The Farm Pixie

Danish nisse by Ib Spang Olsen

Carta Marina (1539), Tomte

The Scandinavian Tomte/Nisse/Gnome or Gårdbo (Farm Habitant) is not as invisible as the Vætte/Wight and often has a serving position on the farm. Those who have seen the Tomte report that he is a small grey-clad man with a red cap and a long beard. He lives in close vicinity to people, often in the stable or on the loft, and he easily gets annoyed with his human neighbours and teases them or makes life more hard for them. He looks like a little child, but is very strong. To have a Nisse/Tomte on your farm has its obvious advantages and if you don’t have one you can always employ one, though this is like recruiting the Devil himself, as you cannot easily dismiss the Tomte.

Svenolof Ehren
Svenolov Ehren, 1961

Here is a story from Skåne about how to break a contract with a Tomte:

“There once was a farmer who had taken a young Tomte into his service. The Tomte was quick and hard-working but was very afraid of ghosts. It did not last long before the Tomte had made the farm so prosperous that the farmer felt very content and wanted to get rid of his farm hand. On the farm there was also a young girl, the most clever girl in the whole parish. “If the farmer will double my yearly salary,” she said, “then I will make sure that the Tomte will resign voluntarily.” The farmer agreed to this and next evening when the girl as usual were going out to the Tomte with his bowl of porridge, she put the bowl on the floor behind her. Then she placed herself with her legs wide apart, bent down and grabbed the bowl with her hands between her legs. And then she walked backwards into the stable and put the bowl down in front of the scared Tomte who thought that she was a horrible ghost and ran and hid himself. Next day he went to the farmer and asked him to get rid of the horrible ghost which was working for him.
“That is not possible,” said the farmer, “I have hired it for one year.”
“Then I am leaving at this instant,” shouted the Tomte.
And so he did and the farm girl got her yearly salary doubled.

The Nisse/Tomte can maybe be traced back to Roman house spirits. If you take good care of him, you will have a happy home, but if not, then bad things might happen. Here is a painting of one Tomte by the wonderful Swedish illustrator Harald Wiberg. You can see more of his paintings here. Wiberg illustrated several books about the Tomte by Astrid Lindgren, the famous Swedish children book's writer, and several are translated to English, incl. The Tomten.

The tomte must be the most visualised of all Scandinavian folklore creatures. So here are a few.

Here is first the classic 'postcard like' interpretation of a beardless Nisse by the artist Fredrik Wohlfahrt. The porridge which he is eating was a traditional gift to the Nisse during the Christmas season - a friendly gesture the Nisse would hopefully repay during the coming year. Porridge was the most common sacrificial food as it was also the most common prepared food.

Then a more evil looking Nisse by Th. Kittelsen who is closer to this creature's Norse origin, not as a house spirit, but as a mean-spirited boy ghost (see explanation below):

One origin of the Nisse/Tomte is the Old Norse Jólasveinn or Yuleboy. The Jólasveinar or Yuleboys were sons of the troll woman Grýla and her husband Leppalúd (the horrible), trolls already known from the 12th century. They had a reputation for stealing and eating naughty boys. These had many different names acc. to old Norse tradition and reflecting what they had done wrong when alive, e.g.: Thvörusleikir (Pot Scraper Licker), Pottasleikir (Pot Licker), Askasleikir (Bowl Licker), Hurdaskellir (Door Slammer), Skyrgámur (Junket Gobbler), Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage Snatcher ), Gluggagægir (Window Peeper) or Gáttathefur (Doorway Sniffer). Once a year they returned to scare other children, so they didn't behave badly. Medieval pedagogy in another word.
You can see some very funny pictures of the Yuleboys on this Icelandic page.

