Troll Flora

Many plants and natural phenomena have since prehistoric times been associated with the supernatural world, some because of their danger, others because of their aesthetic or unaesthetic appearance, some connected to myths/folklore. Here are a few such plants either related to trolls or containing the word "troll" in its wider sense in their names:

Troll Berry, at least in Swedish known as Trollbär (Lat. Solanum Dulcamara).
It is not to be eaten.

(from Kotimaan Luonto Opas)

And here a mushroom (Fuligo septica) known as "Troll Butter"

(picture copyright

As mentioned by Ebbe Schön in Svensk Folktro A-Ö this mushroom was once believed to be butter spillt during evil witches' "magical milking" intended to drain the farmers' milk cows of their milk. The "troll" element in this name thus refers to magic rather than to the troll creature.

Taken by the Trolls

Erik Werenskiold

In all Scandinavian languages there is a word which literally means 'taken to the mountain', now often used in the sense 'bewitched' (bjergtaget, bergtagen). An English equivalent is ”taken by the fairies”.

In old days it was common belief that when a person had disappeared, he/she had been taken by the trolls/giants/elves and were now kept prisoner in the mountain/hill. Until the beginning of the 17th century Swedish church records even mentioned this as a reason for people disappearing or people who had temporarily lost their memory and did not remember a certain period in their past. The priest had a useful role when someone had been taken by the troll - By making the church bells ring very loud and long or praying/singing outside the mountain the troll sometimes became very ill and his prisoners could escape. But when he said 'get out', you should wait a little, because just at that moment he would try to stab you with his spear. Of course some captives tricked their way out and escaped with a lot of gold - a myth probably based on the gold coins or bracelets that farmers sometimes dug up in the soil.

The theme of being taken to the troll mountain has always been very popular in literature and art.

The changeling myth also belongs to this group of stories, though in this case the trolls replace the person they have stolen. The common feature acc. to folklorists is that the stolen people are in a particularly vulnerable phase. Trolls steal children that have not yet been baptised. Adults are particularly at risk of being taken at certain periods in their life when they are ”unpure” – eg. after giving birth and before going to church again (an extra factor being that they have milk to breastfeed the trolls’ children) or before their wedding (and wedding night). Brides-to-be should be particularly careful not to walk alone. Other potential victims are people working far from home, eg. shepherds in the mountain, children picking berries in the forest or young people whose thoughts revolve too much around the other gender and therefore are easily tempted by a pretty troll girl. Basically, anyone who is taken and lives to return will never be completely the same again, but somehow strange, even mentally disturbed or simply dumb. This myth thus also helps explain the unexplainable in human behaviour that the church had no explanations for and science was just figuring out.

There were, however, ways to protect oneself against this danger. Pregnant women or women who had just given birth could protect themselves by wearing their husbands’ trousers or shirt.

Here is a story from Denmark about the abduction of a young man:

Not far from Ebeltoft in Jutland a farmer boy was guarding the cattle. Then a beautiful girl appeared, asking him if he was hungry or thirsty. But he noticed that she took great care that he could not see her back, so he understood it must be an elf girl as their backs are hollow. He therefore decided to avoid her. But as she saw this, she offered him her breast to make him drink. She made everything seem so enthralling that he could not resist her. Having given in, he lost his powers and it was therefore very easy for her to abduct him. For three days he was gone.
Meanwhile the parents were grieving at home as they understood what had happened to their son. But on the fourth day the father saw his son reappearing in the horizon and immediately bid his wife to cook some meat. Soon after the son came through the door and sat down at the table without a word. The father also stayed silent but pretended everything was as usual.
Then the boy became hungry and when he had tasted the meat he ate greedily and then fell in a deep sleep. He now slept for as many days as the enchantment had lasted, but never regained his senses.

NOTE: Unlike fairytales, the stories of folklore have no clever plots and happy endings, but are almost always in the form of an explanation or warning.

So, the only question left is: who would you rather be abducted by - a beautiful troll maiden or an Alien? Well, most Americans seem to prefer the latter.

Stolen brides is another common story in Scandinavia. In some stories the bride stays happily with her new subterranean groom, even letting her family visit, and in others she escapes or is rescued by her human groom-to-be or family.

Here is a story from Dølor in Lunne County in Norway:

A girl was preparing to marry, but then one day she disappeared. They couldn’t find her anywhere. Her father was completely at a loss. Then one day, when he was out looking for her, he thought he heard someone cry and moan inside a mountain and thought he could recognize his daughter’s voice. He ran home as fast as he could and got his gun and then shot over the mountain side. Then suddenly his daughter stood in front of him in her wedding dress which was covered with silver. He immediately understood that she had been taken by the trolls and on that day was going to marry an old troll. That was the reason why she had been crying and moaning while the trolls were dressing her. When they were finished, they had said: ”Now we just need to turn her eyes” but in that moment the shot from her father’s gun had sounded and thus she was saved. The trolls came out and asked if they could have the silver back that she had been decorated with, as they had borrowed it, but the girl’s father said no and took it home. ”Well, then you will not get much pleasure from it,” the trolls replied. The father hid the silver in the loft, but one day the loft and everything in it burnt. The silver melted and ran down a rock along the loft, and still today one can still see where the melted silver once ran.

