The Dwarf

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


Oh Son of Virochana! This dwarf is no other than the eternal divine Lord Vishnu, who is born of Kashyapa and Aditi, with the object of accomplishing the will of the gods.

Bhagavata Purana

  Weaving richly embellished tales into a tapestry abounding with gods, giants, heroes and dwarfs, the old Norse Eddas trace back to events occurring before the creation of the cosmos. In the boundlessness of space they describe how, on opposite sides, there arose fire and ice. Between them was a great emptiness, a void in which huge clouds of vapour billowed out from the ice, called forth by the warming flickering of the fiery realm. The clouds churned and thickened as flame and ice merged more closely, producing heavy droplets that reflected light around them. Swelling in response to a growing heat of life within, the crystalline drops of melting ice joined together to form a rudimentary shape of gigantic proportions whom the ancients identified as Ymir. Exhausted by his titanic struggle into manifestation, Ymir slept. From the sweat that gathered in the hollows of his colossal armpits, a giant man and woman were formed who quickly spawned a race of their kind. These were the frost giants of chaos, who ruled the void before the world was ordered.

  While they multiplied, an enormous cow took shape out of the melt-water of the ice. From her udder flowed their nourishment, while she took sustenance from the ice itself. As she steadily licked its frozen surface with her tongue, she uncovered the beauteous figure of an entombed god who sprang to life with his first breath of the warm air. From his single being he bore a race of gods who grew in vitality and power and came to feel themselves the rightful masters of the anticipating world around them. En masse they fell upon Ymir's vastness, bit into his flesh and tore away his arteries, releasing a gushing tide of blood which drowned almost all his kind even as he himself died. Thus, the old Norse said, from the parts of Ymir's body was fashioned the world over which the gods would reign. Within its soil, life began to quicken; squirming movement like that of earthworms working through rich loam began to show itself. It bubbled and seethed across the fallen carcass of the future world, until it erupted in a vast army of dwarfs, children of the earth, who would be endowed by the gods with wit and speech and a physical form that was a squat parody of their own. Four of these the gods set at the corners of the world that they might support the sky for as long as creation endured. The rest they left to the clefts and grottos of the earth.

  Those who remained in the hidden places of the world were earth-coloured and shunned the daylight, which could turn them to stone. They moved through underground passes with as much ease as a fish moves through water or a bird flies through the air. The earth was their element and they understood intimately its structure and possible transformations. Like their four brethren who upheld the sky, they too in their fashion were agents and upholders of order. Being first in the world, their appearance ushered in its manifest possibility and they closely associated themselves with the material out of which it would take its shape. Thus, many races of dwarfs were known for their marvellous powers of metallurgy. They could fashion the sharpest, most exquisite, most magically potent tools and weapons for which later human mortals would pay dearly. One writer, comparing the dwarf and the giant, aligned the former with the arts and quoted Jonathan Swift, who noted that "they [the Lilliputians] see with exactness but not at a great distance". This is interesting when viewed in the light of Carl Jung's assertion that dwarfs stand as guardians of the threshold separating the unconscious realm (chaotic void of Ymir) from the conscious. In their artistic powers they act as agents of a vast and powerful order coming into being. But they are not consciously aware of exactly what its source is, nor do they seem to be able to sustain control over its manifestations.

  Possessing wit and speech and magical skills, the dwarf yet remains just outside or at the doorway of consciousness. Symbolized by his hidden life within the earth and his shunning of daylight, the dwarfs existence embodies mischievous, childlike and amoral forces which become tempered and sometimes exaggerated in his dealings with humans. But he is a guardian and a protector as well. In the archetypally meaningful story of Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs immediately took it upon themselves to guard their lovely house-guest night and day when she fell into the swoon induced by the wicked queen. Even so, to most mortals, dwarfs are a race apart, a 'second' race now seldom seen. In earlier times they had mingled with heroic mortals as equals, and earlier still, before the coming of humans, they had known unequalled power and glory. Slowly they became a race in decline. Old as the rocks, they still possessed the mundane knowledge and power of the earth's mysteries, but before mankind's heavy-footed march they began a retreat.

