“Come all ye powers from West and North, from East and South. Spirits of our forefathers, attend to us now.” – traditional Swedish chant, T. Johnson.
Over a year ago, before the unfortunate events culminating in the election of the current President of the United States of America and the attendant conflagration of United States and international politics, I was walking to work and had the unfortunate opportunity to chance upon a unique piece of graffiti written in the Elder Futhark which, transliterated, read “WHITE POWER”. While I have always acknowledged that even in my particularly liberal bubble there existed systemic forces of racism, to see this peculiar scribble in the heart of a quickly gentrifying, historically queer neighborhood, was deeply distressing to me and, in some way I suppose, became something of an omen of warning that the situation in which we live now is not normal – in fact, quite the opposite. Being someone that couldn’t pass up a good pun, I immediate wrote my own version of this: MORE WIGHT POWER, LESS WHITE POWER.
In pre-Christian, Scandinavian and Nose polytheistic cosmologies, the world itself was very much alive with many numinous beings that were propitiated for aid as well as warded against should misfortune befall a person or their livelihoods. Among the most common of these in the Scandinavian world were the “wights”, from the Anglo-Saxon word wiht (wichht) “a being or creature”, itself derivative from the Old Norse vættir; which comprise a constellation of beings structured into various clans (ON. Ættir) based at least in part upon the locals in that they have domain as well as relative kinship to humanity. Historically these beings are often seen as related to the Roman concept of gens locii and share many ambiguous traits common in animistic belief systems around the world and, inclusive of representing natural forces and powers, also seem intimately connected with the dead.
So prevalent was the belief in these beings, elements of the preservation of propitiating and warding against them survived the Christianization of Scandinavia and can be found in many of the Black Arts (SV. Svartkonst) books and surviving oral histories of folk magicians well into the 19th Century and is being re-explored today by adherents of pre-Christian Norse polytheisms. It is my opinion and experience, that when we somehow cease to live in relationship with the land and fail to give due honor to the histories of the peoples who have lived here before, the potential and possibility for very real disharmony and retaliation from the people below may occur. And here is where one can start exploring new methods not only of re-enchanting the world, but also work against antagonistic forces that threaten our lives.
Johnson’s Graveyard Wanderers provides an example from an 19th Century black arts book into how one may begin to submit themselves to the powers of these wights as well as the powers of the dead (more on that later) in order to gain magical power:
“If one wants to know about the sciences of the Invisibles – their wisdom namely about the families of Wights and Lucifers, then one goes to a grave on a Thursday night between the hours of twelve and one o’clock.
One takes a little earth from the grave, cuts the left ring finger, so that three drops of blood fall down on the grave-earth and then throw the earth on you as the priest does when he casts the earth onto a coffin.
When one has done so, one has sold oneself into the power of the Invisibles and then you can learn from them anything one desires to learn in this way.”[1.]
This rite is curious for many reasons; in particular is its apparent omission of the typical “Christian” symbolism common in many of these texts as protections against the chthonic forces invoked. It can be reasoned that this is because wights and the other beings called upon are averse to Christianity as a colonizing force or perhaps it it’s due to the conflation between wights and related beings with the devils of monotheistic faiths. Regardless of the logic whoever wrote this particular powerful initiatory ritual had, it can be a powerful start toward building a relationship with the above-mentioned powers and also hinges on other practices which comprise traditional Scandinavian mysticism and spirit work vital to the exploration of human and wight relations.
Having gained access to the “science” or knowledge of these invisible beings, it then becomes not only possible but even necessary to engage in practices aimed at building a rapport with them. This historically would have been through rituals of appeasement where individuals would leave them offerings and honor the sacred places where these beings live. In pre-Christian polytheistic practices, this would have taken place during the blót or communal sacrificial ceremonies honoring the gods and related divine powers. In contemporary Norse reconstructionist polytheism, traditional holidays for this include Julblot which occurs around the Christmas season or Winter Solstice, Dísablót which occurs in early February, and Álfablót occurring around the month of October and roughly congruous with Hallows tide. For those who are more inclined toward a contemporary Neopagan or Wiccan calendar, these holy days would be cognate with Yule, Imbolc, and Samhain.
I feel it is also important to mention that working with these beings does not necessarily require any particular renunciation of one’s current religious beliefs or lack thereof. To this day carryovers of beliefs in the wights are very much preserved either tacitly in the folk practices of the cultures of Germanic peoples or implicitly. Examples of leaving out gruel and bread for the house spirits are still very much practiced in rural parts of Scandinavia and the British Isles today and few Anglo-American observant of Christmas would be stunned to see the preservation of devotion to “a right jolly old elf.” [2.] For those who engage in practices of traditional witchcraft, this can be done alone or as part of the sacred meal or housel, and for Wiccans can be observed during their ritual of cakes and ale. The imperative, rather, is building sustained relationships with these beings.
