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Vættir (Old Norse; singular Vættr) or wights are nature spirits in the Norse religion. These nature spirits are divided up into 'families', including the Álfar (elves), Dvergar (dwarves), Jötnar (giants), and even gods, the Æsir and Vanir, who are understood to be prominent families among them. The term 'families' (ættir) is often translated as 'clans' or 'races'. These families sometimes intermarried with each other, and sometimes with humans. Sjövættir (sea spirits) are guardians of the specific waters. The tomte or nisse is a solitary vätte, living on the farmstead. He is usually benevolent and helpful, which can not be said about a mischievous illvätte. However he can cause a lot of damage if he is angry, such as killing livestock.
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. 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.
Landvættir (land spirits) are chthonic guardians of specific grounds, such as wild places or farms. When Norse seafarers approached land, they reportedly removed their carved dragon heads from the bows of their longships, so as not to frighten and thus provoke the landvættir to attack, thereby incur bad luck from them. Icelandic culture continues to celebrate the supernatural protection over the island, and four landvættr can still be seen in the Icelandic coat-of-arms: a troll-bull, troll-eagle, dragon, and handsome giant. The troll-animals are actually Jötnar who shapeshifted into the form (and mentality) of an animal, and such animals are supernaturally strong. Even the dragon is generally a troll-snake: compare the Jötunn Loki whose children include a wolf, a serpent, and a horse.
Christianization, folklore and modern survivals
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 Huldufólk. People continue to report sightings of Trollir, Álfafólk, sea serpents, and so on.
Scandinavian folklore features a class of beings similar to the Old Norse landvættir. 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 (although the singular vittra and huldra, respectively, refer to a solitary and quite different being).
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.
Scandinavian Folklore, compiled by Scott Trimble - a scholarly outline of prominent themes in Scandinavian folklore.