THE FAIRY MYTHOLOGY
Von wilden getwergen han ich gehöret sagen
Si sin in holren bergen; unt daz si ze scherme tragen
Einez heizet tarnkappen, von wunderlicher art--
Swerz hat an sime libe, der sol vil wohl sin bewart
Vor slegen unt vor stichen.
NIBELUNGEN, LIED st. 342.
Of wild dwarfs I oft have heard men declare
They dwell In hollow mountains; and for defence they wear
A thing called a Tarn-cloke, of wonderful nature--
Who has It on his body will ever be secure
'Gainst cutting and 'gainst thrusting.
The religion of the ancient Germans, probably the same with that of
the Scandinavians, contained, like it, Alfs, Dwarfs, and Giants. The Alfs have
fallen from the popular creed1, but the Dwarfs still retain their former
dominion. Unlike those of the North, they have put off their heathen character,
and, with their human neighbours, have embraced a purer faith. With the creed
they seem to have adopted the spirit of their new religion also. In most of the
traditions respecting them we recognise benevolence as one of the principal traits
of their character.
The oldest monuments of German popular belief are the poems of the
Heldenbuch (Hero-book) and the spirit-stirring Nibelungen Lied2. In these
poems the Dwarfs are actors of importance.
In this last-named celebrated poem the Dwarf Albrich appears as the
guardian of the celebrated Hoard which Sifrit (Siegfried) won from the
The Dwarf is twice vanquished by the hero who gains his Tarn-kappe, or Mantle of
In the Heldenbuch we meet with the Dwarf-king Laurin, whose garden
Dietrich of Bern and his warriors broke into and laid waste. To repel the invader
the Dwarf appears in magnificent array: twenty-three stanzas are occupied with
the description of his banner, helmet, shield, and other accoutrements. A furious
combat ensues, in which the Dwarf has long the advantage, as his magic ring and
girdle endow him with the strength of twenty-four men, and his Hel Keplein4
(Tarnkappe) renders him invisible at pleasure. At length, by the advice of
Hildebrand, Dietrich strikes off the Dwarfs finger, breaks his girdle, and pulls
off his Hel Keplein, and thus succeeds in vanquishing his enemy. Laurin is
afterwards reconciled to the heroes, and prevails on them to enter the mountain
in which he dwelt, and partake of a banquet. Having them now in his power, he
treacherously makes them all his prisoners. His queen, however, Ditlaub's sister,
whom he had stolen away from under a linden, releases them: their liberation is
followed by a terrific engagement between them and Laurin, backed by a numerous
host of Dwarfs. Laurin is again overcome; he loses his queen; his hill is plundered
of its treasures, and himself led to Bern, and there reduced to the extremity of
earning his bread by becoming a buffoon.
In the poem named Hűrnen Sifrit5 the Dwarf Eugel6 renders
the hero good service in his combat with the enchanted Dragon who had carried off
the fair Chrimhild from Worms, and enclosed her in the Drachenstein. When
Sifrit is treacherously attacked by the Giant Kuperan, the ally of the
Dragon, the Dwarf flings his Nebelkappe over him to protect him.
But the most celebrated of Dwarfs is Elberich7, who aided the
emperor Otnit or Ortnit to gain the daughter of the Paynim Soldan of Syria.
Otnit ruled over Lombardy, and had subdued all the neighbouring nations.
His subjects wishing him to marry, he held a council to consider the affair. No
maiden mentioned was deemed noble enough to share his bed. At last his uncle Elias,
king of the "wild Russians," says:-
"I know of a maiden, noble and high-born,
Her no man yet hath wooed, his life who hath not lorn.
"She shineth like the roses and the gold ruddy,
She fair is in her person, thou must credit me;
She shines o'er other women, as bright roses do,
So fair a child was never; they say she good is too."
The monarch's imagination is inflamed, and, regardless of the
remonstrances of his council, he determines to brave all dangers, to sail with a
powerful army to Syria, where the maiden dwelt, and to win her or to die. He
regulates his kingdom, and says to his uncle:-
As soon as May appeareth, with her days so clear,
Then pray thou of thy friends all, their warriors to cheer,
To hold themselves all ready; go things as they may,
We will, with the birds' singing, sail o'er the sea away.
The queen now endeavours to dissuade her son, but finding her
efforts vain, resolves to aid him as far as she can. She gives him a ring, and
desires him to ride toward Rome till he comes to where a linden stands before a
hill, from which runs a brook, and there he will meet with an adventure. She
farther tells him to keep the ring uncovered, and the stone of it will direct him.
Obeying his directions, Otnit rides alone from his palace at Garda, continually looking
at his ring:
Unto a heath he came then, close by the Garda lake,
This child was Elberich, whom the ring rendered visible. After a
hard struggle, Otnit overcomes him. As a ransom, Elberich promises him a magnificent
suit of armour--
Where everywhere the flowers and clover out did break;
The birds were gaily singing, their notes did loudly ring,
He all the night had waked, he was weary with riding.
