Nordic Supernatural Beings

It is interesting how the publication of one book, sent ripples across Swedish society. Less than a year ago, the little museum at the Charlotte Weibull centre,— in the village of Åkarp, picked up on it and made an entire exhibition based on the book. How did I come to be there on the opening day? Long story!

Charlotte Weibull is now deceased, but she was THE authority on folk dresses in Sweden. I am not sure about the history behind the house in Åkarp, but the first time I stepped across the threshold of her shop, was as a young girl. Then it was situated in Malmö. But at some point she grew out of her shop there and moved to the village of Åkarp, where my mother grew up. I would say that I was born a historian. History has always fascinated me in all its forms. And stepping in to the shop, where the old folk dresses were re-created, was like taking a step back in time. The time, when people in the country-side wore those dresses in their daily work and those dresses being a sign of where you came from.

In the old days, female farm hands were paid not just in money, but also in homespun wool and flax. Everyone wore these dresses and passed them down as heirlooms, since a lot of work went in to making them. When I grew up, I got used to seeing my grandparents in their folk dresses, since they belonged to a folk dance team. And it was my mum’s dream to make one for herself, from the county she was born in. But, they are expensive to make. Not only do you need to sign up for an expensive evening class, you need to take that class for about two years to complete the entire outfit. On top of that, you have to add the fabric, which is expensive as well, not being ordinary fabric, but hard to find. Charlotte Weibull has been THE place to get the correct fabric, ribbons etc. for Swedish folk dresses, for decades. At her prices!

Last year, in June, something awful happened in my life! We had to go to the house, where I grew up and empty it for sale. My sister had come from Australia to help out. Right! Or should I say, grab everything of value? She behaved in an abominable way, and I still have not recovered from the shock. I never even got a post written about it, because how can one put in to words, how hurt one feels? Not only did she go to the house, over a week before me, in order to pick out the best bits, she also checked up with auction houses, as to what was worth to keep. Stashed the best bits in what used to be her closet and forbade us to look in there. And then, when we went through things, she would just say “I am taking this!” and doing just that. She wanted everything with sentimental value and everything worth something. Modern, new acquisitions, was left for me to do what I pleased with. My oldest daughter reacted and asked why I did not put up a fight, why I let myself get stepped on like that. I did it, because we can’t take anything with us when we die! And I thought her behaviour so appalling, that I was not going to stoop that low!

In the middle of this, I thought it was so strange that I did not run in to my mother’s folk dress. So I said “Where could she have hidden that?”. I got worried, because my grandmother donated hers and my grandfather’s, to the Charlotte Weibull museum, after he died. And Weibull sold them for a profit! So where could my mother’s be? The one she made in record time. She did not have the patience to take a course for two years. So she contacted the teacher and paid for private lessons, after buying all the fabric and materials from Weibull. In 6 months time, she had it finished, so she and my dad’s sister could go to Midsummer’s Eve dances, dressed in their folk dresses. And now, it was missing.

Actually, it was not. My sister just turned to me and said that our mother gave it to her! I got cold inside and wanted to puke! That  folk dress cost thousands to make! But my sister claimed it only cost 2000 :- ($223/£178/€210) to buy one. I went in on an auction site to see and sure enough, the starting bid for ONE folk dress was indeed 2000:-. Today I saw the starting bid for one like my mum’s being 14 000 ($ 1,560/£1,244/€1,465). But I do not care! Because 1. Our mother paid several thousands in tuition fee. 2. Several thousands in fabric and other materials. 3. She made it herself. 4. I have lived in this province for 25 years, so if anyone is entitled to wear it, I am the one. My sister has never lived anywhere close to this province and has lived in Australia for 25 years. Exactly when is she going to wear that dress? She just had to have it, since it was valuable. She finally agreed to let me have my dad’s mother’s hand embroidered apron, from when she worked as a waitress. But the head-piece was missing. And it was little consolation! I would much rather have had the folk dress.

