Sunday, January 18, 2015

Disir and Landvaettir

Note:  As the centuries change, countries change and religions change - the terms for Disir and Landvaettir change.  But even when the name changes, there are some common factors.  This post is just a general overview of some of those commons but when you do research you will find other details and names.


Dis (Old Norse dis), Disir, Desir (Old Norse dis; disir) - Plural of dis. - Ancestral female spirits to whom Winter Nights and Disting are holy.  They watch over the family in general but more particularly the person who will carry on the line.  The Disirs work under Freya.  The Valkyries are Disir.

Alf (Old Norse alfr, alfar) - [pronounced "owl-vur"] Elf; sometimes male ancestral spirits.

freya074073869.jpgAt some point in the winter – the exact timing differs widely across the Germanic lands – a festival was held in honor of the Disir.  The Disfest or Disablot is a day of sacrifice, honoring the Disir ancestors.  They are all the female relatives from the eons of time that have passed on and protect their living family members.  In other instances in Old Norse literature, the word dís, the singular form of dísir, is used as a generic term for “woman.”  In some homes every candle and light is lit in the house to honor them.  It is a day of remembrance and honoring the females that passed over and to thank them for their loving protection.

The Disir are often portrayed as being tutelary (guardian) spirits of a particular person, group, or location.  It’s impossible to cleanly separate the Disir from other kinds of spiritual beings recognized by the ancient Germanic peoples.  Such portrayals never seek to distinguish them from other tutelary spirits such as the fylgjur, hamingjur, and especially the land spirits.

The Anglo-Saxon counterpart to the dísablót and dísaþing seems to have been the modraniht ('Mother’s Night'), which took place around New Year’s and is probably connected to the continental Germanic and Celtic matron group.  The matrons are female spirits who are very much like the Disir and Valkyries and every bit as varied – fertility spirits, guardian spirits, warriors, etc.  The Disir are also equated with or play the role with norns.

In Norway and Iceland, the Dísir appear to be more connected with Odin.  The festival was known as the dísablót, “sacrifice to the Disir,” and took place at the beginning of winter.  It could be held in either a private house or a formal temple, depending on the availability.  From the name of the festival, we can infer that a sacrifice was its principal ritual act, and literary sources add that a lavish banquet (which probably followed the sacrifice) was another central part of the event.

In Sweden, the Disting or dísaþing ('Disir-Assembly') was held at the beginning of February, and unfortunately the sources have even less to tell us about what transpired there than they do in the case of the dísablót.


155984_143848565.jpgThey were probably the female divinities mentioned in the first spell of the Merseburg charms, as idisi.  Their original function was possibly that of fertility Goddesses who were the object of both private and official worship.  Disir may act as protective spirits of Norse clans.  Their veneration may derive from the worship of the spirits of the dead.  Disir are intrinsically tied into familial relations and kinship.  They were sometimes thought to be ancestral spirits, sometimes collective spirits of a person's family ancestors, who guarded and looked after their descendants.  They play an important part of wyrd and orlog concerning the individuals that they watch over.

They can be friendly, loving, helpful protectors.  Throughout the sagas and tales, you get a picture of both sides - and what it means to lose the favor of a dis.  The Disir provided luck, helped in childbirth, gave warnings and protected the individual/family they watched, helped them in battle and over all watched over the family.

And yet they can be merciless, hateful, hostile enemies.  In the tales, you’ll find mention of Disir becoming ill-tempered (whether due to a lack of sacrifice, some anger provoked by the individual or family, a dramatic or sudden loss of luck, or for no apparent reason) and this bodes ill for the person/family, sometimes resulting in the death of a person.



Landvaettir - Old Norse: Guardian Earth Sprites.  In this group can be classed all the beings who guard certain places, those who are bound to rocks, streams, or trees, and the lesser nature spirits in general.  The Landvaettir are visible to the sensitive and to those faring forth from their bodies.  They also appear in dreams.  They do not change shape, but an individual Landvaettir may appear as almost anything.

Wight - A being or entity of any kind with some living quality.

A sacrifice of the very best food and drink in the house is given to the Landvaettir (land wights) as well at the end of January.  Landvaettir 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.  House wights are a Spirit that lives in your home.