A troll could be killed if a Christian person shouted their name. This is the reason why they never told their name, but sometimes people could find out by tricking them.
In the Dunkera Mountain in Fosen lived a mountain troll called Dunker. Once he fell in love with a young maiden whom he caught and brought into the mountain. There she sat crying while he prepared the wedding ceremony.
The night before the wedding Dunker was in a very good mood. He drank merrily and became quite exhilarated. For many days the maiden had tried to make him tell her his name but in vain. But now she saw an opportunity and made the mountain troll put his head in her lap. Then she started stroking him. He became so happy that he jumped up, danced and sang: Hey Hey Dunkerydee! Tomorrow for the first time Dunker takes the bride in his arms!
Then the maiden exclaimed happily: "No, poor Mr Dunker!"
Then he burst and fell so heavily that the mountain collapsed so the young maiden could walk out and home.


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.

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 Nyström 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.

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:

Näcken 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):


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'.

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.


Woodcarving of Slattenpatte placed right underneath the priest's podium in Vejlø Church, Southern Sealand, Denmark (c.1670).

A particular female troll is Danish Slattenpatte who also appears under other names elsewhere in Europe and is part of a particular class of stories about ghostlike horsemen hunting at night - esp. female devils or trolls.

In Denmark stories are told of King Volmer hunting the last troll woman in the realm. Someone out walking late at night encounters this ugly troll woman, who is always characterised as having long saggy breasts (thus the name - Slatten-Patte or Saggy Breasts), then a little while later a rider appears. He introduces himself as King Volmer and asks if the late-night walker has seen the ugly troll woman he is looking for. Soon after there is the sound of a arrow followed by a scream. In some versions he soon reappears with the dead troll thrown across his horse. The stories of the nocturnal hunters are usually set at Christmas time and have been related to the belief that the dead ancestors return to participate in the celebration of Christmas. But the troll woman Slattenpatte is also related to a common Germanic creature with long breasts used to scare children (German Langtüttin, Tittenwief). Is this scary troll woman like later times' witches simply symbols of patriarchy's fear of post-menopausal women? It is anybody's guess...

The Sea Troll

Similar to Nøkken, but known both from inland waters and the sea, esp. in a wider European folksong tradition as a sacrificial myth (maybe dating back to prehistory) where human brides marry the Sea Troll (German Wasserman). A famous folk ballad called Agnete and the Sea Troll tells about how the sea troll disguises himself as an handsome man who comes to her home to court her. He wants to marry her immediately without waiting for her parents' permission. For unknown reasons (maybe bewitched by him) she accepts and he leads her to the shore where she (in the Nordic version of this common European story) is saved in the nick of time by a man. Elsewhere in Europe she drowns. This tale is supposed to date back to pre-Christian sacrificial traditions. Like in the stories of Nøkken/the Nix, the sea troll expects a bride or at least a human sacrifice at regular intervals. This would explain why people drown.

Woodcarving by Povl Christensen (Denmark)

Also see the sea trolls by Kaare Espolin Sørensen and Th. Kittelsen.

A related troll is the "man in the well", the "well troll" or "well nix" that was supposed to live in wells and be the cause of illnesses. In a documented court case from Denmark in the 17th century a so-called "wise woman" explained how she got money from her ill patient, went to the well, threw a rock into it to awaken the well man and then dropped some money into the dark water, so that this creature would lift the curse on her patient.

More to follow.

Trolls and Diseases

There are many links between the creatures of folklore and illnesses. Before the age of medical science diseases were thought to have been caused by ill-willed creatures/demons. The most important example in a troll context is the changeling myth where a number of diseases have been suggested as the origin of the myth, eg. Downs' syndrome and Rachitis (caused by undernourishment) and Atrepsi. The so-called "Brøndmand" or "Well Man" residing in farm wells has also been seen as related to poisoned water causing various diseases. In Norwegian language troll traditionally also refers to various diseases (e.g. lumbago) that in folklore was assumed to have been inflicted by magic.
To be continued.

Mosekonen (the "Bog Woman")

Also known as the Mossakärringen or Bergkãrringen in Swedish and Bergmuttter in German. Whenever mist banks appear along a stream in the morning or evening, the Mosekonen is said to be brewing her magical potion. No stories exist about her, so she is probably only a saying. Other creatures like the Danish elfgirls (ellepiger) are however associated with morning or evening mist. Here are two Danish versions of her by Arne Ungermann and Lorenz Frölich:

Finnish PhD in Trolls

In 2005 Master of Philosophy Camilla Asplund Ingemark defended her PhD about the Swedish troll tradition in Finland. The complete title of the dissertation was The Genre of Trolls. The Case of a Finland-Swedish Folk Belief Tradition.

