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2008

The Dwarf

Does not appear in rural folklore, only in pre-Christian norse mythology. In Germany dwarfs have more or less the same role as the Scandinavian Troll.

This is the first image we know of which depicts a dwarf/gnome (lower left corner). Artist: Olaus Magnus (1555)



Dwarfs are a subterranean, often deformed people who live in caves and gorges. They have their own king. They are very good smiths forging strong weapon from metal. They can make themselves invisible, are often hostile to Gods and humans, but can, like trolls, do good deeds in return for humans' kindness.

First an illustration and detail from Louis Moe's great visual epic Ragnarok (1928):


Female Creatures

Elverpiger danser



A class of supernatural creatures protecting or ruling a certain locality, eg. a forest, a lake, a mine, a well, a mill or a farm, often of female gender, which still inspires artists like the following modern representation by Stig Blomberg (1901-1970) called Dimman (The Mist):



Similar in many ways to Danish elverpiger and Norwegian huldra (both: wood nymphs), they are beautiful from the front but look like a rotten tree from the back or, as in the Sjörå's (or Mermaid's) case, have a fish tail while the Norwegian huldra is often attributed with a cow tail that she (understandably) tries to hide from admiring human males.


Huldra by John Bauer

Skogsrå tempting forest worker
A recurrent story about the Skogsrå/Ellepige (the suffix means the spirit guarding a certain location) that has been told in many places in Denmark and Sweden was the story of charcoal burners spending the night in the forest at a charcoal kiln guarding the fire that turned wood into coal. In these stories the Skogsrå/Ellepige comes to the lonely charcoal burner and tries to seduce him so he forgets about the fire (that is threatening the forest creatures). In one story the seducing Skogsrå asks the forest worker not to look out of the window in his forest cabin while they are making love but he does and thus sees that she has a tail and is extinguishing the fire with it while distracting him. In other stories the charcoal burner runs away in time and when he returns to the forest the following day, his charcoal kiln in completely destroyed.




Erotic Huldra by the Norwegian artist Ridley Borchgrevink

Here is a typical story of the Skogsrå from the middle part of Sweden, again warning of the effects of having sex with this creature:

"There once was a young man who had a girl he was very much in love with and who loved him dearly. To be able to meet they had to go through a big forest and one Saturday night they had decided to meet near a charcoal-making site close to the road. When the young man came to the meeting place, he found his chosen one and they greeted each other with great affection. Then it started raining and they sought shelter in a charcoal burner's cabin. Later that night the man had to go out and when he returned, the girl was nowhere to be seen. He shouted her name and looked for her, but in vain. She was gone and he had to return home without a goodbye kiss. When he came close to his home, he suddenly saw her again, walking a little further down the road. He shouted and asked her to wait for him, but she laughed out loudly and ran into the forest and disappeared. There was nothing the young man could do but return home sad and miserable and try to fall asleep. Two days later he received a letter from his loved one telling him that she had not been able to come to their rendez-vous, as her mother had suddenly fallen ill. He immediately understood it was the Skogsrå he had spent time with in the forest. For a long time he became like a different person and his girlfriend no longer wanted to see him."

In today's more environmentally aware world, the Skogsrå/Ellepige would be seen as protective spirits of nature, defending the forest against human greed, but in the days when these stories were being told by uneducated folks in little cabins one or two hundred years ago or more, these creatures represented pure danger, reminding us how scared people used to be of the forest.