Hans Christian Andersen wrote several fairy tales about the Danish Nisse, here seen by two of his first Danish illustrators,
Wilhelm Pedersen and Lorenz Frölich:

Some funny Nisser with a violent temper by the great Norwegian cartoonist Kjell Aukrust:

Aukrust Nisser

And a watercolour by another Norwegian, Gudmund Stenersen (1863-1934), of a Nisse stealing hay from a farmer:

And finally the Swedish Tomte mother Jenny Nyström's representation of an egg-thieving (and very colourful) Tomte:

Jenny Nystr÷m Egg Thief

Then a Nisse by the Danish painter H. A. Brendekilde reminding us that the Nisse originally was a young boy, not an old man like later representations want us to believe:

And finally a stylish nisse ny the Danish designer and cheramist Laurits Hjorth from 1881:

The Little People

Vætte/Vette - a folklore creature who lives close to humans or in nature. The Tomte/Nisse is a subspecies of the Vætte. Exists in all Scandinavian countries and has its roots in Norse mythology where there is a distinction between the sea vetter and the land vetter. The Icelandic Landnámabók mentions that according to Ulfjot's law you were not allowed to sail towards land with the dragon head left on the ship as this would scare the land vetter away. They were considered the protectors of the land and must be treated with respect.

They are also known as the subterraneans, the little people or the "little ones". The English word, "wight", is etymologically correct, but simply meant 'person' in Old English.

Here are two angry members of the Vætte family, as imagined by Th. Kittelsen:

The Vætte (orig. "item, thing, creature", in Norse mythology a general term for the supernatural) is a collective species rather than individuals who unlike the - in folklore - always solitary Nisse/Tomte/Gnome live in families. Here are a few facts mentioned by Ebbe Schön in Svensk Folktro: they are often invisible or small greyclad creatures with grey or red caps. They live underground and like the Nisse/Tomte often close to people. They don't generally mingle with humans, however, but can turn very vengeful if someone happen to pour hot water over them, pee on the ground above them or hurt them in any other way. They can bring luck or misfortune on people, make people sick, poor or rich. The best advice seems to be just to avoid them. If you give a Vætte something it asks for, it might let you watch their wedding, which is supposedly very beautiful and impressive. Human women who help Vætter give birth are known to have been rewarded very generously.

John Bauer
John Bauer

Here is a story retold by Ebbe Schön:

"One day a little grey man came to a farmer and told him to follow him. They went down into the underground, to a big room with food and drinks, but there was an awful smell as the farmer kept his animals just above. The grey man told the farmer he was very tired of the smell and promised that if the farmer would move his animals somewhere else, he would have great succes - which the farmer had not had so far with his animal rearing - seemingly because of the unhappy neighbour underground. Well, the farmer did as the Vætte told him, and since then he had no problems with his animals."

If they have been treated kindly or with respect by a human, they may leave a gift - eg. a bunch of twigs and leaves that might seem quite ordinary at first, but if you appreciate the gift, it will bring you luck and success.

vette family
Angry Vætte Family by Trollmoon (gouache)

Here is another story with a less happy ending:

“It once happened on a farm in Skåne that the parents were out working on the field while the children were staying at home alone, playing on one of the wall-attached benches in the living room. Then suddenly some small children came out of one of the bench-ends and started playing and having fun with the children. When the parents later came home, the children mentioned the visit and how much fun they’d had with their small guests. Some time later the farmer’s wife happened to pour hot water over the bench-end. After a few days, when the children were alone again at home, the wight children came out of the bench-end, now scolding the children: 'We got a grey dress by your mother, but our mother will give your mother a red dress in return.' Shortly afterwards the farm burnt down to the ground.”

For most people they are invisible, others may have a glimpse of them for a short second while a few can communicate with them.

Common Scandinavian troll stories

Here I will translate various typical troll stories from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

The first one reminds us that trolls don't like to be disturbed and is found in many parts of Scandinavia:

Albert Bertelsen, Norwegian Troll Mountain, 1977

"There once was a man called Jon, who fished in a lake both autumn and spring. Then one day he heard a cry from the mountain. "Can I borrow your pot?" "What do you want with that," a voice replied from the other side of the lake. "I want to cook Jon Longlegs, who fishes in the lake both autumn and spring." "Yes, can I have his boat?" "Yes, you will get both his shoes and his boat." When Jon heard that, he quickly left the lake never to return."

