The Wights

The Anglo-Saxon word wiht [wichht] means a being or creature, which would include humans and gods, and in fact eventually meant “thing” as well; náwiht [NAAH-wichht] is the ancestor of the Modern English word “nought” and meant “nothing.” But modern heathens use “wights” to refer to the spirits who live in trees, pools and other bodies of water, and particularly in particular places and in our houses: land-wights and house-wights. This is the way the word vættr, plur. vættir [vietrr, VIE-teer] is usually used in Old Norse.

Some heathens are very aware of land-wights and house-wights, while others cannot sense them at all. Some land-wights, perhaps all, are the spirits of people who died in that particular place, or were attached to it while alive; this means some of them are ghosts, and in the US and Canada, many of them are Native American/First Nation ancestral spirits. Some house-wights may have been in the house since it was built; others may have come with the current residents. House-wights can be identified with the brownies and boggarts of English folklore and the tomten of Scandinavian folklore.

For some heathens, offering to the wights is very important. There are two kinds of offerings. One is to leave offerings in the house for the house-wights, and in the garden or yard, or in another specific place, for the land-wights. A bowl of milk or oatmeal is a common offering for a house-wight or a yard or garden wight; some heathens instead set aside a small part of whatever they are eating. This can be done once a week, once a day, or whenever it feels right. Offerings are usually put in a bowl in an out-of-the-way place, but are sometimes put on an altar. The other kind of offering to the wights is as part of a blót. Some heathens call on the wights as part of the hallowing process, and many pour the dregs of each horn into the fire for the wights.

In the Americas, some feel it is important to offer the wights only gifts Native American/First Nation ancestors would accept, such as corn-meal, and not to offer them alcohol. Others do not identify the wights with any human people, or regard the spirit in which the offering is given as more important than what it is.

When Ibn Fadlan visited the Rus (Swedish) traders on the Volga, he saw them leaving sacrificial offerings out overnight; dogs ate them, but the heathen traders told him that for them this meant “their god” had accepted them. Most heathens, similarly, don’t mind if offerings to the wights are actually eaten by their cats or dogs; the animals are acting as agents for the wights. But some do keep the offerings out of animals’ way, or pour them on the ground. Among the signs of heathenry listed by the medieval Church are taking food to wells, waterfalls, and trees, so heathens may have poured offerings at the base of trees or into water; or they may have eaten them in these locales as a blót offering.

House-wights are known for hiding things when they feel ignored. (The solution is to give them some attention - and ask them to return the object.) Land-wights are crucial to prospering on a piece of land, especially getting things to grow there. In general, it is hard to be lucky if the wights are hostile, and still worse if they are scared and have fled. (Some industrial or otherwise polluted places have lost their wights, but they have been known to return after restoration takes place, and although some rural heathens assume there are no land-wights in big cities, urban heathens confirm that they do exist, particularly but not only in the parks.) One should ask permission of the local wights before cutting wood from a tree, and provide a new home when a tree in which a tree-wight makes its home has to be cut down, or a body of water in which a water-wight makes its home has to be drained. The níðstöng [NEETH-stöngg, with voiced “th”] or nithing pole works as a curse by terrifying the local wights so that they desert and/or retaliate against the victim. The Vikings used dragon-prows on their ships to frighten the land-wights in their victims’ territories and so deprive them of luck, more than to frighten the victims themselves, and strictly observed the rule of removing the dragon-head as soon as their own home coast came into view.

There is one famous example of the wights positively helping, bestowing good fortune: as told in the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason in Heimskringla and also in Landnámabók, King Harald of Denmark fared forth in the form of a whale to spy out Iceland and found it defended by a host of landvættir; in fact he was chased off by a dragon, an eagle, a bull, and a giant, the wights of the four quarters of the country, who are still depicted on the national coinage.

by Marion Ingham