The sun over the mountains and through the welkin shone,
Then looked he full oft on the gold and on the stone;
Then saw he o'er the meadow, down trodden the green grass,
And a pathway narrow, where small feet used to pass.
Then followed he downwards, the rocky wall boldly,
Till he had found the fountain, and the green linden-tree,
And saw the heath wide spreading, and the linden branching high.
It had upon its boughs full many a guest worthy.
The birds were loudly singing, each other rivalling,
"I have the right way ridden," spake Otnit the king;
Then much his heart rejoiced, when he saw the linden spread;
He sprang down from his courser, he held him by the head.
And when the Lombarder had looked on the linden
He began to laugh loud; now list what he said then:
"There never yet from tree came so sweet breathing a wind."
Then saw he how an infant was laid beneath the lind,
Who had himself full firmly rolled in the grass;
Then little the Lombarder knew who he was:
He bore upon his body so rich and noble a dress,
No king's child upon earth e'er did the like possess.
His dress was rich adorned with gold and precious stone;
When he beneath the linden the child found all alone:
"Where now is thy mother?" king Otnit he cries;
"Thy body unprotected beneath this tree here lies."
"I'll give thee for my ransom the very best harnéss
Elberich persuades the king to lend him his ring; when he gets it he becomes
invisible, and amuses himself by telling him of the whipping he will get from
his mother for having lost it. At last when Otnit is on the point of going away,
Elberich returns the ring, and, to his no small surprise, informs him that he
is his father, promising him, at the same time, if he is kind to his mother, to
stand his friend, and assist him to gain the heathen maid.
That either young or old in the world doth possess.
"Full eighty thousand marks the harness is worth well,
A sword too I will give thee, with the shirt of mail,
That every corselet cuts through as if steel it were not;
There ne'er was helm so strong yet could injure it a jot.
"I ween in the whole world no better sword there be,
I brought it from a mountain is called Almari;
It is with gold adorned, and clearer is than glass;
I wrought it in a mountain is called Gűickelsass.
"The sword I will name to thee, it is bright of hue,
Whate'er thou with it strikest no gap will ensue,
It is Rossč called, I tell to thee its name;
Wherever swords are drawing it never will thee shame.
"With all the other harness I give thee leg armour,
In which there no ring is, my own hand wrought it sure;
And when thou hast the harness thou must it precious hold,
There's nothing false within it, it all is of pure gold.
"With all the armour rich I give thee a helmet,
Upon an emperor's head none a better e'er saw yet;
Full happy is the man who doth this helmet bear,
His head is recognised, a mile off though he were.
"And with the helmet bright I will give to thee a shield,
So strong and so good too, if to me thanks thou 'lt yield;
It never yet was cut through by any sword so keen,
No sort of weapon ever may that buckler win."
When May arrives Otnit sails from Messina with his troops. As they
approach Sunders, probably Saida, eg. Sidon] they are a little in dread of the
quantity of shipping they see in the port, and the king regrets and bewails having proceeded
without his dwarf-sire. But Elberich has, unseen, been sitting on the
mast. He appears, and gives his advice, accompanied by a stone, which, by being
put into the mouth, endows its possessor with the gift of all languages. On the
heathens coming alongside the vessel, Otnit assumes the character of a merchant,
and is admitted to enter the port. He forthwith proposes to murder the inhabitants
in the night, an act of treachery which is prevented by the strong and indignant
rebukes of the Dwarf.
Elberich sets off to Muntabur, [Mount Tabor] the royal residence, to
demand the princess. The Soldan, enraged at the insolence of the invisible envoy,
in vain orders his men to put him to death; the "little man" returns
unscathed to Otnit, and bids him prepare for war. By the aid of Elberich, Otnit
wins, after great slaughter on both sides, the city of Sunders. He then, under the
Dwarf's advice, follows up his conquest by marching for Muntabur, the capital.
Elberich, still invisible, except to the possessor of the ring, offers to act as guide.
"Give me now the horse here they lead by the hand,
The army, on seeing the horse and banner advancing as it were of
themselves, blessed themselves, and asked Otnit why he did not likewise.
And I will guide thine army unto the heathens' land;
If any one should ask thee, who on the horse doth ride?
Thou shalt say nothing else, but--an angel is thy guide."
