by F.

This blog post is written in first person, but it is more like a choral work of K, his guys, and me. A few days ago, in front of a coffee, we were talking of the fundamental importance of praising and pleasing Land Spirits – a leitmotiv common to all mythologies and religions. Basically mankind depends on Nature (while the contrary is not true at all) and this lead man to search for the grace of the surroundings as natural elements personified in Spirits. This is valid for anticosmic ways too, but the ritual work is conducted slightly differently (or at least with slightly different reasons and dynamics).

With the personification of natural phenomena and the surrounding natural elements comes a more specific and detailed description of all those supernatural beings living around and in human settlements, of their characters, behavior and tastes, from which a long list of “norms” descends to guarantee a pacific cohabitation based on a gifting circle, with the aim to maintain a balanced peace through “obligation feelings” and the “exchange policy”. Basically the interaction of man and natural Spirits is run by the do ut des golden rule… at least from the human point of view.

Does this thing really work?

Maybe, but both K and I have often been involved in particular situations in which this generic rule was not respected, because it was applied as an obligation instead of advice for a method aimed to build a respectful exchange of favours and gifts. In the folk tradition I belong to, a trollkar/trollkvinna (sorcerer) can rarely ignore the prominent fact that he/she is always and everywhere surrounded by a plenty of Spirits: better to build an alliance, instead of start a fight. At least this is our point of view when the situation is compatible with our religious paradigm and philosophical thought (in fact no one can build alliance with someone/something that does not belong to the same kin, because the mutual acknowledgment is simply impossible – and this is valid for human relationships too).

I descend from a linage of “cunning people” since generation and the first thing that my mother and my granny taught me was hospitality, with man and Spirits. In her little house, my granny used to leave fresh water and a few bites of our food on the windowsill, before every meal, to please and thanks to the vättar. My mother did (and still do) the same on the porch table, over a fine dish decorated with specific runes. And my father is used to leave food offerings before enter the woods or in specific natural places, to appease the local Spirits before doing anything else. Since its very beginning as a trollkar, K always did the same, and even our Master confirmed more and more that our behave was (is) correct. Maybe in the North we pay too much attention to these sides of our “magical routine”, but I strongly believe that this can help to redefine the role of everyone regarding the environment/Kósmos – and even helps in the way out of the environment/Kósmos, talking from the point of view of anticosmic philosophies.

In Sweden, as in all Nordic Traditions, we used to distinguish among two main category of supernatural beings: vättar and trolls, two class of Spirits, the firsts related to human activities and the second to wild places far from human settlements. Of course there are many other categories and sub-categories of Spirits, but I don’t want to explore them. Rather, I would like to focus on vättar.

The Old Norse vættir, the Swedish vättar, is modernly referred to a plenty of Spirits (among them the Álfar and the Svartálfar, Vanir and Æsir, and even the Jötnar), but if we go back in time it was a specific terminology for those natural Spirits existing because of mankind and human activity inside Nature. The vision of vättar as a collective of Spirits that rules over all natural elements is somehow misleading – at least I can say with no doubt that Swedish folklore related to vättar is slightly different to that related to the Norse vættir, because of local and cultural differences. In fact vättar are considered for the most as chthonic Spirits who dwell in the underground, in particular under houses and villages, sometimes depicted as the invisible “Grey Folks”. There are several examples in Europe of such supernatural beings. The wellness of the village depends on them, and from them ruin and illness come, as well as good fortune and prosperity, depending on the behavior of the villagers, and of the inhabitants of the house.

Talking of the vättar, I consider their strict relation with the house particularly meaningful. In ancient times the house was the center of the domestic economy and life, the point where the kin converge and show itself on material, emotional and spiritual planes. In this sense, the vättar possibly represent not properly the Ancestors (even if sometimes the Dead of the family may show them in the form of vättar), but more properly the historical memory of the actions that the nucleus and the village paid over that specific area. They also represent the inner resistance of natural places to human manipulation. In this context vättar are intimately entwined with the process of civilization as well as in the prosecution of the bloodline. That’s why in ancient times great respect and gifts were given to vättar (in particular to Landvættir or natural Spirits/guardians and Húsvættir or Spirits/guardians of the house, if you want to compare them with Norse/Icelandic folklore), and their blessing asked before every important action over the land. This is one of many important evidences of an archaic animistic background common to all Northern, Central and Southern Europe.