Compare Bauer's frightening apparition above with Kittelsen's soft pencil drawing of the Norwegian Huldra who seems to have more in common with the Northern Swedish Vittra than the sylvan Skogsrå:


Hulder by Th. Kittelsen

Next a Swedish Huldra by the multitalented artist Bror Hjorth, here teaching a musician to play the fiddle (like the Nix);



Finally, one shouldn't forget the Sjörå. This Nordic mermaid's hair was green, black, golden or silver white. Like a mermaid and the rå/huldra-creatures she longs for male company and tries to attract sailors and fishermen to follow her, but will also sometimes save drowning men. Here are two versions by respectively Th. Kittelsen and Einar Norelius:



And let's not forget the Vittra either:


They are a group of creatures from Norrland in Northern Sweden who share characteristics with the Troll, the Vætte and the Skogsrå. The name 'vittra' is related to 'vætte, vette, wight'. They live underground or in mountains and stones like the Vætte and they can keep humans as prisoners and exchange human children with their own - like the trolls, but like the trolls they can also - acc. to various stories - be helpful and make humans who help them rich. They cause people to get lost in the wilderness and seduce male humans. They stay in shepherd's cottages during the winter when the shepherds are down in the valley. They live in families and grow older just like humans. Often you only see one Vittra at a time, usually a woman. They can be tiny but also of same size as humans. They often wear red when they are unhappy, but white when they are in good mood and friendly.

Trolls' appearance and behaviour


Troll in tree by Louis Moe

Trolls' appearance and behaviour in Scandinavian folklore:


Often trolls looked quite similar to humans but with one or more grotesque features - a very big nose, a big belly, long breasts, enormous feet or a crooked back or even several heads as in the two drawings below by respectively E. Werenskiold and Th. Kittelsen.



Some had teeth as long as fingers, another had glowing eyes or even a third eye in the middle of the brow. The troll tail is more of a later addition by artists like John Bauer and Rolf Lidberg and is today almost a requirement in any depiction of trolls, but the tail does appear now and again in a few folklore stories as a reminder of trolls' difference. Many times trolls were, however, said to be more handsome and elegant than their human neighbours so if you saw an elegantly dressed man or woman in the forest, it must be a troll and then you had to be very careful. The trolls were, in Ebbe Schön's words, the nobility of the forest and had to be treated respectfully.


Troll Woman with Cow Tail Tempting Farmer Boy (drawing John Botofte)


If by chance you noticed a tail or hairy feet etc. under their dress, you should discretely and politely make the troll aware of this, and then you would be generously awarded, but if you were rude, the troll would make you pay for it in some way or other. At other times the only way you could recognise a troll was by their unchristian behaviour, like walking away from a church on a Sunday morning rather than towards it.

Two Troll Girls
Human looking troll girls by Erik Werenskiold

Sometimes trolls could also be very big as in Kittelsen's drawing below where a troll enters the Norwegian capital as a 19th century King Kong. If you look closely, you see Henrik Ibsen in the bottom right corner, strutting down the main street like a real celebrity. This suggests that the troll is Kittelsen himself coming to the big city to beg for work - eg. the assignment to illustrate Ibsen's Peer Gynt that Kittelsen did not get despite his great efforts:


Troll on the main street of the Norwegian capital by Th. Kittelsen


Drawing by Einar Norelius

They could also transform themselves into logs or stubs and only if you took out your knife to cut into them would they run away as trolls cannot stand steel - perhaps as it is not naturally occurring in nature but a product of human civilisation. Trolls also had the power to change themselves into cats or dogs or snakes but most of the time they would stay invisible but you may hear them talk or whisper or laugh and if you could smell freshly baked bread or fried meat far out in the wilderness, you knew you were close to where trolls lived.

Trolls could be very rich, though some artists such as Th. Kittelsen and Lidberg often depict them in old rags, as poor as their human neighbours. Trolls could possess great treasures of gold, silver and gemstones in their caves or underground residences. Sometimes they took their treasure out and left it on the ground to be aired. Often a bull or a snake guarded it. If you quickly threw a steel knife or a bible over it, you could keep the trolls' belongings. As trolls lived in a mirror-like world, what was dirt in one world, would be gold in another - so if you were given a worthless thing by a troll, it may later turn out to be a valuable treasure. As always, one couldn't just trust one's eyes when dealing with trolls.
Trolls also kept animals like cattle and sheep and often these were bigger and produced more milk or wool than normal farm animals. Sometimes they could be easily recognised as they were striped or pure black or pure white, and sometimes the troll cattle and troll goats or sheep even interbred with normal stock which would create good animals.


