21-May-2007 Filed in: Folklore
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.
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:
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:
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: