Vættir is a term that loosely describe mythical beings and nature spirits in the Norse religion. These creatures divide up into 'families', including the Álfar (elves), Dvergar (dwarves), Jötnar (giants), and even gods, the Æsir and Vanir. Landvættir (land spirits) are chthonic guardians of specific grounds whereas Sjövættir (sea spirits) are guardians of the specific waters.
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. By extension, the dead are grouped among the families of Vættir, especially when understood as being in the Underworld (Hel). The term 'families' (ættir) is often translated as 'clans' or 'races'. These families sometimes intermarried with each other, and sometimes with humans.
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. 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.
Many aspects of the dwarves (dvergar) in Norse mythology lived on in the Scandinavian belief in vættir. They were thought to be similar in appearance to humans, even strikingly beautiful, but smaller, often clad in grey and living underground. Therefore, they were also called de underjordiske (the subterranean ones).
The cautious peasant in old Scandinavia should always warn the vættir before spilling hot water on the ground, or else grave retribution, such as disease, accidents or killed livestock, was to be expected. Vættir had their own minute cattle, from which they nevertheless got a tremendous amount of milk.
They were also described as having the ability go invisible from human sight whenever they wished to, as well as transform into animals (toads being a disguise of choice). This made them hard to observe, save brief glimpses; children, however, were thought to be much more capable to see through the magic of the wights.
History / beliefs
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. For example, some Trollir die in sunlight and turn to stone, like Dvergar, and some Nisse make magic items, like Dvergar. Like the dwarves, elves, and faries of Christian continental Europe, the Scandinavian Vættir become accused of kidnapping human infants while leaving themselves, being small sized, in their place.
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.
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.
- 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.
Scandinavian Folklore, compiled by Scott Trimble - a scholarly outline of prominent themes in Scandinavian folklore.