Týr is a god associated with law and heroic glory in Norse mythology, portrayed as one-handed. Corresponding names in other Germanic languages are Gothic Teiws, Old English Tīw and Old High German Ziu and Cyo, all from Proto-Germanic *Tîwaz (*Tē₂waz). The Latinised name is Tius or Tio. In the late Icelandic Eddas, Tyr is portrayed, alternately, as the son of Odin (Prose Edda) or of Hymir (Poetic Edda)
Tiw was equated with Mars in the interpretatio germanica. Tuesday is in fact "Tīw's Day" (also in Alemannic Zischtig from zîes tag), translating dies Martis.


Old Norse Týr, literally "god", plural tívar "gods", comes from Proto-Germanic *Tē₂waz (cf. Old English Tīw, Old High German Zīo), which continues Proto-Indo-European *deiwós "celestial being, god" (cf. Welsh duw, Latin deus, Lithuanian diẽvas, Sanskrit dēvá, Avestan daēvō "demon").
The earliest attestation for Týr's continental counterpart occurs in Gothic tyz "the t-rune" (𐍄) in the 9th-century Codex Vindobonensis 795. The name is later attested in Old High German as Cyo in the A Wessobrunn prayer ms. of 814. The Negau helmet inscription (2nd century b.c.) may actually record the earliest form, teiva, but this interpretation is tentative.
Týr in origin was a generic noun meaning "god", e.g. Hangatyr, literally, the "god of the hanged", as one of Odin's names, which was probably inherited from Tyr in his role as god of justice. The name continues on as Norwegian Ty, Swedish Tyr, Danish Tyr, while it remains Týr in Modern Icelandic and Faroese.

West Germanic Ziu/Tiw/Tiwaz

A gloss to the Wessobrunn prayer names the Alamanni Cyowari (worshipers of Cyo) and their capital Augsburg Ciesburc.
The Excerptum ex Gallica Historia of Ursberg (ca. 1135) records a dea Ciza as the patron goddess of Augsburg. According to this account, Cisaria was founded by Swabian tribes as a defence against Roman incursions. This Zisa would be the female consort of Ziu, as Dione was of Zeus.
The name of Mars Thingsus (Thincsus) is found in an inscription on an 3rd century altar from the Roman fort and settlement of Vercovicium at Housesteads in Northumberland, thought to have been erected by Frisian mercenaries stationed at Hadrian's Wall. It is interpreted as "Mars of the Thing". Here is also worth noting what Tacitus stated in his work Germania about capital punishment amongst the Germanic folk; that none could be flogged, imprisoned or executed, not even on order of the warlord, without the consent of the priest; who was himself required to render his judgement in accordance with the will of the god they believe accompanies them to the field of battle In the same source this god is stated being the chief deity.
Tacitus also named the German "Mars" as the primary deity, along with the German "Mercury", associated with the Germanic custom of the disposal of the spoils of war; as practiced from the 4th century BC to the 6th century AD.
In the Old English Rune Poem, the rune that is otherwise named for Tiw in the other rune poems (Abecedarium Nordmanicum, Old Norwegian Rune Rhyme, Old Icelandic Rune Poem), is called tir, meaning "glory". This rune was inscribed on more Anglo-Saxon cremation urns than any other symbol.

North Germanic Tyr

An early depiction of Tyr is found on the IK 190 bracteate found near Trollhättan, Sweden. The figure is shown with long hair, holding a sceptre in his left hand, and with a wolf biting his right.

