Monday, 28 September 2009

Sweden, Trolls & Tomtar...

"Life for the trolls in the Great Forest was becoming unpleasant, for men were intruding on them more and more. When Father Troll was young, there had not been a single cottage within thirty miles, but now timber had been cut for one cottage after another, and settler after settler had cleared the forest and the earth..."

(From "When Mother Troll took in the King's Washing" by Elsa Beskow)


Swedish folklore is dominated by tales of two different varieties of supernatural being: the troll and the tomte. These two beings possess contradictory personalities; while the troll is an ugly, grumpy, and malevolent being prone to kidnapping young children and replacing them with their own, the tomte is a friendly and bearded chap happy to help with cleaning and other household chores.

Belief in such creatures likely dates way back into pre-christian times. It has been suggested that tales of these supernatural beings are rooted in ancient forms of ancestor worship, surviving through the years in the guise of folk stories and superstitions.

But where are the trolls and tomtar now?

A selection of souvenir tomtar in Stockholm

The mass production of trolls

Today the troll and tomte have become cultural icons in Sweden (very much like the Leprechaun in Ireland and Nessie in Scotland), and perhaps the best place to spot them in the modern world is in the tourist gift shops, far from their traditional woodland and mountain homes. Indeed an industry has grown up around these supernatural beings; manifested through mass-production and lined up on shop shelves. In this respect it might be true to say that the trolls and tomtar are more abundant today, in this secularised and consumer driven society, than ever before, only that they are diminished in their power. Their supernatural agency has been removed, leaving only a plastic shadow of what they once were*.

A shop full of tomtar in Stockholm

The troll as cultural icon and national symbol

In the process of humanisation in which the wild home of the trolls was domesticated (as expressed in the extract from the folk tale "When Mother Troll took in the King's Washing"), these supernatural entities have been pushed to the very brink: right onto the shop-shelf. As when the troll turns to stone in the daylight, now these ancient nature spirits have turned to plastic in the face of consumerism and modern tourism. Their habitat has been greatly reduced, and with it their power.

Their presence is, nevertheless, still very much in evidence.


"William never spoke for he stood turned to stone as he stooped; and Bert and Tom were stuck like rocks as they looked at him. And there they stand to this day, all alone, unless the birds perch on them; for trolls, as you probably know, must be underground before dawn, or they go back to the stuff of the mountains they are made of, and never move again. This is what had happened to Bert and Tom and William."

(J.R.R Tolkien, The Hobbit)

* Interestingly the tomtar statuettes often come with slips of paper explaining how "every home should have one" because they bring luck and help with the chores while the the household is asleep. The agency of the tomtar has, to some extent, been sustained. Transformed into a sort of fetish or effigy.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Mushrooms, Hunting, Ritual Performance and Rock art...

While visiting rock art sites in Sweden (Glösa and Gärdesån) I was interested to find fly-agaric mushrooms (Amanita muscaria) growing in their vicinity. Fly-agaric mushrooms have a long tradition of use for their psychoactive properties.

Fig. 1 Fly-agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) from Glösa, Jamtland, Sweden

Numerous writers have suggested a link between rock art and the consumption of psychoactive substances. While much of the iconography at Glösa and Gärdesån deal with naturalistic images of elk and deer, staples for hunter-gatherers in the region (Fig. 3, from Gärdesån, appears to be concerned with tracking), there are also a number of geometric images that appear to defy easy classification.

Fig. 2 Naturalistic imagery at Glösa.

Fig. 3 Tracking at Gärdesån

Fig. 4 Geometric pattern from Gsa, Jamtland, Sweden.

Such images might be considered to fit the description of “endogenous phenomena”, i.e. what Lewis-Williams and Dowson (1993) refer to as “entoptics” - subjective visual phenomena frequently occurring when under the influence of psychoactive substances. Dronfield (1996) distinguishes between two different forms of subjective visual phenomena:

  • Hallucinations – consisting of “subjective images constructed from details stored in the visual memory”, for example dreams and the type of hallucination experienced through the use of psychedelic drugs.
  • Endogenous phenomena - consisting of “non-iconic visual experiences which are generated by structures in the visual nervous system and whose shapes are determined by properties of those neural structures” (1996, 374)

The majority of e
ntoptic images consist of geomet rical forms, such as “grids/lattices, parallel lines, dots, zig zags, curves, and filigrees/meanders ” (Dronfield, 1996, 374). The most abstract of the pictographs at Glösa would fit perfectly into this descriptive category.

Fig. 5 Abstract motifs from Glösa

Fig. 6 Geometric lattice from Glösa.

Fig. 7 Stylised human form from Gärdesån

Hunter-gatherer's would likely have been well aware of the psychoactive properties of the fly-agaric mushroom; being reliant upon the flora and fauna of their habitat, hunter-gatherers must necessarilly possess a significant knowledge of their properties in order to decide what is edible and what is not. It is not unlikely that these people consumed such plants for their spiritual efficacy in allowing access to the other world, perhaps as part of a form of ritual hunting magic; many of the images of animals have red spots on their bodies, possibly symbolic of hunting wounds, and the human foot tracks at Gärdesån (Fig. 3) might have been used as a form of ritualised dance used in hunting magic. The use of psychoactive substances when performing such magic may have brought the figures depicted to life thus making the magic more effective.

