The mystique of the Vikings, the seafaring warriors, and traders of the late eighth to early eleventh century continue to intrigue scholars and laymen alike. Their beliefs, practices, and mythology are fertile ground for exploration. Among the many fascinating questions about Viking lore, one stands out: did the Vikings believe in trolls?
Before delving into this topic, it’s important to clarify that when we discuss ‘belief,’ it isn’t akin to modern religious conviction. For the Vikings, belief in supernatural beings was tied to their worldview and the understanding of their surroundings. This article will explore the place of trolls in Viking culture and compare these beliefs to modern-day Norway.
Understanding Viking Beliefs
To understand the place of trolls in Viking culture, it’s crucial to first understand what did Vikings believe in. The Vikings practiced a polytheistic religion, meaning they believed in multiple gods. Their pantheon was complex and populated by numerous deities, including the widely recognized Odin, Thor, and Loki.
The Vikings believed the world was a physical manifestation of a broader, spiritual cosmos. Everything in the world, from the smallest insect to the tallest mountain, had a spiritual essence or was connected to a divine entity. In this context, beings such as trolls, giants, and dwarves came into play.
Mythical Creatures the Vikings Believed in
The Norsemen had a rich and complex mythology that included a plethora of supernatural and mythical creatures, each with its unique characteristics, roles, and stories. Here is an overview of some of the mythical creatures the Vikings believed in:
- Gods and Goddesses: The Vikings believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses governing different aspects of the cosmos and human life. These include familiar figures like Odin, the all-father; Thor, the thunder god; Freya, the goddess of love and beauty; and Loki, the trickster god.
- Giants (Jötnar): The Jötnar, often translated as ‘giants,’ were formidable beings usually portrayed in opposition to the gods. They were primal forces of chaos and nature, often associated with the earth, the sea, and the sky.
- Trolls: Trolls were believed to be solitary beings living in isolated areas such as caves, mountains, or under bridges. They were associated with the wild, untamed forces of nature.
- Dwarves (Dvergar): Dwarves were renowned as master craftsmen and were believed to reside underground. They created some of the gods’ most powerful artifacts, including Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir.
- Elves (Álfar): Elves were often associated with light, beauty, and wisdom, although the portrayal of elves could vary significantly. Some were benevolent, while others were seen as dangerous if offended.
- Valkyries: These were warrior maidens who served Odin. They rode over battlefields, choosing who would die and who would live, and took the slain warriors to Valhalla, Odin’s hall.
- Dragons and Serpents: Dragons and serpents, such as the world-encircling Jormungandr or the gold-hoarding Fafnir, were prominent figures in Viking myths, often symbolizing destructive forces.
- Disir: These were protective female spirits associated with a family’s destiny. They could bring fortune or misfortune depending on their mood.
These are just a few examples of the diverse array of mythical beings that populated the world of Viking mythology, illustrating a belief system deeply intertwined with the natural and supernatural worlds.
Trolls in Norse Mythology
In Norse mythology, trolls were a type of supernatural creature often portrayed as living in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves. They were often depicted as being in direct opposition to human beings and were typically considered dangerous to human health and well-being.
Descriptions of trolls vary in old Norse sagas and folk tales. Some accounts describe trolls as monstrous giants, while others portray them as similar to humans but with certain trollish characteristics. These characteristics could include a particular affinity for magic, long noses, or an aversion to sunlight, which could turn a troll Norse mythology into stone.
Trolls played several roles in the Norse myths. They were often antagonists, posing a threat to gods or humans, but they could also be sources of wisdom or catalysts for heroism in human characters.
What Do Trolls Look Like?
The appearance of trolls in Norse mythology is an intriguing topic, given the diverse and sometimes contradictory descriptions found in various sagas, poems, and folktales.
