The Huldra - Guardian of the Nordic Woods
Hiding in the old barn, she heard the sound of cowbells. Peeking out, she saw a long row of cows walking by, and last in line walked the woodswoman...
Skogsrå, skogsfru, huldra, vittra – the woodswoman of Nordic folklore is known by many names throughout Scandinavia. Some describe her as being “a part of the forest itself,” and with the ability to change into the shape of a tree, a mossy stone or an animal. Sometimes she appears as an old woman and sometimes as a beautiful young maiden. But despite her beautiful appearance, there is always something amiss – be it her back, covered with bark or hollow like a rotten tree trunk, or be it the long tail sticking out from under her skirt.
Over the past couple months I have been researching the huldra (pronounced hull – dra as in the word bull) as part of my ethnology studies, and I have collected both archive and interview materials in order to gain perspectives from both older and newer sources.
During my visit at the Institute of Language and Folklore in Uppsala, I spent three days reading through piles of handwritten stories about the huldra from all over Sweden. Overall, many describe the huldra in positive terms as see her as the guardian of the woods and spirit of the land. Folk described how important it was to be on good terms with the huldra, and her presence was honoured in all kinds of ways.
|Headed to the fäbod summer pasture areas - photo from Jämtland, Sweden 1890-1910|
”i hem där det ej fanns rå var det ingen hemtrevnad…”
Anna Jönsson from Småland said: ”i hem där det ej fanns rå var det ingen hemtrevnad” (a home without a rå doesn’t have any hemtrevnad). The Swedish word “hemtrevnad” describes the feeling of comfort and goodness in a home, and many informants from all over Sweden spoke of having a “a good rå” in the home or on the farm. The word rå (pronounced raw), or rådare, means guardian and is a form of nature spirit who guards over a certain place in nature. Folk believed that the huldra or rå came with good luck, and if you respected her, she came with gifts and ensured the harmony of a place.
A man named Erik from Jämtland told of how every fäbod (ä is pronounced like the a in cat) had its own fäbod-rå. A fäbod is a summer mountain home where women used to go with the livestock during the summer and has a long tradition in the mountain areas of Sweden. The women took care of the livestock, protecting them from predators and making butter and cheese.
“Folk were convinced that when a new fäbod was built, a “burå” – fäbodrå moved in. They say that the skogsrå gave birth to the fäborå when a new fäbod was built. To honour the new fäbodrå, folk prepared a special ceremony where a förstanattensäng (“first night bed”) was made especially for the fäbodrå, where she could rest after all her hard work. And folk would give her some cheese and butter every now and again.”
An informant from the region of Uppland said in 1933, “she was terribly beautiful from the front, but from the back she was like an empty shell.” Many other informants from different areas of Sweden describe the huldra as beautiful from the front, but hollow from the back, like the inside of a rotten tree. Some say she has the tail of a horse or fox.
“We were very afraid of the skogeroa when we were small. We thought that she was cruel and ugly and very dangerous. If we refused to comb our hair our mother told us we would become like a skogeroa. Later we learned that she was beautiful from the front but if she turned her back she was hollow and had a long horse tail. She had her realm in large forests. When my mother was a little girl she gick vall (following the livestock to the summer pasture areas) and she had heard a beautiful woman’s voice singing in the woods very close by but she couldn’t see her. She could also hear the sound of bells. Cows and horses... but there weren’t any in the woods other than the ones my mother was looking after so it had to be the woodswoman’s animals…”
Many stories come from men working in the woods, for example Andersson, born 1852, told of a forester who learnt from the huldra how to shoot a rifle. “He could stand at home by the window and shoot whichever animals he fancied. Mostly he shot birds which he later sold.” A woman from Småland said that “all the charcoal-burners believed in the skogsrå. If they were on good terms with her then their charcoal piles burnt well and they were woken when they needed to check the charcoal.”
At the archives I found myself stepping into the woodlands of a time much different from today. Cecilia Hammarlund-Larsson writes that the farmer’s landscape was inhabited by all kinds of nature spirits and that the old folk beliefs set the boundaries for folk’s behaviour. “You couldn’t simply go about nature in any way you wanted to.” In response to the question, “encountering nature spirits is not so common anymore... have they disappeared and how can one explain that?” – a woman named Stina, born 1899, said, “just a guess, that folk used to live closer to nature and now that life is finished and the places deserted.”
|Photo by Jonna Jinton|
Stepping out from the archives and into the woodlands of today, I met up with Camilla Stefansdotter for an outdoor interview in a forest she has been exploring since she was a child. “The woods are a place where I can both rest and get energy at the same,” says Camilla. “I love the dense kind of forest. When other people just walk past because it’s so overgrown with trees, that’s when I go down under...”
