Did Norse dwarves influence anti-Semitic stereotypes?

I have a side project which is a saga (and Dickens and Tolkien) influenced fantasy novel set in a country loosely based on Iceland and Norway in the Middle Ages with some 19th century elements ie. industrialisation. The protagonist of this story is a half-“troll” boy raised by a Faginesque dwarf-- named after Thorin Oakenshield (although I spell it as Thórinn to make it closer to the Icelandic original, Þórinn) and called the “King of Fences” in reference to the Tolkien character who was King Under The Mountain- in the slums who’s also a talented cutpurse. The dwarf takes in homeless kids and makes them pick a pocket or two to earn their keep.

When I was thinking it up it occurred to me how easy it is to create a dwarven character with Fagin’s traits (plus I haven’t seen many stories or RPG scenarios
-a lot of my friends play RPGs- with dwarvish criminals (although there are probably some out there.) The fantasy/mythological dwarf has many traits in common with an anti-Semitic caricature; huge hooked nose, ugliness, obsession with *gold gold gold, * cowardice greediness and miserliness. Of course Wagner’s dwarves are caricatures.

I’ve come across references to a theory that dwarves in folklore are based on anti-Semitic/anti-Jewish ideas and so that , but that sounds very off to me. First of all, AFAIK there was only a Jewish community in Denmark, Norway and Iceland (where most Norse mythology was preserved) during the 17th century (Sweden had one slightly earlier, according to Wikipedia.)

Norse myths involving dwarves were originally recorded in 13th century manuscripts and told in the 9th century. I think it’s more likely that anti-Semitic caricatures come from dwarves rather than the other way round.

Has anyone heard “mythological dwarves come from anti-Semitic stereotypes” before?

I’ve never heard of it, and I don’t think it fits unless Wagner’s and Tolkien’s dwarves are substantially different from the standard issue dwarf of more recent fantasy settings. Dwarves are gruff, are industrious and highly skilled craftsmen, and love booze; that doesn’t sound like any anti-Semitic stereotypes I’ve heard.

I think it’s the other way around. Tolkien, rather cleverly, wove antisemitic stereotypes into the depiction of his dwarves. He toned down the aspects of hatred, but capitalized on the stereotypes as dramatic themes and tropes.

He was brilliant at taking ideas and weaving them together.

The fall of Numenor, for instance, partakes very nicely of the Atlantis myth, even to the punnish aspect of the word “Lante” or “Lanta” meaning Fall. This web site explains it nicely, but here’s the punch-line:

Yeah, but he didn’t *invent * the concept of the greedy, gold-obsessed, miserly, hook-nosed dwarf with a hoard of treasure. In the Sigurd stories there’s a shapeshifting dwarf named Andvari with a gigantic hoard kept in an underwater cave.

That’s the part I wasn’t sure enough about to say. I don’t know how much Alberich, for instance, from Wagner, partook of such stereotypes. You mention Andvari, and I don’t know much about him at all.

I guess Tolkien may have taken the ideas that were floating around, and regularized them, systematized them. He was very good at taking lots of disparate ideas and weaving them together, usually most elegantly.

EDIT to that last post: What I was getting at is that basically stories about treasure-guarding/hoarding mythical creatures are common. So is (or was) the anti-Semitic stereotype that Jews hoard treasure.

Is it possible that those folk tales influenced the stereotypes?

It doesn’t seem particularly likely to me. The “greedy Jew” stereotype was hardly limited to Scandinavia, medieval people outside Scandinavia probably didn’t know much about Scandinavian folk tales, and even if they did then unless one already thinks of Jewish people as being obsessed with gold and jewels there wouldn’t seem to be any particular reason to associate them with Scandinavian dwarfs.

The anti-Semitic stereotype of the “greedy Jew” seems to be largely based on the fact that Jewish people did often work as moneylenders and debt collectors. I’ll quote here from the Wikipedia article on usury:

In case this wasn’t clear, I did want to add that I don’t think this stereotype was fair or accurate. It probably would have been better to say that it was largely based on the fact that Jewish people were an already unpopular minority group who also often worked as moneylenders and debt collectors.

A point which occurred to me: One interesting thing is that there’s a controversy over whether the goblins in Harry Potter are an anti-Semitic stereotype. People who believe they are call attention to the stereotypical traits I mentioned in my OP. I happen to think that the HP goblins are based more on gnomes.

Fantasy gnomes seem more like a Jewish stereotype than fantasy dwarves. E.g. the latter mine in the mountains, the former stay at home and tinker.

Yes. This. That said, there are similarities between dwarves and gnomes.

On the subject of anti-semitism in medieval Iceland/Norse mythology, I came across a very interesting paper based on the idea that Snorri used anti-Jewish images to make it clear Loki was a villain in his Prose Edda.

I’d like to see a cite for this.

As a Scandinavian, growing up with Snorre Sturluson’s sagas and Norse mythology - both the higher depicted in the two Eddas (the elder and the younger AKA Snorre-Edda) and the lower found in folklore - this is the first time I’ve heard anyone claiming anti-semitism in Norse mythology. It’d be really interesting to know the nationality and cultural background of that paper’s author.

It should be noted that Tolkien appears to have harbored little if any antisemitic feeling. In response to a request from a German publisher for proof of his Aryan decent, Tolkien replied, in part:

I’m 99% sure that Morwen had Richard Cole’s Snorri and the Jews in mind, available for download over at Academia.edu.


I don’t see how that’s relevant, but maybe it’s just me…

I did notice that Cole also has another paper out called Massed Bodies and the Yearning for Holocaust in Medieval Scandinavia. Sounds, uh, very interesting indeed - but alas, that one couldn’t readily be downloaded.

Yes, that’s it.

I think he’s American.

That said, IMO it’s not implausible that Snorri was aware of anti-Semitic tropes or may have been anti-Semitic himself.* As you know, anti-Semitism was a significant part of medieval Christianity (see the ballad “Little Sir Hugh” and the various blood libel/well poisoning accusations.) In medieval Iceland there were various references to the Gydingar (Jews’) supposed ingratitude in rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. In one of the fantasy novels I’m working on, Dwarves serve as a sort of fantasy analogue to Jewish people, with the same stereotypes being applied (greedy, poison wells, drink blood from children of other races)
BTW, where in Scandinavia are you from, if it’s not too personal?

Of course this doesn’t mean that I’m saying Snorri was definitely anti-Semitic.

Apologies for quoting myself here but just adding my own opinion on this. The Grimms’ tale “Rumplestiltskin” has also been claimed to be anti-Semitic based on the fact that the title character is a goblin with a strange name who can spin straw into gold and wants a human child for never-stated reasons, which leads a lot of people to claim that Rumplestiltskin wants to eat the child. However supernatural beings with unusual names and associations with gold and who want human children are common even in places where there isn’t any knowledge of Judaism.

I don’t know what to think about this. TBH it’s more likely the base of this type of portrayal is mythic but in some cases it could be informed by anti-Semitism which can be present even if there’s no Jewish community someplace (Early Icelanders’ only knowledge of Judaism came from the Old Testament of the Christian Bible).

More on medieval anti-Semitism- Text of “Sir Hugh, or The Jew’s Daughter”.

On Alberich and Mime: It’s actually quite a common opinion that these two characters do play into anti-Semitic stereotypes due to Wagner’s overt anti-Semitism.