliaturi
– Nomen habet genitor Immunch, sed filius Hartunch –
A te vincuntur, ambo per te perimentur.


Filia sed regis – heres tunc sola superstes
Regni totius, Heriburg, pulcherrima virgo –
Est tibi lucranda, sed non sine sanguine magno,
Ni quod consiliar facias, ego quando resolvar.»
Ruodlieb ait nano: «non occidendus es a me.


Te cito solvissem, tibi si confidere possem;
Si me non fallis, a me sanus remeabis.
Quando potens fueris tuimet, nil post mihi dices.»
«Absit, ut inter nos umquam regnaverit hec fraus:
Non tam longevi tunc essemus neque sani.


Inter vos nemo loquitur, nisi corde doloso;
Hinc nec ad etatem maturam pervenietis.
Pro cuiusque fide sunt eius tempora vite.
Non aliter loquimur, nisi sicut corde tenemus,
Neve cibos varios edimus morbos generantes,


Longius incolomes hinc nos durabimus ac vos.
Non mihi diffidas, faciam, mihi quod bene credas.
Si mihi diffidas, mea coniunx sit tamen obses.»
Hanc vocat ex antro, que mox processerat illo,
Parva nimis pulchra, sed et auro vesteque compta.


Que ruit ante pedes Ruodlieb fundendo querelas:
«Optime cunctorum, vinclis mihi solve maritum
Meque tene pro se, donec persolverit omne!»
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

[10] This custom is hinted at in OE poems such as Beowulf and The wife’s lament.


Braune Wilhelm et E. Ebbinghaus, Althochdeutsches Lesebuch (1875: 14th edition Tübingen 1962).

Ford jr., Gordon B., The ruodlieb; the first medieval epic of chivalry from eleventh century Germany (Leiden 1965).

Grendon, Felix, “The Anglo-Saxon charms”, The journal of American Folklore 22 (1909) 105-237.

Grimm, J. et A. Schmeller eds., Lateinische Gedichte des X. und XI. JH. (Göttingen 1838).

Grimm, Jacob, Deutsche Mythologie (Berlin 1875: 4th edition).

Grimm, Jacob et Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsche Sagen (Kassel 1818: 1865).

Grimm, Jacob et Wilhelm Grimm, Kinder- und Hausmärchen  (1819).

Kartschoke, Dieter, Geschichte der deutschen Literatur im frühen Mittelalter [Geschichte der deutschen Literatur im Mittelalter 3] (1990: 3d edition München 2000).

Liberman, Anatoly, an analytical dictionary of English etymology (2008).

Motz, Lotte, The beauty and the hag; female figures of Germanic Faith and myth [philologica Germanica 15](Vienna 1993).

Hermann, Paul, Nordische Mythologie in gemeinverständlicher darstellung, (Leipzig 1903).

Simek, Rudolf, Götter und Kulte der Germanen (2004: München 2006).

Vaan de, Michiel, “etymologie en dialectgeografie van koorts”, in: Verslagen en Mededelingen vande Koninklijke Academie voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde 120 3

(2010) 45–79.

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