Thanks to The Rusted Barrow for their dedication to writing on the spirits. Reading that post inspired my own.
Alongside The Rusted Barrow I got inspiration for this post from reading the book The Tradition of Household Spirits by Claude Lecouteux. It has been an excellent, approachable, and informative read. It digs into the various kinds of household spirits, their places, and practices associated with Them, and then what Their origins may be. It predominantly focuses on European beliefs, including those of France, England, Norway, Angland, and Russia. I highly recommend reading it, as many of the practices will be right at home with hearth cultus for any Heathen or Pagans in general.
Having read both The Rusted Barrow’s post and The Tradition of Household Spirits in the same week, I felt I had to write something on the topic of spiritss and I got to thinking: there have not been many guides on what spirits are out there in Heathenry and the Northern Tradition, nor of how to start a relationship with one, or how to interact with spiritss you are not used to. What started off as a large single post look like it will become another series of posts all on its own.
I call the spirits by the Old Norse plural for the word, vaettir; vaettr is the singular. The vaettir are all around us and within us. There are vaettir in and of the earth, jordvaettir aka earthvaettir, just as there are vaettir in and of the fire, eldrvaettir aka firevaettir. There are vaettir within us, and we ourselves, both our essential or ‘higher’ selves and various of our soul parts, which have their own names, are vaettir. For this post I will not be writing on the Soul Matrix, since that is a subject all on its own. This post series will focus on the vaettir external to humans. I think it is important, though, to reflect that even we humans are full of vaettir, whether we are talking about the spiritual reality of the blood of the Ancestors running in our veins or the individual cells of our body each being in and of itself a vaettr that helps to make us up.
What are Spirits?
Any thing which is ensouled can be said to be a spirit. They are any thing which weaves and is bound up in the web of Urðr or Wyrd. What, then, can be ensouled and woven in Urðr/Wyrd? Potentially everything, from the tiniest of atoms to the largest expanse of space. Whether or not a thing has a larger or smaller sphere of influence depends on the effects it has on others and its ability to act in creation. A given thing being a spirit does not mean it operates or acts in a way we may consider logical or at all with our interests in mind. Planets have their own spirit, for example, but whether or not that spirit can or has the desire speak to me, or vice versa, is another matter.
Over time I’ve worked out different words in Old Norse that get across ideas relevant to the experiences I and others have had with vaettir. One of those words is mikillvaettir.
Mikillvaettir or ‘big/tall/powerful/great spirits’ is similar in my understanding to a head/co-head and/or guardian spirit over a family line, specie of tree, animal, and so on. We can have close relationships with spirits, even the mikill, and so may appeal to them using more close, familiar terms. I call the mikillvaettr of Mugwort Grossmutter Una, German for Grandmother and Old Norse for Joy. Were I being more strict with my language I would be calling Her Amma Una. Mikillvaettir, both as a word and concept, is distinct from the term totem. Totem is a corruption of an Ojibwe word, doodem. As the Ojibwe People’s Dictionary notes, doodem itself means “clan, totem” and that “There is no simple independent word for clan, totem. A personal prefix goes with the dependent noun stem /=doodem-/ clan to make a full word.” Further, /=doodem-/ are related to personal clans in Ojibwe cultures. Mikilvaettir may be related to us, such as the Disir or Väter, our powerful female and male Ancestors, or They may be head of a kind or group of vaettir.
When viewed in this worldview, even the familiar takes on spiritual significance. If we understand that our cells can be ensouled, then so can a disease like the flu. The flu has a discernable way of coming into existence, of spreading, being fought, and triumphing over an infected host or being defeated. Since each iteration of the flu is a spirit, we can extend this knowing to the variouss strainss of the influenza virus and to the flu as a whole. The idea is that, as we might approach a mikilvaettr of a plant (for instance mikillgrasvaettr for ‘big/great grass or pasture spirit’) so we may have better relations with its ‘children’, we may also approach the flu. We could refer to as mikillsóttvaettr or ‘big illness spirit’. Understood this way we may not be able to beat the big illness spirit that, like our own Ancestral lines, governs the development of its own descendants. However, we may propitiate it or negotiate with it to tamp down on its rambunctious children. Barring that we might simply do spiritual work, alongside our physical remedies, to stop the small flu spirit from burning through a person, killing and dispelling the flu spirit so the person gets well. Since our own lich, our body, is a part of the Soul Matrix, in such an animistic view physical remedies for the flu are spiritual as well. The difference is how the remedies are made, where they affect, and what they affect. Some may be more effective than others. So would I take only a magical/spiritual approach to the flu? No. I vaccinate myself, I take care to wash my hands, and do all the other prudent things to ward off the flu just as I do unwanted spiritual influences by regular cleansing, grounding, centering, and shielding work. The approaches work together.
