You might find this time of year, in any given Swedes home, a figurine of a man that looks like a very small Santa. Please do not confuse him with the American idea of Santa Klaus, the jolly old elf from the North. Tomten is someone very special, with a deep meaning and connection to the people of Sweden and Trolldom, or traditional Nordic animistic folk magic.
Ancestral domestic spirits, spirits that take care of the homestead, are a staple throughout Scandinavia. In fact, Tomte and their cousin spirits Nisse and Vätte, are so common in the Scandinavian culture that very few natives to the Nordic region realize their connection to trolldom magic.
What is a Tomte?
“Among luck-drawing spirits, the tomte is by far the most important,” writes Johannes Björn Gårdbäck in his book Trolldom: Spells and Methods of the Norse Folk Magic Tradition. Gårdbäck goes on to explain that the word Tomte is from the old Swedish word tompht meaning piece of land. The range of bad translations to English vary from gnome to elf to brownie to Santa, but none of them do this spirit any justice. Most translations leave a lot to be desired, and I subscribe to the opinion that when working with folk magic of a place, it is better to learn the words as they are, than attempt to translate them poorly.
Modern interpretations of the tomte tend to look like a small man with a white beard and peaked cap. This is a representation made strong by the Swedish painter Jenny Nyström and further cemented by The Tomten, a picture book by the famous Pippi Longstockings author Astrid Lindgren. Many Swedes and Swedish-Americans will be surprised to learn that Tomten has not always been a little man. There are some attestations of tomten appearing as a snake or other forms – good reason to be nice to strange snakes that live on the farm and eat disease carrying mice. The most important piece of information to understand about Tomten is that the name refers to a title held by a spirit, not the spirit type itself.
Summoning and Honoring Tomten
There is a variety of lore on how a spirit is called into this role. The stories I’ve always heard have been related to the first to die in or the first to build a homestead becoming the guardian and luck bringer of the place. Gårdbäck explains in his book that a Tomte may be summoned the third time a fire is lit in a new home or when the third layer of logs is laid on a new cabin.
If you live in 2019, in a city, you may not have the luxury of building a new cabin or having a hearth. I have found a variety of means for attracting or awakening a tomte, and I am of the opinion that currently there are many homeless former tomte or similar domestic spirits throughout the US, following the abandonment of farms during the industrial age. Considering the number of nasty spirits also in search of homes, I tend to recommend seeking the support of a trusted magician or other magic worker to help invite a tomte to your home.
Once you have a tomte, they can be very powerful spiritual advisors. The guard the home, attract good fortune, and generally work to enhance the prosperity for those residing in the homestead. Two years ago, around this time, I had to move very suddenly, and was worried about my prospects in finding an apartment. To my horror, my vintage tomte figurine went missing the same week that I was touring apartments. I left an offering for him, and hoped for the best. The same day my first choice dwelling contacted me to send over my lease agreement, he reappeared in my coat pocket! I’ve lived in the same building since, and over the summer, rather magically, the nicest one bedroom in the building opened up, just in my price range. I credit my dear Tomte.
Most importantly, Tomte supports our luck, home, and security. In exchange, one is expected to leave offerings for Tomten every yule, in the special corner that Tomten is thought to reside. In modern times he is most often fed just once a year on Christmas Eve, although I feed mine more often because he works very hard for our home. Traditionally Tomten are left offerings of porridge with butter, but I prefer to talk to my spirits and find out what they most prefer. (An offended Tomte can be a menace, or simply leave, and it is best to avoid upsetting them by neglecting to show them proper respect.)
Until next time, have a God Jul! And if you are looking to adopt a Tomte, I help to rehome them through my Tomte Nisse project.