The forces of good and evil run wild throughout Scandinavian tales, and there are plenty of creatures who straddle the line between both. They come in a range of shapes and sizes and have a myriad of powers. All of them have long memories of favors and insults given. All their stories marvel at nature.
The gods are split into two groups, the Aesir and the Vanir. The Aesir are associated with chaos and war, while the Vanir with nature and fertility. On your Scandinavian vacation, you’ll see signs of this ancient mythology wherever you travel. Their legends are surprisingly familiar.
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The Scandinavian Troll
Trolls differ from one story to another, but they’re always large, and they’re ugly. Trolls aren’t known for their smarts—they’re usually on the slow, stupid side. They have a reputation for nasty scheming. But, if someone does a favor for them, they show kindness and are quick to come to that person’s aid. According to legend, when Christianity arrived in Scandinavia, it was said that trolls could smell the blood of a Christian man. (Think, “Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman.”) This was a nod of respect to trolls as part of the old, pagan ways.
Dwarves and Elves
Dwarves and elves are probably the most well-known creatures in Scandinavian mythology. Dwarves, like the ones who lived with Snow White, are blacksmiths who live in cities underground. They’re short and have long, flowing beards. Elves, on the other hand, are graceful creatures that are other-worldly. Elves peacefully inhabit woodlands and meadows, and are on the side of good. There are some Scandinavian tales where elves behave badly, but those are simply elves that have gone wrong. The most famous of these mystical creatures are the elves that work for Santa at the North Pole—they are straight out of Norse mythology.
Huldra is a beautiful woman (except for her long tail), and is intensely seductive. She lures mortal men into her forest den so she can steal their souls. When Christianity arrived in the Scandinavian countries, the story was tweaked. If she married a man in a church wedding, her tail would fall off and she would become human. Another story came at the same time, placing her in the Christian tradition. It was said she was the daughter of Adam and Eve, and Eve hid Huldra from God. From that time forward, Huldra had to live her life in secret places.
Odin is a powerful, respected god. He’s associated with wisdom, healing, death, royalty, the gallows, knowledge, victory, sorcery, poetry, and frenzy. We first learn about him from Roman occupation of northern regions in 2 BCE; he’s large during the Viking Age, 8th-11th centuries, CE; and he’s still a force today. Odin is often accompanied by his animal familiars, ravens and wolves, and he rides an eight-legged horse across the sky and into the underworld. Valhalla is the hall of the slain, a majestic hall in Asgard, and it is ruled over by Odin. Odin is known by many names, and some cannot be unspoken.
Thor, a son of Odin, is a hammer-wielding god associated with lightning, thunder, storms, sacred groves, strength, and fertility. He protects mankind. We first learn about him from early Roman occupation, but he reached the height of popularity during the Viking Age. When the fierce Christianization of Scandinavia reached the region, emblems of Thor’s hammer, named Mjölnir, were worn by residents of Norse countries. Also, many people named their children “Thor,” as witness to their own identity and to the god’s popularity.
A member of the race of Nattmara, or Nightmare People, appears as a skinny woman, very pale, with long black hair and nails, wearing a nightgown. The Mara could shape-shift to sand and slip into even the tiniest crack in a wall. They terrorized people by riding on their chests and giving them nightmares. They play somewhat the same role as banshees do in other cultures—they’re an ill omen. In some tales we hear, they are spirits of restless children whose souls leave their bodies at night to haunt the living. To ensure a baby wouldn’t be snagged by a mara, a woman was told to have a horse placenta pulled over her head before giving birth. If she didn’t, her boy would turn into a werewolf, and a girl would become a mara, herself.
The Nisse is a good creature who takes care of the house and barn when a farmer is asleep. (But only if the farmer sets food out for him—the farmer must also take good care of his family, farm, and animals.) These beings are associated with Christmas. Farmers leave bowls of porridge or sweets out for him just as we leave cookies and milk for Santa. If the Nisse is happy, he’ll leave Christmas presents for the family. They can change size and can also make themselves invisible.
The vittra is a spirit that lives underground, is usually invisible, and even has its own cattle. They don’t meddle in people’s affairs, unless they become angry. That happens when they aren’t respected, for example when people don’t say “Look out!” when they toss hot water, or go to the bathroom, so the vittra can move out of the way. When a person builds their home on top of a vittra’s, disturbing their cattle or blocking their roads, they’ll make their life miserable. Even today, people have rebuilt, or moved their house, in order not to block a “Vittra-way.”