A Vaettir-Filled Worldview
When we view what is often understood as ordinary, whether it is the electricity in the walls, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the places we live, where we work, all as being full of spirits, the world changes. Not only are we not alone, but literally everything around us is composed of spirits. Each spirit, in turn, has Ancestors of some kind. The concrete used in the construction of our buildings (jorðvaettir) to the furnaces (eldrvaettir) used to heat them, to the pumped water (vatnvaettir) going into them. Through merely co-existing in the web of Urðr/Wyrd we weave in relationships every moment of every day. Some may be perfunctory, some transactional, and some truly deep. In my experience most of our relationships with spirits are going to be on the same kind of level as we might passing a random person on the sidewalk as we are both heading opposite directions. We are neutral to each other, trying to stay out of one another’s way and just trying to get wherever it is we want to go. Except where one party or the other initiates contact for a deeper relationship most of our connections with spirits are really cursory. A simple example of this is when we come into cultus with the landvaettir and/or husvaettir. After all, we are living on and with Them so it is in our best interests to get along well with the very land we live on and those we share our home with. Sometimes we have to do a lot to even attract Their attention. Because of experiences with humans in Their past some vaettir may need some patience on our part, and for us to put our best foot forward early and often. With some vaettir, we need to know that we are not going to get along and leaving the vaettir alone is the best way for us to have good relations.
With a vaettir-filled worldview Heathenry does not allow for the centrality of humankind. This puts it at odds with many philosophies from the start, such as humanism, which proposes a human-centric worldview. Humanity in Heathenry is just one class of vaettir among many. With the centrality of humanity absent, understanding ourselves in relationships with the Earth (Jorð) around us and potentially any of the Nine Worlds, we then enter a region in which human desires must take a back seat to the needs of other Beings if we are to live well together. We do not denigrate ourselves or ignore the needs and wants we have in a vaettir-filled worldview. Rather, one of the central tenets of Heathenry is to live in right relationship with the Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir; a human-centered worldview is utterly at odds with this.
Kinds of Vaettir
The Heathen worldview encompasses a lot of different kind of vaettir. My point here is to give a basic overview of what the vaettir are, and how one might encounter them rather than give an exhaustive look at specific vaettir.
Ancestors are those vaettir who are related to us. The tack I take with who the Ancestors are is very broad. Ancestors and ancestry is complex, a weaving of relationships of blood and bone, spirit, lineage, and adoption. Ancestors can be human and non-human, Gods as well as other kinds of vaettir.
Ancestors, especially the Disir, Väter, and Ergi (more on these later) have our immediate interests at heart. Generally, Ancestors are among the first vaettir to have our back in hard times and to work well with us. Each of us are Ancestors in the making and will someday join Them, so beyond being Their descendants They have a vested interest in us doing well so when we join Them we are best placed to help our own descendants.
Ancestors of blood and bone are those Ancestors we are directly related to through blood relations. These are the people you are looking for if you do geneaology or are looking for via DNA results. Taken at large, all of humanity shares blood Ancestors at some point in the distant past whether we are looking at our common early homo sapien Ancestors, or even further back through to Chromosomal Adam, or further back, Mitochondrial Eve. As a primarily Norse Heathen I look to Ask and Embla as our common human Ancestors in addition to those of our larger human ancestry.
Ancestors of spirit generally refers to Ancestors that are spiritual kin to us whether that is through a group of vaettir bringing us into their fold by adoption, by blood relations where a vaettr had a hand in the creation of a line of people such as Ing to the Ingvaones, through initiation/ceremony into a group who share common spiritual Ancestors, or by direct invitation into a vaettr’s family. These Ancestors may or may not be human.
