Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Supernatural in Norwegian Folklife

What goes bump in the night? In Norway, quite a bit...

Norske Folkeeventyr (Norse Folktales) is a collection of stories compiled and published by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe in the mid-19th century, and republished in its most popular form (still used today) in 1879. Asbjørnsen and Moe share the huge range of supernatural creatures featured in Norwegian folklore; here is just a sampling of those you should watch out for, should you find yourself alone in the woods, or walking along the shore...


Nøkken by Theodor Kittlesen, via Wikipedia
Nøkken are male water spirits. They lured women and children to drown in lakes and streams by playing enchanted songs on the violin. The music was particularly dangerous for pregnant women and unbaptized children, and was supposedly most active on Jonsok, Christmas Eve, and on Thursdays. However, not all nøkken were necessarily evil--in fact, some would even teach you their songs if you brought him a gift of three drops of blood, or perhaps a black animal.

But if one did run across a nøkk with malevolent intent, one would simply need to find out its name and speak it aloud: this would kill him. But beware: the nøkk was also an omen for drowning accidents. The word is derived from Old Norse nykr, meaning river horse.


Draugen is a generic term for revenants in Norway (apparently, the Nynorsk translation of The Lord of the Rings uses the term for both ring-wraiths and the dead men of Dunharrow) but it's largely associated with the sea.

Draugr by Theodor Kittlesen
Ella Valborg Røvaag in her article "Norwegian Folk Narrative in America" tells us that "The draug, found mostly in northern Norway, is the most terrifying of all the sea creatures. His appearance is usually an omen of drowning or trouble at sea. He is described as being a headless fisherman, dressed in oilskins and riding through the storm in half a boat. He often hangs around the boathouses, and has the ability to disguise himself -- usually as a large seaweed-covered rock."

The Encyclopedia Mythica goes on,

"Having been denied proper burial themselves, they haunt the shores of Norway to bring doom upon any mariner who sees them. Conversely, they are only visible to their future victims.

Draugs are said to have seaweeds for heads and to sail around in half a boat. Some accounts portray them as shapeshifters who take on the appearance of stones in the shoreline. When a mariner treads upon such a stone he faces certain death, unless he would first spit on it. "


By Erik Theodor Werenskiod
According to Encyclopedia Mythica:
"In Scandinavian myth, trolls are ugly, malicious creatures and the enemies of mankind. They are much bigger and stronger than humans, and leave their caves only after dark to hunt. If they are exposed to sunlight they will instantly turn to stone. Trolls are very fond of human flesh. In later myths they are roughly the size of humans or elves, and thought to be the owners of buried treasures. They are sometimes, although very rarely, portrayed as friendly, less ugly creatures."
They are big, stupid, hairy, and are often outwitted in Norwegian folk tales by Askeladden (the Ash Lad). They live in the mountains, under bridges, and at the bottom of lakes. There are also smaller trolls living in burial mounds and mountains, known as troldfolk (troll-folk) or tusser. They are said to turn into stone when exposed to the sun.


The shapeshifting huldrefolk are common throughout Scandinavian tales and are a subset of the larger group of legends which deal with the haugfolk (hill folk) or underjordiske (those who live underground). Røvaag discusses the huldrefolk in detail, both the legends in the "old country" and how they appear and change when immigrants arrived in America.
"Next to the belief in ghosts, the belief in hulder and the hidden world has remained strongest among the people...
"Since they are believed to be so much like humans, people in the inland districts believe the hulderfolk are farmers with houses and barns and with large herds which have to be sent to the mountain pastures to graze. Near the coast the hidden people are seamen and fishermen. There, too, like their human neighbors, they also have their houses and barns, but fishing is their main occupation, and, in the olden days, they made yearly trips to Bergen to sell fish and to buy provisions...
Huldra via Wikipedia
"By and large, the hulderfolk are thought of as ageless, though there are stories about death and funerals in their world. People who visit them often find everything topsy-turvy -- humans, it is said, have to have their eyes twisted or their pupils slit in order to see things in the hulder world as the inhabitants themselves see them. The hulder people are supposed to be visible or invisible to humans at will; they have the ability to disguise themselves; they throw no shadows and leave no footprints; and they are eager to move into the human world and live like humans. It seems that the only way in which they can achieve that is by marriage with a human, or by taking someone into their world. (This to some extent explains why small children are kidnapped and changelings left in their places.) They are very thankful when human beings show them consideration and respect, and they are very revengeful when they think that their rights have been slighted."

Huldra by Theodor Kittlesen
Typically, the story focuses on the huldra, who kidnaps men and requires sexual pleasure; if he pleases her, she rewards him. If he doesn't, she kills him. Norwegian huldra are not quite as bloodthirsty, often merely kidnapping the men, and possibly taking them with her into the underworld.

So how does she kidnap men? In Norwegian lore, she is described as your typical dairymaid (a nod perhaps to the perceived sexual freedom of the saeter), though somewhat more attractive than the girls from the nearby farms. At first she seems like the prettiest dairy maid you've ever seen--until you see her back. If you look closely, she has a cow's tail, and a hollow back, like an old tree trunk. The huldra is also known as the Lady of the forest, and also had a disturbing tendency to kidnap human children and replace them with her own huldrebarn (changelings).

So how could you protect yourself?

The huldrefolk held powerful sway for many long centuries. Kathleen Stokker in her Remedies and Rituals: Folk Medicine in Norway and the New Land discusses the pains new mothers went to in order to protect her newborn from the huldrefolk.
"Because the short time between birth and baptism was believed to influence a newborn's future, the almue carefully observed rituals to ensure a positive future...Belief in the huldrefolk slowly waned in the nineteenth century, but it inspired enduring practices such as swaddling. After bathing the newborn child, the birth assistant swaddled it, first by covering it with several small cloths and inserting a large wad of very absorbent, unwashed wool between its legs. Then she wrapped the baby in a larger thin, homespun cloth, kept in place by winding a long, narrow, handwoven band around the infant several times around." (Stokker 134)

"Risking a final opportunity for the huldrefolk to steal the unbaptized child, the trip to baptism was fraught with hazard. Protecting the infant was the principal function of the baptismal sponsors, usually five or six in number during the nineteenth century. The child's decorative clothing had the same function. Embroidered with crosses and fastened with pewter, the long dress or swaddling clothes might also feature a silver brooch or a pocket to conceal the extra safeguard of a silver coin or darning needle. Before the baptismal party set out for the church, some parents made the sign of a cross with a burning branch over the child and recited the Lord's Prayer." (Stokker 136-7)
According to an article by Jody Grage Haug for the Daughters of Norway (Døtre Av Norge) February 1998:
Silver was magical in Norway, the stuff of superstition and legend. The mines were thought to belong to the mountain trolls who were the very best silversmiths. Silver was used to protect against storms, heal sickness, make beer work, consecrate water, etc. A small silver brooch was pinned on a baby's clothing so the trolls couldn't make a swap with a troll baby. Silver pieces handed down from previous generations were especially valued because of their ancestral and spiritual connections.

Silver sølje jewelry was particularly helpful: both mirrored (to dazzle the eyes of the supernatural being) and silver, they protected the living and the dead--and look beautiful doing so.

1 comment:

  1. Hello, I am nominating you for the Liebster award.