Tyr sacrifices his arm to Fenrir in a 1911 illustration by John Bauer.
According to the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, at one stage the gods decided to shackle the Fenris wolf (Fenrir), but the beast broke every chain they put upon him. Eventually they had the dwarves make them a magical ribbon called Gleipnir. It appeared to be only a silken ribbon but was made of six wondrous ingredients: the sound of a cat's footfall, the beard of a woman, the roots of a mountain, bear's sinews, fish's breath and bird's spittle. The creation of Gleipnir is said to be the reason why none of the above exist. Fenrir sensed the gods' deceit and refused to be bound with it unless one of them put his hand in the wolf's mouth.
Tyr, known for his great wisdom and courage, agreed, and the other gods bound the wolf. After Fenrir had been bound by the gods, he struggled to try to break the rope. Fenrir could not break the ribbon and enraged, bit Tyr's right hand off. When the gods saw that Fenrir was bound they all rejoiced, except Tyr. Fenrir will remain bound until the day of Ragnarök. As a result of this deed, Tyr is called the "Leavings of the Wolf"; which is to be understood as a poetic kenning for glory. After a heartbreaking battle (of Ragnarök) Fenrir swallowed Odin the All-father, whole.
According to the Prose version of Ragnarok, Tyr is destined to kill and be killed by Garm, the guard dog of Hel. However, in the two poetic versions of Ragnarok, he goes unmentioned; unless one believes that he is the "Mighty One".
In Lokasenna, Tyr is taunted with cuckoldry by Loki, maybe another hint that he had a consort or wife at one time.
In the Hymskvidha, Tyr's father is named as the etin Hymir – the term "Hymir's kin" was used a kenning for etinkind – while his mother goes unnamed, but is otherwise described in terms that befit a goddess. This myth also pairs Tyr with Thor, and draws a comparison between their strength via the lifting of Hymir's cauldron. Thor proves the stronger, but other than Thor's own son, Magni, Tyr is the only deity whose strength is ever questioned in comparison to the Thunderer's.

Tiwaz rune

The *Tiwaz rune is associated with Tyr.
The t-rune is named after Tyr, and was identified with this god; the reconstructed Proto-Germanic name is *Tîwaz. The rune is sometimes also referred to as *Teiwaz, or spelling variants.

Rune poems

Tiwaz is mentioned in all three rune poems. In the Icelandic and Norwegian poems, the rune is associated with the god Tyr.
stanza translation comments
Old Norwegian
Tyr es einhendr Asa;
opt verðr smiðr at blasa.

Tyr is the one-handed god;
often happens the smith must blow.

Old Icelandic
Týr er einhendr áss
ok ulfs leifar
ok hofa hilmir.
Mars tiggi.

Tyr is a one-handed god,
and leavings of the wolf
and prince of temples.
the "Mars tiggi" is a gloss and not part of the poem itself, indicating that Týr was associated with the Roman deity and/or the planet Mars.
Old English
[tir] biþ tacna sum, healdeð trywa wel
wiþ æþelingas; a biþ on færylde
ofer nihta genipu, næfre swiceþ.

[Fame] is a sign, it keeps faith well
with athelings, it is always on its course
over the mists of night, it never fails.
The tir "fame, honour" is a gloss written alongside the rune. Several interpretations have been offered, typically involving association with the north star, as the words tacna and færyld have astronomical connotations (used for "sign of the zodiac" and "path of a planet", respectively).


Ancient usage

Multiple Tiwaz runes

The inscription on the Kylver stone ends with stacked Tiwaz runes at the end of the line.
Multiple Tiwaz runes either stacked atop one another to resemble a tree-like shape, or repeated after one another, appear several times in Germanic paganism:
Stacked Tiwaz.png
  • The charm (alu) on the Lindholm amulet, dated from the 2nd to the 4th century contains three consecutive t runes, has been interpreted as an invocation of Tyr.
  • The Kylver Stone (400 AD, Gotland) features 8 stacked Tiwaz runes at the end of an Elder Futhark inscription.
  • From 500 AD, a Scandinavian C-bracteate (Seeland-II-C) features an Elder Futhark inscription ending with three stacked Tiwaz runes.

Poetic Edda

According to the runologist Lars Magnar Enoksen, the Tiwaz rune is referred to in a stanza in Sigrdrífumál, a poem in the Poetic Edda.
Sigrdrífumál tells that Sigurd has slain the dragon Fafnir and arrives at a fortress of shields on top of a mountain which is lit by great fires. In the fortress, he finds an enchanted sleeping Valkyrie whom he wakes by cutting open her corslet with his sword. The grateful Valkyrie Sigrdrífa offers him the secrets of the runes in return for delivering her from the sleep, on condition that he shows that he has no fear. The Valkyrie begins by teaching him that if he wants to achieve victory in battle, he is to carve "victory runes" on his sword and twice say the name "Týr" - the name of the Tiwaz rune.
6. Sigrúnar skaltu kunna,
ef þú vilt sigr hafa,
ok rísta á hjalti hjörs,
sumar á véttrimum,
sumar á valböstum,
ok nefna tysvar Tý.
6. Winning-runes learn,
if thou longest to win,
And the runes on thy sword-hilt write;
Some on the furrow,
and some on the flat,
And twice shalt thou call on Tyr.