When we left Trollhättan behind us, being chased off by my sister (she ordered a charity shop to come and fetch the beds we were sleeping in, so we would have nowhere to sleep), I decided to go to Charlotte Weibull’s and see exactly how much the fabric for the dress cost. After T., “Kitty” and I, had been to see the resource school, where he subsequently started in August, we headed to Åkarp. “Kitty” was so upset about having to leave his old school, even though that school should be forced to close down for mental abuse of its non-Catholic students and not following the school law. I decided that the museum at the Weibull “gård” might cheer him up. That day, was the opening day for a new exhibition which meant free entrance, free cookies and free elderberry “saft”. My boy will never say no to cookies.

And he loved the exhibition, which was all about the supernatural beings that our ancestors “lived with”. Well, they were of course not there for real. But people believed in them all the same. And the fear of them was real alright. Because as we learned at University, in my Ethnology course, the world was a scary place for these people, which had to be explained somehow. So they explained things with these beings. They prevented people from going places and doing things, which could be dangerous. And of course, if accidents happened, one blamed these beings.

Coming in to the exhibition, one was asked to take one thing of protection, with one:

hymn book with cross on it, garlic, salt, steel to make a fire with or a bag with the magic herbs cumin, wormwood and yarrow.

The exhibition was not a fantastic one, which one would find at a large museum in London, but all the same, they had tried their best!

Lets meet the giants:

Believed to have lived here before the humans arrived in the Nordic countries. Since they did not like humans, their habitat was in the North. People of old, said that giant stones scattered all over the countryside, were thrown there by the giants. They hated the sound of church bells but were bad at aiming and missed the churches, to make the sound stop.

Of course the natural explanation behind the stones laying about in odd places, is that the ice age brought them there.

What made me sad, was arriving to this exhibition and as the first thing, I had to stare at the church that my sister took. My grandmother had a wood church just like the one pictured and every year, she put cotton around it and placed little gnomes and angels on the “snow”. On their way to church on Christmas Day. After many years, my grandfather decided to make her a more grand church. A big one that he worked on in the boiler room, away from her vision. He surprised her on Christmas Eve one year, and she was overwhelmed. My sister could not take that large church to Australia without spending a fortune in shipping, so she said she would take this smaller one.

To be honest, I would have loved this little one, since it is small, since my village has a church just like it and the church that Åkarp belongs to, looks just like it! For me, it meant a lot! To see the wooden church like that, in the exhibition, was just getting more salt in the wounds! I tried not to think about it, since to her children, it will mean absolutely nothing. They will put it in a dumpster or use it for the open fire, since they do not know a word of Swedish nor any of our culture! Sweden is just a foreign place were their mother happened to be born.

But onwards in the exhibition we went:
To make children and grown ups alike, stay away from water, one talked of “Näcken” or in this province “Bäckahästen”. Scary beings indeed. Näcken, was the explanation for all drownings. He lured people in to the water with his violin and water lilies meant that he was close by. He usually played in the evenings and it is believed by ethnologists, that the invention of Näcken was to keep people from going out at night. Makes sense, since in the dark, without light, you could fall in to a river or get seriously hurt falling over something. All these creatures explained the world to people and kept them safe!

Unfortunately, people were envious of each other and if you were a talented violin player, you were accused of having been taught by Näcken. You were not supposed to be too good at something nor should you entice people to sinful dancing.

Bäckahästen or river horse, did not play the violin, but he would lure children to sit up on his back and then he would run in to the water with them. A way to explain a child’s drowning.

If you wanted to have a bathe, you had to put a knife in the ground by the water, to tie Näcken!

Probably everyone has heard of trolls. Especially if one has watched Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings. But in Sweden people really believe in them. That they stole and that they kidnapped humans. Everyone was instructed to not accept troll food, if abducted, since then they would get stuck with the trolls forever. So the belief was real alright.

