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What Exactly Are the Wights in Heathenry?

What Exactly Are the Wights in Heathenry?

If you’ve entered Heathenry recently, or even if you have been in it a while, chances are you’ve heard about Wights. Often called the landvaetr, the wights are pretty intrinsic to Heathen beliefs. But what exactly are they, and how do they fit into the Heathen belief system?

Where the Term, Wight, Comes From

The term, “wight,” comes from Middle English, but we really have J.R.R. Tolkien to thank for bringing it back into the lexicon. The original word mean “a living, sentient being,” but the word mostly went out of style until The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings became popular. That Tolkien chose the word, “wight,” is no happy accident. He was a professor of Anglo Saxon at Oxford University. (The Anglo Saxon root of “wight” is wiht, for those curious.) In his stories, he spoke of “Barrow-wights” and other denizens. So, he used the term, wight, to describe a particularly supernatural phenomenon. Namely, creatures that are not quite of this world, but have sentience, or are, at least animate enough to consider them creatures and not things.

Heathens (as well as other pagans and fantasy writers) have co-oped the term to describe supernatural creatures that aren’t quite gods, but are still quite powerful. I believe we probably use the word because most people are familiar with the concept of wights nowadays, but aren’t necessarily familiar with the term, landvaetr. In other words, even though landvaetr or “land spirits” are the correct words to use (when talking about land wights), for simplicity sake, we use “wights.”

What Are Wights, Exactly?

Now that you’re familiar with the concept of wights, let’s talk about what a wight encompasses in Heathenry. Wights are just what you might think: Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, and other supernatural denizens. These include the nisse, tomte, disir, alfar, and hulderfolk. They include the ancestors who have continued after their death to reside in our world as spirits. And they include not only the land spirits, but also the sea spirits, of which there are many. This is the broadest sense of being a wight.

My Experience with Wights (Or Lack Thereof)

Growing up, I always wanted to see Elves and Fairies. Even when I was old enough to know better, while still being a preteen, I hoped to see the hidden folk. I grew up largely in suburbia, but way back when I was a kid (yeah, you can add the old codger voice to that), there were still tracts of undeveloped land around our homes. I lived in the Eastern US where you could still cross lands that had blackberry and raspberry bushes growing wild, find ruins of old farmsteads that predated the Civil War, and other cool things. We never thought we were trespassing on someone’s property, although I’m pretty sure we did that a lot, but we found some pretty cool stuff with metal detectors and just generally exploring. I knew most of the creeks and entrances into property where people wouldn’t give you grief for crossing. Yeah, I suppose it was a different time. My mom and dad had no idea where I was going, and I wasn’t worse for the wear.

Anyway, back to wights. Despite being in a history-rich area, I never saw a single wight. The gods know, I tried. Instead, I tromped through streams, played in the mud (and got in terrible trouble for that), explored, and discovered a lot of things. Wights—not so much. Maybe they just looked at me as some kid who was mostly harmless and alone. Maybe my early skepticism banished them, I don’t know.

Do Wights Exist?

It’s my guess—and you folks can argue with me over this—that most Heathens are pretty convinced that wights aren’t corporeal creatures, but more likely spirits. Or maybe they consider wights the personification of the natural forces at work. In other words, they aren’t really singular entities. Some people feel that they are ancestors—and yes, there are good cases for this. And some people believe them to be a little below gods. Again, there is a case for that as well.

That being said, I’m clearly on the agnostic side of the fence when it comes to wights. In other words, I haven’t actually had the pleasure of meeting one. I’ve spoken to people whom I consider sane (or mostly sane) who work with wights, so there is a possibility that they do exist on some level. Despite my agnostic views, I do make offerings to them. I also can do rituals that banish bad wights. Hel’s bells, I’ve even had some interesting experiences with what can only be considered gremlins. (The type that gum up mechanical things, not the creatures you’re never supposed to get wet or feed after dark.)

What Else About Wights?

There are literally books about wights, but for the sake of expediency, I won’t go into specifics in this post. Instead, I’m planning a series of posts about wights and the other less than godly creatures in our belief system and give you my take on them. And of course, if you’ve had dealings with wights, be sure to tell me about it in the comments!

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Elves and Other Races–Do We Remember The Others?

Elves and Other Races–Do We Remember The Others?

Historians used to look at folk tales and fairy tales as cute stories to tell children, but in light of current evidence, maybe they were true.  I’m talking about other races like the Elves and Wights whom we show our respect. Maybe there is a collective unconscious like Jung proposed.  Perhaps we’re remembering other races through the passage of time?  Stick with me on this, and maybe I can offer a scientific and rational explanation for our stories.

Elves, Wights, and Hidden People

If you’ve been a Heathen for any amount of time, you know that we honor both the Light Elves and Dark Elves. We tell stories about trolls under bridges and we respect the Wights, the spirits of the land (even if we have a hard time believing in them).  So much so that we honor these creatures and tell stories about them.  In Iceland, they even route roads around rocks and move construction projects around areas purported to be homes of the Huldu or Hidden People.