Here is another typical troll story told in many parts of Scandinavia, this time reminding us that trolls in folklore can get both very old and be very hospitable:

"A man who has lost his horse enters the forest to look for it. Soon he is surrounded by mist and loses his way. Suddenly he comes to an old farm. An old whitehaired troll stands outside. He asks the old troll if he can stay there for the night. "You have to ask my father," the troll replies. "Is your father still alive, old man? Where is he?" "He is sitting inside in the chair!" So the man walks inside and asks the old troll in the chair if he may stay there for the night. "You have to ask my father," says the very old troll. "Where is he then" asks the visitor. "He hangs on the wall in the horn. But you better take this metal rod with you for he always grabs visitors' hands to see how strong they are, and that might hurt a bit." "OK," says the man and approaches the even older troll hanging in the cow's horn on the wall, asking him if he may stay there for the night. "So where are you from?" replies the incredibly old troll. When the visitor has told him, the troll grabs his metal rod thinking it is his hand. "I see there are still strong people where you come from. I once helped build their church, but when they brought the big bell, I moved here." He then lets the man stay in the trolls' house for the night."

Here is a traditional Swedish troll story.

In the year 1490 in the parish of Ljungby on Ljungby castle lived a lady named Cidsel Ulfstrand. And not far from the castle lay a lonely, incredibly huge stone called the Magle Stone. On Christmas eve it was said on the castle that you could hear great joy and festivity at the Magle Stone where a large gathering seemed to be taking place. Mistress Cidsel promised then a new costume and the best horse to the person who was willing to ride to the stone to investigate what was happening.

One of the stable boys then saddled a horse and promised to tell Mistress Cidsel what he discovered. When he came to the stone, it seemed to be standing on stakes and from beneath and around it came a strong light. But the strangest thing was the great number of trolls which danced and ran around the stone. When the stable boy came closer he was met by two trolls, one with a drinking horn, the other with a flute and he was asked to empty the horn and play from both ends of the flute. He took the horn and the flute, but was disgusted by the look and smell of the content of the horn and refused to drink from it. At the same moment he heard a spellbound girl say: “Don’t drink from the horn but ride away across the fields and avoid the roads.” Then he shook the horn over his back, so the content flew out, spurred his horse and galloped across the fields back to the castle. The trolls chased him but had to stay on the roads which gave him a sufficient lead so he reached the moat just in time for the lady of the castle to let him in before raising the drawbridge moments before the trolls arrived. Mistress Cidsel started parleying with the trolls. They said they had been sent by their king and now requested to get the drinking horn and the flute back. In return she would get a gift which as long as it was kept in the castle would ensure her and her family great honour and success. But Mistress Cidsel asked them to leave and never come back. She would keep the horn and the flute. The trolls had to accept this but before they left, they cursed both the family and the castle and predicted that the family would die out and the castle burn 3 times. Then they left. Two days later the horse fell over and broke its legs and the next day the stable boy died.

The lesson from this story is quite clear: Keep away from trolls and don't steal from them either!

Translated by from Jättar och Troll i Sverige (1961)

Male Water Creatures

Olaus Magnus, the Nix playing in the river Svartafloden near Nyslott, Finland (1555)

Other names: Åkarlen, Strömkarlen, Forskarlen, Bäckmannen (The River Man) and Åhesten or Bäckahäst (the River Horse). In Norway you find a special variant called Fossegrimen (an ugly but musically talented creature living under waterfalls or near water mills). The origin of this creature is debatable - as a sacrificial myth (in many parts of Scandinavia the river expected an annual sacrifice), to explain the melodious sound of water or simply to warn people against water.

