Not Only Inhabited by Humans

For our heathen forebears, the world was not only inhabited by themselves and animals, but also various non-human beings who had been there before men, they were indigenous to the land, and they personified and protected the land, maintained its fertility. Men had to deal with them if they wanted to claim the land and cultivate it. The landwights, the genii loci could be driven away or brought to cooperation by the following measures of claiming and a piece of land:

  1. the circumambulatio, which is basically encircling the space you want to claim. It can be found in a lot of cultic practices in various religious traditions. Going around the land with fire, preferably a torch, or using a team of oxen in a yoke, and a furrow is a claiming method with a longtime continuity and can be found in a lot of medieval texts, where the main character often uses a trick to get a lot more land than the previous owner had planned to give.
  2. From the saga of Egil Skallagrímsson and archaological findings we know of marking off a space with hazel rods and connecting them with a cord. This is called hasla in ON and einhaseln in German, the cord was named vébond. Thus ritual spaces wer created and hallowed, as well as the place of the Thing, a duel or even a battle.
  3. The creation of woven fences and hedges.
  4. Placing landmarks or border stones, also pillars and poles to mark that you leave or enter a place.

These provisions were not only used to reaffirm possession of a place towards other men, but were also the means to keep malevolent landwights out or coerce them into cooperation. The land thus marked off was called garðr  in Old Norse, which meant ‚fenced space‘ as well simply land within a marking. Garðr can be traced back to Indoeuropean *g̑ʰortos: enclosure, home or garden, as well as to *g̑ʰerdʰ: to encompass, contain, engird. We can also find the word in the names Asgard, Midgard, and Utgard, the dwelling places of specific beings in Germanic worldview: the dwelling places of the gods, of humans, and that of the giants. In this context, -gard would mean ‚world‘.

Marking off a place, fencing it off, growing a hedge around it separates the inner from the outer, materially as well as metaphysically. Within their enclosure, humans would have their human laws to maintain peace. These laws were not given by the gods, but they were created by the ancestors for their descendants, and it encompassed religious and cultic traditions as well as that which we call law and moral code. In Old High German it was called firner situ, nowadays it is called Alte Sitte in German, the way how things were done.

So who were those indigenous beings, which had lived on the land before mankind and with which men had to come to term with?

Christian authors of confession manuals, and hagiographers speak of demons and devils, or the devil, if they don’t use Latin terms which are not always a good equivalent though. The Folklorist Claude Lecouteux found a few terms in a manuscript from the 13th century, which enumerates those beings as Nicker, water sprites, which are located in watery places as well as the mountains. Like Nixe – mermaid, the term can be traced back to OHG nichus or nihhus meaning water spirit. Also, there were Thursen and Wichte in the forests and marshes.

Turse is the MHG word for giant, devil or evil spirit, the reconstructed Germanic form would be *þurisa. Note that ‚giant‘ does not necessarily mean ‚of big stature‘, but it has the connotation of ‚primordial being‘. Finally, Wicht stands for ‚being‘, ‚creature‘ or ‚thing‘ and is used in the same sense as the English wight and the Norse vættir, an umbrella term for various spirits. It could also have been a noa word, which is an appellation used with ambivalent figures in order to not make them angry by addressing them in the wrong way.

These were the beings which were partly driven away by humans who claimed and cultivated the land, partly stepping into some sort of alliance which was marked by reciprocal acts. Always having their ambivalence in mind, people would give sacrifices or gifts to the Wichte, Tursen or Nicker to appease them and ensure fertility and wealth, and a general benevolence, or at the very least their indifference.

The wights, giants and water sprites had their dwelling places in trees, Stones, hills or mounds as well as springs. We have quite a few sources who document that people went to those dwelling places even after conversing to Christianity to offer and celebrate there – they still needed to ensure the goodwill of the powers that they experienced there. Interaction with landwights, Wichten und vættir seems to have been more present in daily life than the cult of the gods and goddesses like Donar, Frija and other deities. Of course, they received their sacrifices in groves and in the woods, at lakes and moors, too.

It’s not always easy to tell if the numen which was revered was a landwight, a genius loci, or a deity proper. We find traces of deities being revered together with genii loci or tutelae loci so the line between them is blurred, like with certain inscriptions on votive Stones for the Matronae or Matres. Like I wrote before, we also cannot tell whether the genuine form of housewight lore lies ancestor reverence or if people thought they were genii loci, and I will certainly write more about this when I explore cultic activities and beliefs around the house.

What’s more, there are also deities who are the land, a certain region, a certain river or a forest, for example the goddess Rura, who is the river Rur, and who can tell where the landwight ends and the goddess begins?

In any case, tradition and folklore tells us very clearly that humans always knew that they weren’t alone on earth. They also always knew that they would have to ask for the cooperation of the landwights who were of a benevolent nature as well as to ensure that the malevolent ones didn’t harm them or stayed away from their places.

The rites and cultic activities which were needed to do that did not only take place in the wilderness, the uncultivated land, but also near the human dwellings, inside the fenced places, the innangard.


Where to dig deeper:

Claude Lecouteux, Demons and Spirits of the Land, Rochester 1995

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