"It is God's messenger!" Otnit then cried:
Thus encouraged, the troops cheerfully follow the invisible
standard-bearer, and soon appear before Muntabur, where Elberich delivers the banner
to king Elias, and directs them to encamp. He meanwhile enters the city, flings down
the artillery from the walls, and when the Soldan again refuses to give his daughter, plucks out
some of his majesty's
beard8 and hair, in the midst of his courtiers and guards, who in vain cut and thrust
at the viewless tormentor. A furious battle ensues. The queen and princess resort to prayers to
their gods Apollo and Mahomet for the safety of the Soldan, The princess is thus described:
"Who unto Muntabur will be our trusty guide;
Him ye should believe in, who like Christians debate,
Who in the fight them spare not, he leads to heaven straight"
Her mouth flamed like a rose, and like the ruby stone,
Elberich endeavours to persuade her to become a Christian, and espouse
Otnit; and to convince her of the incapacity of her gods, he tumbles their images
into the fosse. Overcome by his representations and her father's danger, the
princess, with her mother's consent, agrees to wed the monarch whom Elberich
points out to her in the battle, and she gives her ring to be conveyed to him.
The Dwarf unperceived, leads her out of the city, and delivers her to her future
husband, strictly forbidding all intercourse between them, previous to the
maiden's baptism.9 When the old heathen misses his daughter he orders out his troops
to recover her. Elberich hastens to king Elias, and brings up the Christians. A battle ensues: the
latter are victorious, and the princess is brought to Sunders;--ere they embark
Elberich and Elias baptise her, and ere they reached Messina. "the noble maiden
was a wife."
And equal to the full moon her lovely eyes they shone.
With roses she bedecked had well her head,
And with pearls precious,--no one comforted the maid:
She was of exact stature, slender in the waist,
And turned like a taper was her body chaste.
Her hands and her arms, you nought in them could blame,
Her nails they so clear were, people saw themselves in them;
And her hair ribbons were of silk costly,
Which she left down hanging, the maiden fair and free.
She set upon her head high a crown of gold red,--
Elberich the little, he grieved for the maid;--
In front of the crown lay a carbuncle stone,
That in the royal palace like a taper shone.
As yet not intimately acquainted with Christianity, the young
empress asks Otnit about his god, giving him to understand that she
knew his deity, who had come to her father's to demand her for him.
Otnit corrects her mistake, telling her that the envoy was Elberich,
whom she then desires to see. At the request of Otnit the Dwarf
reveals himself to the queen and court.
Long time he refused,--he showed him then a stone,
That like unto the sun, with the gold shone;
Ruby and -carbuncle was the crown so rich,
Which upon his head bare the little Elberich.
The Dwarf let the people all see him then,
They began to look upon him, both women and men;
Many a fair woman with rosy mouth then said,
"I ween a fairer person no eye imth e'er survey'd."
* * * *
Then Elberich the little a harp laid hold upon;
After giving Otnit abundance of riches, and counselling him to remunerate those who
had lost their relatives in his expedition, Elberich takes leave of the king. He then vanishes,
and appears no more.
Full rapidly he touched the strings every one
In so sweet a measure that the hall did resound;
All that him beheld then, they felt a joy profound.
Otnit is the most pleasing poem in the Heldenbuch. Nothing can he more amiable than
the character of the Dwarf, who is evidently the model of Oberon. We say this, because the probability
is much greater that a French writer should have taken a Dwarf from a German poet, than that the
reverse should have occurred. The connexion between the two works appears indubitable.
An attempt has already been made to trace the origin of Dwarfs, and the historical
theory respecting those of the North rejected. A similar theory has been given of those of Germany,
as being a people subdued between the fifth and tenth centuries by a nation of greater power and size.
The vanquished fled to the mountains, and concealed themselves in caverns, only occasionally venturing
to appear; and hence, according to this theory, the origin of Dwarf stories. As we regard them as an
integrant part of Gotho-German religion, we must reject this hypothesis in the case of Germany also.
Beside the Dwarfs, we meet in the Nibelungen Lied with beings answering to the Nixes or
Water-spirits. When10 the Burgundians on their fatal journey to the court of Ezel (Attila)
reached the banks of the Danube, they found that it could not be crossed without the aid of boats.
Hagene then proceeded along the bank in search of a ferry. Suddenly he heard a plashing in the water,
and on lookmg more closely he saw some females who were bathing. He tried to steal on them, but
they escaped him and went hovering over the river. He succeeded, however, in securing their clothes,
and in exchange for them the females, who were Watermaids (Merewiper) promised to tell him
the result of the visit to the court of the Hunnish monarch. One of them then named Hadeburch assured
him of a prosperous issue, on which he restored the garments. But then another, named Sigelint told
him that Hadeburch had lied for the sake of the clothes; for that in reality the event of the visit
would be most disastrous, as only one of the party would return alive. She also informed him where
the ferry was, and told him how they might outwit the ferryman and get over.
We cannot refrain from suspecting that in the original legend these were Valkyrias and
not Water-nymphs, for these last would hardly strip to go into the water, their native element. In
the prose introduction to the Eddaic poem of Völundr we are told that he and his two elder brothers
went to Wolfdale and built themselves a house by the water named Wolfsea or lake, and one morning
early they found on the shore of the lake three women who were spinning flax: beside them were lying
their swan-dresses. They were "Valkyrias, and king's daughters." The three brothers
took them home and made them their wives, but after seven years they flew away and returned no more.
