Who are the drow, really? Where did they come from? The only mythic antecedents I can find are the Svartalf of Norse tradition. In the Orkney Islands there was said to be a race of sprites known as “Trow”.
The Dungeons and Dragons game (and it’s many contemporary competitors sung and unsung) has completely recast the understanding of many beings and creatures from myth and legend. The game is guilty of taking every adjective and making it an entirely new entity.
Were you to consult your handy thesaurus, you’d be tempted to think “spectre”, “ghost”, and “revenant” were all different words for the same thing. Not so since the RPG explosion of the 80s. The drow are probably the most recognizably emblematic example of this phenomenon. Svelte big busted women with jet black or charcoal gray skin, wearing gear that would put put any S&M freak into a paroxysm of ecstatic, panting approval rule a society that worships a spider demon from a hidden underworld. Men are completely subservient, being a combination of deadly guardians and sex slaves to the domineering females.
The word itself could derive from the Orkney sprites, but it seems to owe just as much to Richard Shaver’s “derro”. Indeed, many D&D and knockoff writers refer to them as “dhaerrow”. This seems much more likely. Shaver’s villains dwelt in a vast subterranean world manipulating surface society which they plotted to enslave. The name is a contraction of “detrimental robots”. When one looks over the Shaver material, it’s easy to see the influence he had on L. Ron Hubbard’s brainchild as well.
So the drow represent an amalgam of the more wicked or mischievous denizens of the faerie realms taken along with some decidedly modern elements taken from the kind of weird fiction D&D creator Gary Gygax was openly enamored of. Wikipedia lists their first publication as a RPG villain as being 1977.
Since then, drow seem to have reached an interesting and possibly unique position in modern popular mythology. Their appeal tracks closely with changing attitudes about gender, sexuality and race in the west, which while not causal, is surely not accidental. The appeal to the burgeoning numbers of young women who participate in one variant or another of the fantasy role playing phenomenon is obvious enough. The drow went from being somewhat cartoonish and cardboard minions of Lolth the spider queen (Tolkien’s Ungoliant looms in the wings here) to a much more fully realized people who parallel the Klingons as a fictional race who’ve had an extremely deep cultural milieu constructed reef like for them. The prolific fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore can be alternatively praised or blamed for much of this. But while his Drizzt character, a male who rebels against the evil and decadence of the matriarchs has probably peaked in popularity (and profitability to the franchise), the leather clad, whip wielding clergy of the spider goddess don’t show any signs of losing their appeal.