The etymology of the word dwarf is contested, and scholars have proposed varying theories about the origins of the being, including that dwarfs may have originated as nature spirits or beings associated with death, or as a mixture of concepts. Competing etymologies include a basis in the Indo-European root *dheur- (meaning "damage"), the Indo-European root *dhreugh (whence modern German Traum/English dream and trug "deception"), and comparisons have been made with the old Indian dhvaras (a type of demonic being).
Norse mythology, as recorded in the Poetic Edda (compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources) and the Prose Edda (written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century) provide different mythical origins for the beings. The Poetic Edda poem Völuspá details that the dwarfs were the product of the primordial blood of the being Brimir and the bones of Bláinn. The Prose Edda, however, describes dwarfs as beings similar to maggots that festered in the flesh of the primal being Ymir before being gifted with reason by the gods. The Poetic Edda and Prose Edda contain over 100 dwarf names, while the Prose Edda gives the four dwarfs Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri a cosmological role – they hold up the sky. In addition, scholars have noted that the Svartálfar, who, like dwarfs, are said in the Prose Edda to dwell in Svartálfaheimr, appear to be the same beings as dwarfs.
Some scholars have proposed that the Poetic Edda poem Völuspá may contain an account of the first human beings, Ask and Embla, as having been created by dwarfs. A preceding stanza to the account of the creation of Ask and Embla in Völuspá provides a catalog of dwarf names, and stanza 10 has been read as describing the creation of human forms from the earth. This may potentially mean that dwarfs formed humans, and that the three gods gave them life.
After the Christianization of the Germanic peoples, tales of dwarfs continued to be told in the folklore of areas of Europe where Germanic languages were (and are) spoken. Today dwarfs appear commonly in modern popular culture.