The Vettir

All supernatural beings, good and evil alike, had one name in
common, Vettir (vœttir, vÚttir, “spirits,” “sprites”), which is still to a certain
extent in use. The good ones were called Kind Sprites (hollar vœttir), and
the evil ones were called Bad Sprites (meinvœttir, ˙vœttir). To the Kind
Sprites belonged the so-called Land-Sprites, guardian divinities of a given
country. In Iceland the Land-Sprites were held in high esteem; according to
the earliest legal code (“Ulfljot’s Law”), it was forbidden to sail a ship of war
into any Icelandic harbor bearing at the prow a “gaping head or snout,”
which might terrify the Land-Sprites. The worst misfortune one could bring
to a man was to invoke upon him the hostility of the Land-Sprites. This was
exactly what Egil Skallagrimsson did when to gain revenge he raised a
“libel-pole” against Erik Bloody-Axe. Before sailing away from Norway, Egil
went ashore on an island lying far out to sea. As the story runs: “Egil
walked up on the island. Carrying a hazel pole in his hand, he made his
way to a rocky headland looking out upon the mainland. Taking a horse’s
head, he fixed it on top of the pole. Then, making use of a certain formula
(a curse), he spoke thus, ‘Here I erect this libel-pole, and I turn the libel
against king Erik and queen Gunnhild,’ — and with these words he turned
the horse’s head toward the mainland —; ‘I aim this libel against the Land-
Sprites of this country, to the end that they shall go astray and that no one
of them shall reach or find his dwelling until they have driven Erik and
Gunnhild forth from the land.’ Thereupon he drove the pole into a crevice
and left it there. He also turned the head landwards, and on the pole he
wrote runes containing all the words of this curse. Then he went on board
his ship.”

Among the Kind Sprites may be reckoned all Ăsir, Vanir, and Bright-
Elves; among the Bad Sprites, Giants, Dwarfs, and Dark-Elves. After the
coming of Christianity, however, no distinction was made between the
Sprites; either they were all regarded as evil, or at any rate they were
supposed beyond doubt to imperil the salvation of any man who should
remain their friend. The Catholic clergy made it a point to arouse hatred
against all the race of Sprites rather than to break down men’s reliance on
them. Numerous myths eventually sprang up having to do with Sprites that
had suffered expulsion by means of the chants, the prayers, or the holy
water of the priests, and so perforce had abandoned their dwelling places
in stones or mounds. Each spring during Ascension Week in the North, as
everywhere else throughout Catholic Christendom, the priests walked in
procession around meadows and fields, holy water and crucifix in hand,
intoning prayers and benedictions, and thus compelling the Sprites to flee
the cultivated acres. During this particular week there were several
processional days; besides these, there were two fixed processional days:
the “greater,” on April 25th; and the “less,” on May
1st. Ceremonies of just this sort lent themselves directly to the
maintenance of belief in the Sprites; even in our own times traditions
persist relating to “Sprite mounds” and “Sprite trees,” sacred trees that no
hand must touch, — where the Sprites not long since were accustomed to
receive offerings of food.

Among more recent superstitions concerned with the lesser
supernatural beings, those relating to Elves and Giants (Jutuls, Trolls,
Mountain-Trolls) are by far the most prevalent. Among the Elves must be
counted the Huldre Folk, who occupy a conspicuous place in the
superstitions of Iceland. These Elves have quite the appearance of human
beings. They make their homes under ground or in the mountains, and are
not always hostile toward men but at times rather amiable and friendly; for
this reason they are occasionally given the designation Darlings. Among
the Norwegians, too, there are numerous stories about the Hidden Folk or
the underground people (mound folk, mountain folk), and above all about
the Huldre herself, the Hill-Lady. She is often malicious; but at other times
she shows a friendly demeanor toward men, as when she appears before
the herdsman and speaks and dances with him. The Hill-Lady is often very
beautiful as seen from the front, an impression enhanced by her blue
smock and white linen hood. From behind she is hideous: her back is
hollowed out like a trough and she has a tail that she is never able to
conceal.

