Copyright © 1985 by Theosophical University Press. All rights reserved.
While gods and giants represented complementary poles of divinity and matter on a graded scale extending both spiritward and matterward beyond our perceptions, nature was to the Norse mythographers replete with living beings at all stages of evolution. Every such being represented its god (consciousness energy), expressed itself in its own appropriate way or soul, and imbodied in a fitting shape, its giant. Our visible, tangible world was one of many — a slender cross section of a vast range of god-giant juxtapositions through which the ripple of life flowed unendingly with scope for infinite kinds of evolutionary change and growth.
The link which both separates and unites the god and its corresponding giant is its alf (elf), which, as we know, means river or channel. The elf expresses its godlike qualities through the substantial form to the degree it can. This makes each being a triad: first, the divine consciousness or eternal Odin, the Allfather, immortal root of every being; this animates the giant or body which dies and is ground on the mill, dissolved when the divine life has departed; linking the two is an elf — the actively evolving soul which channels the divine influence to the material world and is itself evolving toward its hamingja, its guardian angel or individual god-self. The elf-soul partakes of both kinds of influence: inspired by its divine nature it becomes progressively more harmonious as it unites little by little with this ennobling source of its being, while its material tendencies, weighted down with the heavy drag of matter, its giant, remain mortal. This is most clearly shown in the lay of Volund, where the elf-soul, humanity, is held captive by an evil age, yet overcomes by virtue of spiritual will and determination as well as ingenuity.
Through the long, slow course of evolution the elves gain increasingly conscious union with their divine mentors and little by little become immortal; but until they achieve this state, these proteges of the gods spend each blissful rest between earth lives among the deities in the titan Ager's banquet hall (space), but oblivious of their surroundings. There are numerous classes of elves at various stages of awareness: light-elves are those who between lives sleep among the gods at their heavenly banquet, while dark-elves are drawn toward inferior worlds.
Souls that have not yet reached the human, self-conscious stage in their evolution are named "dwarfs." These elemental souls imbody in animals and plants, in the minerals of the globe's interior, and in the forces of wind and weather. Popular stories describe them as little people. This is apparently the result of translating the Icelandic midr, the Swedish mindre, as "smaller." This is quite legitimate and has given rise to the notion that dwarfs are beings smaller in size than humans. However, an equally valid interpretation and one which makes more sense is that they are less than human — less evolved, less complete in their development. Judging by their names, they evidently refer to various animals, plants, and other creatures of the less-than-human kingdoms, so that more than likely the diminutive refers to their stage of evolution rather than to physical size.
Among the elemental dwarfs (those belonging to kingdoms of life less evolved even than the minerals) are trolls which are said to be inimical to humans, and tomtar which serve and help man in many ways. In popular stories the troll is depicted as a hideous monster, the tomte as an appealing little sprite wearing a grey suit and a red Phrygian cap. Every farm of old had its tomte which protected the livestock and the crops, kept the horses from slipping on the ice in winter, and performed numerous other services throughout the year. All it demanded in return was a plate of hot rice porridge by the barn door on Christmas Eve. The trolls on the other hand were the allies of sorcerers and not averse to playing pranks of their own on the unsuspecting. It is noteworthy that in all such folklore there was no real exchange between humans and dwarfs on an emotional or mental level. Whether useful or harmful, dwarfs are not intentionally either benevolent or malevolent but simply unthinking nature forces, acting automatically and without amity or malice, so that man's regard for them was a curiously impersonal one. You would not become fond of a tomte though you might well be grateful for his actions.
