For centuries, tales of trolls have captured the imaginations of people in the deep, Scandinavian forests. These mythological creatures are depicted as everything from helpful neighbors to monstrous beings that trap you inside their mountain home. In this post, we will delve into the history and folklore of trolls, examining the various stories and traditions that have shaped our understanding of these creatures. Are trolls to be trusted, or should we beware of their rumored child-swapping ways? Read on to find out.
This is the first in a series of articles that I'm writing on Scandinavian "väsen" (Swedish word for supernatural beings or vaesen).
Folklore, folk tales and sayings
Scandinavian folklore refers to the traditional stories and beliefs of the people who inhabit Scandinavia. These tales are passed down through generations by being told verbally or written, often containing supernatural elements. The Scandinavian countries share a rich history that includes stories about trolls, giants, elves and much more.
A folk tale often has a life lesson, but it doesn't have to include one. The story can be told through various forms of storytelling (fairy tales, fables) as well as conversation. Folk beliefs are also hidden in old sayings. In Sweden, we have a saying that is roughly equivalent to the English "speak of the devil". The Swedish alternative version reads: "Talar man om trollen står det i farstun"—or when translated into English becomes, "When you talk about trolls they're in the entrance hall". It basically means that if you talk about something (or someone), then they will appear.
Read on and we'll see if a troll appears! Are you ready?
Trolls possess knowledge of magic
The Scandinavian countries have many stories and descriptions of trolls. Since the tales have been passed down orally for generations, it's perhaps not surprising that stories may change over time or differ from region to region.
It is strange, however, that sources cannot even agree on the appearance of trolls. Some argue that they are ugly creatures similar to what we call trolls today; others believe that trolls look almost identical to humans except for having some small detail standing out as different. Perhaps the stories about trolls' shapeshifting abilities account for their inconsistencies. Trolls can transform themselves to look just like anyone, including your fiance or even yourself. They can even transform into objects, like a rock, or a ball of yarn to trick people.
They also can use their powers to alter people's perceptions. The trolls, who sometimes want to put their gold in the sunlight so it retains its shine, can create illusions so the gold looks like cobwebs in people's eyes—and there are many stories of people visiting fantastic troll halls. The walls are covered in gold, and the furniture is exquisite. The food is simply delicious. If, however, the visitor mentions God's name, then the illusion will disappear. What was previously a grand hall is now just dust—and that's all there is to it.
Trolls' everyday life
Trolls were depicted in various ways in different stories and traditions. In some, they lived far from human society—in forests or mountains; other tales said that trolls lived underground. Still others suggested that trolls could be found among us, and even trading services with humans, as any friendly neighbor would do. Trolls live their lives very much like humans. They raise their children, they marry, hold funerals and work in the fields. Trolls' were particularly skilled weavers and needlewomen. Their creations, made with magic and delicate stitching, won the admiration of humans who, in some stories, often bartered goods with them. Trolls were also said to sometimes help out on human farms: their strength being superior to that of humans.
Trolls can make people be spirited away
But of course, there are countless stories about trolls who are wicked, evil and who do a lot of mischiefs. Many stories in Swedish folklore involve people being spirited away into the mountains by trolls (Swedish word is "bergtagen"). The folklore warns women to beware of handsome strangers, because they may be trolls in disguise. In general, it was said that people who faced upheavals in their lives—such as marriage—were most vulnerable to the power of trolls. There was also a great risk that they would kidnap unbaptized children, as they were not yet under the protection of God. If a troll knows your name, it gains power over you. That's why it was customary to keep a child’s intended name secret until baptism—if the troll found out its real name before then, the baby could be in danger.
If you were spirited away, there was more than one way to protect yourself or get saved. One approach would have been to use Christian expressions (blessings), pure steel or fire against the troll. People back in the village could let the church bells ring loudly until the troll released the person who's been spirited away, or a priest could stand outside reading aloud from scripture. However, it was not certain that you would emerge from the experience intact. Many stories testify to people who have been taken into the mountains and lost their minds or gone mad as a result of such an exposure.
Today, people believe that the expression spirited away was coined as a way to explain mental illness when it could not be otherwise explained because of a lack of medical knowledge. People also used to believe that changelings were babies who had been stolen by trolls and replaced with their own offspring. We now understand this explanation as an attempt to account for birth defects or unusual physical characteristics in infants.
In conclusion, trolls are a mysterious and fascinating part of Scandinavian folklore, with a long history of stories and traditions surrounding them. While they are often depicted as mischievous or malevolent creatures, there are also many stories that portray them in a more positive light, as helpful neighbors or skilled craftsmen. Trolls are said to possess magical powers, including the ability to shapeshift and create illusions, and they are often depicted as living their lives much like humans, with families and communities of their own. However, trolls are also associated with darker tales, such as the kidnapping and child-swapping that has earned them a reputation as fearsome monsters. As we have seen, trolls in Scandinavian folklore are complex and multifaceted beings, and their depiction varies greatly depending on the specific story or tradition. Regardless of their portrayal, trolls remain an enduring and beloved part of Scandinavian folklore.