It is remarkable, that in the poem there is not the slightest allusion to the swan-dresses, though
it relates the coming and the departure of the maidens. We are then to suppose either that there were
other poems on the subject, or that these dresses were so well known a vehicle that it was deemed
needless to mention them. We are to suppose also that it was by securing these dresses that the
brothers prevented the departure of the maidens, and that it was by recovering them that they were
enabled to effect their escape. In effect in the German legend of Wielant (Völundr), the hero sees
three doves flying to a spring, and as soon as they touch the ground. they become maidens. He
then secures their clothes, and will not return them till one of them consents to become his
This legend resembles the tale of the Stolen Veil in Musaeus, and those of the
and the Mermaid-wife related above.12 In the Breton tale of
Bisclavaret, or the Warwolf,
we learn that no one who became a wolf could resume his human form, unless he could recover the
clothes which he had put off previous to undergoing the transformation13.
Our readers may like to see how the preface to the old editions of the Heldenbuch
accounts for the origin of the Dwarfs.
"God," says it," gave the Dwarfs being, because the land and the
mountains were altogether waste and uncultivated, and there was much store of silver and gold, and
precious stones and pearls still in the mountains. Wherefore God made the Dwarfs very artful and
wise, that they might know good and evil right well, and, for what everything was good. They knew
also for what stones were good. Some stones give great strength; some make those who carry them
about them invisible, that is called a mist-cloke (nebelkap); and therefore did God give
the Dwarfs skill and wisdom. Therefore they built handsome hollow bills, and God gave them
"God created the Giants, that they might kill the wild beasts, and the great
dragons (wűrm), that the Dwarfs might thereby be more secure. But in a few years the
Giants would too much oppress the Dwarfs, and the Giants became altogether wicked and, faithless.
"God then created the Heroes; 'and be it known that the Heroes were for many years
right true and worthy, and they then came to the aid of the Dwarfs against the faithless Giants;
'--God made them strong, and their thoughts were of manhood, according to honour, and of combats and
We will divide the objects of German popular belief at the present day, into four classes:
--l. Dwarfs; 2. Wild-women; 3. Kobolds; 4. Nixes.
1. The only remnant is Alp, the nightmare; the elfon
of modern writers is merely an adoption of the English elves.
2. The edition of this poem which we have used, is that by Shönhuth, Leipzig, 1841.
3. Tarn from taren, to dare, says Dobenek, because it gave courage along with invisibility.
It comes more probably we think from the old German ternen, to hide. Kappe is properly a
cloak, though the Tarnkappe or Nebelkappe Is generally represented as a cap, or hat.
4. From hehlen, to conceal.
5. Horny Siegfred; for when he slew the dragon, he bathed himself in his blood, and became
horny and invulnerable everywhere except in one spot between his shoulders, where a linden leaf
stuck. In the Nibelungen Lied, (st. 100), Hagene says,
Yet still more know I of him--this to me is certain,
6. MM. Grimm thought at one time that this name was properly Engel, and that it was connected with
the changes of Alp, Alf, to Engel (see above). They query at what time the dim. Engelein
first came into use, and when the angels were first represented under the form of children--a
practice evidently derived from the idea of the Elves. In Otfried and other writers of the ninth and
tenth centuries, they say, the angels are depicted as young men; but in the latter half of the
thirteenth, a popular preacher named Berthold, says: Ir sehet wol daz si allesamt sint
juncliche gemälet; als ein kint daz dá vűnf jár alt ist swá man sie
A terrible Lind-dragon the herds hand hath slain;
He in the blood him bathed, and horny grew his skin;
Hence woundeth him no weapon, full oft it hath been seen.
7. Elberich, (the Albrich of the Nibelungen Lied,) as we have said (above), is Oberon. From the
usual change of l into u (as al, au, col, cou, etc.), in the French language,
Elberich or Albrich (derived from Alp, Alf) becomes Auberich; and ich not being a French
termination, the diminutive on was substituted, and so it became Auberon, or Oberon; a much
more likely origin than the usual one from L'aube dujour. For this derivation of Oberon
we are indebted to Dr. Grimm.
8. This may have suggested the well-known circumstance in Huon de Bordeaux.
9. So Oberon in Huon de Bordeaux.
10. Str. 1564,seq
11. Grimm, Deut. Mythol., p. 398, seq.
12. See above; below, Ireland; and Grimm, ut sup. p. 1216. The swan-dresses also occur
in the Arabian tales of Jahanshah and Hassan of Bassora in Trebutien's Arabian Nights.
13. Poésies de Marie de France, i. 177, seq.