Lexical traces

In the sphere of organized warfare, Tyr/Tiw had become relatively unimportant compared to Odin/Woden in both North and West Germanic by the close of the Migration Age. Traces of the god remain, however, in Tuesday (Old English tíwesdæg "Tiw's day"; Old Frisian tîesdei, Old High German zîestag, Alemannic and Swabian dialect in south west Germany (today) Zieschdig/Zeischdig, Old Norse týsdagr), named after Tyr in both the North and the West Germanic languages (corresponding to Martis dies, dedicated to the Roman god of war and the father-god of Rome, Mars) and also in the names of some plants: Old Norse Týsfiola (after the Latin Viola Martis), Týrhialm (Aconitum, one of the most poisonous plants in Europe whose helmet-like shape might suggest a warlike connection) and Týviðr, "Tý's wood", Tiveden may also be named after Tyr, or reflecting Tyr as a generic word for "god" (i.e., the forest of the gods). In Norway the parish and municipality of Tysnes are named after the god.
German Dienstag and Dutch dinsdag (Tuesday) might be derived from Mars Thingsus, as mentioned above.



Vár or Vór (Old Norse, meaning either "pledge" or "beloved") is a goddess associated with oaths and agreements. Vár is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources; the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson; and kennings found in skaldic poetry and a runic inscription. Scholars have proposed theories about the implications of the goddess.


In the Poetic Edda poem Þrymskviða, the blessed of Vár is invoked by the jötunn Þrymr after his "bride" (who is actually the god Thor disguised as the goddess Freyja) is hallowed with the stolen hammer of Thor, Mjöllnir, at their wedding:
Benjamin Thorpe translation:
Then said Thrym,
the Thursars's lord:
Bring the hammer in,
the bride to consecrate;
lay Miöllnir
on the maiden's knee;
unite us each with other
by the hand of Vör.
Henry Adams Bellows translation:
Then loud spake Thrym,
the giants' leader:
"Bring in the hammer
to hallow the bride;
On the maiden's knees
let Mjollnir lie,
That us both the hand
of Vor may bless."

In the chapter 35 of the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, High tells Gangleri (described as king Gylfi in disguise) about the ásynjur. High lists Vár ninth among the sixteen ásynjur he presents in the chapter and provides some information about her:
Ninth Var: she listens to people's oaths and private agreements that women and men make between each other. Thus these contracts are called varar. She also punishes those who break them.
In addition, Vár appears twice more in the Prose Edda. In chapter 75 of the Prose Edda book Skáldskaparmál Vár appears within a list of 27 ásynjur names. In chapter 87 the name Vár is employed in a kenning referring to the goddess Skaði ("bow-string-Vár") in the poem Haustlöng by the skald Þjóðólfr of Hvinir. A runic inscription inscribed on a stick from Bergen, Norway around the year 1300 records a common mercantile transaction followed by a verse from a displeased scribe that mentions Vár (edits applied per the translator's notes):
'Wise Var of wire ["woman of filigree," meaning "wise bejeweled woman"] makes (me) sit unhappy.
Eir [woman] of mackerels' ground [likely gold] takes often and much sleep from me.'
Mindy Macleod and Bernard Mees posit that the first line of the inscription essentially means "women make me miserable" or potentially "marriage makes me miserable," whereas the second line means "women often take a lot of sleep from me."


Regarding the ceremonial marital reference to Vár in Þrymskviða, Andy Orchard opines that "the antiquity of such a ritual is far from clear." Britt-Mari Näsström argues that, like many other minor goddesses, Vár was originally one of Freyja's names, "later apprehended as independent goddesses."
Rudolf Simek says that the goddesses Sága, Hlín, Sjöfn, Snotra, Vár, and Vör should be considered vaguely defined figures who "should be seen as female protective goddesses" that are all responsible for "specific areas of the private sphere, and yet clear differences were made between them so that they are in many ways similar to matrons."



