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LANDVÆTTIR Ttir in Old Norse means literally "land wights," the guardian spirits of an area. The Landnámabók (the Icelandic "book of settlements," extant in thirteenth-century redactions but based on still older traditions) tells of a tenth-century settler who struck a deal with one of the landvættir and thereafter became a wealthy man. The same text cites an ancient law warning that the dragon-head ornament on a ship's prow should be removed before land is sighted, so as to avoid frightening off the landvættir. The early-thirteenth-century Egils saga tells that Egill once erected a pole with a horse's head and uttered a magic formula intended to arouse the landvættir to drive off the land's king. The Óláfs saga helga (Saga of Olaf the Saint, in Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla ), reports that Harald II once sent a man of magic powers on an out-of-body journey to Iceland; there the man saw that the mountains and mounds were full of landvættir, both large and small.

The emphasis on landvættir in Icelandic sources, particularly the Landnámabók, may have to do with Iceland's status as a newly discovered and settled land where, according to folk tradition, the supernatural "owners" of nature had previously ruled unhindered by humans. The Landnámabók tells also about a man killed by the landvættir. Insofar as Iceland was unknown and hence mysterious, its supernatural beings were threatening; but as people settled the land and made it theirs, these beings became increasingly friendly and potentially helpful. The distinction may be viewed in the modern Scandinavian descendants of the landvættir: nisser and tomtar live on and about farms and are helpful if treated with respect, whereas trolls and similar creatures live in uninhabited forests and mountains and are always dangerous.

Icelandic folklore tells of a "hallowing" of the island Drangey by the thirteenth-century bishop Guđmundr the Good, in which he drives off the landvætttir, here understood as evil spirits and trolls; he leaves a small portion of the island for them to inhabit. The landvætttir seem therefore to belong more to pre-Christian than to Christian Iceland. The term is not common in more recent folklore; when encountered, it seems to be a collective for supernatural nature beings.

Even so, belief in the landvætttir may have persisted even after the conversion to Christianity. This is indicated by a prohibition of such belief in medieval Norwegian law. Although one cannot truly speak of "worship" of the landvættir, ritual activity to ensure their cooperation and protection (such as leaving out food for them in uninhabited areas) persisted as part of this belief.

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There is no comprehensive treatment of the landvættir, although the literature on similar beings in recent Scandinavian lore is extensive. The fullest treatment is in the chapter "Landvættir," in Ólafur Briem's Heiđinn siđur á Íslandi (Reykjavík, 1945), pp. 7190.

John Lindow (1987 and 2005)