Another significant detail, even if less accounted, is the help that a female húsvätta may offer to a devotee pregnant woman during birth, and this reconnects to the figure of the dís (maiden/lady) of Norse mythology, female Spirits with the aim to protect the clan and that must be worshipped in order to assure prosperity. Even if the original Swedish folklore is difficult to uncover because of a lack of historical sources, it is easy to find many reminiscences in Norse, Finnish, Swedish and Icelandic folklore. Furthermore, there’s another important philological issue to consider. In Norway, vättar are known also as tusser (dwarves or gnomes, depicted similarly to Døkkálfar who dwell under the surface, in the gloom of the underworld), a word related to the Old Norse þurs and the Swedish tusse, in the meaning of giant or supernatural/monstrous/evil creature. The fact that two words are related don’t mean that they are the same, so we can trace an equivalence between vättar and tusser, but it is a mistake for sure to mislead vättar and þurs, because their essence is definitely different. Possibly the similarities are in the folkish perception of something bestial and ancestral, an elder force (sometimes chthonic in nature) difficult to deal with or to please, but here they end and no other parallelism are allowed without breaking the Traditional guidelines.

Another praxis that K and I share and developed independently in our early years of practice (in my case it comes from my family too) is strictly related to the offering of lights and candles to the vättar. I have always considered the dusk as a very special moment of the day, a liminal time when Nature experiments the passage from daylight into darkness, and from the gloom of the night into the pinky dawn. At dusk shadows seem to disappear for a while, all the contrasts weaken, the eyes deceive, and we are forced to sharpen our senses. Sunset have always had a major role in my practice and devotion, being the moment of maximum danger when light leave place to darkness. Basically a danger opens the way to all those other perils that dwell in the gloom. Nowadays my magical practice has changed a lot, for obvious reasons. However, years ago I was used to going into the woods surrounding home at dusk, a few moments before the sunset, to leave offerings first to the Álfar and then, when the night comes, to the Svartálfar. Moving towards the woods performing the ritual, I marked every action with another offering of water and food, exclusively for the vättar, to strengthen those places that I considered my “territory”. Then I come back placing candles or lanterns around my house with more water and food, to show them where the offerings were placed and allow the vättar to reach them. Instead of my complexity, my granny did something similar, placing one single lantern on the windowsill. K does something very similar, using lanterns to go into the wood in order to place offerings, using no light on the way home and never looking back to not be followed by any Spirit. I think all these are different but complementary approaches that put an accent on two different methods to form and maintain an alliance with the vättar.

But why the light?

Many legends depict the creatures of the underworld and the underground absolutely independent of light, but it is not the case of the vättar. When I was a child, my granny was used to tell me stories and legends, partially to keep me quiet and partially to teach me something. One of her stories had a vätteljus as a central element in narration. Vätteljus literally means “light of the vätte” and was accounted as a fossil candle previously used by a vätte to ascend from the underground and illuminate the bowels of the earth during the ascension. Then some vätteljusen were lost where the vättar played, danced and sung in circle – an imaginary very close to other descriptions of the Fairy-folks and their nocturnal activities. Vätteljusen were once considered powerful amulets, able to bring everlasting fortune to the lucky discoverer, keep illness forever away and assure friendship from the vättar. Vätteljusen are particularly known in the Baltic region and nowadays we know that they are but fossils of Belemniters, an extincted species of octopus. Nothing special, we can say, but lights and everything that belongs to the bowels of the earth maintain a strong role to please the vättar, at least in our experience.

In the end, the etymology may help, to correctly collocate the vättar and their worship. The Old Norse therm vætt, the Incelandic vættur (“imp” or “elf”) and the Swedish vätte comes from the Germanic *wihtiz (“essence”, “thing” or “creature”), then from the PIE *wekti (“cause”, “sake”, “thing”) and the PIE *wek- (“to say” or “to tell”), from which the English wight comes too. Wight is a complex word in Old English, because it hides many meanings and recall in mind some other words. Wight indicates a living creature of human appearance, or a ghost-like creature, and in both cases someone who belongs to a population. The other related terms explains better of which population we’re talking abount, in fact the Old English wight is connected to the Old Saxon with (“thing” or “daemon”), to the Old High German with (“thing”, “creature” or “daemon”), to the German wicht (“creature” or “little child”), all words often referred to the Faery-folkof Old Britain’s stories, described in a similar way to the vättar, at least because of their very similar role.

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