Here is Norwegian Hans Gerhard Sørensen's version of Fossegrimen:

The word Nøkken or Näcken dates back to a common European origin meaning 'to bathe' or 'to wash' [nig] but was used for 'sea creature' in the old Germanic languages, eg. nihhus (crocodile). The modern German Nix is a female creature, rather like the mermaid. The dangerous male sea spirit thus seems to be of Scandinavian origin.The English form Nixie was introduced from German in 1816 by the great historical novelist Sir Walter Scott.

Below three Swedish interpretations of this rare fiddle-playing creature:

Nńcken by Stig Blomberg
Painting by Ernst Josephson and sculptures by Stig Blomberg (1901-1970) and Bror Hjorth (1894-1968)
Male creature who lives near streams and lakes, even beaches. Before going for a swim, it was wise to stick a knife in the ground on the beach as a protection against this dangerous creature. Sometimes he looks like an old man with a red cap and a long white beard (like a nisse/tomte), but he can also appear in the form of an attractive young man. In some stories his one foot is a horse hoof, in others he is an elegantly dressed man, in others again a cat or a horse.

He is known as a great fiddler who will teach anyone his skills for a minor sacrifice, though you can always expect him to try with different tricks to pull you into the water, but if you survive the lesson, you will become a great fiddler yourself, a myth similar to that told of the father of blues, Robert Johnson, who got his great musical talent from the devil himself. The Nix likes to receive meat as the price for teaching someone to play the fiddle, and there are many versions of the story where someone tries to fool the Nix by throwing him a meatless bone instead, but the Nix is no fool and instead "teaches" the offender to be silent.

The Swedish folklorist Nils Andersson has described how you can make the Nix teach you to play the violin (don't try this at home, kids!):

"While saying various magical incantations one should place one's instrument close to the water, where the Nix usually appears. After a period, during which you are not allowed to shave, cut your hair or go to church, you return to the water where you left your violin and now there are two violins which look alike. You have to choose one of them, and everything depends on this choice. If you take your own violin which the Nix in the meantime has tuned, you learn the art of playing, but if you take the Nix' violin, you drown."

If you become his pupil, he gains total control over you. He will teach you a certain melody (Swedish "Älvastråged"), but if you play it more than 5 times, things can become very dangerous and at the end you and the dancers will dance your way to the river where you will all drown.

johan tiren naecken 1898
Johan Tirén, Spelmannen and Näcken (The Musician and the River Fairy), 1898

Detail from Tiren's painting showing the Näcken in the waterfall:

As in the painting below by Th. Kittelsen, this creature was basically a negative force:

The Nix is a sexual predator who is particularly drawn to pregnant or unmarried women (also see the Sea Troll) - as well as to unbaptised children whereas men can in some cases, as mentioned above, control its power. There is no female Nix. The mermaid has many similarities though.

In some parts of Scandinavia he was a very attractive young man seducing young women and sometimes they became pregnant, but nothing came of this relation. The Nix as a grey or white horse living in the river is a very old motif. As a horse he tricks children to climb on to his back and ride him and then he takes them to the nearest water to drown them, an ancient abduction myth similar to modern urban folklore about alien abductions.

This myth also exists in the Orkney and Shetland Islands, old Norse territory, where the horse is called the Nuggle, and in Iceland, where the horse is known as the Nykur. You can read more about the Nuggle here and about the Nykur here.

(Illustrations: Sven Björnson and Hans Gerhard Sørensen)

Not surprisingly, more Scandinavian artists have been attracted to the fatal character of the nix than to the more neighbourly troll. The last painting of this dangerous creature in this article is by the not less tragic Swedish painter Niels Dardel and is simply called "Näcken" (1930):

Troll Story: The Troll and the Weather

Here is another short troll story from Axel Olrik's collection of traditional Danish legends and fairytales, Danske Sagn og Æventyr fra Folkemunde (1913), illustrated by Niels Skovgaard (1922) called

The Troll and the Weather

In olden days trolls controlled everything including the weather. It happened one summer day that a farmer went out into his field to check his corn. It did not look very good, it was almost trying to sink back into the ground because of lack of rain. On the other side of the farmer’s fence stood the troll who controlled the weather, and the man could clearly hear him say: “small small dripping rain, small, small dripping rain!” The weather prediction made the farmer unhappy so he bent over the fence and gave the troll a big thump in the head with his hand. “Big rain!” cried the troll terrified. He thought he had been hit by thunder.