  A retreat, yes, but they did not remain entirely unseen, at least if one is to give due recognition to the stories about dwarfs passed down for millennia among almost every group of people that has lived on this globe. From The Secret Doctrine one can learn that the old Turanian races were typified by dwarfs and that there were Atlantean dwarfs as well. The ancients of the Mediterranean world identified pygmies as descended from Pygmaeus, a son of Dorus who founded a race believed to live in India where, it was thought, they lived under the earth on the east bank of the Ganges. Others wrote of the Pechinians of Ethiopia who sustained an annual attack by Scythian cranes who eventually exterminated the tiny militia. The word 'pygmy' describes a fist and was recognized by the ancients as an increment of measure (from fist to elbow). The term 'dwarf' comes from the Old Norse dvergr, while Viruli, Virunculi and Montani find their etymological roots in Eastern Europe. The Germans passed down tales about Erdleute and Stillevolk, the Britons of goblins, knockers and leprechauns, and the Scandinavians added to their family of dwarfs, trolls, bergfolk and huldrefolk. Russians, Africans and Asians all have names in their folklore for dwarfs who, not content with populating every continent, followed the Polynesians out onto the many islands they made home and became known as Menehune, Patupaiarehe, Chokalai, Malavui, Luveniwai and Ponape, to name a few.

High in the midst the chieftain-dwarf was seen,
Of giant stature and imperial mien;
Full twenty inches tall, he strode along.

James Beattie

  It is interesting to wonder if such beliefs could persist for the great length of time that they have without evidence of the actual presence of dwarfs in the world. Are they twenty inches tall? Are the tiny dwarfs of myth and lore being confused with dwarfed races of human beings? Can the dwarfs of the Eddas and other traditions be seen by the physical eye of man? It is said that humans have come upon the telltale signs of their industry: tiny forges in rock falls and caves, the sweepings of minute smithies. Some have believed that certain hollow trees in the forest have lodged them, noting the remains of small fires. Children often quite naturally assign them such domiciles, having reverentially identified the homes of the Seven Dwarfs in many far-flung places, including the redwood trees along the wild and rocky coast of Big Sur. A description of an actual encounter passed down among Nordic folk living on the Faeroe Islands is revealing. The tale refers to long ago when a peat gatherer, inching his way along a mountainous cliff overlooking the sea, stumbled upon a cave containing activity which so astonished him that he dropped his peat knife down on the rocks below. Upon the noise, the dwarfed occupants of the cave froze and the fire they tended at their forge died down. Straining their eyes, unaccustomed to daylight, towards the mouth of the cave, the tiny smithies waited. Their dumbfounded observer moved not a muscle and watched with breath held as one of the dwarfs bent over a pile of completed tools and selected a knife as long as a mortal man's forearm. The observer drew back in fear until he noticed that the dwarf held the knife by its blade as he, "bandy-legged and hunch backed ... scuttled quick as a spider across the rubbled cavern floor. With a glance that mingled shyness and a hint of warning, he thrust the knife into the man's grasp," The observer marvelled at the fineness of the blade and the beauty of the workmanship, but when he looked up to thank the tiny workers, his eyes were met with naught but a yawning stone wall. The dwarfs were closed in the living rock once more.

  The dwarfs magical power over lifeless-seeming metal is evidence of their effortless acquaintance with the subtle structures composing the substances of the earth. They work easily with fire because it is the earthly manifestation of light which in its other expressions they shun. They understand perfectly how things grow and change and can be altered on the subtle plane of material becoming. Thus they provided the gods, who functioned to effect things in the manifesting world, with wondrous weapons whose fame was so great that heroes among emerging mortals eagerly sought out the little craftsmen for their counterparts. Even the gods who acted as celestial smiths were sometimes depicted in dwarf form. The Egyptian Ptah and the Greek Hephaestos are two such examples believed to have given structure and shape to the elemental forces of creation while hunched in diminutive stature over their forges. Mortal heroes found it easier to strike bargains with earthly dwarfs than with such lofty craftsmen and sometimes took great risks to acquire riches or magical weapons from them. For his assistance to the Nibelungs, the hero Siegfried was awarded the fabled sword Balmung, which he then was forced to use against its givers who subsequently attacked him. Though he had aided the dwarfs in settling a quarrel amongst themselves, they could not contain their avarice and perfidy and treacherously turned against Siegfried, causing him to vanquish them and take away the cloak of invisibility and their treasure.

  Though many stories tell of the generous and often unsought assistance the dwarfish races have offered to man, a frequent theme in other tales points to the fact that dwarfs tend to be prey to lust and pride and resort to cunning when things do not go their way. This may be traced to the fact that their links with the earth necessarily involve a close involvement with the death and decay inherent in Ymir's corpse. Avarice, lust and pride are all qualities sprung from blind identification with material forms, and it is not surprising, perhaps, that dwarfs should be uncontrollably seized by these forces from time to time, especially in their relations with men who bring to the contest an extra focus of conscious vice or virtue. The strange theme of dwarfs lusting after mortal women or vice versa, which can be found even in some of the characters of the Arthurian legends, suggests a confusion of longing born out of a sense of inferiority and of atavistic perversion. In the story of Snow White the dwarfs do not participate in such futile and envious longings. They simply love her purity and beauty of soul and wish to protect it. They are tiny and deformed and cannot play the role of the prince who will awaken her, but it never occurs to them to lament this fact. No more does Snow White see in the dwarfs anything other than guardians who flourish under her grateful and wise care. Her love for them is born of gratitude but she does not intrude herself backward into their place in evolution. Instead, an interaction delicately based upon respect and open-hearted wonder is preserved between them.