Camilla has a close connection with nature and we talked about her experience with nature spirits. For Camilla, the spirits of nature have many different forms and expressions, and she finds it difficult to capture them with words. Her connection is something that has deepened over the years as she has become more aware of her connection. “When I was younger I was aware of them but didn’t deliberately make contact with them. Since a few years ago I have been able to see nature spirits more clearly and communicate with them.”
Camilla: There are many different kinds of nature spirits, some live under the earth and in other realms, and some live more in our “realm” so to speak. The ones that live here are more used to humans and want to live in harmony with us. They have also learnt how to avoid us when they need to. The spirits who live deep under the earth are not as familiar with us and when we go into their territory they can get angry. But I don’t believe in evil spirits. They can be angry if we intrude upon their territory and that is understandable. There is a rådare that I call Soldisa and I first met her in the forest one morning when the sun was shining through the mist. She is like a shimmer of sunlight... and she is the kind of spirit that enjoys having contact with people.
Camilla believes that the spirits of nature choose when to make contact with people and how they reveal themselves depends on the person who sees them.
Camilla: I think that they try to show themselves in a way that we can understand and also depending on what we are open to (...) they can choose to adapt themselves to our customs when they want to be seen. They don’t show themselves to all people, not the kind who just run through the forest, more the kind who enjoy just being in nature.
When I asked Camilla if she had encountered a huldra or skogsrå, she said that she doesn’t use the term skogsrå although she does use the word rådare when referring to spirits who guard over certain places in nature. “There is a spirit who lives close to where I work who I call Vidar, and I call his feminine equivalent Vidja... and she guards over an area of rocks in a forest...”
Stina: What did she look like?
Camilla: Well the body-type was kind of, not so tall, she was kind of round like a child, but she was an adult, and she had, well I think what we call clothes because that is the closest we can see but she didn’t have clothes like we do...
Camilla said that she hadn’t thought about it before, but when she looked back upon her memories, she had the feeling that the nature spirits try to meet us halfway by following our customs. “The huldra is probably naked usually but when she meets me I think she shows herself in a way that makes me more friendly-inclined and to soothe my senses.”
A few weeks after my interview with Camilla, I met up with Henrik Hallgren for an outdoor interview. We followed a path around a lake in a nature reserve close to where he lives. He hasn’t been living in the area for long, and has moved around a lot throughout his life. “Whenever I move somewhere new, the first thing I think of is – how close is it to the woods?” As a child Henrik grew up next to the woods and his family often went hiking.
“But I hated hiking,” says Henrik, laughing, “what I loved about nature was simply being in nature, and I often played in the woods on my own, playing a game I liked to call the fantasy game where I made up all sorts of stories about all the creatures and spirits of the woods... and I would tell the stories to my friends.”A love of stories and storytelling has followed with Henrik into his work as a professional storyteller, often telling stories with a connection to nature.
Henrik: When I was a teenager I often spent time alone in the woods by a lake, I could sit there for hours (...) This one time I was sitting by a small rapid, and as I sat there and it was as if the whole world opened up and I connected with the movement in the water and the lake, the trees and the mountain – it was as if they were flowing through me... and as if I was in some kind of timeless space.... it was incredibly powerful... an awakening...
After Henrik’s experience in the woods, his perception of the world around him changed completely, and throughout his teenage years he continued to explore his connection with nature. Years later he lived for a time in the woods in Värmland, Sweden, and one day while he was walking in the woods, he suddenly heard someone playing the flute. “I was the only one living there who could play the flute, but my brother was coming for a visit, and he can play the flute as well, so I thought it might be him...” When Henrik called out “hello!” the flute stopped playing, and looking around he couldn’t find any trace of the flute-player.
Sometimes Henrik has encountered a feminine forest spirit that he feels is a kind of skogsrå. “A sense of something feminine, seductive and playful, that can suddenly make me abandon the path and set off in a completely different direction – kind of half-obsessed,” says Henrik, laughing. “That is a form of skogsrå as I see it.”
