What is Heathenism III

In the previous two postings of What is Heathenism I spent a lot of time on the Gods. Mentioned in those posts were the Wights and Giants, and in this post I would like to examine in more detail just what these entities are.

Wight (usually prn. Vite) is an Anglo word for spirit. It is a derivitave of the Old Norse word “vaettir”. The ancient polytheistic Teutons were animist, believing that every material thing had a spirit that ruled it. So there were wights of the forest, rivers, stones and sea. Swords and other weapons were named and believed to be sentient and animals were considered to omens or Gods incarnate.

The Vikings of Scandinavia were well known for their fearsome dragon ships with carven monstrous heads upon the prows. The purpose for these was two-fold, both frightening humans and wights. The Viking thought process when invading a land was to first terrify the local land spirits so the animating force of sovereignty would be banished, then conquer the people of that land. From many written accounts, the Vikings would remove the dragon heads from the ships when approaching their own countries so as not to frighten their own wights.

The wights are similar to the Sidhe of the Celtic tradition, as they are considered numinous folk that can be beneficial or bring bad luck depending on how they were treated. Naturally timid, these beings were propiated by offerings of milk, honey, mead and bread. 

In the ancient ways, the Gods were rarely dealt with by normal humans, this was reserved for heroes and sorcerers. A common Norse proverb says “It is better for man if the Gods are unaware of them.”. The average farmer or thrall (third-class citizen, more to come on the class system later) had recourse to his or her ancestors, the Alfar and Disir, and the landvaettir.


ANCESTORS: To truly understand Heathenism, something must be said about it’s views on family. Heathenism was and is an Ancestral Religion. It was believed that the soul often dwelled in their barrow or burial mound, and required food and drink just as any living family member would. The ancestors live in the memory of them, and to forget one’s forebears was to banish them to oblivion. It has been posited that many of the Aesir and Vanir were originally ancient human heroes that were diefied and their deeds turned to myth. This is possible as it was believed that humans were the descendants of many of their Gods. In Sweden mythological pedigree is traced back to Ingvi Freyr, and his grave site can be found there. Germans claim Odinic heritage and Holland means literally “Holle’s Land”, Frau Holle being the Dutch equivalent to Hella, Goddess of the Dead.

    Ancestry was essential in the Norse understanding of rebirth as well. It was believed that the soul was reborn through the family line, thus one in the current incarnation could have been their great-grandfather before. This belief engendered a deep tribal consciousness that extends even to this modern age.

     Ancestors were powerful spirit helpers who could grant divine protection, give wisdom and understanding, and keep the frith in the household.


ALFAR: The alfar have two functions. Alfar translates into “elf”, and while little hard and fast evidence can be found as to their original function, the Eddas tell us that these beings are great smiths, forging majikal weapons and talismans. Freya’s Brisingamen was forged by the Alfar, as was Odhinn’s spear and the cursed Ring of the Niebelungs. The Alfar are also referred to as dwarves, but should not be confused with our modern folkloric belief of short folk who live in caves. This, rather, would be the function and habitation of the Swartalfar – the Dark Elves.

    Another reality of the Alfar is the diefied male ancestor. Somewhat like the Catholic belief that some human souls go to heaven to become Angels, so the Teutons seem to believe that certain heroic male ancestors went to Alfheim to serve in the Alfar retinue. 

    The Alfar are referenced in the Sigdrifumal where Brunhild is teaching Siegfried the majiks he will need as a hero. In this saga she tells him to cut runes upon a pregnant woman’s hand when she is in labor and invoke the Alfar for aid. This suggests a link between leechcraft or healing majik and the Alfar. 


DISIR: The Disir, or Matronae, are a fascinating set of demi-goddesses. It has been suggested that the Disir are female ancestors, similar in fuction to the Alfar. Warriors seemed to have specifically devoted themselves to the Disir, as many archeological finds show inscriptions to them, asking for protection in battle and for their families back home. It is not known if this cult developed in the Norse Lands organically, or if was taken from the Celtic culture of the Gauls. There are some fascinating parallels between the Disir cult and the Gaulish Matronae cult.

    Freya was called Vana-Dis (Dis being singular) and was considered to be the queen of the Disir. The Disir seemed to have been simultaneously ancestresses and divine beings. Often pictured in threes, these divinities protect hearth and home as well as warriors in battle.


LANDVAETTIR: While the above mentioned wights were concerned with human affairs, the Landvaettir seem to be concerned with nature. They were the ones who give food it’s life-sustaining essence, made the grass grow and the rivers fresh. The Landvaettir were essential to the sustenance of the tribe, and were thus very important in daily life. Offerings were left on the doorstep and in the fields. Sacrifices were thrown into the bogs and jewelry into the rivers. Little of detail is known about the specifics, but we know that these spirits were important in daily life.


TROLLS: Many of us have a pre-made image in mind when someone mentions “troll”, it is either inspired by the bejewelled buddha-belly dolls or by the “Billy Goats Gruff”. The latter is more true-to-form, as this folktale originates from the Heathen tradition.

    Trolls were not relegated to bridges only, however. They were also associated with caves, deep dark forests, and mountains. Trolls were monstrous beasts, known for their nefarious majik and ability to shapeshift.  They were not created by the Gods, but rather spawned from the sweat of the Father of Giants, Ymir. They hate humanity and wreak havoc in the lives of homesteaders living too near the untamed wilderness. The Runattal tells of a spell that Odhinn knows that, should he see trolls flying about in the night, he can utter a charm that will confuse their senses so they lose their shape. 

    Before the advent of Christianity, Trolls were the feared villains of bedtime stories. Witches took their place, and many attributes normally associated with “witches” were originally the function of Trolls. Trolls kidnapped children, stole babies’ breath while sleeping (SIDS perhaps?) ate humans, cursed crops and cattle, set fire to longhouses etc.

    There is some evidence that cults to Trolls existed, even continuing practice into the mid seventeen-hundreds.


Well, that’s all for now, I will continue on another post. Until then, frith, might and worth!


Bjorn Odinsson


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