Norse paganism and folklore is filled to the brim with otherworldly beings, many of which are still alive and kicking in Scandinavian popular belief! In this article we will discover the magical creatures of the North, such as trolls, nisser, nøkk, elves and dwarves.
The trolls are a well known race of otherworldly beings going all the way back to Norse pagan times, where “trollskap” or “troll-activity”, was a word for magic.
Trolls are often portrayed as brutal, dumb and big. They are connected to the race of the jötun, or the enemies of the gods, and the word jötul or jutul, which derives from jötun, is a synonym for especially large trolls.
The word itself actually comes from the old Norse word for slave, “trell”, although we’re unsure of the connection between the two concepts.
Another aspect of trolls are their sensitivity to sunlight. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo tricks the trolls, thereby causing them to loose track of time. At dawn, the three trolls turn to stone. This is also a theme in Norse myth, such as in the Alvissmál, although the character there portrayed is of dwarf-kin. The trolls sensitivity to sunlight is why they most often choose to reside in halls within the mountains.
Trolls usually reside in areas hostile to mankind, such as ragged highland, deep forests or the high sea. Trolls have almost become a national symbol in Norway, and many a tourist have left the country with a fridge magnet displaying one of the creatures.
There is a Norwegian expression that says that there “can be trolls in words”, which means that one should be careful what one says, cause it might become true!
Nisser in plural, nisse in singular. These beings are much loved by all Scandinavians, and the basis for modern depictions of santaclaus. The nisse is known in Sweden as tomte.
The nisse is a later manifestation of the Norse “gardvord”, which derives from gard, meaning farm, house or settlement, and vord, which means to guard or watch over. The gardvord was thus a guardian spirit connected to a location where humans lived.
The nisse are often described as small beings with long beards, dressed in grey clothing with a red cloth cap. The red cloth cap was a common part of the old farmer’s dress in Scandinavia, and is still worn by the figure of santaclaus!
The nisse can both be malevolent or beneficial, depending on how it is treated by us. Nisser can help tend animals and guard the farmstead, if they’re offered rich foods and drink. When we humans celebrate, the nisser expect us to share some of our affluence with them, in return for their help. This practice is still an integral part of Christmas traditions in the north, and many people still offer a cup of fine drink to the domestic nisse when they have something to celebrate.
The red cap worn by the nisse moreover has magical properties. If the nisse turns it inside-out, it becomes invisible! Widespread belief in the nisse was common all the way up to the 1800, and is the reason for many inexplainable Scandinavian customs up to this day, such as leaving the Christmas dinner at the table overnight, so that the nisse can take their share.
The nisse is moreover a guardian of traditions, “a warden of the old ways”, and is not a fan of innovations.
The modern Norwegian nøkk is derives from the old Norse nykr, which means water horse. The nøkk is a shapeshifter who can take a variety of forms. He is a male water spirit, and a competent fiddle player, a skill he uses to lure young women to ponds and waterfalls, where they get ensured by his power.
These spirits have cognates in many other European cultures, such as the English nix and German Neck or Nöck.
These spirits tend to be male in Norse life, but female farther south. The German Nixe is most often female water spirits, sometimes referred to in plural as Rheintöchter, or daughters of the Rhine river. The nøkk is very similar to the Slavic rusalka, too! In Norse mythology, the nøkk, being a water spirit, is connected to the sea-deity Ægir, and known to be a frequent visitor of his underwater hall.
The nøkk, in Norse folklore, is not always malevolent. If he’s treated very courteously, he can actually be persuaded to teach you to play the violin so beautifully that “the trees dance and the waterfalls stop running”. There are also stories of human women who the nøkk loves so much that he goes on to live with them. The nøkk can also take the form of a beautiful white horse, in Sweden known as the Bäckahäst.
Next time you’re close to waterbodies, do not get atop of white horses that look suspicious, and if you meet handsome, young, fiddle-playing men, be at your best behavior!
The race of elves is so many-faceted and ancient that they warrant three separate paragraphs. In this first part, we’ll do an introduction to the elven-kin, before we go on to describe the two separate elven races described in the Norse canon: the light-elves and the dark-elves.
The word elf derives from an ancient indoeuropean word meaning “the white ones”. These beings are a prominent feature of many Germanic traditions, but most prominently the Norse ones. The term elf does not denote a single type of being, but is an umbrella term that refers to an array of different sub-species.
