During the Viking Age, so much of life depended on the weather, nature, and the favor of the gods. The forests, the mountains, the seas, disease, nightmares – they all possessed the power to change one’s life for better or worse in the blink of an eye. Some were beyond man’s control. Others were frightening and inexplicable. And so man devised creatures to explain their existence and/or his fear of them.
With Halloween just around the corner, I wanted to share 10 creatures that may have felt very real to the people of the North.
Dwarves originated from Norse mythology. The dwarves lived in their own part of Midgard; a place no human could find. They were small people, often pictured as little men with long beards, who were master smiths, and who made the swords, shields and armor for the gods themselves.
Elves in Norse folklore were said to be mostly beautiful, and to live in hills and mountains of stone. The elves could be seen dancing over meadows, particularly at night and on misty mornings. They left a circle where they had danced, called elf dances. If a human watched the dance of the elves, he would discover that even though only a few hours seemed to have passed, many years had passed in the real world. The sagas make mention of a sacrifice that happened in October called Alfablot, a sacrifice to the elves, which was believed to be connected to the lord of the elves, the god Freyr, who ruled their kingdom of Alfheim. In later times, elves were believed to shoot disease into humans with bows.
In Scandinavian folklore, the Huldra (Norwegian, derived from a root meaning “covered,” “hidden,” or “secret”) is a very elusive and seductive creature of the forest. The only feature to distinguish her from a beautiful woman is her tail, which is of a cow or fox. They are believed to lure men back into their lairs in the forest or in the underworld, and turn them into slaves.
A Nisse is a mythological creature associated with the winter solstice. It is generally described as being no taller than 90 cm (35 in), having a long white beard, and wearing a conical or knit cap in red or some other bright color, much like a garden gnome. They mainly oversaw farms and pestered farmers. If a farmer was not overseeing his farm properly, Nisser would punish the farmer. Punishments ranged from small pranks like a hard strike to the ear to more severe punishment like killing off the livestock or ruining of the farm's fortune.
The Mare is a female evil spirt (or sometimes depicted as a goblin) who comes in the night to ride people’s chests while they sleep, bringing bad dreams, sweat, and sometimes, even death. It is where we get the word “nightmare”.
Fossegrimmen are young, handsome men who sit naked under waterfalls, playing the fiddle. They play the music of nature itself; the sound of the water, the wind in the trees, the rustle of leaves. It all comes from his music. He is said to teach humans his powers of music if they give him a piece of goat or mutton.
The Troll is an offshoot of the cruel giants who were the main enemies of the Norse gods. They have a human-like appearance, but they are incredibly ugly and huge, and not very quick of wit. They are often described as man-eaters who turn to stone upon contact with sunlight. Hence, they are believed to live in nature, and to come out at night or in deep shadow.
Probably the most frightening of all creatures is Pesta, the Black Death. The plaque was so devastating, the people soon made it into a character of its own. Pesta comes in the shape of a hideous, old woman dressed in black, carrying a broom and a rake. She traveled from farm to farm, spreading the plague. If she carried with her the rake, some of the inhabitants would survive, but if she carried her broom, everyone in the family would soon die.
Nökken are mysterious water creatures, residing in fresh-water, lakes and deep ponds. They are, in Norwegian tradition, described as dark monsters who watched as people walked by their watery homes. In Swedish tradition, they are beautiful, young men, tricking women into jumping into the water, and then drowning them. They are also shapeshifters, and can change into a white horse, letting young children ride on their backs and then jumping with them back into his pond.
Draugr are the Scandinavian version of zombies. They are said to live in their graves, to smell of decay, and to exist either to guard their treasure, wreak havoc on living beings, or torment those who had wronged them in life. Draugr slay their victims through various methods including crushing them with their enlarged forms, devouring their flesh, devouring them whole in their enlarged forms, indirectly killing them by driving them mad, and by drinking their blood.
Happy writing and sweet dreams!