In 2015, a small lead plaque was unearthed near Fakenham in Norfolk in the east of England dating to the Early Medieval Period with a small hole in one corner. What’s more is that it bears a runic inscription that is generally accepted to read in Anglo-Saxon runes as “ᛞᛠᛞᛁᛋᛞᚹᛖᚱᚷ”, or in Latin script as “deadisdwerg”. Translated from Old English, this would be, rather bluntly, “dead is dwarf” or “[the] dwarf is dead”.[2:36]
Now when we tend to think of dwarfs, we tend to conjure up images of small men inhabiting mountains and working with a hammer and anvil. Now there is no doubt that these ideas do to some extent have roots in traditional knowledge but none of this would really tie in with why anyone would want to inform you that one has perished, not to mention the lack of stones and hills in the east of England where it might have been living. It is important for us to try our best to do away with any single “true” or "original" idea about what it is to be a dwarf. Indeed, dwarfs are characterised by a great diversity both in behaviour and appearance. It is in this diversity that we find a dwarfish trait that has yet to come forth into modern popular culture and fantasy - their role as bringers of sickness.
The Dictionary of Old English splits the definition of “dweorg” into either a “dwarf or pygmy” or “a fever”; as often seems to be the case, however, this attempt to desire to create sharply delineated categories may be our undoing when we try and understand how these beings were perceived by your average Englander or Scandinavian in the Early Medieval Period.
To help explore how a dwarf and an illness were not necessarily conceived of as distinct, let us first turn to the three remedies recorded in the Lacnunga collection that seek to deal with dwarfs that are up to no good, referred to as the Ƿið Dƿeorh charms.[Note A] The first two, LXXXVIIc and LXXXVIIIc, are relatively simple, involving steps such as the writing of crosses and a series of Greek and Latin letters along the ill person's arms, and invoking the names of saints.[2:38]
XCIIIb is a much more detailed set of instructions to banish the harmful dwarf that involves taking communion wafers and writing upon them the names of the Seven Sleepers, figures from Medieval Christian legend. This is then followed by a galder, a typically magical song or chant, that goes as follows:
Here came an inspiden wight.
He had his harness in his hand; said that you were his steed.
Laid his reins upon your neck; they began then to depart from the land.
As soon as they had come from the land then his [limbs] began to cool.
Then there came to enter the sister of the beast.
Then she made an end of it, and swore oaths,
that never should this thing [afflict] the patient,
or the one who was able to obtain this galder
or who knows how to chant this galder.
It has been noted that some aspects of the galder as it is recorded seem a little odd – alliteration in the original Old English is missing in parts where it is to be expected and the word “inspiden” would have had no clear meaning at the time of the manuscript’s production. All of this together suggests that what we are looking at was already old at the time of its recording, giving time for these oddities to crop up over the course of time and oral transmission.[2:39] It is also interesting to note that the idea we see in the galder of a wight putting a harness on a human or animal and riding them into exhaustion or sickness is also seen in the modern folklore of the Germanic-speaking peoples.[1:207]
It seems that this folkloric foundation of the dwarf as the bringer of sickness was so established that the term “dweorg” became used as a gloss for symptoms such as fevers in Greek- and Latin-derived medical texts that arrived in England from Southern Europe.[2:40] In the Ƿið Dƿeorh galder, however, the dwarf very much has agency. He can swear oaths and understands what he is doing to you. There is also no functional distinction between him and the illness – he brings the harmful symptoms and recovery can only be achieved upon his dismissal.
Across the water
The conceptual blending of the illness and its dwarfen cause is again seen in the Ribe skull fragment - an inscribed piece of a human cranium dating to the 8th century CE, found in Ribe on the west coast of Jutland that closely resembles the plaque found near Fakenham. The inscription it bears is more complicated than that found in England, using a transitional writing style between Elder Futhark and Younger Futhark that uses runes from both groups. It has been interpreted in a number of ways but based on new microscopy data, a potential reading has been suggested by Jackie Nordström as follows:
ᚢᛚᚠᚢᛦ ᚼᚢᚴ ᚢᚦᛁᚾ ᚼᚢᚴ ᚺᚢᛏᛁᚢᛦ ᚺᛁᚼᛚᛒ ᛒᚢᚱᛁᚾ ᛋ ᚢᛁᚦᛦ ᚢᚼᛁᛗ ᛏᚢᛁᚼᚱᚴᛁ ᚼᚢᚴ ᛏᚢᛁᚱᚴᚢᚾᛁᚢ ᛒᚢᚢᚱ
By this reading, we see the carver calling upon three beings, including Odin, to aid against a pair of dwarfs. It is not overly clear who the other two figures are though. Tyr, somewhat confusingly to people who aren’t aware, is not only the name of the well-known one-handed god, but a term that can mean a god more generally. Odin, for example, is referred to as Sigtýr (‘God of victory’) and Fimbultýr (‘Mighty god’). It has even been proposed that all three names refer to Odin, given another of his many names being Hildólfr (‘Battle wolf’) and his knowledge of a song or poem (Old Norse: ‘ljóð’) against sickness according to Hávamál.[3:7]