After that the rain came and the farmer’s crops were saved.

This story reminds us that not only were trolls an integral part of rural life whose magic you had to accept and hopefully be able to benefit from, but also that trolls’ biggest fear was thunder - maybe as a reminder of pagan days when Thor supposedly went troll hunting with his chariot, slaying the ones he could find with his spark throwing hammer.

Translation: Trollmoon 2007

Troll Story: The Hill Trolls Fight

Here is another story from Axel Olrik's Danish collection of traditional fairytales, Danske Sagn og Æventyr fra Folkemunde (1913), illustrated by Niels Skovgaard (1922), this one an example of the common theme of trolls fighting each other, and of trolls and humans acting like true neighbours.

Niels Skovgaard Bulls Fight

The Hill Trolls Fight

A farmer from Western Jutland one day took a walk on his field, when a small grey man suddenly appeared in front of him. “Would you do me a favour,” the small man asked? “That may be,” replied the farmer. “What do you want me to do?” “Well, I am the troll in the hill on your field, and I cannot come to terms with my neighbour in the hill over there. Tomorrow we will fight. If you go down on your field at that time, you will see two bulls butting each other, the red bull is me, but the black bull is my neighbour. I would ask you to bring a hayfork with you and if you will thrust it into my enemy when I cannot fight anymore, then you will have done great.” “Fine, I can do that for you,” said the man.

The next day he went down to the field with his hayfork in his hand. And everything was just as the troll had described. Two bulls were fighting like crazy on the field below the hill.

Having watched their fight for a while, the farmer runs forward and pushes his hayfork into the black bull, which bellows in the most horrible way. And suddenly both bulls are nowhere to see. But the following day when the farmer is out walking on his land, he sees a small pot full of small red stones. And when he looks more closely, he realises that the stones are gold coins and that they are a gift from the hill troll for helping him defeat his neighbour.

Translation: Trollmoon 2007


Changelings (Danish skifting, Swedish byting/bortbyting)

The oldest known picture of a changeling is the following church painting from the 14th century in Skamstrup church, Northwestern Zealand, Denmark, where the mother in the lower left corner finds a changeling in the cradle while the troll sits in the tree with her baby:

A more well-known version of the same situation is the following illustration by Th. Kittelsen:

Kittelsen Changeling

The changeling myth is found in all cultures and was probably used for explaining various diseases. See this blog for more information.

It was not always easy to recognise a troll child as trolls didn't look very different (in original folklore), but they usually ate and drank more than human children and some never learnt to speak and stayed in bed all the time. One way of getting rid of a changeling was by cooking less food for him than he required, eg. porridge in an eggshell. Another way was by treating the changeling very badly (eg. by throwing him on the dunghill, beating him or putting him in the oven as if to bake him - like in Selma Lagerlõf's story The Changeling wheretroll mother returns just in the nick of time to save its child and reminds the humans that it never treated the human baby this badly, thus having a moral advantage over humans.

Bauer Byting

To avoid having your child stolen/swapped by the trolls you could put lit candles at the cradle. Another way was to put an object of iron or steel above the door that led into the child's room. The best way, however, was to baptise the child - and the sooner the better. Though the church rejected any belief in trolls and other supernaturals, the Changeling myth also functioned to remind people of the strength of the church. In ordinary people's minds there may not have been a contradiction between being a Christian and believing in trolls.

