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The Little People

Vætte/Vette - a folklore creature who lives close to humans or in nature. The Tomte/Nisse is a subspecies of the Vætte. Exists in all Scandinavian countries and has its roots in Norse mythology where there is a distinction between the sea vetter and the land vetter. The Icelandic Landnámabók mentions that according to Ulfjot's law you were not allowed to sail towards land with the dragon head left on the ship as this would scare the land vetter away. They were considered the protectors of the land and must be treated with respect.

They are also known as the subterraneans, the little people or the "little ones". The English word, "wight", is etymologically correct, but simply meant 'person' in Old English.

Here are two angry members of the Vætte family, as imagined by Th. Kittelsen:



The Vætte (orig. "item, thing, creature", in Norse mythology a general term for the supernatural) is a collective species rather than individuals who unlike the - in folklore - always solitary Nisse/Tomte/Gnome live in families. Here are a few facts mentioned by Ebbe Schön in Svensk Folktro: they are often invisible or small greyclad creatures with grey or red caps. They live underground and like the Nisse/Tomte often close to people. They don't generally mingle with humans, however, but can turn very vengeful if someone happen to pour hot water over them, pee on the ground above them or hurt them in any other way. They can bring luck or misfortune on people, make people sick, poor or rich. The best advice seems to be just to avoid them. If you give a Vætte something it asks for, it might let you watch their wedding, which is supposedly very beautiful and impressive. Human women who help Vætter give birth are known to have been rewarded very generously.

John Bauer
John Bauer

Here is a story retold by Ebbe Schön:

"One day a little grey man came to a farmer and told him to follow him. They went down into the underground, to a big room with food and drinks, but there was an awful smell as the farmer kept his animals just above. The grey man told the farmer he was very tired of the smell and promised that if the farmer would move his animals somewhere else, he would have great succes - which the farmer had not had so far with his animal rearing - seemingly because of the unhappy neighbour underground. Well, the farmer did as the Vætte told him, and since then he had no problems with his animals."

If they have been treated kindly or with respect by a human, they may leave a gift - eg. a bunch of twigs and leaves that might seem quite ordinary at first, but if you appreciate the gift, it will bring you luck and success.

vette family
Angry Vætte Family by Trollmoon (gouache)

Here is another story with a less happy ending:

“It once happened on a farm in Skåne that the parents were out working on the field while the children were staying at home alone, playing on one of the wall-attached benches in the living room. Then suddenly some small children came out of one of the bench-ends and started playing and having fun with the children. When the parents later came home, the children mentioned the visit and how much fun they’d had with their small guests. Some time later the farmer’s wife happened to pour hot water over the bench-end. After a few days, when the children were alone again at home, the wight children came out of the bench-end, now scolding the children: 'We got a grey dress by your mother, but our mother will give your mother a red dress in return.' Shortly afterwards the farm burnt down to the ground.”

For most people they are invisible, others may have a glimpse of them for a short second while a few can communicate with them.

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