She owns a large herd of fat cattle and dogs to shepherd them (“huldre
dogs”). She sings and plays well, but always in a melancholy strain; her
tunes are called the “Hill-Lady’s harping.”

The underground folk are unable to beget children with each other.
For this reason they desire to decoy young men or women in order to wed
with them. They also have a bad habit of stealing human children; instead
they lay one of their own brats in the cradle, the so-called changelings.
Other Sprites are the Nix and the Water-Sprite. They live in rivers and
lakes, and in certain localities are considered evil beings; in Telemark, for
example, traditional report has it that the Nix demands each year a human
sacrifice and that he is impelled to draw down to himself persons who
approach the water after nightfall. As a rule, however, these Water-Sprites
are guileless and friendly; they are adept at playing the fiddle, and it is
possible to induce them to teach the art. Having no hope of eternal
salvation, they are melancholy of mood; but they are made happy when
any one promises to bring about their redemption, and they often demand
the prospect of heavenly bliss as a reward for instruction in playing the
fiddle. When the Nix is heard moaning and groaning, it is an omen that
some one is about to be drowned. The Nix is able to reveal himself under
various guises: as a handsome young man with long hair, as a dwarf, or as
an old graybeard.

Out in the ocean dwell Merman and Mermaid.
They too sing and play beautifully and entice human beings to their haunts.
They have the power to foretell future events. The upper part of their
bodies has a human shape and the lower part has the likeness of a fish;
the Mermaid appears beautiful as long as she does not let her finny tail be
seen.

Among the Sprites the Brownie (Modern Norwegian Nisse) occupies
a position of his own. He is a small boy or a small man dressed in gray
clothes and a red cap; the crown of his head remains always moist, and his
hands lack thumbs. Lingering about the farmsteads, he makes himself
most useful so long as he is well treated; but if he takes umbrage at his
hosts, he is capable of causing a great deal of trouble. If the Brownie is
pleased with his surroundings, he will help the stableboy feed the horses,
will assist the milkmaid in the care of the cows, and will even steal from the
neighbors both hay and food to supply the farm on which he lives; but if he
grows dissatisfied, he will bewitch the cattle, spoil the food, and bring
misfortunes of other kinds upon the house. It may happen that two
Brownies from two different farms encounter each other in foraging for hay,
and then they will perhaps start a spirited fight armed with wisps of the hay.
On Christmas Eve prudent folk are accustomed to set out for the Brownie a
dish of Christmas pudding.

Whenever a person in sleep felt a weight upon his chest or when he
dreamed disquieting dreams, he had no doubt that the Nightmare or
Incubus was abroad, that he was being “ridden” by the Nightmare.
According to one account the Nightmare has no head, and is in fact hardly
anything more than a mere brown smock; according to another description
she is an actual woman who has the faculty of moving about by night and
pressing her weight upon the sleeper. Thus the Nightmare does not differ
widely from the so-called Werewolves, who by day are actual human
beings, but who during the night assume the shape of wolves; in this guise
they course about bent on sinister mischief, attacking people in sleep,
exhuming and devouring corpses in the churchyards. An ancient legend
connected with one of the first Yngling kings in Sweden, Vanlandi by name,
relates that a witch named Huld came over him in the form of a Nightmare
and choked him to death. So firmly rooted was the belief of our forefathers
in such things that the old ecclesiastical law of Eidsifa contained the
following provision: “If evidence shows that a woman rides (as a
Nightmare) any man or his servants, she shall pay a fine of three marks; if
she cannot pay, she shall be outlawed.” Nightmare and Werewolf are
obviously related to the Dark-Riders or Night-Riders already mentioned,
and during later times no great distinction was drawn between them. One
who had the ability to disguise his outward semblance was, in the ancient
phrase, “multiform” (eigi einhamr), and was sometimes also called “shape-
shifter” (hamhleypa).

Sources:

Peter Andreas Munch: Norse Mythology: Legends of Gods and Heroes. The American-Scandinavian Foundation, New York. 1926, pp. 42-47.
Rasmus B. Anderson (Ed.): The Elder Eddas of Saemund Sigfusson and the Younger Eddas of Snorre Sturleson. NorrŠna Society, London-New York. 1906.


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