In Scandinavian folklore, there are numerous races of beings, the best-known of which (apart from human beings) are the gods and the jötnar, their nemesis. In rather simplistic terms, these may be said to represent the forces of good and evil. Between these two groups of beings are a range of creatures that come in all shapes and sizes. Some are believed to be benevolent towards human beings, whilst others less so.
Some of the beings from Scandinavian folklore are well-known, and have been used in modern works of fiction, such as the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Others, however, are much less renowned, and perhaps only familiar amongst enthusiasts of this field. This article will look at some of the well-known and lesser-known beings in Scandinavian folklore.
The Dwarves and the Elves
It is fair to say that two of the best-known groups of Scandinavian mythical creatures are the dwarves and the elves. According to Norse mythology, dwarves are master blacksmiths who live in underground cities. They are also characterised by their short physical stature, with the males of this race almost always sporting long beards. Originally, however, they were thought to have been pale and ghastly in appearance. One hypothesis is that the idea of dwarves evolved from a form of Indo-European ancestor worship.
Unlike the dwarves, the elves are believed to be graceful, ethereal beings. According to Nordic folklore, elves live in meadows and forests. Although generally depicted as peaceful creatures (and often portrayed as good in modern media), there are some Scandinavian tales in which elves are the perpetrators of wicked deeds.
“To make my small elves coats.” Illustrations to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Arthur Rackham ( public domain )
The Scandinavian Troll
Another creature from Scandinavian folklore that many would be familiar with is the troll. Whilst the physical appearance of the troll may differ from one tale to another, it is generally agreed that they are huge and ugly. Their great size, however, is not matched by their intellectual capacity, and they are often seen as slow and stupid.
Whilst trolls are often portrayed as antagonists in modern media, they are said to be able to show kindness if one does a favor for them. It may be interesting to point out that when Christianity arrived in Scandinavia, trolls were ‘given’ the ability to smell the blood of a Christian man. This was a symbolic gesture to personify the old, pagan ways, which the new religion condemned.
The Seductive Huldra
The influence of Christianity on Nordic folklore may also be seen in a being known as the Huldra, who is described as a beautiful, seductive creature who lives in the forest. Huldra looks like a normal woman, though with one major exception – her long tail. This creature would lure mortal men into her forest den in order to steal their souls.
When Christianity arrived, this story was given a twist. If the Huldra was able to convince a man to marry her in a church, her tail would fall off, and she would become human. She would also, however, lose the beauty she is so famous for.
Another story about Huldra that came with Christianity is that she was a daughter of Adam and Eve. One day, as Eve was bathing her children, God came to visit. As not all the children were clean, Eve hid the dirty ones. Having seen the children, God asked if there were any more, to which Eve replied ‘no’. God declared ‘Then let all that is hidden, remain hidden’, and the hidden children became ‘De Underjordiske’ (meaning ‘The Ones Living Underground’), Huldra being one of them.
The seductive huldra ( public domain )
The Many Faces of Scandinavian Folklore
There are many other beings in Scandinavian folklore, some of which will be briefly mentioned here. The oceans, for instance, are said to be home to such creatures as the Kraken, the Trolual, and the Draugen. Whilst the first two are said to be giant sea creatures, the third is believed to be the spirit of spirit of someone who died at sea.
Little folk can also be found in Scandinavian folklore, and these include the Tusser, who are mischievous underground goblins, and the Nissen, who are pranksters living in barns, though they may be easily befriended, and play the role of Santa Claus during Christmas.
Lastly, such terrifying creatures as Pesta (the personification of disease and plague), the Night Raven (an enormous bird linked with death and calamity), and the Nokken (a water creature notorious for killing its victims by drowning them) are also mentioned in Scandinavian folklore.
The long goodbye to Scandinavian Paganism and the Christianization of three realms
Prior to Christianity, the lands of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway saw the worship of an amalgamation of deities known most widely as the Aesir and Vanir. The Aesir were the primary gods, ruled by the wise, one-eyed Odin, though the worship of the strong thunder god Thor rivalled him. The Vanir were fertility gods, as highly valued as the Aesir, later becoming a subclass within them. But by the 10 th century, Christianity had brought an end to their polytheistic worship , culminating in three new realms unified under one faith.
The Aesir and Vanir are two branches of Norse gods and goddesses who merged with each other to create one whole tribe. Image source .