It is generally agreed that the gods are being asked to help against ill health that the dwarfs are causing, similar to how Jesus and Mary are called upon for help on the Solberg foil.[2:11] Indeed, this idea of charms for seeking help from the supernatural against harmful beings bringing sickness and misfortune is widespread and ancient, dating at least as far back as ancient Mesopotamian religion.[4:109] It is also interesting to note that just like in the third Ƿið Dƿeorh charm, the male dwarf is accompanied by a female, the significance of which, if indeed there is any, is yet to be understood.[3:21]
Sharing and blending
What is being uncovered here seems to be a common North Sea Germanic tradition, seen between the sibling cultures in Jutland and England, and in all likelihood further afield too. It’s worth keeping in mind that, not only did Jutes migrate in large numbers into Britain during the Anglo-Saxon settlement only a few hundred years before the Ribe skull fragment was inscribed, but also that ideas would ride on the ships that were a part of the well-established trade networks of the time. Runic objects aiming to heal sick people by ridding them of harmful dwarfs are accompanied by the Old English Ƿið Dƿeorh charms with the same aim. The galder recorded also does make one wonder whether the runic charms we have were only one part of a larger healing process that also incorporated features such as singing magical verses. This seems especially likely in the case of the lead plaque given how brief the surviving inscription is. Christian elements feature prominently in the written down charms but yet it is important to note how seamlessly it traverses the boundary between religions that we so often mistakenly conceive of as a wall, thriving in the folk practices of the Germanic peoples. A syncretic blurring and blending of belief systems can be seen, in which Germanic beings are driven off by Christian-influenced magic in a way that may have seemed problematic to some of the clergy at the time and even some Christians today but is very in keeping with ways Christianity has been and still is practised in many parts of the world. What's more, this seemingly wasn’t seen as sufficiently “heathen” to prevent it from being written down and preserved.
Typically during Christianisation, we see that religious institutions and certain practices held to be incompatible with the incoming religion, such as worship of cult images, are targeted by the church but the rest is allowed to live on in some form or another and in this latter group it seems that we find the dwarfs hiding. We even see the term dvergskot (“dwarf-shot”) being used in Norway in the modern period to refer to an animal disease, which is part of an ancient and shared tradition seen throughout north-western Europe in which diseases are attributed to the weapons of hidden folk.[5:86] It seems that to the people in the Early Medieval period using these charms, whether dwarfs were causing problems was not in question, only to whom you should turn to get rid of them – gods, saints or, if all that fails, their sisters.
Original post written for the North West Heathens blog and shared by AUK with permission
A. The letter here (ƿ) if you aren't familiar with it is known as a "wynn" and was used in Old English writings before the adoption of "w" and the two letters represent the same sound, with "ƿ" originating in the runes. The other letter originating in runes is the þ ("thorn"), representing the "th" sound in "thought", in contrast to the ð ("eth") which represents the "th" sound in "although". The use of the letter here isn't overly consistent as, while I think it's good for people to be aware of as a letter and be able to read it, it is sometimes swapped out completely by some scholars in favour of "w". I have typically followed the precedent set by the cited source in determining which letter to use.
B. Translation by Hines with the alterations of wiht translated as 'wight' rather than 'creature' and 'galdor' translated as 'galder' rather than 'spell'. Original text as follows:
Her com ingangan inspiden wiht.
Hæfde him his haman on handa; cwæð þæt þu his hæncgest wære.
Leg[d]e þe his teage [o]n sweoran; ongunnan him of þæm lande liþan.
Sona swa hy of þæm lande coman þa ongunnan him þa [leomu] colian.
Þa com ingangan deores sweostar.
Þa geændode heo ⁊ aðas swor
ðæt næfre þis ðæm adlegan [egl]ian ne moste Her com ingangan inspiden wiht.
ne þæm þe þis galdor begytan mihte
oððe þe þis galdor ongalan cuðe.
C. Translated into English by the author from Swedish. Nordström's original text as follows:
Ulv och Oden och Högtyr hjälp buren är den dvärg och dvärgynja Bour
1. Hall, Alaric (2009). ""Þur sarriþu þursa trutin": Monster-Fighting and Medicine in Early Medieval Scandinavia". Asclepio. 61 (1): 195–218.
2. Hines, John (2019). "Anglo-Saxon Micro-Texts - Practical Runic Literacy in the Late Anglo-Saxon Period: Inscriptions on Lead Sheet". Anglia Book Series. 63 (1): 29–59.
3. Nordström, Jackie (2021). "Dvärgen på Ribekraniet". Arkiv for Nordisk Filologi (in Swedish). 136: 5–24.
4. Maiden, Brett (2018). "Counterintuitive Demons: Pazuzu and Lamaštu in Iconography, Text, and Cognition". Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions. 18 (1): 86–110. ISSN1569-2116.
5. Simek, Rudolf (2008). A Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Hall, Angela. BOYE6. ISBN 9780859915137.