A dwarf is a small humanoid that dwells in mountains and in the earth, and is variously associated with wisdom, smithing, mining, and crafting. Dwarfs are often also described as short and ugly, although some scholars have questioned whether this is a later development stemming from comical portrayals of the beings.
Dwarfs were of various types, all of small stature, some being no more than 18 inches (45 cm) high and others about the height of a two-year-old child. In appearance they were sometimes beautiful, but more usually they resembled grave old men with long beards and, in some cases, humped backs.
The mountain dwarfs were organized in kingdoms or tribes, with their own kings, chieftains, and armies. They lived in subterranean halls, believed to be full of gold and precious stones. They were principally famous for their skill in all kinds of metalwork and the forging of magical swords and rings, but they were also credited with profound wisdom and secret knowledge, having power to foresee the future, assume other forms, and make themselves invisible.
Many legends show dwarfs as kindly beings, generous to those who pleased them but vengeful when offended. The Swiss dwarfs, or “earth-men,” sometimes helped in agricultural work, found straying animals, and put out firewood or fruit for poor children to find. In Scandinavia and Germany also they were friendly to men, but occasionally they stole corn, teased cattle, and abducted children and young girls.
Services rendered to them were often repaid by gifts of gold from their hoards; but those who stole their treasures either met with great misfortune thereafter or found the gold turned to dead leaves when they reached home.