3916303_1807652934_n.jpgIt is possible that the landvættir were connected with or worked in cooperation with the Disir (female ancestral guardian spirits).  They both were considered guardians, one of the land, and one of kin and family.  An interesting account of a nineteenth century Icelandic clergyman recorded that certain stones in North-eastern Iceland were called 'Stones of the Landdísir' (guardian land Goddesses).  It was said unwise to make loud noises near them and children were forbidden to play near them for fear that bad luck would come if they were not treated with respect.  Sacrifices were given both to the Disir and Landvaettir during the Winter Nights feast.

The line between the honoring of ancestors and the guardian land spirits seems sometimes to be a little blurry but it seems that over-all the two were separate.  The domain in which the Landvaettir had influence was wide.  They had influence in the cultivation of the soil, in weaving and spinning and in the raising of animals.  They also had influence in the upbringing and protection of children.

And the Landvaettir were very possibly connected with the Vanir.  The Landvaettir were connected with issues of fertility which Vanir Gods like Freyr and Freya, as well as Njord, were intimately connected with as well.  Freyr is Lord of the elves and elves would be connected to specific trees.  Folklore is full of tales of spirits that are attached to trees.  It is possible that the Landvaettir are a kind of elf that is connected to specific object or area of land.


They are said to come in a variety of shapes, sizes, attitudes, personalities.  They were invisible to people unless someone looked very closely in the right light at the right time.  They tend to live in certain aspects of a landscape - a tree, rock, stump.  Wights are often seen to be less than actually deities, but more close to a kinship with us as people.  It is for this reason that many practices in Heathenry encourage the building of relationships with these wights.  But one must know when working with wights that they are very similar in disposition to us, in that they have the capacity to be good, bad and everywhere in-between.  Wights are individualized spirits and cannot be lumped together under specific stereotypes.

If you should have to move a large stone from its place, you should make very sure that you have warned any in-dwelling wights well in advance so that they have a chance to move.  The same courtesy should be taken whenever you do any sort of major landscaping work, whether it is building a house, clearing trees from an area, draining a marshy spot, or altering the flow of a stream.  Many Icelandic farmhouses today have large boulders which they will not plow around nor allow their children to disturb for fear of annoying the land-wights.

If man honored the land spirits and treated them with respect the crops would come in fuller, the domestic animals would be healthy and reproduce.  On the other hand, to anger the land spirits was to bring certain disaster.  Landvaettir were offended by violence.  Old Icelandic law required that approaching ships must remove their dragon-head prows so as not to frighten the Landvaettir.

The Gods might be turned to for the larger more important matters, but it was the Landvaettir that were turned to often for the practical every day needs.  Their favor was often sought.  One way to gain the favor of the Landvaettir was through giving them offerings.  One Icelandic settler gave offerings of food to a waterfall near his house.  Because of this his sheep greatly increased because he made good decisions as to which were slaughtered and which should be kept.  

'Landtaking' or 'Landleaving' are rites done in Northern rituals for the wights specifically.  These serve the purpose of befriending and working towards a relationship with the wights of the land you are entering or leaving, rather than upsetting them.  “When a house is built and inhabited, the nearest wights of that place, assuming that they accept the new human inhabitants, have little choice but to see and explore the house that was built.  They peer into the realities of human life, and watch.  They feel the effects of the human settlement on themselves and on their existence.”( Alfarrin).



It is believed that our ancestors would have spent much more time gifting, honoring, and interacting with their house wights and land wights...than they would have their ancestors or the Gods.  It can be a worthwhile practice to establish an altar or small home for your house wights right in your home.  Many of our ancestors saw the house wights as being associated with the hearth or fire in the home, and this was always in a central location.  Give the land wights a taste of beer now and again, and sometimes a shot of honey liqueur.  Lay out your grandmothers favorite food for the Disir.  If a gift seems like it is well received, then make a mental note and repeat that gift again.  It is something you have to experiment with until you find the right answers for your own situation and home.

Many new Pagans tend to focus on the Gods and Goddesses, because they are used to religions that focus on divine powers.  The idea that you share a home with an unseen Spirit is not exactly something most of us grew up with in our modern culture.  But, as strange as it sounds and feels, gifting one's house wights and the land wights on your land, and learning how to interact with these beings can be very rewarding.  Making this a part of your personal practice is the best way to learn.  If something works, use it.  If something doesn't work, let it go.  This is one of those things that feels a bit strange at first, but then feels very natural after just a short time of giving it a try.



Helping-runes you must know if you want to assist
and release children from women;
they shall be cut on the palms and clasped on the joints,
and then the Disir asked for help.

Sigrdrifumal 9, from Poetic Edda