The classic fairy with gossamer wings, as well as gnomes and pixies and other "little people" in appropriate attire, although their appearance is the creation of human fancy, cannot be denied existence altogether. Various ancient legends which tell of these and other "unensouled" denizens of Cloud Cuckoo Land, are echoing a very real knowledge which has become warped and misunderstood in the course of ages: that beneath the minerals on the evolutionary scale are entities and forces which express themselves in the properties of material elements or states of matter. They are beings we would be hard put to define, for we have no conception of the type of "soul" that imbodies in minerals, much less in creatures beneath them on the ladder of evolutionary progression. Classical and medieval stories depict there denizens of the elements as salamanders (of fire), undines (water), sylphs (air), and gnomes (of the earth); the Edda classes them among the dwarfs and ascribes their parentage to the titans or giants of the appropriate elements. As the Greek Oceanus (the "waters" of space) fathered the undines, so in the Norse myths did Ager with his wife Ran, goddess of the sea, bring to birth the nine waves. What we today call laws of nature whose attributes we constantly rely on — all the chemical and physical, automatic and semiautomatic functions of the natural world — are expressions of elemental forces. Without them we could neither contact the matter we live in, nor could we depend on its behavior. They are the shapers of clouds, the surface tension that defines a dewdrop, they cause flame to rise and water to fall. However, lacking defined sizes and shapes, these beings are generally not recognized as life forms, though they may assume whatever forms are presented by popular imagination. Men fairy folk or leprechauns have occasionally been seen by perfectly rational people, their appearance and the attire they wear are due to mental images created by folktales and custom which may be so strong, especially in certain localities, that a sensitive nature, combining hearsay with its own impressions, may perceive them in that way. The image-making faculty is a very real force.
The dwarfs are said to follow in Dvalin's train because the lower kingdoms receive the impulse to growth from Dvalin (the entranced — the human soul which has not yet become awake to its potential). Pictured as Ask and Embla (ash and alder), miniatures of the world tree, Yggdrasil, the human race was still in a vegetating condition, sans thought, sans mind, and growing only as the plants do without consciousness of self, until "the gods looked back and saw their plight." The planet was then still in process of being fashioned by the children of Ivalde, the giant period whose lifetime was our moon.
The dwarfs in Dvalin's train which are named in Voluspa include such descriptive appellations as Discovery, Doubt, Will, Passion, Failure, Speed, Antlered, and many more. Some names are obscure, others are clearly characteristics of certain plants and animals, "up to Lofar, the handed."
Humanity, whose plight roused the compassion of the gods, became endowed by them with the deities' own qualities, making the human being an asmegir (godmaker), a potential god, in a threefold combination: a dwarf, kin of Dvalin, is his animal nature; in his human self he is an elf, a channel or soul, which links his dwarf nature with the gods; and the spiritual soul is his hamingja, kin of the Norns, his guardian and mentor which never leaves him, unless man himself by persistent unremitting evil severs his link with divinity, forcing the hamingja to abandon her charge.
A more comprehensive classification comes to light as we note that man comprises the gifts of the three creative Aesir, being compounded of their nature: "From one such train [of evolving kingdoms of lives] drew forth in the hall three Aesir, powerful, compassionate. They found on the earth the ash and the alder, of little power, indeterminate. Odin gave them spirit, Honer discernment, Lodur gave them blood and divine light" (Voluspa 17, 18). This makes the human a composite being. In Viktor Rydberg's penetrating analysis, the lowest elements were already combined in the ash and the alder before the advent of the creative gods, whose "gifts" completed man as an asmegir, a godmaker — an ase in the making — who shares in the divine attributes that endow the universe with form, powers, and organization. On every level a human being is an intrinsic part of the agencies that vitalize the universe. The same idea is found in Genesis: divine essences of universal life breathe into man their own breath and create a human image of themselves, which possesses in latency all that the universal life contains.
The mortal frame may be described as threefold: first, the body, composed of the elements of the earth; second is the formative model which causes any organism to retain its shape throughout life; third is the vegetative growth force in all creatures, the physical vitality or magnetic field. These three ingredients were already present in the ash and alder. To these physical portions the gods add their own properties: Lodur contributes la and laeti, literally blood and distinctiveness: blood in the sense of bloodline, hereditary genetic traits, while distinctiveness is evidently what in Sanskrit literature is termed svabhava, self-becoming: the peculiar combination and proportion of qualities that give each entity its uniqueness. These two related gifts constitute the divine light or image furnished by Lodur which, together with the gift of Honer, odr, mind or latent intelligence, compose the human elf nature. This, when kindled by a divine power, becomes an asmegir, a god-to-be. (Cf. The Lay of Rig, chapter 18) The highest gift is that of Odin, who endows the humans with his own spiritual essence.
