When walking in the forests that cover part of the dune area near the town where I live, I sometimes encounter them: kabouters, bearded gnomes with a pointy hat that appear quite often in Dutch folklore. Actually, the fellows I meet have been cut out of tree-trunks, but they reflect the stories that were told over here for a long time, and that have, for example, been drawn up into some of the saga-books that were written in the Netherlands at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. Local folklore from all over the world usually is infested with all kinds of lower mythological creatures, as some mythologists tend to call gnomes and other nature-inhabiting beings. As I see it, these creatures can be reckoned amongst the landwights.
The naming ‘landwights’, or actually landvættir, as they are called in old-Icelandic, is Icelandic in origin. They appear in some saga’s and folktales as the creatures that the Icelanders encountered when they first colonised their land and that have played a vivant role in folk believe for a long time. Though the believe in landwights might have been strengthened by the imaginative natural features of Iceland, traces of believe in similar spirits can be found all over the Germanic world. All kinds of creatures inhabiting nature that are connected to specific natural features like hills, hollows, forests and so on appear in folk tales throughout northwestern Europe. They show up as gnomes, elves, fairies, trolls, giants or similar creatures. Usually the form they take in the tales, and in front of my minds eye when I search for them, is connected to the surroundings in which they are found. Giants and dragons are usually connected to some larger natural feature, like a hill, mountain or sometimes even a complete peninsula or island. Trolls live in dark and shady places like caves and canyons. And there is a whole range of creatures, like gnomes and fairies, that seem to populate the forests.
Stories concerning landwights in many cases seem to concentrate on natural features that stand out in their surroundings. More often a free standing tree will be haunted, than some tree that’s part of a forest. It usually is the lone hill or mountain where a dragon or giant lives or once lived. In my personal experience I feel indeed a much stronger presence of wights at such places, and I suspect many people will.
My explanation for this latter fact is that landwights are strongly connected to the identity of a place. A tree, hill or other natural feature that stands out will be easier remembered. It will have a stronger identity, to say it with other words. Places that are easier to remember will more often play an important role in tales told as well. The atmosphere a certain place or object has around it plays an important role too, offcourse.
And often these places or objects standing out of their surroundings can give us an uneasy feeling, especially when the weathergods play their roles as light- and/or sound editors in their most dramatic way. And it is just in this way that, in my opinion, stories about spooky wights tend to stick on these places.
So, landwights are connected to the identity of places, and the stronger this identity is, the stronger the presence, the feeling of landwights being there, will be. I think it is interesting in this light to call into mind a concept I learned about in my studies on landscape architecture: genius loci.
This term literary means ‘spirit of the place’. Nowadays it is used to denote the identity, the soul, of a certain place. The ancient Romans at first used this term for a kind of protective spirit, protecting a specific person, somewhat similar to the Norse fylgja. Later on the genius loci became a spirit that protected a certain place or a house. In that way it is not dissimilar to the Germanic houselandwights. In some stories they seem to protect the land they’re connected with and all that lives on it, including the people. An strong example of this is the story told in Landnámabók, in which the Danish king Harald Gormsson, intending to invade Iceland, orders a wizard to travel to this land and tell what he sees there. When arriving at the coast of Iceland, the wizard sees that the land is full of landwights. When he tries to get on shore, the wizard is attacked by a dragon, an eagle, a bull and a giant on each of the quarters of the island.
But usually the landwights aren’t portrayed that beneficent in stories. In many cases encounters between humans and wights end up in humans being scared, hold captive or even killed. This especially is the case when it concerns landwights that concern places that are outside people’s daily surroundings, let’s say in Utgard. Landwights are said to lure people into swamps or caves, they are said to be the reason that people get lost in forests and so on.
Well, if we allow ourselves to consider this true in the real world, why would they do such things? I think it simply is because we are intruders in their land. We disturb their rest, and when we stay, their lives. Many people just walk into a place as if they own it. They did so in the past, and even more so do it in the present. And when you do that, nature, the land, the landwights might just turn against you. When you step into a swamp as if it is your back garden, you might very well drown. Or being lured into the water, to say it in the words of the tales.
But even if you live in a place in good harmony with the landwights, they might turn against you because of someone else’s doings. An example of this can be read in Egil’s Saga. Because of his dispute with king Eirik Blodøks, the protagonist Egil erects a nidstang (“curse-pole”) on the island of Herdla, where King Eirik has his house, saying the words:
"Here I set up a nidstang against King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild - and I direct this against all the guardian spirits of this land, so that every one of them may go astray, neither to figure nor find their dwelling places, until they have driven King Eirik and Queen Gunnhild from this country."
The words in the curse make clear that the nidstang is actually meant to upset the landwights, so that they’ll drive Egil’s opponent away from the land. In this story the curse seems to work, because shortly after this, King Eirik leaves for England to settle over there.
The way the landwights are portrayed and the way in which they act in the stories mentioned above correspond quite well with my personal views on them. I consider it healthy to maintain good relations with the wights that are part of the place where I live and with those inhabiting places where I intend to stay for a while. When I first moved into the place where I live now, one of the first things I did was doing a little ritual to introduce myself to the landwights living here and honour them.
Even if you don’t consider landwights to be real living creatures, this is a nice way to create a bond with the place you live, to feel really connected with it. A way to maintain this bond is by making small offerings to the wights regularly, like I do myself in my small garden, sacrificing some milk, beer, mead or food.
For me, creating and maintaining a bond with the landwights is a good way to get a connection with the land that I live on or the place that I am visiting. It helps me to understand the land better. Because of the way landwights are in my view connected to the identity of a place, it helps me to get some basic understanding of that place. And that in turn helps me to get more involved in the place and feel more at ease in it, like it might do for many other people as well. You could say that the landwights work like a intermediary between humans and the land on a symbolic and perhaps energetic level.