Spirits, trolls, elves and ‘näcken’ – discover Sweden’s mythological creatures
The deep forests of Sweden possess both beauty and tranquillity – but also drama and mystique. Born out of Swedish folklore, a string of otherworldly creatures – from trolls to seductive forest spirits – are at one with nature, protecting it at all costs.
According to Swedish folklore, nature is teeming with these mythological creatures, each with its own particular habitat. Most folkloric tales centre around forests, mountains, lakes and meadows, which may originate in Swedes’ tradition of communing with nature. Having grown up with the right to roam – generously allowing anyone to spend time in nature almost anywhere, as long as it’s left intact – nature is a treasured source of well-being. It has also helped to inspire the imagination of countless artists and writers in Sweden and established a deep sense of cultural identity, dating back centuries.
The Swedish tales often focus on the mythological creatures that dwell in Sweden’s vast forest and abundant nature. Some of these beings are kind and helpful, rewarding those who treat them and their surroundings with respect, while others set out to seduce, sometimes with devious intentions.
It’s impossible to touch upon the subject without mentioning the work of Swedish artist and illustrator John Bauer, born in 1882. His classic book ‘Bland Tomtar och Troll’ (Among Gnomes and Trolls) features various stories based on Swedish folklore, with its focus on a host of mythological creatures found lurking in nature.
Here’s an introduction to six creatures you’ll want to keep an eye out for:
The seductive ‘huldra’ is known to be kind to charcoal burners but also has a dangerous side. She is usually portrayed as beautiful, with a carefully hidden tail.
Photo: Visit Sweden
Huldra – the seductive forest spirit
The seductive ‘huldra’ could be described as Scandinavian folklore’s take on the siren. In Swedish folklore, this irresistible being is also known as ‘skogsrå’ – forest spirit – or ‘Tall-Maja’ (Pine Tree Mary).
With roots in Christianity, the origins of the huldra unfolds in a tale about a woman who’d only washed half of her children when God appeared at her cottage door. Deeply ashamed about her dirty children, she hid them from sight, whereupon God commanded them forever hidden from humanity. And thus, they became ‘hulders’, the collective name for these “hidden folk”.
In Swedish mythology, the huldra is mostly seen as a benign spirit, known to be kind to charcoal burners, allowing them to sleep restfully by keeping an eye on their charcoal kilns. By way of thanking her, the charcoal burners would leave provisions. But her dangerous side has been revealed in some tales, recounting how she lures men with her charms, carefully hiding her cow’s tail by tying it in a knot under her skirt. The only way for her to lose her tail is if she gets married inside a church, when her tail will drop off, and she’ll transform into a human.
The female hulder, whether devious or not, is almost exclusively portrayed as a beautiful being, but if you come across the male equivalent, the ‘huldrekall’, you might find him somewhat less appealing – grotesque, even.
'Näcken' can be found in Swedish freshwater streams and rivers, usually naked and playing the violin. He is said to use his music to lure people into the water.
Photo: Visit Sweden
Näcken – the nude with the violin
If you come across a naked man playing the violin in one of Sweden’s beautiful freshwater streams or rivers, it’ll most likely be ‘Näcken’ or the ‘Neck’ in English – one of Sweden’s most famous mythological creatures, who made his first appearance back in the Viking era.
With his seductive yet mildly sinister air, Näcken symbolises the dangers surrounding water. These water spirits are said to use their music to lure people to a watery demise.
In Sweden, this aquatic supernatural being has been described as the equivalent of the Roman sea god ‘Neptune’ and the Greek god ‘Poseidon’. Among the historic writings about Näcken is Schroderus’ book, “Siögudens Neckens kännemäreke” (The Sea God Neck’s Symbol) from around 1635. While, about a century later, the pastor Olof Broman mentioned him in the context of paganism. Swedish artist Ernst Josephson’s late 19th century painting “Näcken” perfectly captures the definition of this mysterious man as he sits by a stream, violin in hand, raven hair spreading across his shoulders.
The Swedish trolls live in caves or mountains. They are giant yet camouflaged to match the trees and rocks in the forest.
Photo: Visit Sweden
Trolls – mischievous beings
Having spawned countless clay figurines and starred in animated blockbuster films, trolls are world-famous. The original trolls – like those pictured in the beautifully illustrated story books by artist John Bauer – are giant yet mysteriously camouflaged to match the trees and rocks where they live.
Forming an important part of Norse mythology, trolls are intrinsically connected to nature. Their clumsy, sometimes grotesque appearance contrasts with their atmospheric, moss-covered dwellings. Huddling together in small family units, trolls live in caves or mountains. They’re not known to be especially friendly or helpful to humans, but they’re not overtly aggressive either. They can be cunning tricksters though, so it’s wise to be careful if you cross paths in the woods.
Look at artist John Bauer’s 1915 painting, ‘Mother Troll and Her Sons’, and these forest-dwellers appear almost friendly, which is in line with how they’ve been portrayed in more recent centuries.
The ‘vittra’ is found in northern Sweden and the 'vätte' in middle and southern Sweden. The 'vittra' is known to be human-like, while the 'vätte' is dwarf-like.
Photo: Visit Sweden
Vittra and vätte – rural enigmas
The ‘vittra’ is a mythological but human-like being said to live in northern Sweden. As it lives underground in rural areas, you’d be lucky to catch sight of this elusive creature. ‘Vittror’, as they’re known in plural, aren’t visible in daily life, but they’re always present, living alongside humans and, if treated well, looking after the cattle – both their own (invisible to the human eye) and that of the people they live near to.
A ‘vätte’ shares many characteristics with the vittra but is found further south in rural Sweden – south of Dalarna to be precise. Folkloric tales describe 'vättar’ (plural) as being smaller than the vittra, dwarf-like even. ‘Tomte’ or ‘nisse’ are two other names for these beings who enjoy living under the homes of humans. Good with animals and with a talent for agricultural duties, they can be helpful around the farm. But if angered, they’ll seek revenge.
The fairy-like elves are strongly associated with the mist. Contrary to modern fairytales where elves are often portrayed as kind and helpful, Swedish folklore advises humans to stay away.
Photo: Visit Sweden
Elves – seductive beings that appear in the mist
In Swedish folklore, elves or ‘älvor’ are usually female, either portrayed as diminutive fairy-like spirits or full-sized, ethereal women. They live hidden in the hills and forests, only coming out to dance in the early morning mist or twilight.
Elves are strongly associated with the mist in Sweden, to the extent that the term ‘älvdans’ (dancing elves) is still commonly used to describe the low-lying mist that hovers over fields and meadows at dusk and dawn. Catch the sound of birdsong at those times, and you may have heard the elves’ own sparkling music, or so they say. And where their little feet have pranced, you’ll often find mushrooms growing in circles, so-called ‘elves’ circles’.
But beware, even though elves are often depicted as kindly in more modern fairytales, Swedish folklore advises humans to stay away. Listen to the ballad of “Sir Olof and the elves” – dating back to the Middle Ages and still popular today – and find out what happened when Sir Olof encountered some elves on the eve of his wedding. They laid a curse that led to poor Olof’s untimely demise and that of his bride-to-be. So, as beguiling as it may seem, it’s best to admire the morning mist from afar.