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Scandinavian folklore is the folklore of Swedenmarker, Norwaymarker, Denmarkmarker, Icelandmarker, the Faroe Islandsmarker, and the Swedish speaking parts of Finland.

In Scandinavia the term 'folklore' is not often used in academic circles, instead terms such as Folketro (folk belief (older Almuetro)) or Folkesagn (folk tales) have been coined. In common speech, it is simply referred to as den Gamle Tro (the old belief), or perhaps sæd skik og brug (customs, the way). It evolved from Norse paganism, and it is in technical terms labelled low-mythology, while the norse mythology is called high-mythology. High-mythology builds on low-mythology in its parts. The Christianization of Scandinavia around the 10th century meant that the high-mythology more or less phased out of use. This process may have been quite rapid because these never were the beliefs of the lower classes. Icelandmarker and the Faroe Islandsmarker are not a part of Scandinavia (although they are Nordic countries), but should nevertheless be regarded as Scandinavian in folkloric terms. The folklore/religion of Finlandmarker and of the Sami people are clearly related to Scandinavian folklore/religion, but have retained an independent character. Because of their common Germanic origin, Scandinavian folklore shows a large correspondence with folklores elsewhere, such as in England and Germany among others. Most of what has survived there might be found, of a similar nature, in the Baltic countries.

In Scandinavian folklore, belief in the old gods still exists, but not in the form they show in high mythology. Some of the ones known in both forms of mythology are Odin (Oden), who is said to lead the Wild Hunt; Thor (Tor) who still chases trolls with his thunder, both in this context regarded as "jægere" (hunters), and we see also Ull (as Ul) and Hœnir in this role. Loki, as a housegod of the housefire, and sometimes Freyja, show up. A large number of different mythological creatures (or rather races, since few of them can be considered animals) from Norse mythology continue to live on, surprisingly little affected by Christian beliefs, even though the wicked ones at times find an ally in the Devil or had problems with Christian symbols. Nothing was surer, though, to scare these beings than a piece of steel, such as a strategically placed pair of scissors or a knife, or with salt and fire. The stories about the livings and doings of these beings, and their interaction with humans, constitute the major part of Scandinavian folklore. Even the helpful tomte, nisse, gårdbo or gårdbuk could turn into a fearsome adversary if not treated with caution and respect. Many of them blend into each other when their morals and/or place of residence are similar, and equally when one moves from one region in Scandinavia to another (the same is true for Norse mythology).

Beings of Scandinavian folklore

Perhaps most abundant are the stories about the race of trolls, a cunning and deceitful people, living in the woodlands or mountains. Trolls come in many different shapes and forms, and are generally not fair to behold, even though the female trollkonor, or sometimes even male trolls, could appear very attractive until a character spotted their tail. Trolls were often said to be able to change their appearance, and did so in order to trick humans into doing what they wanted. For example, a troll may present a beautiful appearance in order to trick a character into following them into their mountain home, then hold the character captive for years (bergatagen) - see the similarities with Irish "elven/fiery hills". When large, trolls are interchangeable with giants (jotner, jättar or jætter), who live even farther from society (since they cannot stand the sound of church bells), typically in the mountains (The fjellsmarker). In older tales, the word troll/trold (trolla as a verb) may simply mean "to badly harm/hurt someone"; someone who is a troll is someone who may eat human flesh or engage in other socially-unacceptable acts, such as rape. The word trolla(to perform trolldom wichcraft/sorcery in Swedish) became a synonym for one who performs magic with the intent to hurt others. In contrast, the word (Seida/Seiðr) (to perform seid) was a kind of "good" magic that helped people in various ways. In modern times "trolla" is synonymous with performing "lesser" magic on stage.

The race of dwarves (or Svartálfar/dark/black elves as opposite of the light elves ("ljusalfer")) was not short in the beginning, lived underground, had dark hair and gray or pale skin and was not very fond of the sun. They were master smiths with good knowledge in various kinds of magic and rather greedy folk - in short, not very pleasant to do business with. Some scholars believe that they may have originated from some kind of Indo-European worship of dead spirits (maybe ancestors) with great knowledge - therefor their original physical appearance. Over time, they grew short and less and less "ghoulish" and evolved into the dwarves whom we see in Snorres Edda and later tales. The actual Dwarven size is believed by some to have originated from German tales who were in their turn influenced by Roman stories of child slave labor in mines - but this cannot be proven.

Some say that the dwarves then lived on as wights (vättar or huldrefolk), although with somewhat different characteristics. Wights live underground, often right next to human settlements, and are commonly a menace to their ground-dwelling neighbors.