The elves, in the Norse pagan understanding, are very closely related to the gods. We often see the elves name-dropped in the same breath as the gods, such as in the common phrase “Æsir, Elves and Wise Vanir”. Likewise, in one of the late verses of the Voluspá, we’re given the line “What about the Gods? What about the elves?”, during the sections that describe Ragnarok. The mentioning-together of the gods and the elves suggests that these were powerful, important beings in the Norse cosmology, and beings that had to be taken into one’s religious account. We know, among other things, that the elves were sacrificed to: called the Álfablót. This ritual was often an intimate affair, conducted in private with one’s family. We also see dead ancestors referred to as elves in the Norse canon. These two facts together suggests that the certain elves might have functioned as guardians of the family, which is very similar to the Roman conception of the Lares.
The elves – both the fair and dark kind – were also connected to distinct features of the land. They do have worlds of their own within Yggdrasil’s branches, but some of them also share our world. Mountains, groves and woods are often the domain of the elf-folk, and areas wherein one should thread lightly. There are still many places in Scandinavia rumored to be elven abodes, vibrating with other-worldly activity. Some of these places can be sources of healing and aid, and others can be abodes of mischief and trickery, dependent on the nature of the elves in question, and how you approach them!
Ljósálfar, or Light Elves, are described by Oðin in the Gylfagynning as “fairer than the sun to look at”, and that they behave quite differently to their crafty, subterranean cousins in Svartálfheim. The word “elf”, or “álfar” in old Norse derives from the proto-germanic “albaz”, which means fair, white or shining.
The light elves reside in the abode of Álfheim, or Ljósálheim within the branches of Yggdrasil, which is ruled by the Vanir God Frey, to whom it was gifted when he grew his first tooth. This implies a kinship between Frey and the elves, at least in terms of domain. Frey, as we ought to know, is lord of all things growing, a deity especially associated with growth and fertility, whom also is known for his fairness and benevolence, described as “hated by none”. This explains why he might get along with the light elves, who also are described as fair, shining, and strongly associated with the regenerative powers.
The elves are best thought of as demi-gods, akin in nature to the gods themselves, but of slightly lesser power. We know that the light-elves have the power to both cause disease, but also to heal humans, as well as mate with them. We also know that there are humans who became elves after death, and that there are blurred lines between the worship of elves and of ancestors.
We might conclude from this that the otherworldly people, the fairies or elves, depending on your tradition, all belonged to the same umbrella-race, but had different nations and tribes, similar to us humans. These tribes had their different domains, natures, dispositions and cultures, just as we do here in Midgard.
The worship of elves persisted long after the christianization. In fact, elf-worship is still a part of Scandinavian culture, that’s well worth preserving!
Dwarves, despite common portrayal, are not necessarily short of stature. One of the dwarves mentioned in the Voluspá is actually called “Hár”, meaning “High”! Dwarves are also knows as dark elves, and reside in the abode of Svartálfheim, which is also called Niðavellir, or “dark fields”.
The light elves’ domain is above the ground, just as the dark elves rule the subterranean, the chthonic. Their abodes are often mountain halls, and they are know to be excellent craftsmen. The gods’ most priced items are dwarf-made, such as Frey’s Skiðbladnir, Oðin’s Gaugnir and Thor’s hammer, Mjølnir. The connection between the dwarves and metal-working is natural, due to minerals, gems and metals being material that resides below the crust of the earth.
The dark elves can shape shift, and can cause mental illness in humans if they’re disrespected. The word itself is connected to the modern English “dizzy”, “dream”, and the German “Trug”, which means deception. The word is either a development of the indoeuropean “dheur”, which means damage, or “dhreugh”, which means illusion, mirage, deception or dream.
Tolkien, whom was very well acquainted with Norse mythology, immortalized the dwarves in his work. In Tolkien’s world, the dwarves are created by Aulë, the god of metal, craft and the subterranean. Once having made the dwarves, he’s reproached by Eru, the creator, for having made sentient beings without approval. Aulë then prepares to destroy his creation, but Eru takes pity on him, and breathes life into dwarf-kin.
About the author
Norse Tradition is a Norwegian non-profit organization working to promote and convey the rich Norse spiritual tradition. We regularly host lectures, private training and rituals, and retreats centered around seasonal celebrations. We work according to a reconstructive method based on Indo-European syncretism. This means that in order to better understand the Norse heritage and tradition, we see it in the light of its roots in the proto-Indo-European culture.
We do not practice historical reenactment, nor do we intend to invent a modern spiritual practice spiced with Norse words and symbols; we transmit a living tradition. All lectures and rites by Norse Tradition are founded on recognized academia or historical sources of Norse, Vedic, Anglo-Saxon, Greco-Roman, or other Indo-European origin. We are thus not innovators; what we teach and practice has ancient roots.