The faeries of UK and Ireland have had another renaissance over the last few years, especially in YA literature and TV. I love it! I am extremely fond of faeries, and books about faeries – almost as fond as I am of books about witches. But as fond as I am of the Celtic faeries, I am slightly more fond of my native faeries – less known, but just as potent. Here’s a brief introduction:
We have always had faeries in Scandinavia, both dark and light. A strange and “unnatural” people living underground or inside mountains, eager to steal away children and pretty youths. The old Vikings knew well that what lay behind the borders of their farmland was something to fear. The Norse gods fought (and sometimes loved) the Jotne people of Utgard (aka. the wilderness), who later morphed into the iconic trolls. The Vanir god, Frey, ruled in Alfheim (“home of the elves”), maybe suggesting a tie between the fertility of the land and the elves. Maybe the Vanir themselves were considered “other”?
The Nøkk lives in the lake, he can teach you to play the fiddle for a price, or – like the kelpie – turn into a horse and take you away, into the deep dark waters… A master shapeshifter, his true form is said to be hideous; like a drowned man, though to his victims he can appear deliciously beautiful and charming.
It is said that the Nøkk craves one victim a year – which, if one stretches the imagination, might be an echo of some old sacrificial rite. His horrible scream is an omen of death. The Nøkk has few preferences when it comes to victims, but they are usually young men or women, or children.
The Hulder is a beautiful woman with a cow’s tail. She lives in a mound, often with her family, and has riches beyond comprehension, usually in the form of fat cows. Sometimes she’ll marry a human male, and there are still families today that claims to have heirlooms wrought of “hulder silver”.
In Sweden and Denmark a similar creature is called a rå, and has a hollow back (the seat of the soul – the fae, as we know, are not God’s creatures but soulless).
When I was a teen I heard a radio show about a contemporary sighting that scared me to bits: A family in a cabin in the mountains saw a dark haired, wild looking woman wearing only rags, outside the window. They were disturbed by the sight, but also worried for her because it was winter and cold. Then, as she turned, they saw a long tail trailing behind her. The same night a man driving over the mountain saw the strange woman by the side of the road, barefoot in the snow. This is a far cry from the curvy milkmaid of fairy tales, and very disturbing. It could, of course, have been a very disturbed human being…
The hulder people (“hulder” meaning “hidden”) were in general very fond of milk maids and shepherds. During summer season when the herds were grazing in the mountains, they’d be there, wearing blue (an expensive color), ready to seduce both men and women. They usually appeared like human beings, and it was easy to get fooled. They’d promise riches and comfort in order to lure the innocent youths into the mounds.
People who lived by the coast had their own set of creatures who made them fear the night, like selkies, mermen, and draugen – the hideous ghosts of those who died at sea. Like in Celtic lore there is a blurry line between the dead and the fae in Scandinavian myths. Both parties live underground and are referred to as both, interchangeably. Before Christianity, Scandinavians had a habit of building mounds for their rich and powerful dead. Over the years the myths may have become confused, or the one thing became the other. It’s not true that all Vikings hoped for Valhalla. Valhalla was for warriors. The average farmer did probably not have any clear expectations in regards to the afterlife: the dead were in the mounds – but not quite gone. Ancestral worship was extremely significant, and maybe – perhaps – a starting point for many of the myths about the hulder people.
The Nisse is a good example, he lives in the barn and helps tending the farm animals, with a particular fondness for the horse. The Nisse is described as the Scandinavian Santa Claus; a small man with a red cap who is (still) served porridge at Christmas. Originally, however, he was probably the spirit of the first settler on the land – the original farmer, likely to have been honored with offerings by his descendants. The Christmas link is more vague: Christmas – or Jol – was definitely a feast for the dead in pre-Christian times: The table was set with food and drink and all the people in the house went into hiding, hoping to survive the night, while the dead were dining. The Nisse, however, was (to my knowledge) not a central figure in this “celebration”.
Seemingly good natured, the Nisse was not always a benevolent creature. If he was displeased with the way the farm was run or the tending of the animals, he could be dangerous. There’s is a story about a maid who so displeased the nisse, he grabbed her and danced with her until she lost consciousness and fell to the floor.
Asbjørnsen and Moe who traveled and collected Norwegian fairy tales in the 19th hundreds, included countless stories about encounters with the hulder people in their works. The princess of “hilder land” (the “shimmering” or “unreal” land) was a popular prize for young protagonists, as were the trolls as foes.
The classic Norwegian “huldre tales” are often variations of the same story: a beautiful maid is lured into the mountain to breed babies with the troll or the Mountain King. Young men are lured by the Hulder. Most of these stories are cautionary tales not to give in to temptation: the boy sees the Hulder’s mother – an ugly old hag, and is warned off by the sight. The girl in the mountain longs for home and church bells – and is tired of keeping troll house. Occasionally it ends well – sort of, like when the Hulder’s tail falls off when she crosses the threshold to the church on her wedding day – marriage, in other words, can domesticate any wild woman…
Other things to learn from the stories is that it’s unwise to cross the hulder people: it leads to sickness and mishap – maybe even death. If you manage to establish a good relationship with them (like a man in a story who lets his hulder neighbor lead his cattle across his land), much good; luck and riches, will come to you.
No Scandinavian faerie has gossamer wings.
Neither are they particularly cuddly or sweet, but seductive and dangerous, eager to lure you off the path with their eerie music and dancing, and into treacherous marshland.
There’s no Galadriel in these woods.
Sources: me, myself and I. If something’s off, I blame bad memory.