  Dwarfish smallness is often interpreted by man as deformity, abnormality or inferiority. After all, the dwarf under Shiva Nataraj's foot is unhesitatingly identified as symbolic of the blindness of life and the ignorance of man. Perhaps it is something about this blindness that explains why human physical dwarfs have so fascinated people in the past. This is not to say that even the more perverse of these mistook a human dwarfs size as an indication of lack of intelligence, but that the size of such an individual conveyed a childlike and unthreatening quality. To individuals whose lives embodied some degree of the wilful pursuance of atavistic decadence, small, ungrown people offered a pleasantly gratifying diversion away from the difficult business of manasic development and responsibility. It is significant that rulers like the emperor Augustus of Rome, who adored tiny, well-formed dwarfs, had them sent to him from all over the world so that he could immerse himself with them in play and childish prattle and forget, for a time, the cares of the world. In this indulgence the emperor joined the ranks of many wealthy and aristocratic persons of full stature who have taken enjoyment in surrounding themselves with dwarfs who marched conspicuously in their retinues, sat for portraiture with their families and often wore extravagantly tailored clothes designed to draw attention to their diminutive physiques. Such owners were often fixated upon the size and possible deformity of their hapless chattle to the extent that they placed them, consciously or unconsciously, in the position of legendary dwarfs. Thus, an appreciation for their talents and intelligence was frequently obscured by childish or crudely insensitive interaction, treatment bearing the imprint of attitudes reserved for an inferior, less than human, race apart. It is a telling fact that the longest career enjoyed by the dwarf in human art forms is that of the small, deformed hunchback rendered in plaster or stone for the garden. He is a perfect caricature of certain chondrosystrophic dwarfs whose antics delighted the jaded eye of courts from time immemorial.

  The human physical dwarf is most commonly the result of a genetic mutation. In the seventeenth century one of their patrons, the Empress of Austria, caused all known dwarfs and giants of the land to be assembled in Vienna for study. Amusingly, she placed guards to protect the dwarfs from the giants, only to find that the latter were mercilessly preyed upon by the former, who teased and insulted and robbed them repeatedly. The guards' instructions were altered but the incident gave credence to the old folk saying, "Long and lazy, little and loud." After attempting it, Isabella d'Este conceded that "you cannot raise a race of dwarfs". What she and others gradually came to realize was that most of the one out of ten thousand births producing a dwarf involve normally sized parents. In the case of a dwarf like the gifted painter to King Charles I who married another dwarf and fathered nine children, the surviving offspring were all normal size. Other dwarf genealogies more recently traced show that dwarfs can indeed produce dwarfs but that the majority of offspring will revert back to normal size. This is particularly interesting, as the factor favouring dwarfism involves a dominant gene with complete or high penetrance. A Danish study of one hundred and eight dwarfed individuals revealed that out of twenty-seven offspring, ten were chondrodystrophic dwarfs, the type of dwarfism where the extremities are disproportionately short relative to the trunk of the body. This condition as well as that of dyschondroplasia (disturbance of skeletal growth) are both due to genetic mutation affecting the endocrine or pituitary glands (also thought to lie at the root of racial dwarfism such as that exemplified by the pygmy people of Africa, India and Oceania). Metabolic disturbances caused by disease and certain environmental forces are far less typical causes. The discovery that fathers of mutant dwarfs are often dis proportionately older than mothers reveals that older sperms have a greater chance of containing mutant alleles and suggests that spontaneous mutation of this kind is due to errors in genetic replication.