As much of my personal practice in Scandinavian folk magic is both folkloric as well as transmitted through immigrant individuals and families who settled in the new world, I feel it is important to emphasize that many of these practices and images are themselves representative of historical beliefs and legends in northern Europe overlaid upon the colonized topography of the New World. Just as many of the historiolae that lead into the rites are concerned with early settlements, gods, local chieftains, kings, churches and ministers, epidemics, wars and soldiers, landowners, officials, thieves and strongmen, et cetera. so are many indigenous myths and therefore it is also important, and I suggest vital, to those practicing on colonized land to gain both historical familiarity with the indigenous peoples on whose land they walk as well as make attempts, when possible, to engage actively in cultural events, ask questions respectfully, and be pliable as to what these people believe to be appropriate or inappropriate when it comes to offerings made.
How does this all come together, then? The answer is partially pragmatic in that performing rites to the wights of an area, you gain their trust and they might be more amenable to helping you in various projects. Another consideration is that in exploring the land upon which you stand, you also gain knowledge of the peoples who came before you and all their varied experiences which have made their impressions on the land. This is nowhere more apparent in Scandinavian lore than in the saga of Egill Skallagrímsson an Icelandic farmer, viking and skald and in whose saga we gain knowledge of a peculiar rite aimed at pitting the wights against an enemy for the purposes of driving them away:
“And when all was ready for sailing, Egil went up into the island. He took in his hand a hazel-pole, and went to a rocky eminence that looked inward to the mainland. Then he took a horse’s head and fixed it on the pole. After that, in solemn form of curse, he thus spake: ‘Here set I up a curse-pole, and this curse I turn on king Eric and queen Gunnhilda. (Here he turned the horse’s head landwards.) This curse I turn also on the guardian-spirits who dwell in this land, that they may all wander astray, nor reach or find their home till they have driven out of the land king Eric and Gunnhilda.’
This spoken, he planted the pole down in a rift of the rock, and let it stand there. The horse’s head he turned inwards to the mainland; but on the pole he cut runes, expressing the whole form of curse.”[3.]
The nithing pole (ON níðstang) famously described in this text has recently been used by many contemporary heathen groups in digital battles against individuals who would seek to pollute the belief in the old gods of the north and spread hatred. While this digital practice of raising a nithing pole against these hateful individuals is admirable and definitely not without merit from some threads of magical logic, it is likely not as efficacious as the historical practice of raising a horse’s head to agitate the spirits against one’s enemies – though it is decidedly less expensive.
This shouldn’t dissuade one who may wish to experiment with this practice as there are many examples such as those given in Skuggi’s Sorcerer‘s Screed that give related practices of nithing against an enemy using verbal, visual and animal aids incorporating the head of various fish to bring their demise. Combined with the correct enchantments, as exemplified in a wonderful video of Eivør Pálsdóttir I recently came across in her performance of Trøllabundin on the shores of the Faroe Islands, one may be able to both enchant the wights to your aid as well as create a striking and perfectly legal presence in public counter-demonstration.
For those who chose to be more innocuous, in Scandinavian folklore there are a number of legends of Wise Ones (typically, though not always characterized as Finns or Sami) who used their powers and presumed alliances with the good people in combat as well as to forward the sovereignty of the land:
“Magic shot, often called Finn shot, was the name given to projectiles supposedly causing sickness or sudden death. They were imagined to be sent in the form of bullets, insects, clouds or vapor, and so on. Many legends are concerned with the means by which one could protect oneself against this type of magic.” [4.]
The spell here described represents one of the more common ailments described as älvblåst, or simply alver (EN: ‘elves’), frequently translated from the cognate Irish belief of elf-shot. Far from the noble, sylvan beings described by Tolkien and high fantasy, Swedish and Scandinavian beliefs about the elves are rather ones of a brutal and powerful race to be respected and avoided when possible. Yet, as evidenced in the above text, the Wise may also gain cunning of their arts and use them against their opponents. One example being a witch I’ve met who used the power given him by the local spirits to cause illness in an enemy by pushing three hawthorn spines in their footprint during the month of May. It was later revealed that their enemy had later suffered hospitalization due to hepatic failure.
Apart from being petitioned or agitated for offensive measures, it should go without saying that forming relationship with the wights is also protective as evidenced in the extensive attestations of beings such as the domestic tomte or tomtenisse, a David the Gnome type spirit that is believed to inhabit domestic property and either aid in success and plenty or cause a ruckus when offended. Individual in their own rights, these beings are also related to the continuation of ancestor cults in pre-Christian Scandinavia and deserve special treatment themselves in a later essay.
In closing, because the invisible folk were thought to live side by side with human beings, the work rhythms and daily needs of both groups overlapped in many ways. Polite actions such as vocally warning spirits in a forest that one is about to urinate are considered necessary. People looked to their numinous neighbors for advice, special tools, and perhaps for help in emergency situations and in return there are stories of invisible folk requesting aid from humans when, for example, a child was to be born and what happens when the confidentiality is disrespected – the most famous being the British story of the midwife and the fairy ointment which is a favorite story among some contemporary practitioners of the fairy faith in America even today.
[1.] Johnson. Graveyard Wanderers
[2.] Moore. A Visit from St. Nicholas
[3.] Green. Egil’s Saga. 1893
[4.] Lauri Honko, Krankheitsprojektile (1959); Nils Lid, Trolldom (1950), 1-36.