Just speculation, but maybe.

P.S. The information boards at Glösa mentioned that some of the animals depicted on the rocks are not easily identifiable as distinct species. Perhaps they represent mythical creatures, or animals experienced during psychedelic journeys in the other world - like the red eared dogs of Tir-Na-Nog. It is a possibility.


Dronfield, J. 1996. The Vision Thing: Diagnosis of Endogenous Derivation in Abstract Arts. Current Anthropology, Vol. 37, No. 2, pp. 373-391.

Lewis-Williams, J.D. & Dowson, T.A. 1993. On Vision and Power in the Neolithic: Evidence From the Decorated Monuments. Current Anthropology, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 55-65.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Anthropology & The Paranormal...

On March 4th 2010 I will be giving a presentation for the Society of Psychical Research on the topic of Anthropology and the Paranormal.

Over the course of the presentation I will discuss the way in which anthropologists, both historical and contemporary, have dealt with the issue of paranormal beliefs and experiences in the field through an examination of specific case studies and ethnographic examples. I will also explore the practical and theoretical benefits of an anthropological approach to the investigation of the supernatural with the aim of demonstrating the importance of immersion in, and engagement with, the paranormal if it is to be understood.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

More about the legend of Storsjöodjuret...

In the middle of the great lake Storsjö is the island of Frösö, home to the northern-most rune stone in Sweden. The stone (see below) portrays an enormous serpent biting its tail and bound at the neck by a clasp. The length of the serpent's body is inscribed with runes telling how Jamtland became Christianized by Austmaðr son of Guðfastr. The stone commemorates the construction of a bridge connecting the island of Frösö to the mainland.

The stone has, over the years, become entwined within the legends and folklore of the region. One legend tells of Kentil Runske binding the serpent with a powerful spell in order to free the people of the region from its tyranny. The legend states that the spell was carved onto the Frösö rune stone, although no mention of the hero Kentil Runske is to be found on it. The stone does, however, clearly depict a mighty serpent bound at the neck (see below). Perhaps the binding of the serpent is a symbolic representation of the Christening of Jamtland - the binding of the old gods and their supplanting by the new God (as represented by the cross above the serpent's head).

Another legend recorded in 1685 refers to a huge serpent's head buried beneath the stone with its body stretching out across the lake to the opposite shore. The stone was said to have been torn down in desperation when the lake became exceedingly difficult to cross. This act of destruction, however, resulted in yet more problems with ferrymen reporting many strange occurrences when crossing the lake. The decision was therefore made to re-erect the stone in order to make the voyage from the mainland to Frösö safe once more.

As mentioned in the last post there have been over 200 recorded sightings of the serpent. In 1895 a group of distinguished gentlemen formed a company with the purpose of capturing the monster, even going so far as to make a huge trap in which to trap it (see above). The venture to capture the monster was unsuccessful, but its legend continues to fascinate the people of the region, drawing in tourists and monster hunters alike. In recent years several individuals have claimed to have filmed the monster, and there are even designated monster spotting sites all around the circumference of the great lake.

The monster's presence is still very much felt in the region, even if it remains as elusive as ever.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Trolls, Magic and Lake Monsters...

I am currently staying in Sweden for a few weeks in a city called Ostersund. The city is built along the side of lake Storsjön, the 5th largest lake in Sweden. The lake is purportedly the home of a huge monster by the name of Storsjöodjuret (litterally the Great Lake Monster).

On researching the folklore of the region I found that the monster was, infact, created by two Trolls called Jata and Kata in the distant mythological past. The story of these two Trolls, and the monster they created, was first written down in 1635 by Mogens Pedersen, a vicar from the region. The legend is, then, very old: at least 400 years.

Jata and Kata, two trolls, were brewing a potion in their cauldron on the shore of the lake. They didn't know what the potion would do and so were surprised, after years of brewing it, when they heard a wailing, a groaning and a crying followed by a big bang emanating from within their pot. A black serpent leapt from the cauldron into the lake where it grew to an enormous size; entirely surrounding the island of Frösön.

By now there have been over 200 reported sightings of the creature, and a group has been established to investigate reports from witnesses and to collate information on the monster (official website).

What interests me, however, is the monster's creation myth: the story of the two Trolls Jata and Kata.

What are these mysterious beings? A quick perusal of the dictionary reveals a fascinating linguistic connection between the word "troll" and notions of magic, sorcery and conjuring. How far does our modern idea of trolls, e.g. as portrayed in fairytales, literature, and art, accord with traditional nordic conceptions? Do trolls still play a part in contemporary life?

Over the course of the next few weeks I hope to try to find out a little more about these enigmatic creatures.