Ancestors of lineage are our Ancestors related to us through our work, through initiated lines such as mystery cults, or are spiritual specialists like priests or diviners. These Ancestors might be also relate to us through crafts such as weaving, woodworking, painting, sculpting, brewing, etc., as most of these professions were, at varying times, initiated roles such as Master and Apprentice, or had deep spiritual significance in the ‘home cultures’ of Heathens.
Ancestors can be adopted as can we. Fostering is one way Ancestors can adopt us. Another is when we become part of a close-knit spiritual community, such as a Kindred and/or Heathen tribe. In my own Kindred I make offerings to all of our Ancestors, and include at least a few Ancestors of beloved people who are chosen family. A common refrain in various forms that I am seeing across the Internet lately towards QUILTBAG+ folks is “If you are disowned by your blood family for being who you are, I am now your parent.” If someone were truly taking on this role then I think in turn they would be adopted as sure as anyone fostering a child would be.
Disir are the powerful female Ancestors. Many of the alternative interpretations for what They are that I have found online I understand are among the roles the Disir occupy: They are the guardians of family lines, those who keep the other Ancestors in line, act as the voice of the Ancestors where needed, are instructors, and may act as mediators between Their living relatives and other vaettir.
Väter are the powerful male Ancestors. While many will use the term Alfar to refer to Them, I do not. I understand Alfar as Their own discreet kind of vaettir. The Väter occupy very similar places to the Disir in my experience of Them.
Ergi are the powerful queer Ancestors, and occupy similar places in Ancestors to the Disir and Väter. Like the word queer, ergi used to be an insult which has been reclaimed. In this case, ergi referred to someone being unmanly, namely the recipient in homosexual sex, and was considered an insult deep enough to kill or outlaw over.
Fylgja is a word meaning ‘follower’. Generally it means those spirits that follow a given person. A fylgja is often conflated with the Celtic ‘fetch’ which appears as an omen or a familial vaettr to a person. Its sighting is said to portend the person’s death. I use the term to mean any vaettr which a person works with in a tutelary, guardian, familial, or similar capacity in which the vaettr in question would have reason to actually ‘follow’ or, along with its other meanings, to ‘help’, ‘attend’, or ‘serve’. Rather than describing the kind of relationship one has to a fylgja, it is a term for a vaettr that one is attached to or vice versa.
As with fylgja I use this word in its more general capacity. Here, however, it references those vaettir who are tutelary, guardian(s), helping, attending, or serving in reference to one’s Ancestors. These may Ancestors Themselves or vaettir related to our Ancestors, whether they are animals or plants asssociated with Them, or bonds our Ancestors made with vaettir that They have in kind passed on to us.
A word describing a vaettr, among whose meanings are ‘guard’, ‘guardian’, ‘watch’, and ‘warden’. This word is very-much what it says on the tin: it is a spiritual guardian. In spiritual sight it may take the form of an animal. It may also take the form of the hamr of a person, their spiritual body. So far as lore is concerned I have not found a definite answer to where the vorðr comess from. The origins of a vorðr may come from one’s Ancestors, either a spirit of the Ancestors or from the Ancestors, eg a spirit the Ancestors formed some relationship with to watch over Their descendents. Depending on its origin you can reckon a vorðr as fylgja or kinfylgja.
The word means ‘elf’ and belies the vast corpus of beliefs that have grown up around this word. I look at the diminutive use of elf in the same way that Lecouteux describes in The Tradition of Household Spirits, namely that it, like dwarf, sprite, and others have been used so much to cram lore about various beings into it that we need to differentiate what we are actually talking about from the mass it has become in Medieval and later folklore. Rather than take the approach that any diminutive, ‘cute’ or similar vaettr is an elf, the Alfar are namely those vaettir who belong to the world Vanaheim. Though there may be cross-currents between Scandinavian and Irish sources for what elves may be, I look at the Tuatha de Denaan as utterly different beings to Alfar. Likewise, I differentiate from many other Heathens in that I understand the Alfar to be Their own distinct spiritual category of vaettir rather than the powerful male Ancestor (whom I call Väter) or from the Dead who occupy burial mounds. So what are Alfar? Vaettir who often take on many (often beautiful) forms who are powerful in magic. In my experiences with Them I have found Them statuesque, powerfully spoken even when ‘quiet’, a commanding presence, and able to make powerful magic and having varying connections with natural places, especially groves and wooded areas.
The word means ‘dwarf’, and like Alfar belies the absolutely immense amount of beliefs that have become attached to that word. As with ‘elf’, Lecouteux describes in The Tradition of Household Spirits how ‘dwarf’ came to mean an absolutely dizzying array of things, some of them interchangeable with ‘elf’. The Dvergar definitely have more to offer from the lore we have, including that They are the best crafters in the Nine Worlds. Their moods tend to be stern and They exact heavy tolls from those who cross Them. My experiences with Andvari is that They are concerned with what is Theirs, and that part of keeping frið (good social order) with Them is maintainin awareness of what is ours.
Jotun is a word related to ‘consuming’ and ‘devourer’, while often glossed as ‘giant’ nowadays. Jotun tend to be related to wilderness, natural forces, and animals. They can be monstrous, achingly beautiful, both, and neither. As many forms as nature can take, so can They, and yet more. Some Heathens eschew relationships with Jotun entirely, others only with those aligned with the Aesir, and yet others are willing to work with Jotun from any corner. Where one falls on this depends on the understanding one has of what Jotun are, Their place in the cosmology, and what our relationships with Them as humans can be. For myself, seeing as how many of the primal Holy Powers are Jotun, eg Surtr and Kari, and individual Jotun may be vaettir related to specific weather events, nature, and similar things, having a working relationship with at least some of Them can be good, in keeping with doing right by Holy Powers underpinning our Worlds. We do not have to get along with every vaettr to have a good relationship with some of Them any more than we must worship every Heathen God or Goddesss to be a good Heathen.
The Dead are any vaettir which once lived. While the Ancestors are generally looked on as Dead, not all of Them are. Some Ancestors may never have incarnated in Midgard, eg some Ancestors of spirit. The Dead encompass a wide range of vaettir, including the Dead of those mentioned above. Some of the Dead are ambivalent to the living, while others actively seek out the living. The Dead may be bound to a particular place such as a barrow mound or grave, they may wander free, or belong to a realm of a God or Goddess, eg Folkvangr, Valholl, and Helheim. In my understanding, most of our Ancestors’ graves and barrow mounds were both a resting place for parts of the soul matrix, and a point of contact or a possible ‘door’ between whatever afterlife They go to and where we are. Because a portion of the soul is in the lich, the bones, furs, teeth, and claws maintain powerful spiritual connections to the Dead.
Elemental vaettir are directly related to the Elements of the Northern Tradition/Heathenry. While not reckoned in this way in the lore or other sources, I find looking at the elements Themselves in this way speaks to the breadth and length at which vaettir are in our lives. It also helps with organizing associations, unsderstanding, and where and how those relationships are made. Jorðvaettir are Earthvaettir, Eldrvaettir are Firevaettir, Vatnvaettir are Watervaettir, Vindrvaettir are Windvaettir, and Issvaettir are Icevaettir. Why look at the Elements Themselves in terms of vaettir? Because not all Eldrvaettir are necessarily Fire-Etins, nor all Issvaettir necessarily Thurs. Having kinship with or association to certain Elements does not make Jotun necesssarily vaettir of those Elements. An Elemental worldview does have its limits, and that is about when it stops being accurate to the Being of a given vaettir.
We can also break down what we mean when speaking about certain Elemental vaettir. Jorðvaettir is more of a broad category when we look at a piece of land, because it belies all the many vaettir contained on and within the land. A single big Earthvaettr may be made up of the trees, animals, insects, and other vaettir in that piece of land, and yet that does not negate that each of those trees, animals, and so on are, Themselves, vaettir. I count my húsvaettir, or housevaettir, among the Earthvaettir. As my relationships with the land and the house that lies upon it differ, so too does my relationship differ between their vaettir. It is also worth pointing out that how and in what form you engage with a given Elemental vaettir may have drastic consequences on how it responds to you. Just starting out working with Eldrvaettir? Probably best to start with candles rather than a bonfire. Regardless of the size or scope of its form give any vaettr its due respect.
