Let me say right from the start that I have found no mention of them in the sagas. I want that out upfront so you don’t think I’m feeding you a shaggy dog story. I am sharing this more as a lesson in not believing everything you read, or letting your preconceptions influence what you read.
The headline deserves a question mark because when I first read a mention of Dwarves living in sand I had all sorts of questions running through my head. I’ve read a lot of books on Norse mythology over the years and I can’t remember which one had that first mention of the subject. I do remember having a huge “huh” moment as I read that since I had never read anything else that even came close to mentioning sand Dwarves. I do remember that the book didn’t have another word on the subject. It was kind of a throwaway line showing that Dwarves lived in a range of environments.
I took the information with a grain of salt. If you study Norse mythology for any amount of time you get used to dealing with partial bits of information and inconsistencies. The records we have are too fragmented to give a complete understanding on many subjects. Still this little snippet stuck with me. I write fiction where a Dwarf is my main character so anything that could open up dramatic possibilities is a very good thing. I couldn’t think of any hot sandy expanses in the North but I knew Vikings had some exposure with Arabs (i.e. Ahmad ibn Fadlan.) Maybe that interaction lead to legends of a Dwarven tribe living in the sandy desert? I wasn’t the first person to have this thought. Dungeons and Dragons has Sand Dwarves. The MapleStory game has them, too. But where did the idea come from?
Recently I was reading through a translation of Saxo Grammaticus’ Danish History. The translator’s notes have a section about Supernatural Beings this contains a subsection entitled Dwarves. (BTW, Saxo refers to Dwarves as Satyrs for some odd reason.) The line that got me excited was this:
The dwarf Miming, who lives in the desert, has a precious sword of sharpness…
Yes! This was it. After years of searching and wondering about the subject I was going to read about desert Dwarves. This is where my warning about preconceptions comes in. I grew up in Florida, not far from the coast. Sand means beaches to me – hot beaches so when I think of the desert I think of a hot, sandy place. But that isn’t the only definition of desert. A desert can also be a barren place, a wasteland, and it is this sense of the word that is being used here. If you go to Saxo’s story about Miming you learn that the road leading to his home is “perpetually beset with extraordinary cold” and the region is “impassable and filled with obstacles.” From all of this it is plain to see that Miming the Dwarf lived in a frigid desert. Different authors over the years must have seized on that simple fragment about a Dwarf living in the desert and extrapolated a new subclass of Dwarf magically teleported to the hot, arid deserts of the world.
While I was disappointed to arrive at this conclusion, I do think it serves a valuable lesson in checking your sources and not letting your own biases get in the way when looking at an ancient text.