Drawing by Th. Kittelsen

There were also many everyday relations between trolls and humans who borrowed tools or food or money from each other, esp. during hard times, and if you eg. lent a troll some flour for baking bread, he might return an even better flour. At other times trolls helped the farmers with their work, troll women were for example particularly good at spinning wool, but you had to be careful not to give them anything that belonged to you personally, as that would give them control over you, and they definitely didn't want things decorated with a crucifix.
It was not all bad to have trolls as neighbours though. If they were treated with respect, one might have a happy home oneself with well-fed children and money in the purse. And it happened that trolls and humans married, but what happened to their offspring, we may never know...
As for food they seemed to eat more or less the same as humans - except the human-eating trolls obviously. Here is one porridge-loving troll woman as seen by Th. Kittelsen:



Some trolls were greedy, chasing away hunters and others from their mountains, while others were generous. Several stories tell of mountain trolls who socialise with people and want to be invited to baptisms. No parents wanted a big mountain troll as their guest so they came up with different excuses why the troll should stay at home. But the mountain troll always gave the biggest baptism gift, often silver from his own home. People often abused the trolls's trust by claiming that the gift had to be even bigger in order to be the biggest gift. The mountain trolls always accepted such claims and gave even more.

As for trolls' magical powers they could inflict people with illnesses, eg. by shooting magical projectiles that randomly hit people. They had particular great influence on children. If a child started crying in the middle of the night, this was caused by the trolls, so one must not leave one's children's clothes outside at night or the trolls might get access to their mind.
One of the trolls' worst habits was theft, they esp. liked to steal beer or food, and during the Christmas season when people were preparing for several days of good eating and drinking one should be very careful because trolls could easily sneak in and steal from people's table or even throw the people out till they had consumed everything.

So what do trolls not like? Well, one thing that could definitely enrage them were churchbells which may exlain why they preferred to live so far away from fertile land. Sometimes they even tried to prevent churches from being built by tearing down at night what people had built during the day and removing church foundations to remote parts of the forest. Good riddance, they must have thought when they dumped the church in some faraway swamp.


(Troll listening to church bells, by Niels Hansen-Jacobsen)

Another thing trolls feared were scissors which are made of steel and can be shaped as a crucifix. Crosses could also be engraved in doors to prevent trolls from entering a house - as seen in this photo of a Norwegian farm door. One can only imagine how frightened the inhabitants must have been considering the number of crosses.

Norwegian door

Finally, salt may also be an efficient means to get rid of a troll plague. One reason for this is that salt was seen as having magical powers (since it could preserve foods) that could outdo the powers of the trolls.

Could trolls also live in the sea as the sea troll by Kittelsen below suggests? It is a rather a modern literary idea inspired from Jonas Lie's stories from the Northern coast of Norway and Kittelsen's own years in Lofoten, a group of remote Norwegian islands.



Another very literary troll, which has not the the slightest to do with the trolls of rural folklore, is this wonderfully funny musical troll by the great humourous talent Robert Högfeldt, that may be seen as a parody of the many faun representations that were common in contemporary art and design:

Basic Definition of Trolls

Basic Definition of Trolls (in Scandinavian folklore)


A supernatural creature who in some stories is hostile (and dangerous) to humans, in others more of a nature spirit, looks more or less like a human, but often of superhuman size and strength, sometimes ugly or scary looking (sometimes more than one head), other times more or less like a human, lives in hills, mountains, forests.

There are many sources to this belief - 1) a pre-Christian shamanistic acceptance of the existence of another invisible world in our world, inhabited by spirits, eg. those of our forefathers, also related to rites at grave mounds and dolmens, 2) a collective "memory" of encounters with other peoples or with animals (also attributed with the spirits of the ancestors), 3) a pre-Christian anthromorphic view of the creative and destructive forces of nature, but most important of all 4) trolls have a symbolic function that will be covered in this blog as this is the only one that we can prove through argument.

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