Guardians and Totems
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(first printed in "idunna" Magazine)
Greatly inspired by Vol. V of The Road to Bifrost by Thor and Audrey Sheil, back in print at:
Since the theme of this edition of Idunna is “Totems and Guardians,” I will explore these two themes in a Heathen context. Before proceeding any further, defining the terms is a good place to begin. Since “guardians” is easier to define, I’ll look at it first. According to the Oxford Universal Dictionary, a “guardian” is “one who guards, protects or preserves,” which is simple enough. In this article, “guardians” will be presumed to be wights other than living human beings (we’re wights too!), and will thus exclude, for example, the warders at a Hrafnar or Hrafnar-based seiðr working.
The word “totem” is somewhat more complicated. The word itself is a loan from a North American Indian language belonging to the Algonquin family, possibly Ojibwa, and is defined in the Oxford Universal Dictionary as “the hereditary mark, emblem or badge of a tribe, clan or group of Indians, consisting of a figure or representative of some animal, less commonly a plant or other object, after which the group is named; also applied to the animal or natural object itself, sometimes considered to be ancestrally or fraternally related to the clan.” For the purposes of this article, I will regard totems as being something people of any ethnic group can possess, and will allow for the existence of individual as well as group totems.
From the sources in my library, which is large enough that a fellow Kentucky Heathen calls it “The Ásatrú Library of the Bluegrass,” (a Heathen can boast a bit!), I was able to find a wide variety of guardians and totems in contemporary Heathen belief and practice. These sources are mostly secondary and tertiary, although they do extensively quote primary sources. These guardians and totems include valkyries, norns, dísir, matrones, fylgjur/fetches, hamingja/luck, álfar/elves (both light and dark), dwarves, landvættir/landwights, house ghosts of various sorts, power animals derived from Harner’s core shamanism and incorporated into Hrafnar oracular seiðr/spae and its derivatives, and thoughtforms created by a householder and put into a statue to serve as a household guardian.
The above wights have very little in common, aside from the fact that they have some sort of guardian function and/or serve as a totem. They differ in gender, in whether or not they were once human beings, in their abodes, their attitudes toward us, what they guard, whether or not they are separate and independent wights in their own right, and whether they are documented in the old lore, are plausibly derived from it, or are modern borrowings or innovations. It is also important to remember that the ancients did not categorize these groups of wights as neatly and scientifically (Davidson, p. 125) as we modern Heathens often try to do and that there may be considerable areas of overlap.
The first guardian may come as a bit of a surprise to some. When most people think of a valkyrie, they think of them as picking up the newly slain and taking them to Valhalla, then serving them at feasts there. However, Kveldulf Gundarsson reminds us that they can be teachers and guardians as well (Teutonic Religion, p. 100). As the valkyries are themselves depicted as warriors, the guardian function would fit with their overall character.
I have worked with valkyries by asking that they look in and watch over friends in some sort of danger, and making small offerings and dedicatory verses to them. The holy female wight Friagabi (Freedom-Giver), known from an inscription in Roman Britain and who may be a dís, a valkyrie, or a minor Goddess, is very approachable for this. I asked her to keep an eye on an old friend of mine who had a codependency problem and tended to let herself be emotionally abused. A few days later, my friend, who knew nothing of the working that I had done, called me to ask what it meant when “people ride through your apartment.” I responded, “Don’t worry; I asked them to check in on you and make sure you were OK.” (And I wonder why some people think I’m an evil magician…) Be that as it may, Snorri Sturluson’s Poetic Edda lists the “youngest” norn, Skuld, as a valkyrie (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, p. 100), although the role of the norns seems to me to be more of determiners and meters-out of Wyrd rather than guardians.
The dísir are most commonly viewed by modern Heathens as being female ancestral spirits whose role is to watch over their descendants. A dís might also be attached to one region, hence be a regional Goddess, or even to a single individual. They were (and are) honored each fall by a rite called Dísablót (Turville-Petre, p. 221). This rite was evidently private or family-oriented, rather than a large public one, although halls dedicated to the dísir evidently existed. According to Njál’s Saga, new dísir came in with Christianity, and dísir could kill as well as protect (Turville-Petre, pp. 222-223).