Why did trolls steal human babies? There are two reasons for this. One was, that the stolen children developed an invisible shield, so they could return to the humans' houses and steal food and tools for the trolls without being discovered. This reason is often found in Denmark and Southern Sweden. Another reason is that the trolls are simply attracted to humans and want to be closer to us. According to Icelandic stories, by mixing with us they hope to gain a soul.

Changeling @John Botofte

Several writers have dealt with changelings, the most famous being Selma Lagerlöf. Recently, Danish writer Charlotte Weitze wrote a short story ("Skiftingen", 2003) about a young Danish woman who realises she is really a changeling, but that now her troll grandparents don't want her in their world either. She has become too much of a human!


Here is a quick list of Scandinavian names for the creatures we generally call 'trolls':

Denmark: bjergfolk, højfolk, bakkefolk, de underjordiske, puslinger, vætter, trolde
Sweden: vättar, bolvättar, underbyggarna, de underjordiska, bergsrån, troll (Southern Sweden), älvorna (speciality: dance) in the whole of Sweden, but no important role in folk tradition, vittra/vittror (Northern Sweden)
Norway: Haugtussar, haugfolk, tuftefolk, underjordiske, rorefolk
Norway/Iceland/Faroes: huldre, huldrefolk (general term for troll)
Germany: Wichten (same as vætter)

Robert Högfeldt, Three Trolls

As for the word troll, it may be related to common germanic truzlon which like old high germanic trollen means ”running with small steps”. Trolls basically include all sociale mythic creatures, eg. giants, dwarfs, pixies, though in later Scandinavian tradition trolls have become known for their strong family ties.

The word dwarf/dværg is also common germanic and is also often used about the illnesses caused by these creatures. It may be derived from the indoeuropean verb dhreugh meaning deceive (Danish 'at bedrage')

Regional Troll Types


Danish and Swedish trolls are quite similar, but in Denmark trolls are also called bjergfolk (the mountain or hill people) or ellefolk (the shrub people). Danish trolls liked to party and drink large amounts of beer and then their hill would stand on four redglowing stakes and any passer-by should be careful - but it could also be a chance in a lifetime to become rich by stealing the trolls' treasures while they were drunk or otherwise distracted as in the drawing below by the great Danish painter J. T. Lundbye:

Like elsewhere trolls were a constant reminder to the farmer to be careful with his tools and not forget them in the field when going home in the evening or they would be destroyed or simply be stolen by the trolls.

Danish trolls were also known to create mirages - esp. fake fires.

Though Danish trolls often looked like humans, one could recognise them by their short answers when they were greeted: Thus they would reply with a simple 'day' to one's 'good day' or 'evening' to one's 'good evening' - perhaps to avoid the word 'good'.

Danish trolls were also known to dress in grey - but with a red cap. But not all people could see trolls, it required a certain talent.

To be in good terms with the Danish trolls one could put beer and porridge in the marshy bog or edge of a wood. Then they would leave you alone or even help you. Food sacrifices to nature spirits is well-known from all parts of the world. Notice below that the Finnish word for troll is derived from sacrificial place.


(Battue for Mountain Troll - by Th. Kittelsen)

Norwegian trolls are bigger and look and appear more like Giants elsewhere and are perhaps also more unruly and evil-disposed beings as a reflection of Norwegian nature like these two fighting troll women by Kittelsen:

Another word for troll in Norwegian is tuss or tusse from Norse þurs og þuss which is related to the Norwegian word for 'rustle', 'move about' (in the bushes). But a tusse can also be a huldre - remember that these words for different creatures change from region to region!
Here is a story in English about The origin of the Huldre Folk: The Huldre Minister where the word tusse occurs.

Here is an interesting article with a more critical look of today's Norwegian troll industry: "Troll Light" by Stephanie Jenssen.


Rowdy Icelandic Trolls (artist ???)

