The Eddic poems and the Sagas speak of a class of spirits called Vættir (singular Vætr). Parallels to the Norse word occur widely in the Germanic region: OHG wiht, applied to spirits and men, like the English “wight,” which may mean a person as well as a spirit (cf. Chaucer’s “elves and wights”); MHG wihtel, wihtelen, glossed elbe, lemures, lares cum corporibus morantes, vel nocturni dœmones. Later dialect forms are Wichtlein, Wichtelmann, diminutive beings of a fairy or dwarf kind, of whom many stories are told. The AS wiht had the generic meaning of “creature” or sometimes a demoniac being or devilkin.

The word Vættir may be regarded as covering any divine or semi-divine spirits, but it is applied to a class of spirits of a tutelary kind, guardians of the land or of parts of it, and related to the land much as the Fylgja was to a person. Such spirits were called Land-vættir, not easily distinguished from the Alfar, and they may have included, if they are not ultimately derived from, the spirits of the dead. In the Gulathing’s law the king and bishop are ordered to enquire whether men believe in Land-vættir (genii locorum) who dwell in tumuli and cataracts.1 There is no clear evidence of a cult of the Vættir.

We shall first pass in review the Eddic references to Vættir. In Helgakvitha Hjorvardssonar Helgi asks Hrimgerd whether one Vætr or many invaded the ships, and she replies that there were three bands of nine. These are Valkyries, and the name is thus applied to them. Of Agnar it is said in Sigrdrifumal that he found no Vætr to shield him. In Oddrunargratr the “hollar


Vættir,” good or friendly Vættir, are appealed to for aid, and along with them Frigg, Freyja, and favouring gods, as if they were included among the Vættir.2 The word is occasionally used, with or without a qualifying adjective, in the sense of a miserable being. Brynhild is called “a miserable Vætr,” and Gollrond is described by Gudrun as “a Vætr,” in the sense of “a witch.” Thor addressed Loki as “wretched Vætr.”3 These, however, are secondary uses of the word, which has the more general sense of friendly spirits in the other passages.

The Vættir occupied the land unseen, except by the second-sighted, and they had to be treated properly, lest they should leave a district, which would suffer in consequence. For this reason men would avoid a district known to be haunted by them, though a bold person would take such land where none had dared to settle, like Olver who occupied land at Grims River in Iceland.4 This unwillingness to injure their susceptibilities explains the curious heathen law of c. 930 A.D., known as Ulfliot’s law, which announces that men must not approach land with a figure-head on their ship. It must be taken off, so that the land would not be approached with gaping heads and yawning jaws, which would frighten the Land-vættir. The Norse ships had fearsome decorations for figure-heads, “grim gaping heads of ships,” as a poem by Hornklof in the Heimskringla describes them.5

King Harald Gormsson of Denmark bade a wizard Finn take a “skin-changing journey “to Iceland in order to see what tidings of it he might obtain, the king having hostile ends in view. The Finn took the form of a whale, but when he approached Iceland he found its hills and fells full of Land-vættir, both small and great. At four successive places he was hindered from landing: at Vapreafjord by a dragon, followed by worms, frogs, and adders blowing venom at him; at Breidafjord by a great bull which waded out and bellowed at him, accompanied by many Land-vættir; at a third place by a


Mountain-giant with many other giants; and at Eyjafjord by a great fowl with many others. These all appear to be guardian spirits of the four chief families of Iceland, dwelling in these four places. Hence there may not be a clear distinction between the Vætr and the Fylgja, or they are here acting in combination. As in other examples, they have the form of animals or giants.6

A woman with second-sight saw all the Land-vættir following Beorn in the south-west of Iceland to a moot, and his brother to fishing and fowling. Beorn dreamt that a Bergbui or giant asked him to be his partner. He agreed, and now his stock was increased, because a buck came to his she-goats.7 Grettir met a huge man called Hallmund who was wounded, and said that he would help him for the aid which Hallmund had formerly given him. Hallmund took him to his cave, where his huge daughter cured the wounds of both. Friendship was sealed between them and Hallmund gave Grettir counsel. Hallmund was a Land-vætr, and, like many of these, interested in the welfare of men.8

By magical means the Land-vættir might be compelled to do a man’s bidding. Egil Skallagrimsson was incensed against king Eirik and his queen Gunnhild. He was leaving Norway for Iceland, but first landed on an island near the coast, taking with him a hazel-pole. Setting on this a horse’s head, he fixed it on a rock looking towards Norway. Then uttering a curse formula, he said: “I erect this insulting-post (nith-post) and turn it against Eirik and Gunnhild.” Turning it towards the land, he added: “I turn this insulting-pole against the Landvættir of this land, that they go astray and not one of them light on his dwelling till they drive Eirik and Gunnhild out of the land.” On the pole runes embodying the curse were written. The horse’s head on the post had the effect of the gaping heads of ships already referred to, and the curse illustrates the old runic magic.9

Though the Vættir were beneficent, this story shows how



Carved post of wood ending in a head of some threatening animal. The purpose of this post (one of two) is unknown, but such posts were probably placed on the vehicle on which the body was borne to the grave. The animal head resembles the “grim, gaping heads of ships” by which the Land-vættir were apt to be frightened away, see p. 229. The two posts, each in a different style of artistic work, were among the many objects which the ship contained. From a photograph, by permission of the Director of the Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo.


they might become harmful. There were certain spirits of the Vættir kind regarded as harmful — Uvættir, like the German Unhold. They might hinder the land from being appropriated by settlers. They did harm to men by disease or sickness, but it was possible for these to be healed by those who had such a gift.10 In Odin’s Raven Song treacherous Vættir are said to have confounded the runes.11

With the coming of Christianity all spirits such as the Vættir were regarded as evil. Tradition held that they had now deserted the regions once guarded by them. Just before Christianity came to Iceland, the seer Thorhall was in bed looking through the window of his room, when his host, Sidu-Hall, who had accepted Christianity, observed him smiling. “Why do you smile? “he asked. Thorhall replied: “I see many mounds opening and all spirits, small and great, are packing their gear and making ready to depart.”12 This is an early example of a story, of which there are many variants in Germany, of the Wichtelmänner leaving the country in a body, for one reason or another.13 In Christian custom, however, means were used to expel all such spirits, and one of these is found in the processions at Ascension-tide and at other times through the fields with the sprinkling of holy water and the saying of prayers directed against them.14

In spite of this the Vættir are remembered in one form or another. In Norway they are still looked upon as tutelary spirits, dwelling in Vætte-hougar, mounds at which offerings used to be laid, in trees too sacred to be touched, or in waterfalls, though they are also called Trolds or Nisser. In some districts they differ but little from the Huldre-folk.15 The Danish Vetter have traits similar to those of Elle-folk and Trolds, but are on the whole regarded as evil.16 The Swedish Vätter are elfin in character, guardians of houses, beneath which they live, playing with the children, the females even suckling a weakly child. When the household sleeps, they feast, but they are unknown in a house tenanted by a Nisse or Brownie. They ask


help of women for their females in childbirth, rewarding them well.17 The Faroe Islanders also believe in Vættrar which dwell in houses, where milk is placed for them. They are small and handsome, and give prosperity to a house, but leave it if a new-comer is unkind.18