The Christianization of Scandinavia was a long and painful process, filled with blood, sweat, and war. Denmark was the most easily transformed, as the Viking raids slowly introduced the religion through the Christian wives and slaves brought back as war prizes. The Danes were often in contact with England and Normandy, allowing them continued exposure to the new religion via political avenues as well. Thus there was little struggle in assimilating the two faiths, and they were able to coexist under the individual decrees of the Danish tribal leaders. It was King Harald Bluetooth who most firmly began this assimilation in the 930s, his own baptism propelling the religion to the forefront of Danish culture, unifying the tribes under this religious flag. The canonization of Canute IV in the 12 th century, the Christian ruler of Denmark in the late 1000s, cemented Christianity as Denmark’s official religion.
King Harald Bluetooth depicted on the left. Image source: Wikipedia
The earliest recordings of Christianity in Sweden were in the 700s, and in the 830s, Saint Ansgar, a monk on a mission to bring Christianity to Northern Europe, came to her shores to spread word of the new faith at the bid of the Swedish king. His church at Birka was highly rejected however, so it was not until Olof Skötkonung, the first Christian king of Sweden, agreed to a toleration of the two faiths in the late 900s that Christianity found a place in Swedish culture. He established the first episcopal center in Skara rather than near Uppsala in Uppland, as there is written documentation that the largest worship center to the Norse gods existed at Uppsala. There is scarce archaeological evidence of the great temple of Uppsala, recorded by Christian writer Adam of Bremen, however in light of Adam’s writings, it is believed Skara was Olof’s choice location in an attempt to avoid a war between the followers of the two faiths. It was King Inge in the 1080s who disregarded the risks of war and ended the sacrifices at Uppsala, ultimately serving as the moment of transition to Christianity in Sweden. Though the result of this instance was Inge’s temporary exile by his brother, by the year 1130 Christianity gained a permanent stronghold in Sweden and spread to become the foremost religion in the land.
Saint Ansgar, Christian monk who sought to bring Christianity to northern Europe. Image source: Wikipedia
Norway was the most difficult to transform from polytheism to Christianity as its history was filled with rulers who constantly dictated the religion. The most conflict was seen during a fifty year period, 950-1000 CE, under King Haakon, a soft-handed pioneer of the Christian faith. Haakon’s method was similar to Constantine’s in the Byzantine Roman Empire, resulting in an attempt at a midway approach: temples were left to the pagans with churches built right beside them and though he refused on his own part to sacrifice to the Aesir and Vanir, he also refused to punish those who continued this practice. Haakon was able to begin the spread of Christianity throughout this region by showing kindness to the established polytheistic religion, enforcing the new while never exiling the old.
Unfortunately, King Haakon, like Bluetooth and Olof, was a rare sort during this period. Upon his death, Jarl (Earl) Haakon replaced him, himself a pagan man. All the Christianization that King Haakon had established was utterly destroyed and a heavier emphasis was placed on the existing Aesir and Vanir. In acting this way, not only did Jarl Haakon create a stricter war against Christianity but in the years to come, he forged a reason for the Norwegian Christians to detest the Aesir followers. With the end of the 10 th century, the Christian king Olaf Tryggvason was very much ready to eliminate what he believed were narrow-minded, hate-filled followers.
Haakon Jarl by Christian Krohg. Image source: Wikipedia
Though Tryggvason only ruled for five years, from 955-1000 CE, he made certain that they were prolific years. He travelled all over Norway to enforce the Christian faith, destroying pagan areas of worship and the banqueting hofs that were utilized for specific rituals. Those who refused to submit to the new religion were tortured and punished—his approach completely unyielding where King Haakon’s had been gentle and kind. In response to the harshness of jarls like Jarl Haakon, Tryggvason had no sympathy. By the end of the 12 th century, Tryggvason’s successors saw Christianity dominate in Norway.
King Olaf Tryggvason of Norway’s arrival to Norway. Based on drawing by Peter Nicolai Arbo (Norway 1831-1892). Image source: Wikipedia
With the rise of the new religion came a need for Christian buildings. Though the Norse gods were not necessarily worshipped in any religious structure, Christianity certainly was—one of the dividing factors between the two faiths. Far from the mainland of Europe, the only structures the Scandinavians had to draw from were the banqueting hofs of their jarls and kings, and the ships that served the Vikings for three hundred years. Their first church buildings were modelled most specifically from their longships, towering structures that loomed toward the sky like the future Gothic cathedrals with dragon heads on the roof reflecting the strength and power of their sea-faring past. These churches, called stave churches because of the stavs at the heart of their post and lintel structure, were the highlight and symbol of the new religion that had swept through Scandinavia and became a symbol of the unification between the three lands.