I first remember coming across the term “wight” in Tunnels of Doom, a dungeon-crawling role-playing game for the Texas Instruments 99/4A computer. I’m assuming the game was inspired by Dungeons & Dragons and in turn by J.R.R. Tolkien.
I believe D&D wights can drain energy, and Tolkien’s barrow-wights were malevolent spirits of the dead who hung out around burial mounds.
The Norse term Vaettir, from which the word is derived, could mean a ghost or undead creature, but more generally referred to any kind of sentient being, particularly those who were neither gods nor humans.
The Landvaettir were spirits or creatures who were tied to the land, often dwelling in rocks or waterfalls. It was important for people living on a piece of land to establish friendly ties with the local Landvaettir, as they could bless or curse the area as they saw fit. People gave them offerings of food and drink, and I’ve seen several mentions of an Icelandic law that required sailors to remove the dragon-shaped prows from their ships to avoid frightening the land-wights. Rituals were performed when moving to or from a piece of land. There are several stories like that of Goat-Bjorn, who was rewarded with very fecund goats when striking a deal with a wight in a dream. The Icelandic warrior Egil Skallagrimsson, who had an ongoing feud with King Erik Bloodaxe and Queen Gunnhild of Norway, cursed the land by using a nithing pole (basically a pole with a freshly killed horse’s head on the end) to torment the local Landvaettir until they had driven Erik and Gunnhild from the land. The two of them were eventually forced to flee to Northumbria in England.
Landvaettir were generally invisible to humans, and were also capable of changing shape. They were sometimes known to appear in a troll-like form, or as animals. The four main Landvaettir in Icelandic legend took the forms of a giant, a dragon, an eagle, and a bull.
Legend has it that King Harald Bluetooth Gormsson of Denmark sent a wizard to scout out Iceland, which he intended to invade. Arriving at the island in the form of a whale, the wizard was frightened away by the four guardians, one in each corner of the land. Part of what inspired me to write this post was a picture of a Landvaettir that I found on Pinterest, which made the creature literally part of the land.
While Christians attempted to stamp out belief in Landvaettir, it apparently still persists, especially in Iceland. When the Keflavik International Airport and its NATO military base were built in the 1940s, the construction foreman insisted on giving the local wights time to move out of a rock on the site, finally receiving the go-ahead in a dream two weeks later.