The Old Norse texts have no standardized, specific physical description of trolls. Their appearance varies from tale to tale, reflecting their complex and mutable nature. They have been described as both gigantic and dwarf-like, beautiful and grotesque. Some accounts depict trolls as enormous, hulking figures with long noses, claws, and coarse hair. They’re often associated with the elements of the earth, as they were believed to dwell in rocks, caves, and mountains.
In certain sagas, trolls could be indistinguishable from humans but often exhibited distinct or exaggerated features such as a huge nose or ears, overly bushy eyebrows, or exceptionally long and unruly hair. Some stories depict trolls with the ability to shape-shift, further complicating their physical representation.
Adding to this diversity, post-Christianization folklore and later Scandinavian art often portray trolls as being turned into stone or hidden beneath the earth, reflecting their association with nature’s raw, untamed forces.
Hence, the depiction of trolls in Norse mythology is as multifaceted as their roles in the myths. They’re not confined to a single appearance but reflect a spectrum of forms ranging from monstrous to human-like. The diverse portrayals of trolls serve to emphasize their elusive, mysterious, and primal nature.
Are Trolls Evil in Norse Mythology?
The depiction of trolls in Norse mythology is complex and multifaceted, leaving us to question: whether trolls were inherently evil.
Trolls were certainly portrayed as potentially dangerous beings in the Old Norse sagas and folktales. They lived in isolated areas such as mountains, caves, or under bridges and were often depicted as antisocial and frequently at odds with human beings. They were known to be mischievous, prone to trickery, and could harm or even kill humans if provoked. The belief was strong enough that Vikings often altered their travel routes to avoid areas thought to be inhabited by trolls in fear of their unpredictable behavior.
However, labeling trolls as purely ‘evil’ oversimplifies their role in Norse mythology. Like many elements of Norse myth, trolls were multi-dimensional beings with qualities that extended beyond simple good or evil dichotomies. Some stories describe trolls as less aggressive, possessing knowledge and abilities that could be helpful or even beneficial to humans if approached correctly. Their portrayal could be frightening, yet it also instilled a sense of respect and caution towards the wild, uncontrolled elements of nature they represented.
Moreover, the concept of trolls allowed Vikings to explore themes of transformation and the fluidity of identity. For instance, some tales involve humans turning into trolls, suggesting a thin line between the civilized and the monstrous.
Therefore, although trolls could be dangerous and terrifying in Norse mythology, characterizing them as entirely evil overlooks their intricate and nuanced role in the Viking worldview. They were a part of the Viking understanding of their universe – creatures to be feared, respected, and sometimes sought for wisdom.
Did Thor Fight Trolls?
In Norse mythology, Thor, the son of Odin and the god of thunder is a complex character renowned for his strength and warrior spirit. Known as a protector of humanity, Thor often went on adventures and battles against the giants (also called ‘Jötnar’) and other supernatural creatures. But did Thor fight trolls specifically in Norse mythology?
In traditional Norse texts, the term “troll” is used broadly to describe various malevolent beings, often lumped together with giants and other creatures. The lines between these entities are blurred, making it challenging to distinguish between them. When it comes to encounters with Thor, the primary antagonists were usually the giants rather than trolls.
In the “Prose Edda,” a key source of Norse mythology written by Snorri Sturluson in the 13th century, we learn many tales involving Thor’s battles against giants. One famous story is the journey to Útgarða-Loki’s hall. Thor and his companions are tricked into a series of seemingly impossible challenges, underlining the giants’ cunning and magic abilities.
Nevertheless, the Scandinavian folklore that developed later, post-Christianization, does depict Thor battling against beings more akin to what we commonly think of as trolls today – solitary, monstrous creatures living in remote landscapes. In these stories, Thor is often invoked as a protector against these creatures, using Mjölnir, his powerful hammer, to guard humans from trollish threats.
Ultimately, even though Thor is not directly described as fighting ‘trolls’ in the classical Norse sagas and Eddas, his battles against giants and other monstrous beings can be seen as a fight against entities that later became associated with trolls. Thor’s role as a protector and a troll-slayer evolved and became more pronounced in later Scandinavian folklore.