The Nordic islands in the North Atlantic, namely Iceland, the Faroes and Shetland, also have a rich troll culture. One particular evil troll woman, Gryla, and her husband Leppaludi (the horrible), who both eat naughty children, have been commemorated here every year at Christmas time since the early Middle Ages . You can read more here. Iceland is also the home of the night troll, a creature that turns into stone if exposed to the sun light and who loves scaring little children. Natural lava formations as the one below may explain this belief:

One rare troll story is told on the northern island of Malmey where no married couple could live for more than twenty years before the wife was stolen. One farmer insisted on getting his wife back, but when the mountain troll opened the mountain for him, the farmer saw that his wife had become an ugly troll too - and thus let the troll keep her. This is how one artist depicts the meeting:

Also, don't miss this page about the "Trows" of the Shetland and Orkney Islands, once settled by Vikings. The Trows are small mischievous creatures who live in mounds or near the sea. They can appear and then disappear for a 100 years.

It is well-known, esp. from Norway, that folklore can be a big business money-machine. Here is an article about how The Shetland Isles plan to exploit the Trows for the sake of enhancing a regional identity.


The Finnish language has two words for troll - hiisi (e.g. vuorihiisi - mountain troll; metsähiisi - forest troll) and peikko. The origin of the word hiisi relates to a heathen place of sacrifice, but it later came to mean a terrible monster. How it was originally used, we don't know, but early Christians seem to have used it in a negative sense, which almost implies, it was a positive heathen spirit originally.
For those interested in linguistics, the word hiisi can be derived from a proto-Uralic form, sijte, dating back maybe 2500 years or more, meaning 'bushes', 'meadow', 'sacrificial place', and is found in many Finno-Uralic languages, eg. Estonian hiid, Saami sieidde, sieitte, meaning 'mountain camp', 'camp site', while in the remote language Selkup tiid/tiida means a 'small willow tree' or'willow rod' - maybe a magical flute?
I will find out about the origin of peikko.
There are traditional folk tales about mountain trolls, usually living on the other side of the lake, opposite a Finnish family, with whom they then interact like neighbours - for good or bad or even worse! There are also stories of giants, esp. the so-called Jutali Giants who lived in the north long before humans arrived. 'Jutali' is clearly related to the Norse word Jotun, also meaning 'giant'.

Trolls in Norse Mythology

Trolls in Norse Mythology

Kai Nielsen The Ymer Well Faaborg
Classical representations of Ymer by N. Abildgaard, Danish painter, followed by Kai Nielsen's Ymer Well in Faaborg, Denmark

The first troll was Ymer, the oldest creature of the Norse universe, shaped by the snow and ice, he belonged to the Jotuns (same word as 'jætte' or 'giant', see Giants), who were of superhuman size and strength and always fighting the gods (Odin, Thor etc.), representing the destructive natural forces of Scandinavia - like the dragons of earthquake-ridden Japan.

One famous Norse troll is the dangerous troll Grendel in the epic poem Beowulf who embarks on a murderous campaign against a Danish settlement whose besieged king Hrothgar asks the legendary warriour Beowulf for assistance.

This is how Grendel is described at the beginning of the poem:

He was of a race of monsters
exiled from mankind by God -
He was of the race of Cain,
that man punished for
murdering his brother.
From that family comes
all evil beings-
monsters, elves, zombies.
Also the giants who
fought with God and got
repaid with the flood.

In other words the trolls and giants of the Norse period were seen as being locked in an eternal battle with humans, sometimes losing, sometimes winning, but always fighting. As in this lovely illustration by Louis Moe from his masterpiece Ragnarok from 1929:

Kamp (Battle) by Louis Moe

Trolls during the Middle Ages

Church painting of trolls from Voldby Church, Denmark

There are many Scandinavian localities with the word 'troll' in them, incl. troll forests, troll hills, troll swamps, places often uninhabitable and connected with a local tale of trolls or giants. The photo below is from Troldeskoven (Troll Forest) in Northern Sealand, Denmark, a forest famous for its strange wind-bent trees. Just like the stories of giants to explain various topological characterics, these names should not be taken to serious, more as playful storytelling. There is no evidence that these names were ever taken serious.