Huldufólk (Icelandic hidden people from huldu- "pertaining to secrecy" and fólk "people", "folk") are elves in Icelandic folklore. Building projects in Iceland are sometimes altered to prevent damaging the rocks where they are believed to live. According to these Icelandic folk beliefs, one should never throw stones because of the possibility of hitting the huldufólk. In 1982, 150 Icelanders went to the NATO base in Keflavík to look for "elves who might be endangered by American Phantom jets and AWACS reconnaissance planes." In 2004, Alcoa had to have a government expert certify that their chosen building site was free of archaeological sites, including ones related to huldufólk folklore, before they could build an aluminum smelter in Iceland. In 2011, elves/huldufólk were believed by some to be responsible for an incident in Bolungarvík where rocks rained down on residential streets. Icelandic gardens often feature tiny wooden álfhól (elf houses) for elves/hidden people to live in. President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has explained the existence of huldufólk tales by saying: "Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies." Hidden people often appear in the dreams of Icelanders. They are usually described as wearing 19th-century Icelandic clothing, and are often described as wearing green.
They are also a part of folklore in the Faroe Islands. In Faroese folk tales, Huldufólk are said to be "large in build, their clothes are all grey, and their hair black. Their dwellings are in mounds, and they are also called Elves." They also dislike crosses, churches and electricity.


The term huldufólk was taken as a synonym of álfar (elves) in 19th century Icelandic folklore. Jón Árnason found that the terms are synonymous, except álfar is a pejorative term. Konrad von Maurer contends that huldufólk originates as a euphemism to avoid calling the álfar by their real name.
There is, however, some evidence, that the two terms have come to be taken as referring to two distinct sets of supernatural beings in contemporary Iceland. Katrin Sontag (2007) found that some people do not differentiate elves from hidden people, while others do. She also cites the preliminary results of a 2006 survey by Terry Gunnell, which finds that "54.6% of 639 persons said that they would not distinguish between álfar and huldufólk, 20.0% said they would and 25.4% were not sure."
Those who have seen the "huldufæolk" would describe them as,"Glowing, light white, attractive".


Gunnell writes: "different beliefs could have lived side by side in multicultural settlement Iceland before they gradually blended into the latter-day Icelandic álfar and huldufólk." He also writes: "Huldufólk and álfar undoubtedly arose from the same need. The Norse settlers had the álfar, the Irish slaves had the hill fairies or the Good People. Over time, they became two different beings, but really they are two different sets of folklore that mean the same thing."
Precursors to elves/hidden people can be found in the writings of Snorri Sturluson and in skaldic verse. Elves were also mentioned in eddaic poems, and appear to be connected to fertility.
Official opposition to dancing may have begun in Iceland as early as the 12th-century, and the association of dancing with elves can be seen as early as the 15th-century. One folktale shows the elves siding with the common people and taking revenge on a sheriff who banned dance parties. Guðmundsdóttir concludes that these legends "show that Icelanders missed dancing".
In the 13th and 14th centuries, books from mainland Europe reached Iceland, and may have influenced folktales about elves.
Sveinsson writes: "Round about 1600 sources for hidden folk become so voluminous that we can readily define the beliefs and legends about them, and after that there is one source after another about them right down into the twentieth century." According to Árni Björnsson, belief in hidden people grew during the 17th and 18th centuries when Iceland was facing tough times.


There are four Icelandic holidays considered to have a special connection with hidden people: New Year's Eve, Twelfth Night (January 6), Midsummer Night and Christmas night. Elf bonfires (álfabrennur) are a common part of the holiday festivities on Twelfth Night (January 6). There are many Icelandic folktales about elves and hidden people invading Icelandic farmhouses during Christmas and holding wild parties. It is customary in Iceland to clean the house before Christmas, and to leave food for the huldufólk on Christmas. On New Year's Eve, it is believed that the elves move to new locations, and Icelanders leave candles to help them find their way. On Midsummer Night, folklore states that if you sit at a crossroads, elves will attempt to seduce you with food and gifts; there are grave consequences for being seduced by their offers, but great rewards for resisting.

Icelandic folklore

Several scholars have commented on the connections between hidden people and the Icelandic natural environment.
Ólina Thorvarðardóttir writes: "Oral tales concerning Icelandic elves and trolls no doubt served as warning fables. They prevented many children from wandering away from human habitations, taught Iceland's topographical history, and instilled fear and respect for the harsh powers of nature."
Michael Strmiska writes: "The Huldufólk are... not so much supernatural as ultranatural, representing not an overcoming of nature in the hope of a better deal beyond but a deep reverence for the land and the mysterious powers able to cause fertility or famine." Alan Boucher writes: "Thus the Icelander's ambivalent attitude towards nature, the enemy and the provider, is clearly expressed in these stories, which preserve a good deal of popular -- and in some cases probably pre-christian -- belief."
Anna Pietrzkiewicz contends that the huldufólk symbolize idealized Icelandic identity and society, the key elements of which are seeing the "past as a source of pride and nature as unique and pure."