The Role of Trolls in Viking Life
The belief in trolls was not merely an abstract concept for the Vikings; it shaped their understanding of the physical world. Rocks, mountains, and caves – the reported dwellings of trolls – were treated with caution and respect, often avoided to not disturb these beings.
Trolls were also a part of everyday discourse. Stories of trolls were shared as a part of the oral tradition. These tales served a dual purpose: entertainment during long, cold winter nights and a method to teach lessons about the dangers of the world. Children were instructed not to stray too far from home lest they encounter a troll. The concept of trolls also helped the Vikings explain natural phenomena they couldn’t understand, such as landslides in the mountains – the work of an angered troll.
Modern-day Norway: Do Norwegians Believe in Trolls?
Fast-forward to the present day, and the question arises: do Norwegians believe in trolls? The answer is both yes and no.
On the one hand, the vast majority of Norwegians, like people in most modern societies, adhere to a scientific understanding of the world. However, trolls remain unique in Norwegian culture, much like the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland or Bigfoot in North America.
Trolls figure prominently in Norwegian literature, art, and popular culture. They are featured in children’s books and movies and are popular characters for garden statues. Moreover, trolls serve as a tourist attraction, with figurines and troll-themed merchandise being popular souvenirs.
On a deeper level, the legacy of the Vikings lives on in the form of folklore and storytelling, with tales of trolls being passed down through generations. Even though these are not seen as factual accounts, they still form an integral part of Norway’s cultural heritage.
The Different Types of Scandinavian Trolls
In Scandinavian folklore, the concept of trolls is rich and varied, encompassing a broad range of beings. Let’s explore the different types of trolls found in this rich tradition.
- Mountain Trolls: Perhaps the most iconic, Mountain trolls are often portrayed as large, brutish creatures living in remote mountainous areas. They’re associated with the untamed forces of nature, are usually solitary, and are known to be somewhat slow-witted. Some tales say they turn to stone if exposed to sunlight.
- Forest Trolls: In contrast to their mountain counterparts, Forest trolls are usually smaller and more attuned to their woodland surroundings. They’re often portrayed as skilled shape-shifters, capable of merging with the trees and undergrowth, making them particularly elusive.
- Sea Trolls: Less commonly mentioned, Sea trolls inhabit bodies of water, from the open sea to lakes and rivers. They’re linked to storms, drownings, and other sea-related disasters. A famous example is the sea troll Hafgufa from the Old Norse sagas, believed to be a monstrous sea creature.
- Troll Witches (Trollkonor): Typically female trolls possessing powerful magic. Depending on their mood, they could bless or curse, heal or harm. Some stories describe them as malicious towards human men, seducing them for their purposes.
- Bridge Trolls: Emerging from later Scandinavian folklore and popularized by the tale “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” Bridge trolls live under bridges and demand tolls from those wishing to cross, often posing riddles or challenges.
- Troll Giants (Jötnar): In Norse mythology, there’s a thin line between trolls and giants. Both are primordial beings often in conflict with the gods. They represent chaos and natural disasters.
- Domestic Trolls (Tomte or Nisse): These are helpful house spirits that can bring luck to a household if treated well. Yet, they can also cause mischief if neglected or insulted.
In conclusion, Scandinavian folklore presents a broad and diverse array of trolls, each unique and intriguing. They range from monstrous and feared to revered and helpful, reflecting the multifaceted relationship between humans and nature.
To sum up, while it’s unlikely that modern Norwegians or the Vikings believed in trolls in the same way we believe in scientific facts, trolls undeniably hold a significant place in the cultural and mythological history of the region. For the Vikings, they represented an aspect of their spiritual cosmology, a way to understand and narrate their world. Today, trolls are a beloved facet of Norwegian folklore and popular culture, serving as a tangible link to a past where the lines between the natural and the supernatural, the human and the mythical, were not as rigid as they are today.