Álfheimr the gods gave to Freyr
In bygone days as tooth-payment.
The Poetic Edda. Grímnismál, stanza 5, Larrington translation.
There’s a saying in pagan culture, along the lines of, ‘When the first tooth is cut seek a High Priestess. When the first tooth is lost, seek a master scientist.’
The heart of it is that as children we’re full of wonder, naturally receptive to the animistic world around us, and we engage it passionately. In that stage, we need sage governance to explore imagination with abandon to glimpse our full potential. Later, when we’re older and confronted with the limitations of the five senses and the challenges of the formed experience, we need measurable teachings grounded in surviving and thriving.
Since having twins in 2009, I’ve stalked the notion of writing my take on animistic parenting. I’m still out to jury on that as a formal series, though I wanted to share this insight about the Old Norse tradition’s tooth-gift ritual, and how it’s still relatable in our modern lives.
On the path of seiðr is the ritual of tooth-gift, which comes during the study of Álfheimr, the land of light elves, or faeries as they came to be Anglicized. Mentions of Álfheimr and its inhabitants, álfar, are few. In the Prose Edda, Sturluson describes them as “more beautiful than the sun,” which imparts to the elves a certain godlike status, making it curious then, why their world was given to a boy king to rule when he cut his first tooth.
Freyr was Vanir, a group that developed early in the formation of the Old Norse nine-world cosmology, who came to live on the world Vanaheimr. They were Nature lovers besotted with the wild, primal life force of the unknown. To put them in a more general context, of the nine worlds only two are considered innangarðr, or ‘within the guard,’ or what is known. They are Ásgarðr and Miðgarðr–the lands of gods/goddesses and humans. The other seven are útgarðr, or ‘beyond the guard,’ what is unknown. Within that equation, Vanaheimr is the epitome of our wild Nature.
Freyr is also the twin brother of Freya. They make a balanced pairing which is often translated as polar aspects of the same being–masculine and feminine embodied as a whole. Worth noting about Freya, she was a völva, a seer, who taught seiðr to Oðin. She interjected the wild into the world of the Æsir when she became their pledge. She brought animism to the gods as a two-way street, through shamanism. Through the story of Freya we aren’t just experiencing connection with Spirit Allies, they are also experiencing engagement with us. Telling, that.
Why, then, is giving the land of the elves to a toddler significant? In Old Norse culture, it was traditional to give a gift at the cutting of the first tooth–the tooth-gift. There lingers no clear explanation for why that was, though consider for a moment that all children are animists. We all come into life experiencing that everything is alive–our stuffed animals, invisible friends, our food. Through those same years we rely on our mother to feed us, to be the conduit in our consumption of the world around us. If we don’t consume, we die. That is the human formula. As babies, we are fed by someone else, in some cases literally through someone else. The burden of caring for our body and survival falls to our mother, as we leisurely familiarize ourselves with being souls in form.
Also significant, as babies, we are in the brainwave state of delta most of the time. Delta is considered the bridge to the collective unconscious. In the story of Freyr, at the stage that he would most be forming relationship to the world around him, he was given a magickal one to rule. He was given access to a world beyond the one we experience with five senses, to do with whatever he liked. He was given the freedom of his imagination to explore realms beyond which humanity can normally reach, much the way babies’ experience of the world is initially shaped by delta.
As we cut teeth, our relationship to consumerism changes. Most babies are about a year old when they get their first tooth. As with cutting teeth, the age of transition to solid food varies widely. When it occurs, it accompanies a deep shift in awareness. The body isn’t just here, it is part of who we are and the body must be fully honored in order to stay here well. With the advent of solid food, responsibility in sustaining the body shifts away from the mother, and to a degree to the child.
Along with this developmental change, our awareness grows, and we seat more fully into our bodies. This timeframe coincides with a shift into predominantly theta brainwaves. Theta is the state of cognisant dreaming, meditation. It is the arena of ecstatic trance. As we move more into our bodies, our awareness must ground, as well. We attune less to the imagination, and more to the life happening around us. We have to, if we want to stay alive.
Around five years old we lose our first baby teeth, and are firmly engaging initiation into the full experience of being human. We shift from a predominantly theta brainwave to beta, in which our minds are consumed with absorbing facts from the external. Our inner worlds become entwined with the outer, sometimes without rationnal separation. Just as the body craves more substantial food to remain healthy, in order to survive the realities of the earthly plane, our consciousness becomes more fixed on the five senses. We eat to survive; we observe to survive.
Losing teeth isn’t a terribly traumatic thing. It is, however, an intense business that can take a great span of discomfort to complete. We do this transition in body and consciousness at the same time, making it a pretty pivotal stride in independent life-sustaining success. The losing of first teeth indicates a point at which our minds are developing past that deep theta brainwave connection to All Things, and we become more about mundane stuff. We spend our remaining childhood in beta, and transition into alpha in our early teens. When our brains settle into alpha, we have to work to return to theta. It’s no longer our natural state. Consumerism isn’t free anymore. We feed hand-to-mouth; we must chew. No one is going to continue to automatically nourish us, or give us our own world to rule. We have to get back to Álfheimr by ourselves.
The transition of tooth-cutting then losing baby teeth to adult ones coincides with our deepest challenge as humans–to retain our animistic awareness while successfully navigating formed reality. It is life-long.
Tooth-gift or tooth-payment, is a source upon which we base the modern fancy of the Tooth Faerie. It is how we internalize our first primal initiation. When our babies cut teeth, we honor their feet in both worlds–one in that of humanity, and one in that of the soul. From the day we’re born, we’re focused on sustaining our bodies, prolonging the time that we have here. In order to do that well, we must consume and make peace with the sacrifice that life means consumption. We must take to sustain. We must be fully committed to being in the earthly realm. By virtue of birth we assume that we’ve already made that agreement. We are all born, but we are not born initiated. Through the shifts of body and consciousness in our wee years, we make that choice again, aware that we’re choosing to be here. It’s not just an initiation into physical survival, but also of spiritually thriving despite the challenges of form.
The Tooth Fairy sustains as one of many touchstones, messengers from the spirit world, reminding us not only that we made that choice, but that we have support in making it again and again throughout life. We give the tooth to the fae, so that they can bless us with a reminder of otherly support, a reminder to make the time we have here better, and a shiny trinket under the pillow—a reminder of the unique gift we each bear—to invest in doing just that.
How do we sustain that connection when there are no more teeth to give? How do we take the wisdom of tooth-gift initiation into subsequent adult initiations? How do we hold both the wisdom of the High Priestess and the logic of the master scientist? How have we bettered the world by doing so ?
 Sturluson, Snorri . The Prose Edda.