Contemporary Iceland


Árni Björnsson, the former director of the ethnological department of the National Museum of Iceland, did a study of Icelanders born between 1870 and 1920. He was disappointed to find that only 10% believed in supernatural beings.
According to a 1975 survey by psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson, Icelanders’ level of belief in hidden people and fairies can be broken down into the following percentages:
  • Impossible, 10%
  • Unlikely, 18%
  • Possible, 33%
  • Probable, 15%
  • Certain, 7%
  • No opinion, 17%
# Question

Total Men Women Age 30-39 Age 40-49 Age 50-59 Age 60-70 Education: Primary Education: Secondary Education: College

20 Percentage of Respondents Claiming Various Types of Psychic Experiences: Fairies or "hidden folks"

5 5 5 3 4 8 6 8 3 0
41 Attitudes Towards Paranormal Phenomena Etc.: "Hidden Folks" and fairies


10 14 7 14 10 5 10 7 10 24


18 19 16 18 21 14 16 10 18 38


33 31 34 28 33 38 33 35 32 26


15 14 16 14 15 17 17 21 14 5


7 7 8 8 7 9 4 10 8 0

no opinion

17 15 19 18 14 17 20 17 18 17

There was also a 1995 survey by Pétur Pétursson, which only looked at people interested in alternative belief systems and alternative medicine rather than the general population. According to the survey, among the people this group, belief in elves broke down as follows: 70% believed in their existence, 6% did not believe in their existence, 23% were unsure, and 1% would not answer.
A July 1998 survey by Dagblaðið Vísir found that 54.4% of Icelanders surveyed claimed to believe in elves, while 45.6% did not. This survey has been criticized for only allowing yes or no responses rather than more nuanced answers. Notably, it also showed that supporters of Framsóknarflokkur (the Progressive Party) believed in elves more than other political parties.
A 2006 survey by folklorist Terry Gunnell found that "There is a little bit more doubt than there used to be, but generally the figures were much the same as they were." Sontag writes: "According to the preliminary results of this survey, 8.0% of 650 persons who answered this question were certain about the existence of huldufólk and álfar, 16.5% thought it was likely they existed, 31.0% assumed it was possible, 21.5% thought it was unlikely, 13.5% thought it was impossible and 8.5% did not have an opinion on this."
Anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup found that different ways of asking Icelanders about Huldufólk could elicit very different responses. Similarly, Folklore professor Terry Gunnell has said: "Very few will say immediately that they 'believe' in such, but they won't deny it either."
Icelandic communities in other countries may have lower levels of belief in huldufólk. Daisy L. Neijmann claims that among Icelanders in Canada, "Belief in these creatures... was geographically bound seeing that they were part of the Icelandic landscape, and therefore they could not, ultimately, survive among Icelandic Canadians."

Landvættir (land wights) / Tomte / Nisse / Huldufólk

Landvættir ("land wights") are spirits of the land in Norse and in Germanic paganism. They protect and promote the flourishing of the specific places where they live, which can be as small as a rock or a corner of a field, or as large as a section of a country.

The nature of landvættir

landvættir can be chthonic in nature, spirits of the dead, but mostly are nature spirits, since they sometimes live in land that has never been populated. Hilda Ellis Davidson argued that stories such as that of Goat-Björn imply that they were already there when the settlers arrived in Iceland. Goat-Björn was offered a partnership by a "rock-dweller" (bergbúi) and thereafter prospered. People with second sight saw "all the land-spirits" following him to the Thing and following his brothers hunting and fishing. They told of people worshipping and receiving advice from spirits living in waterfalls, woods, and rocks.
Jörmundur Ingi Hansen, former High Priest of the Ásatrúarfélagið, said that landvættir are "spirits and they in some way control the safety of the land, the fertility of the land, and so on." According to him, they are "tied to a spot in the landscape, to a huge rock, to a mountain, or to a specially beautiful place" and that place can be recognized by being more beautiful than "just a few yards away."
The belief in local landvættir lives on in Iceland, with many farms having rocks that are not mowed closely and on which children are not allowed to play. When construction was about to start on Keflavík air base, the Icelandic foreman dreamed that a woman came to him asking to delay moving a boulder to give her family time to move out. He did so for two weeks over American objections, until she came to him in another dream telling him the landvættir were all out.
Other terms are sometimes used in the texts for the spirits, such as bergbúi, ármaðr, and spámaðr, but there is one mention of pre-Christian Icelanders bringing offerings specifically to landvættir. In a section of Hauksbók, a Christian bishop rails against "foolish women" who take food out to rocks and hollows to feed the landvættir in hopes of being blessed with a prosperous household.

Wealth and Weal of the Land

One version of the Icelandic Book of Settlement says that the ancient law of Iceland forbade having a dragon-prow in place on one's ship in harbor or coming in to land "with gaping mouth or yawning snout," because the landvættir would be frightened away.
In Egils saga, Egil Skallagrímsson set up a nithing pole to agitate the landvættir in Norway so that they would "go astray . . . until they have driven King Eric and Queen Gunnhild" out of the country. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards translate landvættir as "guardian spirits" in this passage.

The four landvættir of Iceland

Iceland is protected by four great guardians who are known as the four landvættir.
According to the Saga of King Olaf Tryggvason in Heimskringla, King Harald Gormsson of Denmark, intending to invade Iceland, had a wizard send his spirit out in the form of a whale to scout it out for points of vulnerability. Swimming westwards around the northern coast, the wizard saw that all the hillsides and hollows were full of landvættir, "some large and some small." He swam up Vopnafjörður, intending to go ashore, but a great dragon came flying down the valley toward him, followed by many snakes, insects, and lizards, all spitting poison at him. So he went back and continued around the coast westward to Eyjafjörður, where he again swam inland. This time he was met by a great bird, so big that its wings touched the hillsides on either side, with many other birds large and small following it. Retreating again and continuing west and south, he swam into Breiðafjörður. There he was met by a huge bull, bellowing horribly, with many landvættir following it. He retreated again, continued south around Reykjanes, and tried to come ashore at Vikarsskeið, but there he encountered a mountain giant (bergrisi), his head higher than the hill-tops, with an iron staff in his hand and followed by many other giants (jötnar). He continued along the south coast but saw nowhere else where a longship could put in, "nothing but sands and wasteland and high waves crashing on the shore."
The four landvættir are now regarded as the protectors of the four quarters of Iceland: the dragon (Dreki) in the east, the eagle or griffin (Gammur) in the north, the bull (Griðungur) in the west, and the giant (Bergrisi) in the south.
The four landvættir of Iceland are depicted on the Icelandic coat of arms and on the obverse of the Icelandic króna coins.

Landvættir in modern Scandinavian folklore

Invisible creatures

Some say that the dwarves of Scandinavian folklore lived on as wights (vättar or huldrefolk), although with somewhat different characteristics. Wights live underground, often right next to human settlements, and are commonly a menace to their ground-dwelling neighbors.
A type of wight from Northern Sweden called Vittra lives underground, is invisible most of the time and has its own cattle. Most of the time Vittra are rather distant and do not meddle in human affairs, but are fearsome when enraged. This can be achieved by not respecting them properly, for example by neglecting to perform certain rituals (such as saying "look out" when putting out hot water or going to the toilet so they can move out of the way) or building your home to close to or, even worse, on top of their home, disturbing their cattle or blocking their roads. They can make your life very very miserable or even dangerous - they do what ever it takes to drive you away, even arrange accidents that will harm or even kill you. Even in modern days, people have re-build or moved houses in order not to block a "vittra-way", or moved from houses that are deemed a "Vittra-place" (Vittra ställe) because of bad luck - although this is rather uncommon. In tales told in the north of Sweden, Vittra often take the place that trolls, tomte and vättar hold in the same stories told in other parts of the country. Vittra are believed to sometimes "borrow" cattle that later would be returned to the owner with the ability to give more milk as a sign of gratitude. This tradition is heavily influenced by the fact that it was developed during a time when people let their cattle graze on mountains or in the forest for long periods of the year.

