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.