07-Mar-2008 Filed in: Folklore
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
A recurrent story about the Skogsrå/Ellepige (the suffix rå 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.