A troll is a member of a race of fearsome creatures from Norse mythology.
Originally more or less the Nordic equivalents of giants, although
often smaller in size, the different depictions have come to range from the
fiendish giants – similar to the ogres of England (also called Trolls at times, see
Troller's Gill) – to
a devious, more human-like folk of the wilderness, living underground in hills,
caves or mounds. In the Faroe islands, Orkney and Shetland tales, trolls are called trows, adopted from the
Norse language when these islands were settled by Vikings.
The Jætte Trolls
Two gradually developing main traditions regarding the use of troll
can be discerned. In the first tradition, the troll is large, brutish and a
direct descendant from the Norse jötnar. They are often described as ugly
or having beastly features like tusks or cyclopic eyes. This is the tradition
which has come to dominate fairy tales and legends (see below), but it is
also the prominent concept of troll in Norway. As a general rule, what would be called a
"troll" in Norway would in Denmark and Sweden be a "giant" (jætte or
jätte, related to jötunn/jotunn in Jotunheimen).
In some Norwegian accounts, such as the Medieval ballad Åsmund
Frægdegjevar, the trolls live in a far northern land called
Trollebotten – the concept and location of which seems to coincide with
the Old Norse Jötunheimr.The Vitterfolk Trolls
The second tradition is most prominent in southern Scandinavia. Conversely,
what would be called trolls in southern Sweden and Denmark would be
called huldrefolk in Norway and vitterfolk in northern Sweden. The
south-Scandinavian term probably originate in a generalization of the terms
haugtrold (mound-troll) or bergtroll (mountain-troll), as trolls
in this tradition are residents of the underground.
These trolls have a human-like appearance. Sometimes they had a tail hidden
in their clothing, but even that is not a definite. Many of these trolls had a
single lock of hair that no human could comb, whereas the rest was generally
messy. 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 in a troll
More often than not, though, the trolls kept themselves invisible, and then
they could travel on the winds, such as the wind-troll Ysätters-Kajsa, 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
shapeshifters, 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 large, ogrish trolls often appear as a solitary being, the
"small" trolls were thought to be social beings who lived together, much like
humans except 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. Opinion varied as to whether or not the trolls were thoroughly bad or
not, but often they treated people as they were treated. Trolls could cause
great harm if vindictive or playful, though, and regardless of other things they
were always heathen. Trolls were also great thieves, and liked to steal from the
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
The trolls sometimes abducted people to live as slaves or at least prisoners
among them. These poor souls were known as bergtagna ("those taken to/by
the mountain"), which also is the Scandinavian word for having been spirited
away. To be bergtagen does not only refer to the disappearance of the
person, but also that upon returning, he or she has been struck with insanity or
apathy caused by the trolls. 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 (bort)byting/skifting ("changeling") – in return.
To ward off the trolls you could always trust in Christianity: Church bells, a cross or even words
like "Jesus" or "Christ" would work against them. Like other Scandinavian
folklore creatures they also feared iron. 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, the imprints of his hammer could later be found
in the earth (actually Stone Age
axes) and be used as protective talismans.
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