The Etymology of Swedish Tomte and Norwegian Tufte

Written by Dyami Millarson

The Swedish Tomtar and the Norwegian Tuftar, of which the respective singulars are Tomte and Tufte, are Homestead Spirits, akin to the Dutch Kabouters, whose existence is affirmed by a number of Dutch people (see evidence here).

Tomte and Tufte come from tomt ‘property designated for housing’ and tuft ‘homestead; property designated for housing’ respectively, with which the forgotten English term toft, meaning homestead as well, is cognate. All these can be connected with Old Norse topt, tupt, toft, tuft, tomt, which means ‘property designated for housing; homestead’.

The aforementioned cognates presumably come from an Indogermanic root, which also produced the Latin domus house, Ancient Greek δόμος (dómos) house, and Russian дом (dom) house, confirming that Tomtar and Tuftar are Spirits associated with the domestic environment.

We can, consequently, connect the Tomtar and Tuftar with the Álfablót ‘blood sacrifice to the Álfar,’ the Álfar ‘Spirits, Gods of lower rank compared to the Æsir snd Vanir’ and the Húsvættir ‘Domestic Spirits, Home Deities, Household Gods, House Wights.’ After all, one may say of the Tomtar/Tuftar in Old Norse: “Þeir eru Húsvættir.” (They are Household Gods.) 

Other Eurasian domestic worship traditions are informative in this context as well: the Chinese 灶神 (zaoshen) ‘Kitchen Deity’ and the old 祭灶 (jizao) ‘sacrifice to the Kitchen Deity’ (see here), the Korean 가신 (Gasin) ‘Domestic Deity’ (see the Encyclopedia of Korean Folk Beliefs) and the Roman Diī Familiārēs, Penātēs, and Larēs.

The Tomtar are also mentioned in relation to the Roman Penātēs on page 1431 of volume IV of Teutonic Mythology by Jacob Grimm which is translated by James Steven Stallybrass. 

For a brief discussion of the Roman household worship traditions, see page 2 of this Dutch book, pages 80-81 of this book, page 230 of this book, page 321 of this book, pages 443-444 of this book, pages 11-14 of this work, page 4 of this book, page 373 of this book, pages 84-87 of this book, pages 25, 39, 41, 275, and 333 of this Latin book on blood sacrifices.

For an in-depth discussion of the Roman and Greek household worship traditions, however, I may refer the reader to Alexandra Sofroniew’s 2016 work Household Gods: Private Devotion in Ancient Greece and Rome. I may also refer the interested reader to Margaret C. Waites’ 1920 article The Nature of the Lares and Their Representation in Roman Art, which is freely available here.

Not unlike my identification of the Tuftar and Tomtar based on my Dutch lore instinct with the Kabouters, two Norwegian Tuftar are identified with the Dutch Kabouters on page 481 of this book. This may be called an interpretātiō Batava or Hollandicā ‘Dutch (folk religious) interpretation,’ which is a phenomenon comparable to how the Germanic peoples replaced the Roman names of the Gods in the days of the week with indigenous names and to how Tacitus equates the Germanic names of Deities with Roman names familiar to him. This native-(re)naming phenomenon, which I discussed in my recent article on the Germanic folk religious interpretation, and which, as an expression of a nature poetical worldview, I consider to be epithet-based or heiti-based thinking, is apparently completely normal, spontaneous, natural, instinctive, and logical for different ethno-religious traditions in Europe, and it actually is quite practical as human beings are all trying to make sense of things through what is most familiar to them and thereby fit it into their existing worldview; man may achieve greater understanding of unfamiliar things through such identifications, which are based on the lore instinct or lore skill he possesses (compare my use of goðmálugr and fornfróðr in my recent article discussing a selection of pages as a poetical introduction to Old Norse), and this also explains the inherent, in fact poetical, overlap between Divine Beings in indigenous lore; after all, the overlap, observed by the ancestors or Álfar to be inherent in nature, is a natural motif in the lore which inspires poetry, also called Othin’s gift, and prose, and that natural motif informing poets and story-tellers alike, that notion of natural overlap on account of which natural beings are observed to blend and distinctions tend to become blurred like the distinctions between shadows disappearing as the sun on the primordial forest sets, may lead to the understanding that the ancestors become one with nature, thus becoming Holy Beings of Nature, souls associated with whiteness and therefore sunlight, perhaps manifesting in nature as shadows which result from sunlight in the forests and as the beams of light creating the shadows, namely the Álfar; and finally, armed with the knowledge of biological evolution and genetic research, we can nowadays confirm the ancestral sentiment that all living organisms are somehow related and that they ultimately sharing a common source at the beginning of time, which the Álfar surely know by the epithet of All-Father from whom all life descends, thus the divine manifestation of a common descent of all life on Earth — the idea of a common source is apparently something the ancestors during their lifetimes already knew by observing nature during their daily interactions with it, before finally, at the unfortunate end of their lives, becoming one with it and manifesting in it as Álfar, who may hence be called Nature Spirits.

For Dutch household spirit traditions, see page 193 of this book, the explanation under the lemma kaboutermannetje on pages 824-827 of this dictionary, page 286 of this book on Dutch folklore up to the 18th century, pages 71-72 of this book, an etymological discussion on pages 181-182 of this book, page 32 of this book which analyses Sinterklaas as a Dutch pagan festival, page 96 of this book, a comparison between the cat in boots and the Kabouters on page 55 of this book, the footnote and references on page 206 of this book, a mention of a caring Dutch household spirit on page 162 of this book.

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