When the Almighty had chucked Adam and Eve out of paradise, they didn't have much to rejoice. But they loved each other, and lived well together, and had a lot of children. Then one day, the Almighty told Eve that he would come and see her offspring. Eva thought it was embarrassing to show our Lord how many children she had, so she only presented half of them – those who were pretty and clean. As the Lord gazed at the children, he wondered where the others were at?
“These are all my children,” Eve answered.
“Is that so,” said the Almighty. “Then let those who are hidden, remain hidden.”
And hidden and invisible they stayed, taking their abode in rocks and mountains, as their children and children’s children. Only once and awhile they could show their true nature to the world of men.
|The hulder as a milkmaid. Illustration by Norwegian artist Hans Gude (1879)|
Mermaids, nøkk, utburd, kraken, elves, nisser and dwarves... There are many names of the beings in the folk tradition. Not seldom however, the traits of all of these creatures are blended into one being: the enchanting and mysterious hulder.
In the eastern regions, the female hulder is rarely mentioned. If they are, they emerge as the spirits of people who lost their lives in drowning accidents, and therefore reside in water. Eastwards, as far as Russia, it is the male hulder whom is most present in the legends. Usually, this beings has long hair and a great beard, and is referred to as miehtshozjin – the forest landlord – and the echo is his voice. In Poland, we find stories about dziwozony, wild women. These are very feminine and sensual forest creatures with long, fluttering hair and breasts so long that, when she runs, are thrown over her shoulder to prevent them being in the way. The male and female hulder are largely attributed the same characteristics. They are cunning, sly, sensuous, and alluring. Many have been lured astray by wood nymph – and many are those who have been helped to find the way back home, in Russia as well as in Scandinavia.
Malczewski Jacek (1887–88), Topielec w uściskach dziwożony, obraz z cyklu Rusałki
Muzeum Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego, Kraków
For, as the nisse and the dwarves, the huldrefolk are safeguarding and helpful to those who respect them. In the inuit folklore, the subterreanian creatures atliarusek and ingnersuït reside in the cliffs along the shore, together with the inuit guardian spirits. On the Kola Peninsula, the Sámi have a male being, which they call tava or tavaj, ensuring luck and fortune related to hunting and fishing. Also the Southern Sami tells of such a creature, the female sàjva, whom is attributed the same characteristics. Sájva was previously believed to be a sacred being, and was previously a part of the Sami religion. In the younger popular belief however, a more traditional conception of the hulder have replaced these notions, although holding on to the sàjva-name.
The creature generally referred to as the hulderfolk thus reflects the nature of the landscape in each country – in in the UK and Denmark they are therefore most often referred to as creatures of the meadows than of the forest. In England, the most common name for them are fairies, consisting of an entire population of tiny men, women and children residing in rocks and hills.
In Norway and Sweden, the hulder bears many similarities, and remain to this day perhaps the most enigmatic and famed creature of the folklore. A common notion is that the hulderfolk have mastery over certain ponds and lakes scattered across the lands; many little tarns are by that reason named after huldra, beings characterized by having a "double bottom"; at the lowest point, there are troll fish swimming about; they are only set free two days a year. In the South Sami folklore, among others, such legends exist; in Velfjord in Nothern Norway, there is such a lake, called Engavatnet.The water disappears from time to time into the subsoil so that the bottom is dry, for then to return with just as many fish as before. Although modern science has characterized this phenonemon as a turlough, the idea that some invisible force of nature is making it difficult for man to extract more of its riches than absolutely necessary, is a tad more compelling.
Appearing frequently as a beautiful alluring female, with long, golden hair, huldra lives in the mountain or in the forest. Although a delight to behold, the Norwegian hulder is most known to - in fact - have a cow’s tale. Originally, it was said, the tale was used to keeping flies of bay. Later, it more or less become a bother, the buttocks hanging and dragging in the ground. When interacting with people, she pulls it up and hiding the tale under her clothes, anxious that people might see it. If a hulder were to marry a man of our world, her tale would fall off in front of the altar. Also in Sweden, the hulder, or skogsrå, up front resembles a beautiful woman; when she turns around however, she is all hollowed out like a trough. It is the most prominent distinction between Swedish and Norwegian huldre.
|Theodor Kittelsen, Huldra. llustration for the book Trollskab (1892)|
When reading the tales and legends from the pre-industrial Scandinavia, it is easy to assume that people mostly carried a constant fear and anxiety for the subterranians and other metaphysical beings. This is not the case. Adding up all the creatures communicated within the folk tradition, it does not create a fullblown, complete image of the folk belief, but rather a catalog of stories. The legends belong in different contexts, in which they they become meaningful. To what extent people were truly devoted in such notions, trusting them, also varied widely, from strict belief to ambivalence to skepticism and disbelief. To let oneself be carried away by a good story, however, anyone would be able to experience.
We can imagine that the hungry and frozen shepherd or milkmaid downright longed to be admitted to the hulderfolk in the mountains. Labor in the old community was hard, involving long days in all kinds of weather, and rumors were that inside the mountain, there were an abundance of good food and drink, precious things and fine clothes. Who wouldn't want to visit? When first entering the mountain, voluntary or not, making good use of the hospitality of their hosts, they often stayed there forever. If they refused to accept anything - food or drink - they were gladly thrown out. It was rude to refuse, a mockery of the one who was offering. Usually, young people were taken into the mountains, and to get the girl or boy out, the community chimed the bells of their local church, a some times also succeeding. Now and then though, the captive do not want to be saved, and pray for nothing more than to stay in the mountains with the hulderfolk.
In short one might say that such legends has originated as psychological refelctions of the forces of nature, as tangible expressions of the experience of the majesty of nature, and how small one became in comparison. Respect for nature and respect for its invisible creatures might be regarded as two sides of the same coin.
|Theodor Kittelsen. The disappearence of the hulder |
Water colour painting (1908)
- Heide, Eivind (1971). Huldra og annen trollskap. Oslo: Aschehoug
- Christensen, Olav (2000) Bergteken. Nye veger til gamle sagn. Aschehoug
- Ellingsen, Vigdis (1994) De usynlige. Brønnøysund bokhandel