The Goddess Freya bears the title of Vanadís, the dís of the Vanir-Deities. Hence, many Heathens see her as the leader or patroness of the dísir, and Freya is without doubt a mighty guardian! Some associate her with the valkyries as well.
The matrones may or may not be the same as the dísir. While the dísir are known from medieval Scandinavia, the matrones are known from the areas of Germania near the Roman frontier. Their name, in fact, is Latin and means “mothers.” There exist Latin inscriptions dedicated to the matrones of specific Germanic tribes, including the “Suebian (Swabian?) Mothers.” (Simek, pp. 207-208).
While the terms dísir and fylgjur are sometimes used to refer to the same beings, there are some differences between them. One is that the fylgjur, unlike the dísír, were not the object of worship (Turville-Petre, pp. 222-224). Fylgja (the singular of fylgjur) is often translated into English as “fetch.” The etymological sense of the word is that of a “follower.” The fetch “follows” the person around, and can certainly in that aspect serve as a guardian. The fetch “is a semi-independent aspect of the soul, whose shape reflects its owner’s true character” (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, p. 138). Here a totemic aspect becomes apparent. Strong people often had a bear fylgja, for example.
Some Heathens refer to their seiðr journeywork as “sending forth the fetch.” The journeyer travels forth into the Spae-realms in the form of his or her fetch. Those gifted, or in some cases where it is very strong and the individual has not learned to control it, cursed with “the sight” can see fetches at any time. For most people, however, it appears only shortly before death. It is an especially ill omen to see one’s fetch ill or bloody. Traditionally, the fetch was seen as separate from but accompanying the individual throughout his or her life. It was often depicted as an individual of opposite sex from that of the person to whom it was attached (Thorsson, p. 93). This is echoed in modern psychology’s discussion of the “animus” and the “anima” and of men needing to get in touch with their “feminine side” and women with their “masculine side.”
The fetch is the conduit through which the Gods communicate with individuals, and is the embodiment of all an individual has ever been. It stores images and powers from previous individuals to which it was attached, and takes them forward to the future, when it will be attached to a new individual. (Thorsson, p. 93). Many if not most Heathens see this rebirth as usually occurring within the family line. This does indeed happen. My father was back as my niece within little more than a year of his death, and the transference of the fetch manifested itself in a number of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. That dad was in some way returning was so obvious that even my Southern Baptist relatives picked up on it! The signs and portents involved including my about to be pregnant sister-in-law seeing dad’s ghost and dreaming about him, and went on to include personality traits of my father and other odd personal quirks appearing in my niece. The clincher was that my dad, who was even plumper than yours truly, walked with an odd waddling limp in his last years. My niece, when she started walking, had the exact same limp!
The hamingja or “luck” is closely associated with the fetch. It can also have a guardian aspect, and this can be referred to as the warden (Thorsson, p. 93). It houses echoes of the deeds done by the bodies to which the fetch was previously attached. Hence, the odd waddling limp previously mentioned. The luck is the aura of power around a person. One can learn to see and read this aura with practice, and instruction on how to do so is available in occult literature. I believe that Llewellyn (www.llewellyn.com) even sells a booklet on the subject. The luck can be transferred to another person, sent forth from the body (into the Spae-realms), or even stored in an external object, which is thus transformed into a sort of battery (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, p. 137).
I have seen this in action. I own a statue of Frey, carved from a three-forked branch into a phallic image. It looks much like the one to be found in P. V. Glob’s The Bog People. I had it dedicated and blessed at a Freysblót led by my friend Steve Wilson. When Steve sprinkled the image with mead offered to and charged by Ingvi Frey, it started to glow around its edges, just like the aura of a living person. My interpretation of this is that a bit of Frey’s luck/hamingja, which he had infused into the mead, was transferred by the sprinkling into his image. Thus, the image became a powerful link to Frey. This is what is really going on in “idolatry” and “graven image worship.” Most of the world’s Christians are Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox and have a very similar thing going on with the blessed and venerated statues and icons in their churches.