  The smallest human physical dwarfs are those possessing normal proportions. Of these, some are primordial dwarfs from birth, others undergo retardation in growth after their first couple of years. Such dwarfs (or midgets) remain sexually immature and are sometimes quite attractive, as in the case of Charles S. Stratton, known to the world as General Tom Thumb. Born in Connecticut to normal parents in 1832, he grew to a height of little more than two feet, his head barely reaching above the knees of a normal individual. With the famous P.T. Barnum he travelled to England and began a series of tours that made him the toast of the crowned heads and hoi polloi of Europe. In England "this little, great small man" had an elegant carriage made and furnished in the richest style. Its body was twenty inches high and it was drawn by a fine pair of tiny Shetland ponies, with two small boys acting as footman and coachman. Certainly, with all his triumphs and resultant wealth, the tiny General remained unintimidated by the biblical warning (Leviticus 21:20) which brands dwarfs as blighted and decrees that their presence shall not be suffered at the altar. Nor was he embarrassed by the frank fascination others showed him. Unlike some dwarfs who have been forced to make a living from their deformity, he thoroughly enjoyed his fame and waxed proudly in its glow. Others, like Jeffrey Hudson, who was knighted at Hampton Court in the early seventeenth century, so overwhelmingly waxed in their self-perceived glory that they repeatedly had to be put in their place. The many recorded instances of this sort of uncontrolled swaggering or lust after something or other tend to strengthen the comparison between mortal dwarfs and their less admirable counterparts in myth. The fact that they arrived at their condition through a genetic mutation instead of through a natural and necessary step in cosmic evolution stands in contradistinction to such similarities, and it is probable that human expectations eliciting this sort of behaviour are at least partially responsible.

What vast perfection cannot Nature crowd
Into a puny point.
Attributed to Sisyphus, two-foot-high
dwarf of Marcus Antonius

  In the great and richly symbolic Hindu tradition the most famous and illustrious dwarf is Vamana, the fifth avataric incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The story goes that in the Second Age, called Treta Yuga, the Daitya king Mahabali performed such sacrifices and austerities that the gods were rendered helpless to deal with his growing control over the world. They feared he might gain ascendancy even over the heavens through his powers, and so they implored Vishnu as the embodiment of the perception of cosmic law pervading the three worlds to put things aright. In the form of a dwarfed Brahmin (whose name, Vamana, etymologically suggests that which tends to the left, is perverse or turns things around), Vishnu appeared before the king. Though exceedingly small, he was comely to look upon and, as a Brahmin, he was treated with great respect and courtesy by the ethically-minded ruler who requested him to ask for a gift. Modestly, the tiny guest asked only for as much ground as he could step over in three strides, and the king, smiling to himself, readily granted that he should have it. Of course, as soon as this had been granted, Vishnu grew into gigantic proportions and took three mighty strides across the universe. He took as his own the earth and the heaven of the gods, leaving to the generous king the realm of Patala.

That dwarf form of that infinite Hari, comprised as it is of three gunas, miraculously expanded to such an extent as to include that earth, the heaven, the cardinal points, the space between the heaven and the earth, cavities and hells, oceans, the subhuman beings, human beings, gods and sages and everything else.

Bhagavata Purana

  King Mahabali was the grandson of Prahlad, that archetypal devotee of Lord Vishnu who had lived during the time of the latter's Narasinhavatara. Being a Daitya, he was the Hindu equivalent of a Titan or a giant who ruled before the gods who subsequently presided over the orderly manifestation of the worlds. Here there is a striking parallel with the Eddaic Ymir and the frost giants, for the Daityas and Titans were similarly defeated and put in their place, their substance (chaos) becoming the stuff marshalled by the gods in accordance with their materializing design. While the dwarfs in the Eddaic myth emerged from the matter of the fallen Ymir as earthly ushers of anticipating order, the dwarf Vamana acted as the vehicle of the establishment of that same law, Vishnu deliberately assuming that form to wrest command of the energies and powers of creation from the Daitya race. Another parallel lies in the identification of Lord Vishnu as an Aditya, one of the children of Aditi, the Infinite Light, the pure consciousness of infinite existence, one and self-luminous. As daughter of Daksha (one of her offspring) Aditi becomes the thought of this divine consciousness in the symbolic guise of a cow whose udder feeds all the worlds and who, like the cow in the Eddaic myth, gives rise to the gods. "Aditi is the infinite consciousness in the cosmos espoused and held by the lower creative power which works through the limited mind and body, but [which is] delivered from this subjection by the force of the divine or illumined Mind born of her in the mentality of man." Thus, she is the source of all cosmic forms of consciousness from the physical upwards, including that which enables man to realize his true divine nature.

