Trolls in Rural Folklore

The relation between trolls and humans in rural Scandinavian folklore is very interesting. Trolls represent what is different, but not necessarily what is better or worse. To put it very simply (based on old folklore, not present fictional representations of troll in video games or tv animations)

Day creaturesNight creatures
Normal lookingEither very attractive or very ugly,
very big or very small
Intellect/strengthIntellect/strength/magical powers
Poor farmersThe nobility of the wilderness
Normal animalsEither bigger or much smaller animals, often more productive than humans' animals

In other words: We are physically and culturally different, live in separate but parallel dimensions (both humans and trolls have cattle, make a living from farming) but are also interdependent, e.g. during hard times when life is difficult for both farmer and troll, and may/can enter and exit each other’s dimensions – which involves some transformation – e.g. a human may leave the troll mountain richer or stronger after either tricking or helping the trolls, and trolls can learn from us (they like borrowing our tools for example) and even control us if necessary.

The Scandinavian troll in folklore is therefore very different from the European (Shrek-like) 'ogre', the devilish trolls of the Grimm brothers or even the Giant - though the troll and giant regionally may share similarities or overlap. Basically trolls are not necessarily evil or dangerous if you know how to handle them and show respect. As the Scandinavian countryside was very poor until recently, partly due to an harsher and more unpredictable nature, people suffered from high infant mortality and frequent famines, and the long distances in e.g. Norway or Sweden and the countries' late industrial development delayed migration to the bigger towns, countryfolk developed through time a warmer relation to the supernatural world as they lived with it for much longer and used the stories of riches nearby, hidden away in the mountain or soil, as a way of preserving their hopes for a better life. The stories made sense of strange natural phenomena (the changeling myth may have explained genetic diseases and missing people incl. mentally ill were thought to have been taken by the trolls) and you learned to tread carefully in the forest or on the mountain, not take anything for granted. At the same time the supernatural creatures, by being a link to a heathen past, also represented a strain of anarchism that the church tried to oppres. This battle between priest and troll was more or less an equal battle - the crucifix may, like the sun, another powerful religious symbol, have scared the trolls away, but in their world, the latter also had strong magical powers that must be taken serious, esp. as the church did not provide any cures for illnesses among humans or animals and the trolls were said to be healthy and live long lives and have very productive animals. While Christianity put down strict rules, trolldom gave some kind of crazy hope in a hard world.

This is what Ebbe Schön in Troll has to say about the syntesis between religion and folklore: In rural society these made up together a belief system which was of great use during most phases of life. Despite Christianity being an exclusive religion that reduced folklore to pure devil worship (that should be banned), the whole set of beliefs in trolls and giants etc. didn't just create fear, but also safety and mental stability by making an otherwise hard and unintelligible world more intelligible and teaching people how to act or not to act.

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