A tomte, nisse or tomtenisse (Sweden), nisse (Norway and Denmark) or tonttu (Finland) are the good and helpful land wights of Scandinavian folklore. The tomte or nisse was believed to take care of a farmer's home and children and protect them from misfortune, in particular at night, when the housefolk were asleep. The Swedish name tomte is derived from a place of residence and area of influence: the house lot or tomt. Nisse is the common name in Norwegian, Danish and the Scanian dialect in southernmost Sweden; it is a nickname for Nils, and its usage in folklore comes from expressions such as Nisse god dräng ("Nisse good lad", cf. Robin Goodfellow). Other names are tuftekall, tomtegubbe or haugebonde ("mound farmer"), all names connecting the being to the origins of the farm (the building ground), or a burial mound. Those names are remembrances of the being's origins in an ancestral cult.


The tomte/nisse was often imagined as a small, elderly man (size varies from a few inches to about half the height of an adult man), often with a full beard; dressed in the everyday clothing of a farmer. However, there are also folktales where he is believed to be a shapeshifter able to take a shape far larger than an adult man, and other tales where the tomte/nisse is believed to have a single, cyclopean eye. In modern Denmark, nisses are often seen as beardless, wearing grey and red woolens with a red cap. Since nisses are thought to be skilled in illusions and sometimes able to make themselves invisible, one was unlikely to get more than brief glimpses of him no matter what he looked like. Norwegian folklore states that he has four fingers, and sometimes with pointed ears. His eyes glow in the dark.


Despite his smallness, the tomte/nisse possessed an immense strength. Even though he was protective and caring he was easy to offend, and his retributions ranged from small pranks like a stout box on the ears to a more sociopathical punishment like killing off the livestock or ruining of the farm's fortune. The tomte/nisse was a traditionalist who did not like changes in the way things were done at the farm. Another easy way to offend him was rudeness: farm workers urinating in the barns, or not treating the creatures well would be soundly thrashed. If anyone spilled something on the floor in the house it was wise to shout a warning to the tomte below. An angry tomte is featured in the popular children's book by Swedish author Selma Lagerlöf, Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (Nils Holgersson's Wonderful Journey Through Sweden). The tomte turns the naughty boy Nils into a tomte in the beginning of the book, and Nils then travels across Sweden on the back of a goose.
One was also required to please the spirit with gifts – a particular gift was a bowl of porridge on Christmas night. If the tomte was not given his payment, he would leave the farm or house, or engage in mischief such as tying the cows' tails together in the barn, turning objects upside-down, and breaking things. The tomte liked his porridge with a pat of butter on the top. In an often retold story, a farmer put the butter underneath the porridge. When the tomte of his farmstead found that the butter was missing, he was filled with rage and killed the cow resting in the barn. But, as he thus became hungry, he went back to his porridge and ate it, and so found the butter at the bottom of the bowl. Full of grief, he then hurried to search the lands to find another farmer with an identical cow, and replaced the former with the latter.
In another tale a Norwegian maid decided to eat the porridge herself, and ended up severely beaten by the nisse. The being swore: "Have you eaten the porridge for the tomte, you have to dance with him!". The farmer found her nearly lifeless the morning after.
The tomte is connected to farm animals in general, but his most treasured animal was the horse. Belief had it that one could see which horse was the tomte's favourite as it would be especially healthy and well taken care of. Sometimes the tomte would even braid its hair and tail. Sometimes actually undoing these braids could mean misfortune or angering the tomte.

Other encounters

Some stories tell how the nisse could drive people mad, or bite them. The bite from a nisse was poisonous, and otherworldly healing was required. As the story goes, the girl who was bitten withered and died before help arrived.

The tomte after Christianization

The tomte was in ancient times believed to be the "soul" of the first inhabitor of the farm; he who cleared the tomt (house lot). He had his dwellings in the burial mounds on the farm, hence the now somewhat archaic Swedish names tomtenisse and tomtekarl, the Swedish and Norwegian tomtegubbe and tomtebonde ("tomte farmer"), the Norwegian haugkall ("mound man"), and the Finnish tonttu-ukko (lit. "house lot man"). Thus, the tradition of giving porridge to the tomte at Christmas is a remainder of ancestral worship.
The tomte was not always a popular figure, particularly during and after the Christianization of Scandinavia. Like most creatures of folklore he would be seen as heathen (pre-Christian) and be demonized and connected to the Devil. Farmers believing in the house tomte could be seen as worshipping false gods or demons; in a famous 14th century decree Saint Birgitta warns against the worship of tompta gudhi, "tomte gods" (Revelationes, book VI, ch. 78). Folklore added other negative beliefs about the tomte, such as that having a tomte on the farm meant you put the fate of your soul at risk, or that you had to perform various non-Christian rites to lure a tomte to your farm.
The belief in a tomte's tendency to bring riches to the farm by his unseen work could also be dragged into the conflicts between neighbours. If one farmer was doing far better for himself than the others, someone might say that it was because of him having a tomte on the farm, doing "ungodly" work and stealing from the neighbours. These rumours could be very damaging for the farmer who found himself accused, much like accusations of witchcraft during the Inquisitions.