A type of wight from Northern Sweden called Vittra lives underground, is invisible most of the time and has its own cattle. Most of the time Vittra are rather distant and do not meddle in human affairs, but are fearsome when enraged. This can be achieved by not respecting them properly, for example by neglecting to perform certain rituals (such as saying "look out" when putting out hot water or urinating, so they can move out of the way) or building your home to close to or, even worse, on top of their home, disturbing their cattle or blocking their roads. They can make your life very very miserable or even dangerous - they do what ever it takes to drive you away, even arrange accidents that will harm or even kill you. Even in modern days, people have re-build or moved houses in order not to block a "vittra-way", or moved from houses that are deemed a "Vittra-place" (Vittra ställe) because of bad luck - although this is rather uncommon. In tales told in the north of Sweden, Vittra often take the place that trolls, tomte and vättar hold in the same stories told in other parts of the country. Vittra are believed to sometimes "borrow" cattle that later would be returned to the owner with the ability to give more milk as a sign of gratitude. This tradition is heavily influenced by the fact that it was developed during a time when people let their cattle graze on mountains or in the forest for long periods of the year.

The tomte or nisse(in the southern Sweden) is a good wight who takes care of the house and barn when the farmer is asleep, but only if the farmer reciprocates by setting out food for the Tomte and he himself also takes care of his family, farm and animals. If the Tomte is ignored or maltreated or the farm is not cared for, he can sabotage a lot of the work on the farm to teach the farmer a lesson ot two. In Swedish, the word Tomten (the Tomte in singular) is very closely linked to the word for the plot of land where a house or cottage is built, which spells the same both in singular and plural(Tomten/tomtarna) but is pronounced with slightly longer vocals. Therefore some scholars believe that the wight Tomten originates from some sort of general house god or deity from before the Asa belief. A Nisse/Tomte is said to be able to change his size between that of a 5 year old child and a thumb, and also to have the ability to make themselves invisible.

Elves (in Swedish called Älva if female and Alf if male) are in some parts mostly described as female (in contrast to the light and dark elves in the Edda), otherwordly beautiful and seductive residents of forests, meadows and mires. They are skilled in magic and illusions. Sometimes they are described as small fairies, sometimes as full-sized women and sometimes as half transparent spirits - or a mix thereof. They are closely linked to the mist and it is often said in Sweden that "the Elves are dancing in the mist". The female form of Elves may have originated from the female deities called Dís (singular) and Díser (plural) found in pre-Christian Scandinavian religion. They were very powerful spirits closely linked to the seid magic. Even today the word "dis" is a synonym for mist or very light rain in Swedish. Particularly in Denmark, the female elves have merged with the dangerous and seductive huldra, skogsfrun or "keeper of the forest", often called hylde. In some parts of Sweden the elves also got some features from "Skogsfrun"/"Huldra"/"Hylda" and can seduce and bewitch careless men and suck the life out of them or make them go down in the mire and drown. But at the same time the "Skogsrå" exists as its own being with other distinct features clearly separate from the elves.In more modern tales it isn't uncommon for a rather ugly male Tomte, Troll, Vätte or a Dwarf to fall in love with a beautiful Elven female - as beginning of a story of impossible or forbidden love.

Many of the terms in Nordic beliefs are used for different kinds of creatures, and to really know what is meant, one usually needs to put them into context. That characteristics are sometimes flowing in to each other doesn't make it easier. Vætter (evil little creatures), "Underjordiske"(the hidden ones/they below ground) and "småfolk" (little people) can be used loosely as terms for nearly all of the small beings in the old beliefs.

The Huldra, Hylda, Skogsrå or Skogfru (Forest wife/woman) is a dangerous Seductress who lives in the forest. She lures men into the woods by seducing them to suck their life out so that they wither and grow old in an instant, become mentally broken and insane or simply get killed. Some stories say that she has the tail of a cow or fox and others say that her back is hollowed out and filled with wood or bark. She has an aquatic counterpart called "havsfrun" or "Havsrå" (Sea wife/woman) that is very similar to the Sirens Odysseus meets in the Odyssey.

Water spirits, among others the nix (näcken or nøkken), are often presented in the shape of a devil. A water spirit would play some kind of instrument (mostly the flute or a fiddle) in the rapids to lure people into the water to drown. He was also believed to be able to transform into a predatory kelpie (bäckahäst or bækhest).

In Scandinavian folklore, dragons are commonly known as lindworms, monstrous serpents with or without hind legs. In Norway and Denmark, they typically live in the ocean, and here, tales of marine monsters appear to have the widest dissemination, although a famous specimen is also said to reside in the Swedish lake Storsjönmarker. The Norwegian lake Seljordsvatn is also famous for its claimed inhabitant, a serpent known as Selma. The coasts of Norway are reportedly also haunted by the terrifying Kraken, as well as the ghastly draug.

The myling is the ghost of a child left to die in the wilderness, and the mara is a wraith said to cause nightmares and sleep paralysis. Stories also tell of the will o' the wisp (irrbloss, lyktgubbar or lygtemænd), often assumed to be the spirits of people who had drowned in lakes and marshes. According to some stories, they could lead a lost wanderer to a death similar to their own; according to others, they could lead him home.

These are only a few of the mythical creatures, and only shortly explained.

See also


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