Henrik also associates the skogsrå with the feeling of being lost in the woods – “getting lost is both an opportunity and a danger... you can find new places and discover new things, but you can also get lost in a more serious way.”
Henrik: She can be dangerous depending on how you behave... you have to show respect. But if you behave in a disrespectful way it can get dangerous... and in our society we have become unfamiliar with knowing how to behave... we have lost the knowledge about being in nature in a wise and respectful way...
|Henrik looking out over the lake during our interview in the woods|
To see the world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower...
Kirsten Brunsgaard Clausen is a religious historian with a passion for Nordic history, archaeology and mythology, and we met up for an interview on a chilly Saturday morning in her Stockholm apartment. Kirsten believes that all ancient cultures were shamanic, and had an animistic way of perceiving the world. People saw the divine in all of nature.
The huldra is an aspect of that, says Kirsten, just as all the spirits of nature are. With the patriarchy came a new way of looking at the world and a religion of stories was fabricated in order to support the power of the king. “Religion was made historical, whereas the old shamanic culture was mythological, it was timeless.”
Kirsten: So what happens when Christianity – or any patriarchal religion – comes, is that it brings with it a patriarchal paradigm, and then it’s only the priests that are allowed to have contact with the spirit world, and the physical world is only matter, and so you only have to cut down a tree if you need one, dig up something if you need it, and it’s only water and only earth, so it is only –dead matter – everything can be used. Even people were seen as slaves...
The animistic culture, in which all of nature was seen as alive, is still looked down upon today, says Kirsten, “and no-one has really tried to understand animistic cultures on their own terms.”
Kirsten: And so two different ways of looking at the world confronted each other and ordinary folk have never wanted to be Christian – they were forced to – all the farmers were forced to go to church every Sunday and those who were weren’t baptized were shunned by society, they became outlaws, and if they went to the old mounds to celebrate the pagan rituals then they could be killed, it was forbidden, and generation after generation became Christian and then instead of singing the old rhymes, they began to sing “Maria, Maria” instead...
“And utesittningar were also made forbidden,” says Kirsten, “and you were sentenced to death if you were caught doing it.” Utesittningar is an old Swedish term that literally translates as “sitting outside” and was a form of inner journey where one spent time alone in nature in order to converse with the spirit world. Another old Swedish term is to “ta varsel” – to receive a vision or an omen from the other side.
Kirsten: So that is what happens, that common folk can’t go out in the woods anymore and communicate with the spirit world, because they are not allowed. No they have to stay at home and go to the church and listen to the priest and then go home again, and utesittningar (out-sittings) were forbidden (...) and all the things we do at midsummer, picking nine flowers and placing them under the pillow and dreaming of a loved one, all of it, all folk beliefs belong to the old animistic world view...
Folklorist Ebbe Schön writes that it is strange that the old folk beliefs have survived for so long. The dangers of the old pagan belief were described in the catechism, which was first published in Sweden in 1689, and in an edition from 1805 describes the sin of worshipping “anything else than the one and true God alone.” Worst of all was worshipping the “instruments of the devil” – such as the huldra, trolls, fairies and other nature spirits. The church saw the nature spirits as connected to the devil, writes Schön, but the old folk beliefs were in no way created around the idea of hell or the devil.
Gary R. Varner, who has researched the Green Man nature spirit, believes that the negative attitude towards nature spirits is rooted in the demonization of nature and the feminine. He writes, “sex and fertility are regarded as sinful, as evil temptations to be shunned, ignored and suppressed. Women are at the disposal of men. One of the ignominious questions of early theologians was, “Do women have souls?” Conservative Christian attitudes regard nature and all of her plant and animal children as soulless, present on Earth purely for the exploitation and dominance of man and regarded as habitats for evil.”
Natural instincts were regarded as sinful and yet in secret man lusted after the wild, the huldra or so called “instrument of the devil.” Hunters and charcoal-burners working in the woods spent many lonely nights fantasizing about the daughter of the forest. In the late 17th century young men were taken to court for olovlig beblandelse (forbidden entanglements) with huldror, and year 1691 a 22-year old farmhand was sentenced to death for sleeping with a huldra.
Daughter of Hel
“The huldra is an aspect of Hel,” says Kirsten, “and Hel is the universal principle of life... she is everything....”