By the same token, when that charged mead is drunk, it brings a bit of Frey’s luck into the partakers, and this can be a means by which the worshippers develop a more profound spiritual link with Frey, and even become more like him. Being under Frey’s protection could easily be derived from habitual practice of such rites.
The next category of wights, the álfar or elves, can be seen as a masculine counterpart to the female dísir, and hence as ancestral spirits (Turville-Petre, p. 231), although other interpretations are also possible. A Heathen Norwegian king by the name of Olaf became known as the Elf of Geirstaðir after his death. His descendant, a Christian King Olaf, is known to Heathens today by much less complimentary by-names! Like Dísablót, Freysblót, and sacrifice to the völsi or sanctified horse phallus, Álfablót also took place in the beginning of winter, after harvest, and can thus also be interpreted as a sacrifice for fertility or in thanks for the fertile harvest. Thus, the dísir and álfar can be seen as guardians of their descendants in general and their prosperity and well-being in particular. The Álfar can also be seen as a more human-ish sort of landwight or as the huldfolk or hidden people who shared the lands of our Heathen forebears (Turville-Petre, p. 232). Frey is said to have received the elves’ world, Ljósálfheim, as a tooth-gift (the gift children received when they cut their first tooth). Snorri Sturluson’s Poetic Edda makes a distinction between ljósálfar (light elves) and døkkálfar (dark elves). Some Heathens today see ljósálfar as elves, a distinct group of wights in their own right, and use døkkálfar as a synonym for dwarves, the craftsmen of Germanic myth. They may well be onto something, as Weyland Smith/Volundr was said to be an elf. On the other hand, the categories of “light” and “dark” may well have to do with two important but paradoxical aspects of elves. They are at the same time the Dead (think of corpses, darkened by decay, lying in the ground where the døkkálfar are said to dwell), yet at the same time they are promoters of fertility and strongly linked to the Sun (Turville-Petre, p. 231). As Lord of Ljósálfheim and at the same time the mound-elf buried at Gamla Uppsala in Sweden, Frey embodies both these aspects of the elves! I personally tend toward this latter interpretation of light and dark elves.
Dwarves are the keepers, hence guardians of all treasures underground (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, p. 112). It is possible to barter with them in the Spae-realms for weapons, etc. to be used there. Their payment is delivered by burying it or throwing it into a body of water. A friend of mine who works in the Northern Tradition and who hails from a county whose land has been ravaged by highly destructive mining practices tells me that the local dwarves are very angry that their land and the riches it contained were exploited in such a careless manner by folks who didn’t even acknowledge the wights’ presence or make them offerings! Grumpy human metal-workers might well find themselves recruited by the dwarves after death (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, p. 113). A likely Heathen candidate lives right down the road from me!
Landvættir or landwights are also very important in Heathen religion, both ancient and modern. They can be seen as the guardians of a particular piece of land. They often dwelt in big rocks, waterfalls, or other natural objects. In Iceland today, roads are still built around rocks where they, or álfar (remember that these categories can overlap) are believed to live. Landwights often ally themselves with special human friends and reward them generously with prosperity (Turville-Petre, pp. 232-233).
There is a wooded park near my apartment which contains an area which is a hotbed of landwight activity. It is circular in shape and is distinguished by the fact that invasive non-native plants, which elsewhere in the park form a thick undergrowth, will hardly grow there. There is an odd little mound with a tree growing on it toward the middle. I interpret this as a “landwight refugee camp” which is the home of landwights who fled their former abodes when the surrounding farms were turned into a school, houses, apartment complexes, etc. a few decades back. I have offered to them with good results, but they are understandably not too thrilled with human beings overall. Yes, development is often necessary but it can be done in ways which respect the Earth and the landwights could at least have been given notice of what was to happen and offered new homes!
