In the next few Hearthside History posts, we’re going to talk about the landvættir, or the land-spirits of the medieval North. A lot of folk hear about them whenever October comes around because contemporary followers of the Old Ways consider them important during harvest-related holidays, such as Vetrnætr (Winter Nights), which was between October 19th and 20th this year (2018)–at least accordion to my own reckoning of the Old Calendar.
This holiday was a particularly holy time in the Old Norse-Icelandic calendar, and it marked the period of two days when winter began. According to a few sagas, such as Gisli’s Saga [x] and Killer-Glum’s Saga, people would hold sacrifices for female ancestral spirits called dísir, hold large gatherings for playing games, and often host weddings during this time of the year. And, if my reckoning isn’t gods-awful, October 19th was the last day of summer as we headed into the dark depths of winter. So I hope you prepared your festivities while you still have the chance! If not, may next year be better for you! Nevertheless, a beer and a “skál” to the spirits should suffice, even if you don’t have much time to prepare.
I should admit, though, that the land-spirits weren’t necessarily connected to this holiday, at least from what our sources say about pre-Christian practices (which is quite little, to be honest). But land-spirits were certainly connected to the land, and so it doesn’t seem too unreasonable to surmise that land-spirits could have been involved since Winter Nights marks the end of a month often called Haustamánuðr in the old calendar, which means harvest-month. But anyway, if you don’t know what the heck these land-spirits are, that’s okay, because most people don’t even know about them since they aren’t actually mentioned in the Eddas—but luckily that’s what I’m here for! I’ve done some digging on your behalf, so all you have to to do is sit back, relax, and read these rambling words about my findings.
So, What Are Land-Spirits?
Although most people don’t know about them, the land-spirits likely played an important role in the Old Norse religion; they secured the land’s fertility, and thus governed its ability to produce crops and support livestock. Honestly, I can hardly overstate how important this would be for societies dependent upon arable and pastoral farming for survival. As a few of our upcoming sources will tell, these land-spirits often bestowed prosperity in regards to livestock if someone offered them sacrifices. If you don’t believe me, then just wait until we talk about good ol’ Thorstein Red-Nose, who had thousands of sheep thanks to a benevolent land-spirit.
But it is important to note that they offered more than just fertility, and this bit is probably even more important: they could also bestowed ‘luck’ to individuals who sacrificed to them. Now, when I say ‘luck’ in this Hall I usually mean it in a very Norse sense, where ‘luck’ is considered one’s ability to succeed. That’s a very simplified definition for it, of course, but we could spend an entire post talking about that alone— and I don’t want to get too caught up in explaining it right now (since we have so much to talk about already). So, for the sake of this post, just know that luck means one’s ability to take advantage of life’s opportunities. And luckily (pun intended), as we will hear of shortly, land-spirits were occasionally willing to grant their sacrificers foresight, which is an extremely useful ability when it came to one’s luck.
But, moving on, the Swedish folklorist Bo Almqvist wrote that the land-spirits were conceptualized as…
…the supernatural rulers of the country and nature. They were thought to dwell in cliffs and mountains and they were offered sacrifices, because they were thought to be able to bring good luck in husbandry, hunting or fishing. Furthermore they were feared, since they were apt to run amok if aroused and they would then cause disaster to people and drive them away from their homesteads. Under normal conditions they were invisible, but persons with second sight could perceive them, and all indications point towards the assumption that they were regarded as having human shape, just like the elves (álfar, huldufólk) in later Icelandic folk-belief.
We’ll hear about most of those characteristics regarding land-spirits as we go along; but before we delve into some sagas, it’s worth stopping for a moment to get our bearings straight. As I’ve mentioned already, the land-spirits come from the Old Norse religion—our sources, however, don’t. Every text in this post comes from the later medieval period, long after the day when heathenry ruled over the North. And so, in order to deal with this hurdle, we’re going to follow Else Mundal’s reading of the land-spirits as remnants of heathenry that managed to integrate themselves into popular religion during Christian times.
Conversion was, of course, a very dramatic shift for the medieval North; but it is too often considered to have been a complete replacement of old ideas. In reality, the development of Christianity in the medieval North must have been affected by the old culture. In other words, it was a process blending together both old and new, which was especially true when Christianity failed to offer a replacement for certain features of the old faith. On the continent, for example, saints could often occupy the roles that land-spirits already served for the pre-Christian medieval North; but Else Mundal argues that the saints introduced to the North probably lacked the connection to the local soil and past that the land-spirits already had, and therefore those saints didn’t satisfy the needs of these distant, northern communities.
The persistence among these communities to cling onto the land-spirits, however, doesn’t serve to say that Christian authorities encouraged these practices. As a few of our sources will soon show, many of them were strongly opposed to it and even forbade it by law. Overall, the role of land-spirits in the medieval North after conversion seems to have been a grey area; sometimes the church fought back, but other times they seem to have dismissed it as relatively harmless. So, as we continue, we should consider these land-spirits as part of an evolving sense of popular religion. They aren’t presented to us in their ‘pure’ heathen form, but rather as supernatural beings dwelling in the periphery of acceptable Christian belief.
But hopefully you’ve got a good sense for what these land-spirits are all about, because next time we’ll be exploring some sagas that actually talk about them.
ᚦᚬᚴ:ᚠᛁᚱᛁᚱ:ᛚᛁᛋᛏᚱ! Þǫkk fyrir lestr! (Thanks for reading!)
Make sure to wander back for part II!
Endnotes and Resources
- Viðar Hreinsson ed., “Reference Section,” in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, Vol. V, 383-417 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 417. ^
- Else Mundal, “Remnants of Old Norse Heathendom in Popular Religion in Christian Times,” In Medieval Christianity in the North: New Studies, edited by Kirsi Salonen, Kurt Villads Jensen, and Torstein Jørgensen, 7-22 (Turnhout: Brepolis Publishers, 2013), 13. ^
- Ibid. ^
- Quoted from Margaret Clunies Ross, “Land-Taking and Text-Making in Medieval Iceland,” in Text and Territory: Geographical Imagination in the European Middle Ages, edited by Sylvia Tomasch and Sealy Gilles, 159-84 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998), 169. [Google Books preview available] ^
- Mundal, “Remnants,” 13. ^
- Ibid., 9-10. ^
- Ibid., 13. ^
- Ibid. ^
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