Here are a few quotations from Helsingin Sanomat's journalist Säde Nenonen (you can read the full article here):

"An atmosphere of threat and fear is present in troll tales. In the countryside in particular, loved ones have been kept on the right path in life by frightening them with trolls. According to the beliefs, a troll could also appear in the form of a beautiful woman, or give stolen goods as presents.
      If a villager disappeared in the woods, others would say that the trolls had taken him. If he returned home, there was nothing to fear from trolls at that time: the spell evaporates immediately if one manages to escape the trolls.

Bauer troll mother
John Bauer
The people of old transferred the fear of trolls to the framework of Christianity. According to Asplund Ingemark, it is important to remember that troll tales have been told even in Christian surroundings. Written documents show that people understood the troll tales and the stories in the Bible in the same way.
      Both Christian and pagan stories described the relationship between man and supernatural forces. Folklore and Christian tales and sermons influenced each other.
      "I chose trolls as the subject of my research because I suspected that troll tales could reveal something about the relation between folk beliefs and Christianity. I am interested in that relationship."
Asplund Ingemark used intertextual theories in her research. She compared the style and content of folklore and the stories of the Bible.
      The world of the trolls resembles the paradise of the Garden of Eden. Trolls live without needing to work, and without a care in the world, the researcher reports.
      In the time period under study, the Christian message played a significant role in the life of ordinary people. It was heard in sermons, songs, and by confirmation students. Christian literature was widely read. People discussed what new things they had learned with their family members.
In past centuries, the Lutheran church scoffed at the people’s belief in trolls. Priests sent out the message that belief in trolls was the opposite to Christianity. Priests regarded the traditional beliefs with animosity.
      "I have also grown increasingly interested in how folk beliefs describe everyday life and living circumstances, and what significance folk beliefs had in the life of ordinary people", Vaasa native Asplund Ingemark muses. She has lived in Lund in Sweden for the past several years."

(Copyright Helsingin Sanomat / Säde Nenonen)

Here is the Swedish press release from Åbo Akademi.


First a beautiful John Bauer illustration of a giant as big as a church tower and with a fist as strong as hard rock.

Jætte/Jätte/Jotun (related to the verb 'to eat', meaning 'big eater') or Rise (related to the German word riesig (enourmous) or Kæmpe/Kjempe, similar to the Norwegian bergtroll (mountain troll). These giants inhabited Scandinavia before the arrival of the humans and many natural phenomena were attributed to their actions. Deep holes in the mountain were called 'jættegryder' (Da. for "giants' pots") and the megalithic tombs one finds all over Denmark were called "jættehøje" (giants' hills). Big rocks near a church had always been thrown by some giant, but the fact that it never hit, supposedly showed the power of the Christian faith. One giant, Finn, even helped build the cathedral in Lund, Skåne, but often these giants tried to cheat their employers, eg. by not finishing the work after being paid.

louis moe giant ragnarok
(From Louis Moe's Ragnarok)

Acc. to Norse mythology the giants were the enemies of gods and humans and lived in Jotunheim, a northern part of Utgård, at the end of the world. To the east was the Iron Forest where a giant woman, Hyrrokin, gave birth to giants in wolf shape, Hate and Skoll, who chased the moon and sun to eat them. To the West on an island in the ocean lived the giant Ægir with his wife Ran who created disasters on the sea. The whole world had been created from body parts from the giant Ymer whose flesh became the soil, blood became the sea and lakes, the teeth became the mountains and the hair the forests.

Loke and Giants by H. E. Freund

Many stories exist of giants and trolls throwing enormous stones at each other or at churches - esp. the sound of church bells seemed to annoy them. Looking at stones like the one below from Denmark, left by the retreating glacier at the end of the last ice age, one understands why people in old days must have speculated about how such stones came to lie in the middle of a forest or a field far from any mountains:

And finally a drawing by Ivar Arosenius of what can happen when giants and humans meet:

(I. Arosenius, The Giant's Footprint)

Like trolls (esp. Icelandic ones), Giants could turn into rock, for example when exposed to the sun. Here is one painting of such an event when the giant loses his struggle:

svarstad giant loses struggle against the sun
(Anders Castus Svarstad (1869 - 1943), The Giant who in his Struggle against the Sun froze to a Mountain)


The word is related to Norse alfar who can be good or bad.

According to Ebbe Schön very dangerous creatures indeed! If you happen to see them dance or even join them, you risk going mad or get seriously hurt. In the Middle Ages they were believed to be dead people who had led sinful lives. They can look like puppetlike figures or smaller animals. They are often dressed in white. As a rule, however, they are invisible and one only hears them speak or sing. They live in hills or meadows or in swamps. Fogbanks early in the morning or late in the evening are often seen as dancing elves.

In this painting by Norwegian Einar Gjerssing they are dancing in a cementery:

The Bysen From Gotland

The Bysen (or trullet - related to 'troll') - a ghostlike creature from the Baltic island of Gotland who walks around with an ax, slowly and carefully chopping trees or branches, generally to maintain and protect the forest. It is a human who committed some crime during his lifetime and now is condemned to walk on earth forever. He is small and grey, not directly evil, but makes life difficult for forest workers, turning over timber loads and delaying transports of timber from the forest.

Could the Bysen look like this? (drawing by Trollmoon)

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