Many Heathens today feel that the contemporary versions of our religion do not as a general rule adequately honor the dísir, álfar, dwarves, and landwights and I feel that all in all they are quite right! The alienation of most modern folks from the land due to urbanization, etc. is likely the main culprit for this situation.
The next category of wights, the house-ghosts, often attach themselves to a human family, for good or ill, and can travel with it. How they are treated often determines their attitude toward the humans whose dwellings and farms they share (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, p. 113). In Norway, a house-ghost can also be referred to as a howe-dweller, and nisse and tomten are also sometimes said to dwell in mounds (Gundarsson, ed., Our Troth, p. 240). This would indicate some overlap with álfar as the Dead, that is, with mound-elves.
There are many sorts of house-ghosts. Tusser live near a home’s foundation. If you throw water out the door, as was done before plumbing, it is polite to warn them with a loud “Watch out!” Nisse are small gnome-like beings which live in barns and help with the farm. They should receive milk and porridge (Sheil, Hedenskap, p. 15). The Yule-nisse is still popular in Norway today, and is fed much as children in the USA put out milk and cookies for Santa Claus. He is accompanied by a cat. Sometimes the nisse are said to steal (I personally suspect energy or luck rather than actual objects) from neighboring farms and sometimes this results in the two nisse doing battle in the form of flaming wheels (Sheil, The Twisting Trail…, pp. 14-15). Sometimes, displaced wights can take up residence in a home. I recall Thorr Sheil telling me once about one that took up residence in a wall of his home. It liked to play with the cats. Such a wight could probably be recruited to help watch over the house. They might well enjoy a little house or statue to live in.
All these wights should be treated with the greatest of respect. Some can take offense over seemingly innocuous matters (Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion, p. 113). I recall hearing that they absolutely loathe caraway seeds and skim milk. The fairy tales of Germanic countries can provide valuable clues as to how to deal with these them.
There are certainly some other nasty wights that folks should be aware of. Just because they are not specifically mentioned in extant lore does not mean that they do not exist! Some feed on emotional atmospheres, good or bad. You can find lots of unpleasant wights in places like jails, seedy bars frequented by hard-core drinkers, etc. (Sheil, Road to Bifrost Volume V, p. 26). I’m not surprised that Alcatraz is highly haunted, and I ran into one such critter at a funeral home. One turned up in my brother’s basement, which was used as a sulking space by both him and his wife when they were having marital problems. It left, or at least quit manifesting, when they started getting along well. I suppose that such wights are, in a twisted way, the guardians of such places and/or the totems of those who frequent them. Should any wight prove troublesome and all else fails, both Teutonic Religion and Our Troth contain a spell for banishing an unwanted wight. Fumigation with appropriate incense and folk magic techniques such as sprite traps and witch’s bottles can also be effective. By the way, according to Thorr Sheil’s personal experience, the nasty energies accumulating in places of tragedy, suffering, vice and other misery decay on a half-life principle, just like radioactivity!
Two final categories are not documented in extant lore, but do occur in contemporary Heathenism. The first is the “power animal,” a sort of individual totemic animal worked with by Hrafnar-type seiðfolk such as myself. This concept is derived from Michael Harner’s core shamanism, which is itself based on shamanic-type practices from many cultures around the world (Harner, pp. 57-68). There is no evidence that “power animals” per se existed in “old-time” Heathenism, but the presence of such folk beliefs in Northwest Europe as “witches’ familiars” in the form of animals hint that they might well have. Based on my own personal experience, I find that my own power animals have been and continue to be helpful to me and that my interactions with them are deeply meaningful. Nevertheless, I do not see them as being an essential, core element of oracular seiðr.
The final sort of guardian wight is a thoughtform created by an act of will, put into a small statue, instructed to guard a home, and periodically fine-tuned and fed. I learned about these in a book by the late Wiccan author Scott Cunningham (Cunningham, pp. 166-167), made and “raised” quite a suitable one, and saw no reason at all to take it apart when I became a Heathen. If it ain’t broke; don’t fix it! In Heathen terms, I suppose this household guardian would be a bit of my fetch or luck shaped for a specific purpose and “sent forth” into a small statue. If not tended properly, this sort of wight (called a “tulpa” in Tibetan tradition) can take on a life and personality of its own, generally a naughty one!
