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The Mystery and Legends of the Trolls

Throughout Scandinavian mythology and folklore runs a thread about Trolls and in fact pop into many shops in Scandinavian countries and you can buy your own cute little troll even though the legends paint them as being terrible, frightening and often very smelly!. Trolls are even featured in the story-lines of J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

But what is a Troll and what is the story behind the myth and folklore? The fjord region in Norway is the place where legends say many trolls make their home. Some of these trolls are nuisances to the farmers and peasants, some are mean and nasty, some will leave you alone unless you do something to them.

A troll is a fearsome member of a mythical race from Scandinavia. They range from fiendish giants or ogres to a devious, more human-like folk of the wilderness, living underground in hills, caves or mounds.

Nordic literature, art and music has adapted trolls in various stereotypes often in the form of an aboriginal race, endowed with over sized ears and noses. From here, as well as from Scandinavian fairy tales such as: Three Billy Goats’ Gruff, trolls have achieved international recognition.

The meaning of the word troll is uncertain it might have had the original meaning of supernatural or magical. An old Swedish word, trolleri was a particular kind of magic intended to do harm. Moreover, in the sources for Norse mythology, troll can signify any uncanny being, including but not restricted to the Norse giants.

There are two main traditions regarding trolls. In the first tradition, the troll is large, an ogre or giant. They are often described as ugly or having beastly features like tusks or a singe eye in the middle of the forehead. This is the tradition which has come to dominate fairy tales and legends, but it is also the prominent concept of troll in Norway. As a rule of thumb, what would be called a “troll” in Norway would in Denmark and Sweden be a “giant”

The second tradition is most prominent in southern Scandinavia. What would be called trolls in southern Sweden and Denmark would be called huldrefolk in Norway and vitterfolk in northern Sweden).

These trolls are very human-like in appearance though sometimes it was said they had a tail hidden in their clothing. A frequent way of telling a human-looking troll in folklore is to look at what it is wearing: Troll women in particular were often too elegantly dressed to be human women moving around in the forest. They could attract human males to do their bidding, or simply as mates or pets. Later these would be found wandering, decades later, with no memory of what had happened to them.

More often than not the trolls kept themselves invisible, and then they could travel on the winds, or sneak into human homes. Sometimes you could only hear them speak, shout and make noise, or the sound of their cattle. Similarly, if you were out in the forest and smelled food cooking, you knew you were near a troll dwelling. The trolls were also great shape shifters, taking shapes of objects like fallen logs or animals like cats and dogs. A fairly frequent notion is that the trolls liked to appear as rolling balls of yarn.

Whereas the giant trolls often appear as a solitary being, the “small” trolls were thought to be social beings who lived together out in the forest. They kept animals, cooked and baked, were excellent at crafts and held great feasts. Like many other species in Scandinavian folklore, they were said to reside in underground complexes, accessible from underneath large boulders in the forests or in the mountains. These boulders could be raised upon pillars of gold. In their living quarters, they hoard gold and treasures.

Trolls could cause great harm sometimes being described as vindictive or playful and they were always regarded as being heathens. Trolls were noted thieves and liked to steal food that the farmers had stored. They could enter the homes invisibly during feasts and eat from the plates so that there was not enough food, or spoil the making of beer and bread so that it failed or did not end up plentiful enough.

The trolls sometimes abducted people to live as slaves or at least prisoners among them. Anyone could be taken by the trolls, even cattle, but at the greatest risk were women who had given birth but not yet been taken back to the church. Occasionally, the trolls would even steal a new-born baby, leaving their own offspring “a changeling” in exchange.

To ward off the trolls you could always turn to Christianity: Church bells, a cross or even words like “Jesus” or “Christ” would work against them. Like other Scandinavian folklore creatures they also feared steel. Apart from that they were hunted by Thor, one of the last remnants of the old Norse mythology, who threw Mjolnir, his hammer, causing lightning bolts to kill them. Though Mjolnir was supposed to return to Thor after throwing, these hammers could later be “found” in the earth and be used as protective talismans.

Legends from the Middle Ages and earlier also feature trolls of more horrifying dimensions. In fairy-tales and legends trolls are less the people living next to humans and more frightening creatures. Particularly in these tales they come in any size and can be as huge as giants or as small as dwarves. They are often regarded as having poor intellect (especially the males, whereas the females, trollkonor, may be quite cunning), great strength, big noses, long arms, and as being hairy and not very beautiful, females are often the exception, with female trolls frequently being quite attractive. In Scandinavian fairy tales, trolls sometimes turn to stone if exposed to sunlight, a myth generally attributed to misshapen rock outcrops found throughout Scandinavia.