Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Tomte and other Scandinavian folklore creatures.

Many fantastical creatures have found a place in the fantasy and imagination of the people of the North for centuries. Elves, witches, magical creatures both kind and evil of whose one must take care from or ask for help. Many of them have suffered several transformations starting from the original versions, which may come from Heathen traditions, a legacy from many centuries before the Christianization of Scandinavia, or from the always changing human point of view and ideologies of the different ages and times. Even so, it may be still interesting to hear how people from the past gave an explanation to the events of nature and daily life in the way of myths and folkloric tales, here some examples:


Tomte (or Nisse) is a mythical creature of Scandinavian folklore, believed in ancient times to be the soul or spirit of the very first inhabitor of the farm, having his dwellings in the burial mounds of the same farm.
Tomte were believed to take after the farm´s dwellers, properties and welfare in general. Swedish name tomte is derived from a place of residence and area of influence: the house lot or tomt. The Finnish name is tonttu (borrowed from Swedish), being Nisse the most common name in Norwegian, Danish and the Dialects spoken in southernmost Sweden.

The Tomte has been widely imagined as a small elderly man, oftenly bearded and dressed as a farmer, though in modern Denmark, they are often represented as a beardless being who wears grey and red woollen clothes. This tradition may have its roots back in 1840, when the danish Nisse became the bearer of Christmas presents, being renamed as "Julenisse". Later in 1881 a Swedish magazine "Ny Illustrerad Tidning" published a poem "Tomten" (by Viktor Rydberg) depicting a phylosophical tomte wondering and pondering on mysteries of life. Swedish painter Jenny Nyström illustrated it in the way of a white-bearded friendly creature, who wore a red cap.
This nice character were associated with Christmas ever since, commercialism making him looking more and more like american Santa claus, but the Swedish jultomte, the Norwegian julenisse, the Danish nisse and the Finnish joulupukki (in Finland he is still called the Yule Goat, although his animal features have disappeared) still has features and traditions that are rooted in the local culture. He is still often pictured on Christmas cards and house and garden decorations as the little man of Jenny Nyström's imagination, often with a horse or cat, or riding on a goat or in a sled pulled by a goat.

The classical portrait of Tomte by Jenny Nyström (

Tomte has appeared in many Scandinavian literature works, like that angry Tomte featuring in Selma Lägerlof´s Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige, (Nils Holgersson's Wonderful Journey Through Sweden) where the Tomte punish the mischievous Nils by turning him into a Tomte himself, later traveling across Sweden on the back of a goose.
Tomte may be small, but is not weak, and even he has a caring spirit, it is absolutely easy to offend. Tomte is also a traditionalist who absolutely don´t like changes in the way the things are done.

An easy way to offend him was by being rude, swearing, or not treating the animals well ( his most beloved animal was the horse) One was also required to thank him with special gifts, such as a bowl of porridge left on Chrsitmas night. If he wasn't given his payment, he would leave the farm or house, or engage in mischief such as tying the cows' tails together in the barn, turning objects upside-down, and breaking things.

An angry Tomte steal the hay of an ungrateful farmer (author: Gudmund Stenersen)

Due to Christianism, Tomte got to be once an unpopular character, in the same way that most creatures of folklore became, being connected with heathen or even worse, devil worshipping. In a famous 14th century decree Saint Birgitta warns against the worship of tompta gudhi, "tomte gods". Even so, for many people the idea of the farm tomte still lives on, at least in the imagination and literature.


The Huldra was supposed to be an breath taking beauty, sometimes naked woman, inhabitant of the deep of the forests. In the other hand, in Norway she has been described as a common dairy maid ar as a typycal farm girl, although still prettier than the average girls. Tradition however agrees in depicting her with a tail, which can be that of a cow or even a fox one. In Northern Sweden and some other parts, huldra is believed to have a bark-covered back.
Huldra belongs to a group of several beings named as "rå", including the aquatic Sjörå and the Bergsrå, who was believed to live in caves and mines, and made life tough for miners.

One of the most renowned representations of Huldra, by John Bauer

In some traditions, the Huldra likes to lure men into the forest for having sex with them, often killing those who doesn´t satisfy her. The Norwegian Huldra may simply just kidnap the man and taking him to an underworld. She sometimes stole human infants and replaced them with her own ugly huldrebarn. Some fairly tales relate how some Huldras got to marriage with humans, losing her tail, but not her look after that, and living happily ever after. However if badly treated, or betrayed, the Huldra could punish severely, as in one case from Sigdal, when she avenged her pride on a young guy she had sworn to marry, on the promise that he would not tell anybody of her. The boy instead bragged about his bride for a year, and when they met again, she beat him around the ears with her cow's tail. He lost his hearing and his wits for the rest of his life.

A man speaks with a Huldra wearing typical diary maid fashion (Author: Per Daniel Holm)

A huldra and a Näcken spirit. (


The most renowned appearance of the "näcken or nøkken" though supposed to be shapeshifter, is that of a naked man playing the violin in brooks and waterfalls (a modern visiont since in the original folklore he used to be depicted as a more or less elegant clothing man) or even so as an animal, specially in the form of a "brook horse" (The modern names are thought to be derived from Ancient Norse "nykr" , that is, river horse).

The "brook horse" by Theodor Kittelsen

Known as näcken, nøkken, strömkarlen, Grim or Fosse-Grim, were spirits, or beings able to play an extraordinary but enchanted music when playing the violin. The nature of Näcken were ambiguous according to histories, sometimes able to drive women and children with his charmed melodies to drown in water and some other times describing him as an absolutely harmless and kind spirit, sometimes even agreeding to live with humans, though not for much time, with Näcken becoming depressed and despondent for losing his freedom and contact with water.

Later with Christianity, folklore stablished that Näcken were most dangerous to pregnant women and unbaptised children, and being very active in his malevolous activities specially on Midsummer´s Night, Christmas Eve and Thursdays, and that somebody could defeat or destroy him by saying his name or by making the sign of the cross.

The charming Näcken and a maid (Author: Tove Sörblom)

Who knows if even nowadays, when walking in the deep forest, someone may listen to the Näcken´s scream near to a water source, marking the spot where a fatality would later take place. Be careful and kind if meeting suddenly with a pretty nice girl who tries to hide a naughty tail underneath her skirt, and yes, don´t forget to leave the Tomte a gift, for him to keep taking care after your fortune and welfare.


henk van es said...

Hey Alberto Oliver,
That makes very interesting reading, this note. It is important to see that our belief systems not only are highly dominated by christianity, but that old pagan beliefs over the ages still have an inflence.

Alberto Oliver said...

I think it is true, may the old pagan beliefs still to have an influence, may we still be able to listen to the echo of those ancient voices speaking through the stories and myhts, for we to listen and learn the wisdom our ancestors have to share with us.

Agneta said...

Speaking of tomtar, see them at my website under övrigt/Agneta Sweden

Alberto Oliver said...

Hello Agneta, thanks for the advice. Indeed I will take a look at your web site. Thanks for posting and regards.

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