  It is said of the Adityas that they have a twofold birth: one, above in Divine Truth as creators of the worlds and guardians of Divine Law and, two, here in this world and in man as cosmic and human powers of the Divine. In the visible world they are male and female powers associated with the elements just as the dwarf is associated with the earth. In his three steps Lord Vishnu moved like the Light of the highest Sun of Truth, on earth expressed as fire, in space expressed as lightning and in heaven expressed as spiritual, omnipresent sunlight. Reversing this, Lord Vishnu, heeding the entreaties of the gods, strode down from his heavenly state like lightning flashing through the sky and presented himself on earth in the guise of a fiery dwarf, who proceeded to act as the agent extending the gods' rule and banishing (for the manvantara) to the lower regions the kings of chaos and untimely dissolution.

  Called in the Rig Veda Brahmanaspati, 'the deity in whom the action of the worshipped upon the gods is personified', Brihaspati represents the materialization of divine grace through means of ritual worship. In the occult hierarchy of the manifested cosmos, the Cosmocratores who fashioned our solar system are said to be prior to the gods and the spirits of the earth. As each of the seven great races of this globe evolves, it receives its light and life from one of the seven planetary Dhyanis who radiate (in conjunction with a planetary body) the pure spiritual rays of the Invisible Sun. The first race received such through the sun, the second through Jupiter, the third through Venus, the fourth through the moon and earth, the fifth through Mercury. Thus, the Second Age or Treta Yuga is linked up with the Second Race which, in the scheme of manifesting forms, possessed relatively unformed ethereal bodies, forerunners of the conscious human entities that would emerge in the Third Race. The dwarf is then an agent of the Second Age, a partially conscious usher functioning to prepare the soil for a fully blooming self-consciousness to follow.

  When the tiny dwarf smithy gave the peat-gatherer a wondrous knife, he also gave him a shy but warning glance. His glance held a world of meaning, for he must have known that it was dangerous for the mortal standing at the entrance to his cave to even contemplate following him back into his world. With a delicate observance of unspoken law, he acknowledged the superior potential of the human being by presenting him with a gift while clearly discouraging any further exchange. He did not wish the mortal intruder to look back on him and his kind, seeming to know that this was unwise for all concerned. It is interesting that the human in the story was unaware of this etiquette and quite consumed with his own curiosity. But whereas the dwarf can know what the proper order is and how to work with its elements as they present themselves to him, a man (albeit ignorant of many things) has the potential ability to consciously grasp the meaning of this order and join the smithy's fire to the spiritual light of understanding by the lightning of intuitive thought. Whether of dwarfed or normal stature, the human being has passed the threshold guarded by the dwarf and must not look back or perversely interfere in matters pertaining to a previous stage in evolution.

Thrice Vishnu paced and set his step uplifted out of the primal dust; three steps he has paced, the Guardian, the Invincible, and from beyond he upholds their laws. Scan the workings of Vishnu and see from whence he has manifested their laws. That is his highest pace which is seen ever by the seer like an eye extended in heaven, that the illumined, the awakened, kindle into a blaze, even Vishnu's step supreme.

Rig Veda 1.22:17-21

  No doubt the mutation responsible for physical dwarfism has often been the karmic result of an ego looking backward in evolution, getting caught in some sort of atavistic fixation. But there have been remarkable souls born in dwarfed bodies who seem to have lived out their lives as witnesses of a hidden truth about evolution or even as guardians and reminders of the precious gift of self-consciousness which man possesses yet so constantly squanders. One need only recall the sage-like dwarf in The Ship of Fools to realize the danger of attempting crudely to understand the history of a human ego in terms of externals. The highest pace of Vishnu may be seen by a seer in a dwarfed form who, like Doc in the Snow White story, acts as a wise leader, marshalling the Sleepy, Dopey, Sneezy and Grumpy forces of his less evolved brethren.

  In becoming a self-conscious child of Aditi, an individual steps through space in such a way as to marshal the dwarfs, sylphs, salamanders, undines and all their powers within his or her own being. This is accomplished not by focussing upon these beings or trying to bargain for their energies, but by raising one's inner sight to the source of power that lies beyond them which they, themselves, in their obedient natures serve. When man has purified the soil of his lower nature and rendered its most rock-like and resistant parts into instruments of a truly refined nature, capable of responding to every desire of the higher Divine Will, he will command a devoted army of dwarfs eager to assist him in every way. But unless his spiritual nature rules, he would be wise to leave them in the land of myth and legend, for, disturbed while yet undominated by Divine Will, dwarfs may easily fly out of control and repay ignorant curiosity or desire for powers with treachery. To the pure soul of Snow White the dwarfs were devoted friends, and blessed are they who would seek to match this purity. Before their gaze the stony wall of the whole universe will open wide to reveal hidden treasures, powers and races unseen.

Within the cavern of the mind,
Inside the crevasse of the heart,
A golden sword of Truth consign
The members of a race apart.