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Vættir (Old Norse; singular Vættr) or wights are nature spirits in the Norse religion. These nature spirits divide up into 'families', including the Álfar (elves), Dvergar (dwarves), Jötnar (giants), and even gods, the Æsir and Vanir, who are understood to be prominent families among them. The term 'families' (ættir) is often translated as 'clans' or 'races'. These families sometimes intermarried with each other, and sometimes with humans. Sjövættir (sea spirits) are guardians of the specific waters.

The tomte or nisse is a solitary vätte, living on the farmstead. He is usually benevolent and helpful, which can not be said about a mischievous illvätte. However he can cause a lot of damage if he is angry, such as killing livestock.

Contents

Etymology

The Old Norse term vættir and its English cognate wights literally mean 'beings' and relate etymologically to other forms of the verb to be, like was and were. Vættir and wights normally refer to supernatural 'beings', especially landvættir (land spirits), but can refer to any creature. The Norwegian vetter is used much in the same way as the Old Norse vættir, whereas the corresponding word in Swedish or Danish is väsen or væsen (being), also akin to was and were.

Viking Age

In the Late Viking Age, Nordic kingdoms began converting to Christianity. Non-biblical Christian concepts of nature spirits, especially the German conflation of dwarves and elves and French concept fairyfolk (Old French fae), increasingly influenced the Norse concept of nature spirits. Generally speaking, from about the 13th-century onward, the Norse Vættir shrink in size. A titanic Jötunn diminutizes into a large Troll, and a human-sized Álfr into fairy-like knee-high Nisse. While the Trollir tend to represent the spirits of wild locales and the Nisser the spirits of human settlements, they overlap greatly. Both groups acquire traits of earlier Dvergar.

Landvættir (land spirits) are chthonic guardians of specific grounds, such as wild places or farms. When Norse seafarers approached land, they reportedly removed their carved dragon heads from the bows of their longships, so as not to frighten and thus provoke the landvættir to attack, thereby incur bad luck from them. Icelandic culture continues to celebrate the supernatural protection over the island, and four landvættr can still be seen in the Icelandic coat-of-arms: a troll-bull, troll-eagle, dragon, and handsome giant. The troll-animals are actually Jötnar who shapeshifted into the form (and mentality) of an animal, and such animals are supernaturally strong. Even the dragon is generally a troll-snake: compare the Jötunn Loki whose children include a wolf, a serpent, and a horse.

Christianization, folklore and modern survivals

Christian concepts influenced Norse concepts but Scandinavian animistic beliefs remain strong. In modern Iceland, work crews building new roads sometimes divert the road around particular boulders which are thought to be the homes of Huldrafólk. People continue to report sightings of Trollir, Álfafólk, seaserpents, and so on, in a way similar to sightings of ghosts and UFOs in other Western cultures.

Scandinavian folklore features a class of beings similar to the Old Norse landvættir. They are known by many names, although the most common are vättar in southern Sweden (singular: vätte), vittra in northern Sweden and huldrefolk in Norway (though it should be noted that the singular vittra and huldra, respectively, refer to a solitary and quite different being).

During the 19th century, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe compiled the folk tales among Norwegians, as part of the emotive, nationalistic and anti-rational values of the Romantic Era. These stories reflected the animistic 'folk belief' that preserved earlier elements deriving from the Viking Era but strongly influenced by the medieval Christian cosmology of Germany, Britain and France. Prominent are stories that reflect later views of the Vættir, usually called the Huldrefolk (from Old Norse Huldufólk), meaning 'concealed people' and referring to their otherworldliness or their power of invisibility.

Notes

Sources

  • Folktales of Norway, ed. Reidar Th. Christiansen, 1964.
  • Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend, Reimund Kvideland & Henning K. Sehmsdorf, 1988.
  • Norske Folkeeventyr (Norwegian Folktales), by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen & Jørgen Engebretsen Moe, 1843, 1844, 1871.

External Sources

Scandinavian Folklore, compiled by Scott Trimble - a scholarly outline of prominent themes in Scandinavian folklore.

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