The topic of “nature spirits” and “fae” seems to have bubbled up on the neo-pagan blogosphere of late (for instance here and here and here). So it seemed perhaps timely to address a common point of confusion regarding Norse mythology; namely, where to the landvættir fit in to this question?
What might jump out at you from those examples is a maddening omission of definition. They purport to discuss the question of whether “faeries” and and “fair folk” and “fae” are “nature spirits” but none seem to go to the trouble to actually define any of those terms. We get muddled gems of circular reasoning such as “a nature spirit is a spirit of nature”, or (better) outright admissions that “I’m not really sure what folks mean when they use the term “nature spirit”.”
So I’m going to start my own discussion by defining terms.
- Nature spirit: A supernatural being associated with a particular type or specimen of natural features, such as hills, waterfalls, streams, trees, etc.
- Landvættr: An Old Norse term translated as “land-being” which take the form of giants and animals, and who defend a given region against aggressors. They generally help a territory (and particularly the head of that territory) in an unspecified manor (by assisting with its general prosperity), and if they are driven off (by a curse, or by seeing the dragon-prows of ships), that would bode ill for the territory and its leader.
- Fae: Also known as faeries, and euphemistically as fair folk, little folk, etc. An Old French term (derived from Latin fata) for a class of spirits, possibly of pre-Christian origin, some of which dwell in natural surroundings, some of which dwell underground, and some of which cohabitate with humans. Some are friendly, some are hostile, and others are neutral towards humans.
So. Where does this leave us?
Well, by these definitions, which I don’t think are at all off-base, landvættir wouldn’t qualify as nature spirits; they’re not necessarily connected with specific or general natural features.
That said, some fae could be considered nature spirits by these definition, although by no means all. If we include (as I have in my definitions) house-spirits, then they are most definitely not. However, since we include (ditto) things like fossegrim in the umbrella of “fae”, and such creatures are connected to a single natural feature (a waterfall, in this case), it would seem that at least some of them definitely are.
There is, of course, a load of history that goes unsaid in these definitions and in the question itself. Without a doubt the human conception of these creatures changed over time (whether their nature changed along with those conceptions remains an open question), and the definition of “fae” expanded to include a number of creatures who a thousand years earlier would have been thought of as distinct beings.
Take, for instance, the alfar (elves). In pre-Christian times, they were seen as beings on a par with the Aesir, master craftsmen and powerful creatures. By the later medieval period, they had dwindled in both stature and power to more like the sprites we think of today. We still see glimpses of their former status in some of the Grail romances, however, where they are presented as powerful and human-like beings.