07-Feb-2008 Filed in: Folklore
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.
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.
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: