Sunday, 18 August 2013

A tale of trolls

Having written about the stones in Hov, the second and most important story I want to tell is the story of the trolls and mounds, which I've alluded to in a couple of blog posts (e.g. here) but never really told the whole story about. As it's a really long post, I've added a break so be sure to click below to read the whole tale of the trolls.

Now, first of all we have to define what a troll is. In scandinavian folktales, trolls are often ugly giants. Tell a swede to describe a troll and they'll point you towards John Bauer's cherished illustrations with trolls like these. More human than the monsters called trolls in anglo-american fantasy fiction. Some argue that the troll is derived from the giants of the old norse mythology and in 19th century translations of viking sagas, the word troll was often used instead of giant (jötun). However, listening to the old tales you will notice that trolls vary in size, appearance and character.

One thing we do know about them, though, is that they are never ever christian -- in fact they seem more or less "allergic" to christian symbols and rituals, being lost souls as they were. In southern Sweden it is often said that the giants and trolls disappeared when christianity spread due to them being unable to live near bell-ringing churches. It seems like it was mostly the giants that migrated, though, and the trolls stayed. At least on Bjäre. Unlike giants our trolls live underground so perhaps they could be more protected from the bell ringing and religious symbols than the giants who lived more openly in forests.

Most trolls around here seem to be human-sized. They might be uglier than humans and somewhat slow-witted, but in southern and especially middle Sweden they can also be very human like -- with the exception of a tail that is hidden when they like skogsrået impersonate humans. They are closely related to other types of supernatural beings such as vittror, huldrefolk, elves etc. In a way, they are also related to the old fair folk of the british isles.

Trolls live in communities below ground level in halls under giant boulders or burial mounds (back in the old days when these legends were created, no one knew what ancient burial monuments like ship settings and mounds really were). A few times a year, they would lift the boulder or mound concealing the entrance to the halls on huge pillars. This often happened during an annual festivity, but other reasons have also been noted. On those days -- or rather, nights -- good, godfearing people were best of not going near those places. Trolls keep to themselves and usually doesn't do anything really bad unless you provoke them. Trespassing while the entrance to the troll halls is open would be very provocative in deed. But, still, some people just had to see it with their own eyes.

Some merely wanted to see the boulder or mound elevated on gold pillars or maybe they wanted to spot a troll. Others would wait for the entrance to open for a more greedy reason: trolls where well known for their riches. Rich as a troll, we still say. They had so much gold it would make a dragon green of envy. With trolls often living in a countryside filled with impoverished families as well as more well-to-do but also more greedy noblemen, it isn't strange that there are many stories of young men or boys being brave -- or stupid -- enough to enter the troll halls in search for gold and jewels. It was very dangerous as you had to get in and out without being seen -- and before the entrance once again was sealed and you were trapped (bergtagen) -- sometimes for many years and sometimes forever. If the trolls spotted you, they could either take you or kill you on the spot or they'd lure you to the banquet and make you eat and drink until you forgot the time and was caught under ground.

Even if you did get away from the trolls if spotted -- e.g. by making crosses, showing steel or be lucky enough to have the sun rise on them, the church bells ring or Thor's thunder boom -- they could place a curse on you, your family and/or your farm. As happened at the castle of Trolle-Ljungby where you can see "Ljungby horn och pipa", a drinking horn and pipe said to have been taken from the trolls under Maglestenen by a stableboy, ordered to spy on them by the lady of the castle, Sissela Ulfstand, when the stone was raised on christmas night.

Trolls didn't interact directly with humans that often, unless the humans came to them, but they could be known for stealing from nearby farms. Mostly food and drink, but sometimes also bowls or other items. As they could make themselves invisible (they were shape shifters according to some), it was easy to sneak into farm buildings and steal things even when there were people there. Or steal, sometimes the trolls just borrowed or took food as sort of a tax. It would be bad of accusing them of stealing all the time: some trolls just saw it as part of a social contract between humans and trolls. In fact, if you just waited for a troll to return a borrowed item, you might even be rewarded. Trolls could be honourable enough to pay debts, return favours and reward a helping hand so it was sensible to keep your mouth shut and not get angry if the trolls stole from you.

One thing trolls could steal, which wasn't as easy to accept, however, was babies. They would take a human child and replace it with one of their own to avoid detection. Often it seemed like they thought human babies were cuter and therefore they wanted one more than a child of their own. Bortbytingar, changelings, could be detected as they didn't develop as fast as other babies: as trolls live for hundreds and hundreds of years, they grow slower than us humans. Troll babies often didn't speak or learned to walk as other babies. To prevent this from happening, a baby had to be christened as the trolls were powerless before the magic protection a child got from being let into the christian community. Until then, the best defence was to place a steel item in the crib as supernatural beings like trolls and näcken fear iron.

If the trolls got to the baby prior to the baptism nonetheless, there were a few tricks to try in order to get the real baby back. Despite the seemingly callous behaviour of the troll parents, giving away their own offspring, the mothers did care about their babies (and the human babies) so if you threatened to kill the changeling, e.g. telling it you were going to chuck into that big boiling pot on the stove, you could get the troll mother to come running and wanting to change babies again. You could also do something ridiculous and make the troll baby, who could actually speak, to reveal itself by saying something like "I've seen seven oak forests grow up, but never have I seen X" -- at which point the troll had to return home as the cover was blown, hopefully prompting the trolls to return the human baby in turn. In one story, the mother's bottomless grief prompted the troll mother to feel remorse and return the baby, seeing both the sorrow and how well the human still had treated her offspring.

If we return to focusing on Bjäre, we will find many good places for trolls to live as the peninsula has the highest density of bronze age burial mounds in Sweden. There are also many other prehistoric monuments and artefacts such as iron age grave fields, stone carvings (petroglyphs), stone rings etc. The finds are considered unique in country in regards to their multitude and composition. But it is the mounds that a visitor will notice the most in this old agrarian landscape.

On Bjäre, the trolls seems to have preferred the more wooded inland. If we simply it, it seems like many of the mounds near the coast are surrounded with stories about them being memorials over kings, princes and viking chieftains while the mounds in the centre of the peninsula and closer to the Hallandsåsen ridge are surrounded with stories about trolls and gold treasures that can never be retrieved. There are several exceptions, but it is an interesting tendence.

The trolls used to be especially active around Bjäragården, a farm (ensamgård) of medieval origin not far from where I live, which is surrounded by several bronze age mounds. There are also many other traces of ancient times such as a stone circle (domarring), cup marks (skålgropar) and ship settings.

The trolls around Bjäragården were said to control much of what happened on the farms in the area. They were known to be thieving, drawn to things like magpies. Every year, for example, they would try and steal the christmas beer when it was freshly brewn (trolls couldn't master the art of beer brewing themselves, but they loved to drink it). One year, the trolls forgot their kettle, which they were trying to fill with beer, and it was stored on farm for many years.

But there's also a more serious story told about one of the mounds called Elna Mårtens hög or Karna Mårtens hög. Elna Mårtensdotter, or Karna as she's called in some versions of the story, was just a little girl on that dreadful midsummer's night. Midsummer's night and Christmas night are two powerful nights, filled with magical power and supernatural activities that people had to protect themselves from. But Elna was a curious little girl. She had heard so many stories about the trolls their festivals being told by the elderly that she just had to see them even though the grown-ups had always cautioned her not to go near the mounds as the inhabitants were thieving and rowdy.

While everyone else was busy celebrating, she snuck away. When nearing the mounds, she could see the main mound being elevated on golden pillars for the festive occastion. Like the humans, the trolls were partying. She crept closer and closer to get a better look of this fantastic sight, but suddenly the trolls spotted her and escorted her into the mound, letting her, wide-eyed, see and touch all their treasures. They invited her to their dance and the little girl complied, perhaps because she was scared but perhaps also voluntarily as they were being so polite and she was still curious, not realising the danger she was now in.

As luck would have it, a ginger farm boy walked by the mound and saw the girl. He hurried home to get the best stallion and rod back to the mound. He knew he had to save little Elna before sunrise, when the mound would once again seal itself up, or she would be trapped under ground until the next midsummer's eve. Without the trolls seeing him, he entered the mound and took the girl. He got on the horse and rode as hard as he could, but soon the trolls discovered what had happened and ran after them to retrieve Elna. She was theirs now! A person seeing the boy and little girl pursued by the trolls, which got closer and closer, screamed at him to deviate from the road and ride across the field instead. As he did, the hoof marks made lines perpendicular to the furrows, creating crosses -- a powerful christian symbol that the trolls couldn't cross. Thus they were all saved.

