Trolls after 1850

John Bauer, Stone Troll

Scandinavia after 1850 underwent a fast industrialisation process (esp. Sweden, Denmark and Southern Norway) and for the new educated classes (and their children) trolls became part of the magic world that their parents or grandparents had left behind, either for the big city or foreign land (though - in reality - often in distress and with no hope or wish to return to the countryside). These were not the supernatural beings that their ancestors had known and with whom they had lived in an imaginary symbiotic relation, who had interfered with their crops, cured or stolen their cows or exchanged their children with ugly troll children or left gold in the field for the labouring farmer. The modern trolls of John Bauer, Louis Moe or Theodore Kittelsen were pre-cultivated nature as an otherness in a parallel, almost dehumanised world, to which humans had only access through the fairy tale) and often they looked more like 4th world peoples like the Saami or Samoyed whose cultures were uncovered by contemporary anthropologists and depicted by painters looking for a more homely and innocent expression than was offered by the Classical world. Not surprisingly John Bauer illustrated a book about the Saami before he discovered and unlocked the gate to his magic world of trolls in Värmland.

Sentimentalism was an integral part of this transformation of folklore as examplified by this drawing by Louis Moe, where folklore has become a vehicle of contemporary ideas - in this case the opposition between water and land:

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.

Trolls and Christmas

Christmas (or Yule) in old Scandinavia was a magical night, a night when late ancestors and the supernaturals were particularly active, you could hear them move around in the dark around the house, sometimes even sneaking in to steal the bountiful supplies of Christmas food. It was even common for trolls to come and offer some powerful troll tools for a barrel of Christmas mead.
But everything was magical during Christmas. Traditions stretching back to Viking times persisted, including the ancient sacrifice of a horse to the gods that with time had changed to the sacrificial consumption of porc - and today turkey. And sharing the Christmas bread, made from different grains from last year, was one of the main events during the Christmas meal. A small slice of the bread was kept till next spring where it was spread over the fields, so the magic of 'Christmas could ensure a good crop. Likewish, some of the water used for cleaning the floors before covering them with hay was kept for next Spring because of its magical powers.
No wonder the Church disapproved of these practises. Even today, there are priests who oppose the presence of pixies, but it is a losing battle. Christmas still belongs to the magical world.

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.

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