While each vaettr may have its own requirements for how it wishes to be reached, perhaps the easiest way to reach out is to make room for the vaettir on our home altars. If you are starting absolutely new to Heathenry or the Northern Tradition, my first recommendation is to build an Ancestor altar before anyone else’s. Not only will this encourage good relationships with your Ancestors, it will also have the benefit of the Ancestors you build good bonds with helping you to make new good and safe bonds with vaettir going forward.
To begin a relationship with a vaettr first you need to actually want to make a relationship with a vaettr. This might seem self-explanatory, but a good mindset is the best thing you can have starting off. Having a gipt fá gipt (gift for a gift) relationship, a relationship based in good Gebo, is not about transaction, but about wanting to establish and maintain right relationship. A gipt fá gipt/Gebo relationship is one that honors both participants, is good and wholesome. If you are looking for a transactional relationship where you put an offering out and get something immediately or near-term for it, that is fine to engage in with a vaettir you want to have a business relationship with. However, that is not what I am talking about here. What I am talking about here is developing a long-term and powerful devotional relationship with vaettir.
Once you are clear that your intention is to develop a good relationship you need to make space for that relationship. Making a physical space for that vaettir on an altar, often called a vé, or sacred space, is a powerful way to invite that vaettr deeper into your life. After all, you are making or setting aside space in a sacred space dedicated to the spiritual relationships you have and you are developing. So if have never made an altar, how do you go about doing it?
The Simplest Altar
A solid surface with a white cloth, a cup for water, and a single white candle with a lighter or book of matches and a holder for spent matches. That is the bare minimum you need for a simple altar. The surface can be a table, a bookshelf, an Altoid tin, or a cigar box. The candle can be as big or small as you need, from a birthday candle clear on up to a big taper. The cup can be made of whatever material is best for your situation, so long as it is clean and holds water. Start small. Altars can always grow if they need to.
A Simple Invitation Rite
Most of my relationships with vaettir have begun in similar fashion. First, I realize and affirm that I want to begin a relationship with a vaettr or group of vaettir. Then, I make space for Them on the altar. Then, after cleansing an object representing the vaettir/vaettir, I make prayer and offerings, then consecrate the item as Their representation and/or vessel.
Before beginning the rite, for a simple cleansing, ask the Eldest Ancestor, Fire, to cleanse you and the space. Something simple like “Hail Eldest Ancestor, please cleanse me and this space.” then pass the candle over yourself and the area clockwise. If you are seeking to connect with the Ancestors the Eldest is the best one to go to first. Leave the candle burning through the ritual if you can, and invite the Ancestor(s) you wish to connect with. Simple is better, especially if you are just taking your first steps. If you are just beginning Ancestor worship I would call on the Disir, Väter, and Ergi first, along with any Ancestors you knew in life, and for the first few months just dedicate Ancestor worship to Them. This establishess your relationship with your powerful and known Ancestors first, which helps to protect you from interloper vaettir pretending to be Ancestors, and helps your own discernment. Once the vaettir have been invited and asked to bless the items dedicated to Them, spend a few moments speaking with Them about the relationship you would like to build with Them, and spend time listening to Them in turn. You may ‘hear’, ‘see’, etc nothing, get no kind of spiritual feedback. That is fine. What is important is that, regardless of your receptivity, you give in kind for the time you took to speak. If you have divination tools handy and want direct feedback through them, now would be the time to bring them out. It would be good to double-check that the rite is appreciated, the offerings will be accepted, and if there is anything else needing attending to.
Offerings can be a simple cup of water, any foods or drinks the Ancestors may have liked or were denied when they were alive, or sacred herbs such as mugwort, chamomile, or tobacco. You don’t have to smoke or burn offerings as incense, especially if you live in a place where burning is prohibited, such as a dorm room. In such a case, LED candles work for the same purpose and making the offerings at the nearest, biggest tree should be fine. If you feel you should burn the offerings, keep the offerings in a container, and burn them in a simple ceremony. Once the offerings are taken care of, thank the vaettir for Their Presence, and snuff the candle. Blowing on the candle means you may accidentally spit on it, and so, snuffing it tends to be more respectful to the Firevaettr and the Eldest Ancestor. I tend to make water offerings on the roots of the biggest, nearest tree after asking the treevaettr for permission.
This will be it for the first part of Relationships with Spirits. The next post will dig into how we can begin relationships with spirits, the kinds of relationships we can have with Them, and the ways we keep these relationships healthy.