Hel is an ancient Nordic deity and a word with old roots in Europe. Hel can be found in the English words hole, whole, holy, heal, health, hollow and hold (in Swedish hål, hel, helig, heal, hälsa, ihålig, hålla). Many of these words have a healing and holistic quality, and Kirsten believes that Hel is related to all kinds of holes, caves and openings in the earth. In old times, caves were considered sacred (holes were considered holy).
The word huldra is connected to Hel, says Kirsten, and the huldra is often described as having a hole in her back, like an old, hollowed-out tree trunk. She looks like an ordinary woman from the front, until she turns around – revealing a hole in her back and a long tail sticking out from under her skirt.
Kirsten: Hel is a very old word and an ancient symbol of helheten (the wholeness of life), and the huldra is an aspect of that, and her function is to råda - to guard and look after a certain place in nature. And that she has a hole in her back is a sign that she is not an ordinary human of flesh and blood – she is a spirit of nature – and she also has a tail sticking out from under her skirt, which is also symbolic I think, that she belongs to the wild...
When the patriarchal power took over Europe, many of the old deities were demonised, and Hel was one of them. Originally she was an aspect of the whole web of life, says Kirsten, but nowadays she is mostly known as the Goddess of death and the underworld. The word for hell or helvetet derives from the demonization of Hel.
Henrik also reflected upon the appearance of the huldra, “I find it fascinating with her two sides... which reminds me of the Goddess Hel who is often described with two sides – one side that is beautiful, and the other which is rotting.”
Henrik: the skogsrå – I see it as two sides – abundant, alluring, and some kind of sexuality in that – life and death – and when we are in the woods we can see all around us life and death, two aspects of life that are integrated in her and naturally something that many are afraid of as well. It can be a scary picture, but I see it as a beautiful way of dealing with it – to be in the woods and see the death and decay and how it gives new life...
Folklorist Ebbe Schön writes that people (in old times) were not alone – surrounding them were spirits and powers that cared about the way in which they lived their lives. People were a part of a spiritual wholeness and that belief could sometimes cause fear but mostly, it gave a sense of certainty and meaning in people’s lives.
The spiritual wholeness that Schön names, is described by Kirsten as an aspect of Hel and a symbol for the wholeness of life. Henrik also reflects upon the link between Hel and the huldra, and the symbols of life and death. In her most mythological state, the Goddess Hel tells us that all things are connected, says Henrik, just as the huldra symbolizes an integration of two apparently contrasting things – life and death, attraction and aversion.
Stories can be seen as folkloristic expressions for our inner perception and understanding of the world around us, writes folklorist Ulf Palmenfelt. In that sense, stories of the huldra reflect the storyteller’s relationship with the spirits of the forest.
At the archives I read through piles of stories, reflecting the lives of a people who lived off the land. Many spoke of the importance of being on good terms with the spirits of nature and guardian of the woods. Hunters spoke of the huldra giving them luck on the hunt. Farmers spoke of the huldra helping them with the animals and crops. Stories of the huldra spoke of a woman who could be young and beautiful, old and bountiful, and in essence, a part of the forest itself.
Religious historian Kirsten talked about an ancient animistic view of the world where people saw the divine in all of nature. Walking in the woods, I listened to the stories and reflections of Camilla and Henrik, who both talked about their experiences with nature spirits. Both Camilla and Henrik talked about “just being” in nature, and Camilla believes those who simply run through the woods cannot sense the living spirit of nature.
As a folkloristic expression and spirit of nature, the huldra reflects a certain perspective upon the world and experience of nature. She seems to be different things for different people, depending on the way in which nature presents itself to them. The philosopher Edmund Husserl argued that our experience of the world is grounded in the way the world presents itself and not in the way it actually is. For some the forest is full of life, and for others, the woods are simply seen as a resource to be exploited.
Throughout history the huldra has been seen as the guardian spirit of the woods, and today she continues to live on in our folktales and imaginations. The huldra is an expression of an animistic view of the world and a storytelling tradition rooted the Nordic woodlands.
© 2018 Stina Gray
Interview informants:Kirsten Brunsgaard Clausen, Camilla Stefansdotter, Henrik Hallgren
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Institute for Language and Folklore, Uppsala, Sweden
Dialekt- och folkminnesarkivet i Uppsala (DFU) Institutet för språk och folkminnen
Landsmålsarkivet Uppsala (Landsm. Upps.)