Several unsuccessful attempts had previously been made to people the earth with viable human forms. The Edda describes the mud giant Mockerkalfe who had to be destroyed and superseded. The story is told in the Younger Edda and relates Thor's battle with the giant Rungner:
Rungner was regaled in Asgard with ale served in the goblets Thor was wont to drink from, and he drained them all, but he became very drunk and began to boast how he meant to carry off Valhalla to Gianthome, flood Asgard and slay all the deities save Freya and Sif, whom he would take with him. As he ranted on, Freya continued to ply him with drink. At length, the gods, weary of his boasting, spoke Thor's name, which instantly brought the Thunderer into the hall with his hammer held high. Thor demanded to know by whose leave Rungner was being entertained in Asgard and served by Freya as befits only the gods. The giant claimed to be there at Odin's invitation, which Thor swore he should soon regret having accepted. One word led to another. At last, Thor and Rungner arranged to meet in combat on the border between Asgard and Gianthome, and Rungner hastened home to arm himself for the fray.
The whole giant world was alarmed at the forthcoming battle, for they feared evil consequences no matter who should be victorious. So they created a giant of mud nine cubits tall which they named Mockerkalfe. However, they could find no heart large enough to animate the effigy so they gave it the heart of a mare. "But," says the tale in Snorri's Edda, "Rungner's heart is, of course, of stone and it has three corners." His head is likewise of stone and he bears a stone shield and a stone axe.
Accompanied by Mockerkalfe (also named Leirbrimer — muddy water), Rungner awaited the coming of Thor but, seeing the Ase approaching, the mud giant was in such a panic that "he lost his water." Thor's companion, Tjalfe, ran swiftly to Rungner and told him: "You are foolish, holding your shield before you. Thor has seen you and will attack from beneath." So Rungner stood on his shield, wielding his axe with both hands. With flashes of flame and loud thunders, Thor came toward him. At the very same instant Thor hurled his hammer and Rungner his axe, so the weapons clashed in midair and the axe broke in pieces; one half scattered over the earth, becoming lodestones; the other half hit Thor in the head so that he fell forward on the ground. But Thor's hammer smashed Rungner's skull and, as the giant went down, his foot fell across Thor's throat.
Tjalfe meanwhile had easily bested the mud giant and now he tried to lift Rungner's foot from Thor's throat but he could not move it. All the Aesir came to help, but they too failed to raise the foot. At this point Thor's three-year-old son, Magne, arrived. His mother was the giantess Jarnsaxa (iron shears). Magne lightly tossed the giant's foot aside, apologizing for being late to the rescue, but Thor, proud of his son, "did not hold the delay against him." However, a piece of the stone axe still remained imbedded in Thor's head. The vala Groa (growth) attempted to remove it with magic chants; but as soon as Thor felt it becoming dislodged he set about rewarding her by telling her about his rescue of the former giant Orvandel (Orion) whom he had carried across the icicle waves in a basket. One toe, which stuck out of the basket, became frozen, so Thor broke it off and tossed it to the sky, where it can be seen shining to this day. We call it Sirius. Groa was so enchanted with the tale, however, that she forgot all her charms and the stone axe remains to this day imbedded in Thor's skull.
Like many tales from the Younger Edda, this one contains inklings of thought we may interpret in part, although the tale has probably undergone changes fitting it to Viking humor and character. The three-year-old hero and the iron age which bore him certainly have meaning, as well as the allusion to Sirius. In rough outline the mud giant has parallels in many traditions, such as the Adam of dust in Genesis 2:7. Mankind undoubtedly took millions of years to evolve a form which could survive as a thinking, responsible type of being. Nor did the awakening of mental capacity happen overnight, for this too must have been a very gradual development. The theosophic tradition allots to the awakening of mind several million years. According to the Stanzas of Dzyan the Sons of Mind (manasaputras), which aroused the thinking faculty in the human race, were unable to imbody in the earliest forms of humans, or even as late as in the early third humanity. These were, they said, "no fit vehicles for us." The curious little "mudheads" found in the Mexican countryside may also represent that phase of our development. Only gradually, as the vehicles became ready, were the third "root race" humans capable of receiving the stimulus of mind from those who had graduated from the human phase of evolution in a previous world cycle. The presently human race will, if successful in completing its evolution as sapient souls, in turn be due to enlighten and inspire those who are now "the dwarfs in Dvalin's train" — in some far-off future aeon on a new and reborn earth, successor to the globe we help comprise today.