To be perfectly honest, I actually don't know which mounds we can spot from home. There are so many towards Bjäragården and we don't have a clear view all the way to the farm. While I most likely have caught some of the troll mounds on camera, I really doubt any of them show Elna Mårtens hög. However, I did find a pic of the mound here if you want to see that specific mound.

Another mound known for its trolls is Griskers hög in Hjärnarp (a village east of the actual peninsula, but part of the old Bjäre hundred). These trolls would make themselves invisible and "take away the best power [yeast or wort] from both beer and bread". But trolls didn't just steal, the could also be friendly neighbours and borrow what they needed as mentioned above. One legend has it that a farmer once got a magic barrel in exchange for the beer the trolls took. As long as no one looked into it, the beer would never run short from that barrel. Happy about his great gift, he arranged a big banquet. Every one drank liberally, including the farmer, and in his inebriated condition he just had to peak into the barrel -- which turned into a skeleton before his eyes!

This mound, too, was elevated on gold pillars every christmas night. One year in the 19th century, a man couldn't help himself, he just had to see if the stories about the mound rising and the trolls feasting was true. But as soon as he got outside the farm gate, a storm caught him. He held onto to the gate post, praying to god, until he was freed from the force and could return home. Maybe the trolls wanted to punish his curiosity or perhaps it was providence stopping him before anything bad happened, mused the son when telling the folklorist.

If including giants in the troll family, there is also a troll legend about Göaberg, a hill with two burial mounds and according to legend an ancient place of sacrifice to the god Göa, in Västra Karup. You can see photos of it here. A family of giants was said to live inside the little mountain and by the foot of the hill lived a farmer called Ola with his wife. One spring day while he was working in the fields, he heard crying from inside the hill. Being in a merry mood, he called out jokingly in the direction of the sound: "Be quiet, my child, and one day you'll become my second wife". The crying stopped and Ola carried on, forgetting about the whole thing.

Years later, his wife died. The following spring, he was once again out in the fields sowing as usual when he looked up and saw a beautiful young woman in old-fashioned clothes standing nearby. The woman said her name was Gerda and asked if he remembered the promise he made to her on this day so many years ago. She wanted him to honour his vow now so they could pledge allegiance and "swear Freya's oath" (trolls were heathens, thought to still practice "old custom", i.e. believing in the old gods and follow pre-christian rituals). Ola wasn't too keen on the idea, understanding what she was, and tried to explain it was only a joke to calm a baby. In an effort to scare her away, he insisted on a christian wedding, but to his surprise he complied and he saw no other choice but to marry this woman that wasn't going anywhere. You must always honour a promise.

Ola wasn't happy, though, and he would threaten her, beat her and force her to work hard. Gerda just complied. Some time later, the farmer needed to add an extension to the farm and he gathered the neighbours to help him lift the ridge. But the men weren't strong enough to lift the heavy timber and Ola shouted at his wife to get more men or else! She couldn't find more men, but instead she silently went out to the ridge, lifted it with ease and placed it on top of the roof. Shocked, Ola realised that the woman he had treated could have done to her, had she not been so meek. He hopefully treated her better after that!


 And those are a few of the more well known and documented tales of trolls on Bjäre. Hope you've enjoyed reading them, perhaps learning a bit more of the old trolls.

If you speak swedish and wonder where to find literature about these tales and legends, do feel free to contact me and I'll give you a list of the books I used (originally for a paper in human geography on ancient monuments in the landscape of the folklore). For a modern perspective on trolls and especially about trolls in contemporary literature, I also recommend the episode of Kobra called Det våras för trollen!, which unfortunately isn't on SVT Play anymore.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post so much! I love old stories and legends, and unfortunately, America doesn't have much in the way of those.

    I saw Troll Hunter (Trolljegeren?) last Fall and thought it was amazing.

    1. Saturday Sequins, if you know where your ancestors came from, you could do some research into the old beliefs and lore of the people of that country. I'm interested in vampires, but now that they are so mainstream I prefer to learn more about trolls. I mean I just got interested in them, thanks to Maneki. Milka

  2. Now I know what I'm going to read when relaxing on Sunday. I love old folklore and legends. Thank you! Milka


A few words can mean so much. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

PS! Feel free to email me if you don't want to comment publicly -- look under Contact (under the header)

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...