Similar folklore

The tomte/nisse shares many aspects with other Scandinavian wights such as the Swedish vättar (from the Old Norse landvættir) or the Norwegian tusser. These beings are social, however, whereas the tomte is always solitary (though he is now often pictured with other tomtar). Some synonyms of tomte in Swedish and Norwegian include gårdbo ("(farm)yard-dweller"), gardvord ("yard-warden", see vörðr), god bonde ("good farmer"), fjøsnisse ("barn gnome") or gårdsrå ("yard-spirit"). The tomte could also take a ship for his home, and was then known as a skeppstomte/skibsnisse. In other European folklore, there are many beings similar to the tomte, such as the Scots and English brownie, Northumbrian English hob, the German Heinzelmännchen or the Russian domovoi. The Finnish word tonttu has been borrowed from Swedish.
The tomte is one of the most familiar creatures of Scandinavian folklore, and he has appeared in many works of Scandinavian literature. With the romanticisation and collection of folklore during the 19th century, the tomte would gain popularity. In the English editions of the fairy tales of H. C. Andersen the word nisse has been inaccurately translated as goblin (a more accurate translation is brownie or hob).

The modern tomte

A tomtenisse made of salty dough. A common Scandinavian Christmas decoration.
In the 1840s the farm's nisse became the bearer of Christmas presents in Denmark, and was then called julenisse (Yule Nisse). In 1881, the Swedish magazine Ny Illustrerad Tidning published Viktor Rydberg's poem "Tomten", where the tomte is alone awake in the cold Christmas night, pondering the mysteries of life and death. This poem featured the first painting by Jenny Nyström of this traditional Swedish mythical character which she turned into the white-bearded, red-capped friendly figure associated with Christmas ever since. Shortly afterwards, and obviously influenced by the emerging Father Christmas traditions as well as the new Danish tradition, a variant of the tomte/nisse, called the jultomte in Sweden and julenisse in Norway, started bringing the Christmas presents in Sweden and Norway, instead of the traditional julbock (Yule Goat).
Gradually, commercialism has made him look more and more like the American Santa Claus, but the Swedish jultomte, the Norwegian julenisse, the Danish julemand and the Finnish joulupukki (in Finland he is still called the Yule Goat, although his animal features have disappeared) still has features and traditions that are rooted in the local culture. He doesn't live on the North Pole, but perhaps in a forest nearby, or in Denmark he lives on Greenland, and in Finland he lives in Lapland; he doesn’t come down the chimney at night, but through the front door, delivering the presents directly to the children, just like the Yule Goat did; he is not overweight; and even if he nowadays sometimes rides in a sleigh drawn by reindeer, instead of just walking around with his sack, his reindeer don’t fly - and in Sweden, Denmark and Norway some still put out a bowl of porridge for him on Christmas Eve. He is still often pictured on Christmas cards and house and garden decorations as the little man of Jenny Nyström's imagination, often with a horse or cat, or riding on a goat or in a sled pulled by a goat, and for many people the idea of the farm tomte still lives on, if only in the imagination and literature. The use of the word tomte in Swedish is now somewhat ambiguous, but often when one speaks of jultomten (definite article) or tomten (definite article) one is referring to the more modern version, while if one speaks of tomtar (plural) or tomtarna (plural, definite article) one could also likely be referring to the more traditional tomtar. The traditional word tomte lives on in an idiom, referring to the human caretaker of a property (hustomten), as well as referring to someone in one's building who mysteriously does someone a favour, such as hanging up ones laundry. A person might also wish for a little hustomte to tidy up for them. A tomte stars in one of author Jan Brett's children's stories, "Hedgie's Surprise".
Tomter/nisser often appear in Christmas calendar TV series and other modern fiction. In some versions the tomter are portrayed as very small; in others they are human-sized. The tomter usually exist hidden from humans and are often able to use magic.