We think and talk about people of an elder race. But what elder races?  Because science confirms that there were “elder races” living during the time Homo sapiens migrated out of Africa and into other lands.  Could our myths and legends correspond to these hominids?

What Races Coexisted with Homo Sapiens?

The first question to ask is what other hominid races coexisted with Homo sapiens.  Although an older article, this New York Times article mentions that Homo erectus may have lived among Homo sapiens as late as 27,000 years ago.  We know that Neanderthals lived among humans up until about 40,000 years ago.  And then, there’s the mysterious Denisovans that we know very little about but know we have some of their genome as as well as Neanderthal. Then, there is Homo floresiensis, those “Hobbit” people, who lived in Indonesia up until about 50,000 years ago.  For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to primarily be talking about the Neanderthals, since we have the most information about them, but these arguments could work for any of the hominids that existed along with Homo sapiens.

Although Neanderthals were our cousins, DNA and archaeological evidence points to crossbreeding amongst the two species. Humans and Neanderthals common ancestors had separated about 400,000 years ago, which makes the interaction between the two species interesting. Unlike Homo sapiens, Neanderthals had been outside of Africa for nearly 200,000 before our ancestors stepped out. Their evolution continued in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world.  Could these be the “other races” our collective unconscious seem to point to?

What Our Ancestors Must Have Thought of the Others

Our Homo sapiens ancestors no doubt had contact with Neanderthals and other races of hominids, but I wonder what our ancestors thought of them.  Neanderthals had bigger brains than our ancestors, had the ability to makes tools, and even had the ability to make art.  They probably had speech of some variety, but their voices were higher pitched than ours.  They buried their dead, or at least cared for the dead rather than leave them where they were or dump them in a garbage pit.

The Neanderthals were heavier set and tended to hunt close up against some pretty dangerous prey, like mammoths.  That meant that they suffered some pretty serious injuries.  Their heavier bodies, bigger chests, and large noses gave them the ability to live in colder climates.  They had adapted to their environment successfully, which probably put our Homo sapiens ancestors in awe.  Homo sapiens had evolved in hotter climates, making the colder climates our ancestors entered a real challenge in a lot of ways.

Did our ancestors emulate the Neanderthals?  Did we learn from them?  Were we at odds with them?  One can only guess what our ancestors thought, but given that there are very few artifacts, other than DNA of the contact, I suspect the contact was more or less peaceful.

What Happen to the Others?

What happened to the Neanderthals, if they were so well adapted to the colder places?  Why did a successful species go extinct after surviving some 350,000 years?  Scientists don’t have all the answers, but they do have clues into why our “elder cousins” may have disappeared.

First, Neanderthals were never in large numbers.  They lived in small familial groups and inbred quite a bit.  The didn’t have the genetic diversity of modern humans — even though we’re pretty much a group of inbred hominids, ourselves, nearly going extinct about three times.  They practiced cannibalism on more than one occasion.  While no doubt our ancestors did too at various times, the Neanderthals didn’t have a large group to choose from.

Lastly, as their numbers dwindled, they probably sought mates outside of their race.  We know modern humans bred with them and that people with ancestors from Europe and Asia have about 2 percent Neanderthal genetics.  This suggests our races did have interactions.  Apparently we could breed and produce viable offspring — at least, occasionally.  Neanderthals were already going extinct, probably from lack of numbers and genetic diversity.

Neanderthals didn’t go extinct all at once, either.  Pockets of them existed in various places until they simply died out or until they joined modern humans.

Are the Others the Basis for Elves, Wights, and Other Races?

Now comes my controversial conjectures. First, let me say that it is just the meanderings of some rather interesting thoughts — you can disagree with me all you want.  But, science has proof of Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Denisovians, and other races that lived during the same time as modern humans, whereas we have no physical proof of Elves.  So, I’m simply connecting the dots between science and lore.  Our legends tell of races that existed before us.  Could the Elves, Dwarves, and other denizens be inspired by these older hominid races?  Could the Elders simply be Neanderthals, eventually dressed up over time so they are unrecognizable?  It’s a tantalizing thought.

In which case, our wights are ancestral spirits of former hominids.  That the Alfar and Disir are indeed ancestors of humans — just very much older. Were they magical?  Given I really don’t believe in the concept of magic, you can make your own inferences and not trust my beliefs, if you believe in that sort of thing.


We know from fairy stories that Elves weren’t always benign.  We know that they may switch babies with their own progeny, hoping to fool humans. It’s believed that these changeling stories are in existence to explain birth defects and developmentally disabled children.  This makes a lot of sense on many levels, but I can’t help wonder if changelings may have occurred with other races.  What happened when a Neanderthal and modern human mated, in terms of progeny?  Were changelings a description of what could have occurred if Neanderthals tried to substitute their children for human children in the hopes of giving them a chance to survive?  I don’t know, but it is an interesting thought.

What Does The Rational Heathen Believe?

I really love the concept of Elves and Wights, but as I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m largely agnostic about them.  I’m more inclined to accept that they are a collective memory of past interaction between hominid races rather than accept the lore at face value.  Still, whichever way you consider our stories, the ideas I’ve presented are intriguing.

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