The Tomte - a Scandinavian household spirit
The old word Tompth means a defined piece of land in which a house is located. Another old name for a new building is Bol and the tomte was sometimes called Bol-vaette in the old days. From “tomt” and “bo” the concept of Tomtebo-luck is found. Affecting the Tomtebo-luck has given rise to many rituals and home decorations over the centuries such as for example the many embroidered decorations found in central spots of many homes in saying “Home Sweet Home” or alike. So the Tomte is the central spirit around where this luck depends and revolves.
When talking about a Tomte in singularis it refers to a title describing a function rather than a classification of a spirit. He is usually seen as being in charge of all other spirits at the same location. If mentioned in pluralis (Tomtar) it may refer to a bunch of localized spirits. This changed in the mid and late 19th century with the start of industrialization when the Tomte got his image as a lonely but kind little dwarf in the romantic fantasy of authors like Viktor Rydberg and his famous poem “Tomten” from 1881 and the popular images created by the artist Jenny Nyström in 1874.
The role of the Tomte in the folk tradition is far from this romantic little being.
In the 14th century the Swedish Saint Birgitta complains loudly about the great importance people put on their “Tomptha-Gud” (referring to the tomte as a deity) but little did she know that these beings, especially the House Tomte would remain honored in most houses and still is on the countryside today.
The first who die in a house is usually said to become its Tomte, but this is not static at all. They may arrive when fire is first lit in a house or when the third or ninth layer of the wall is set and the function can be taken over by another spirit over time. A house can be without a Tomte and it was then considered necessary to get one. They are then hired at crossroads, cemeteries or old Mills. An angered or evil Tomte is considered very bad as he may remove luck and cause harm. He must then be appeased or removed by certain rituals.
Besides appearing in human shape in visions and dreams the Tomte often takes physical form as a snake. These snakes are called usually called ”Tomt-orm” and are fed with milk and used to be venerated in most parts of Scandinavia. Killing such a snake would mean that one risked losing all the accumulated luck of a place.
Sometimes they are also represented by small, carved wooden statues called Tomtebesar, which implies why Saint Birgitta was so furiated in the 14th century. She might have seen people venerating their Tomte in the same manner as other Skurd Gudar, which is the old name for “gods cut out of wood”, often referring to the old Gods and Godesses of Heathen Norse Mythology.
These are either placed by the stove or in a secluded corner, fed and petitioned for all kinds of matters regarding a household and its inhabitants.
In popular culture the Tomte is often described as a short man dressed in grey wool clothing and wearing a red or grey pointy, nitted hat. With spirits of the dead in mind and a look at old Scandinavian folk costumes it may not be a surprise to see something similar to the image popularized in romantic fantasies in and around buildings predating the 19th century.
Swedish Folk Costumes from Överkalix, Revsund and Tjockö. Source: "Folkdräkter & Bygdedräkter från hela Sverige" by Inga Arnö Berg & Gunnel Hazelius Berg.
In the older folk beliefs the Tomte was thought to have his living quarters in a nearby hill, mountain, under a large rock or in a grave mound or similar stone setting close to the house. I the younger tradition he lives in a Juniper bush close to the house, in the wood pile, in an outhouse or food storage building as well as the founding stone of the living house. It is considered very fortunate if he lives inside the house and if so, his place is usually in the stove corner, in between the stove chimney and the wall, in the attic or another dark and secluded place in the house.
When doing annual divinations around Christmas, New Year, Midsummer or another feast, the first question is usually about the relation between the Tomte and the people in the house and what he thinks and feels about them.
Some of the most common functions of the Tomte are:
• Guard the place in which he is the Tomte and warn when there is a danger present – such as waking up residents when there is a fire - and warn about coming dangers in the future.
• Look after the children and protect them from harm.
• Help with the various forms of work at a farm.
• Draw and attract necessities to the household.
• Guard treasures.
In the above we can see that the Tomte is closely associated with the bringing of gifts and this is the reason why the feast at midwinter later got associated with the Greek Saint Nicholas and he took over the role as the gift bringer at Christmas. This also gave the tomte his Noa-name Nissen or Gonissen in the Southern parts of Scandinavia.
Although St. Nicholaus has become the Jultomte, many Swedes still pay the Tomte by putting out a plate of porridge and some beer at Christmas Eve. This tradition is connected to the Midwinter feast and the many ways of ancestral veneration which still common around Christmas in many Scandinavian homes.
The Tomte concept is similar to the old Greek & Roman Lares & Penates as well as the Eastern European Domovoij. But, as with all spiritual comparisons - If a Spiritual being is approached for social reasons the specific culture and it´s traditions can not be replaced by knowledge of other customs, proper behaviour and social codes.
More on how to get, take care of and remove a tomte can be found in the book "Trolldom - Spells and Methods of the Norse folk magic tradition" by yours truly.
//Johannes G. The root doctor