On a final, more theological note, I offer the following comments to serve as useful points to ponder when working with these wights and discussing them with your fellow Heathens: as I mentioned before, the categories can overlap. In addition, we are dealing with bits and pieces of surviving lore from various times and places and in various states of preservation, and written down by sundry individuals, almost all of them Christian.
Are dwarves and dark elves the same? Did a God or elf ever really impregnate a human woman? If so, does this still happen today? Will the pill stop it from happening? Is your baby in actual danger of becoming a changeling via soul loss or actual kidnapping by the elves, trolls, and/or huldfolk? Is your bear power animal an aspect of yourself that you have called forth, your fetch in bear form, the essence of “bearness,” the ghost of a bear shot by a hunter in British Columbia last year who has found with you a good home till it’s time to be reborn as her granddaughter, or something else? I don’t have any definitive answers, and am not much for nitpicking anyway. It’s there. It works. What we know of old-time Heathenism does not rule it out. Why spend too much time trying to codify things that are not amenable to it?
Considering that we have Heathens who see our Gods and Goddesses as self existing, others who see them as aspects of a unitary God-force personified by their believers, still others who see them as Jungian archetypes, and that even then that does not exhaust the beliefs held by Heathens today on just this one topic, I’d beware of anyone who claims to have it all figured out! At the same time, I also strongly advise against excessive superstitious fears. Much if not most of the time, when things go wrong in people’s lives, it’s the “mirror-wight” (their own selves) who is to blame!
Cunningham, Scott and David Harrington. The Magical Household. St. Paul: Llewellyn,
Davidson, Hilda Roderick Ellis. Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe. London: Routledge,
1993. Anything by this author is well worth reading as she is one of the greatest
Academic experts in the field of Germanic religion.
Glob, P. V., trans. Rupert Bruce-Mitford. The Bog People: Iron-Age Man Preserved.
Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970.
Gundarsson, Kveldulf, ed. Our Troth. n.p.: The (Ring of) Troth, 1993. Most of this
work is available online at http://www.thetroth.org; go to the “Resources” link at
the bottom of the page and click there. You can read in great detail about Dísir,
Álfar, and other wights in Our Troth. A revised and updated edition is in
Preparation and will be published.
-----. Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs & Practices of the Northern
Tradition. St. Paul: Llewellyn Press, 1993. n.b.: this book is again in print as an
ebook at http://www.aswynn.runeschool.org/recommended.html for US $12. I
believe that it can also be purchased there as a paper copy for an additional charge.
Harner, Michael. The Way of the Shaman: Tenth Anniversary Edition. San Francisco:
Harper San Francisco, 1990.
Little, William, ed. The Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles, 3rd ed.
with addenda. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955. This is the big, black, one-volume
dictionary I’ve used since my early teens. It has etymologies and even date of first
recorded use and a brief example for entries.
Sheil, Thorr and Audrey. Hedenskap: The Folk Religion of Ancient Scandinavia.
New York: Trollwise Press, 1992.
-----. The Road to Bifrost Volume V: The Mysteries on Bifrost’s Path. New York:
Trollwise Press, 1991.
-----. The Twisting Trail to Bifrost’s Way: The Journey Through the Northern Mysteries.
New York: Trollwise Press, 1992.
Simek, Rudolf. Dictionary of Northern Mythology, trans. Angela Hall. Cambridge:
D. S. Brewer, 1993.
Thorsson, Edred. A Book of Troth. St. Paul: Llewellyn Press, 1992.
Turville-Petre, E. O. G. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient
Scandinavia. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1964. One of the most
important books in English in the field of Germanic religion. There is an entire
chapter entitled “Guardian Spirits.”
last modified 08/14/2007