The Christian church fought an impossible fight to eradicate the heathen underground creatures and it is said that until the end of the Middle Ages there were still traces of the old Norse religion in Scandinavia - the same religion that has been "revived" in Iceland recently. The Church had to build its churches on old sacred places and trolls were seen as manifestations of the Devil - but popular folklore with its more humanised trolls survived till the beginning of the industrial age.

As mentioned elsewhere, trolls could also help humans building their churches. Thus Lund Cathedral in Skåne, Sweden, is allegedly built by a giant or troll called Finn and in the crypt his work is commemorated with this stone figure holding one of the pillars:

In this illustration by Niels Skovgaard to a poem by the Danish poet Poul Martin Møller a poor saint who has a troll build a church for him, has to learn the troll's name to save both his own sight and the troll-built church from being destroyed by the troll again. Fortunately he overhears the troll mother saying her husband's name Find to their troll child. And thus the church is saved.

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.

The Rich Mountain Troll

It has been suggested that the belief in the rich mountain trolls has (one of) its origins in the hill burial of our ancestors during the Bronze Age and later when they (or at least the leaders of the community) were buried with their valuables, eg. golden goblets, so they had the means to lead a decent after-life. There is a reference to this in Beowulf where a thrall (i.e. slave) in fact steals the gold goblet from a man buried in a hill. In Beowulf it is not a troll, but a dragon that guards this treasure. This dragon, maybe the dead man's soul (?), then chases the thrall but cannot capture him.

Could this be the origin of the story of the rich mountain troll, the hill people?

Here is a story from Denmark in the 19th century that may add weight to this theory:

"Once some men from the three farms in Nør-Fjande (Western Jutland) went up on the hill called Skindbjerg to dig out the treasures that were said to be buried there. This had to take place during the night and soon they found a big copper kettle. They started pulling it up and it was already close to the top of the hole when they looked up and saw that the three farms in Nør-Fjande were all on fire. Surprised they dropped the kettle which sank deeper and deeper into the ground, and they hurried home as fast as their legs could carry them. But when they came home, there was no fire to see anywhere, it was the mountain troll's magic which had fooled them, but ever since that time no-one had been able to find the kettle."

We may think of the folklore stories of buried treasures like the above kettle as pure fiction, but in Southern Jutland for hundreds of years people told stories of a ship buried in a bog – which archaeologists later found and that turned out to be a 1.000 years old!

The Great Bøygen - The Giant Troll Snake

This creature that is known from one locality in Norway but with connections to both Denmark and Sweden, is a giant troll in the shape of a snake. In Norway he is called Den store Bøygen i Atnedalen but also stortrollet or a ryse (rise = giant). The word bøyg means 'bent' and is related to the old folk-belief that giants can appear in the shape of giant snakes. In Gudbrandsdalen in Norway this story was related to Peer Gynt, a legendary hunter, well-known from Henrik Ibsen's play of the same name. Here is a short version of this story: Peer Gynt is trying to get to his hunter's cabin in the forest late at night, but stumbles into this big slithery thing that is both inside and outside the cabin so he loses direction. Every time he asks who it is it replies "I am the Bøyg". Finally Peer Gynt takes out his gun and shoots it three times in its head. Bøygen tells him to shoot once more, but Peer knows this must be a trick and that the bullet will just hit himself. With the help of his hounds Peer finally kills Bøygen.

A similar story is told from Denmark about the farmer from Helbøj who on his way out of church is prevented to leave by a giant snake who encourages the farmer to stab him, but the farmer is wise enough to know that he will commit a sin if he kills another creature inside a church.

Both stories indicate that trolls play tricks on humans and try to distract them, lead them on the wrong path, commit evil. In the old rural society before modern science, dangers could lurk anywhere. We may think of those ages as more peaceful and stressless, but the case may have been just the opposite.

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