Unfortunately, the belief in trolls did not just explain the eerie atmosphere in a forest, or the disappearance of foods, but also explained why some children were not developing normally or were too smart for their own good. If one’s child fell in such a category, people assumed that the trolls had exchanged the child for one of their troll babies, after birth. It was important to put steel in a newborn’s cradle or a hymnbook and also have the child christened as fast as possible. All Swedish babies were christened within three days of birth, so the mother could never attend, since she was considered unclean for six weeks after birth.

In the North, you would have found the little people, living and working under ground, called Vittror. I guess, they were mostly wearing folk dress.

But here in the South, my people would have believed in Vättar (lower picture). A sort of gnome, dressed in grey or black, living under people’s farms, as big as rats. You had to be careful to not make them angry. Pouring scolding hot water on the ground or peeing behind the house, would do so and anything could happen after that. Someone getting sick, the farm burning or you finding strange-looking sticks on your property. Since they could turn themselves in to mice, rats, toads and hedgehogs, you had to treat those animals well. I would say, that everything with this belief made sense in a world looking for explanations and not having google available. One should think about where one throws out hot water and goes to the toilet. And nature sure can behave strangely.

One of the more dangerous parts of the old farm society was envy. The most important thing for a farm, was having milk. From milk you would get butter, cheese and cream. Without milk, the family might starve and how could it be explained that one farm had plenty of milk while another one did not? The wife residing on the plentiful farm must be a witch who through black magic had conjured up the milk hare. Not really looking like a hare at all, but a nasty looking little thing with bells. She sent him out to milk the neighbours’ cows at night, by sucking the milk from them and then vomiting it up, in a trough held by the “witch”.

As horrible as this idea was and perhaps lethal in the 1600s, when accusations hurled wildly and could lead to prosecution and death penalty, there was another side to this envy and luck idea. Making butter  was very difficult. Conditions had to be perfect, and even so, sometimes the woman of the house failed to make the milk in to butter. Butter was the farmer’s gold. Rarely was it kept on the farm, but it was sold for money or traded in the nearest town. So it was very important to have “butter luck”. If one did not have butter luck, then someone must have stolen it! And who was accused of being such a thief? Who did not fit in to the very patriarchal society, the very organised society where noone was allowed to be different?

The farm society was always on the look out for what was called “whores”. A whore, was a woman who had had a child out-of-wedlock. Accusations were common in theses societies and so were the court cases for slander. One believed in a certain limit of luck. Often there was not enough luck to go around to everyone, and then people were accused of having stolen luck. And in the case of the unwed mother, well she was always accused of stealing butter luck. And putting rickets on children. A D-vitamin deficiency, which would have been cured had children spent more time outside. But of course outside, was dangerous, since it was populated by all the beings above! I think they call it Catch 22?

Anomaly has never been accepted in Swedish society. The person transporting the dead, was an outcast. So was the executioner. They always had to sit in the back of the church. So did the unwed mother. According to the law, she was forgiven of her sin, after paying a fine. But farm society never forgave and the church made sure to instill the eternal punishment. Instead of wearing her hair out, like the unwed girls, or covered with a white headscarf, like the honourable married women, she had to wear a red one, so she could be seen from far away and be avoided. I suspect that she often was accused of conjuring up a milk hare!

Not only oaks were considered magical, but also the ash tree and in my province, Askefroa or the lady of the ash, lived in those trees. She was the spirit of the ash tree and one avoided going close to them after sun came down. Ash trees were not supposed to be chopped down, nor was one allowed to pee on the trees, since that would make one seriously ill. A sacrifice had to be made on the Wednesday after “Fettisdagen” (first day one is supposed to eat a semla), called Ash Wednesday to this day. Before dawn, the village elders had to pour water on the roots and say “I sacrifice to you, so you will do us no harm”. Creepy to think this went on in Christian times. But old habits die hard and Yggdrasil from heathen times, was an ash. The bark was considered to stop blood flow and the leaves to heal snake bites, so perhaps not so strange they did not give up the superstition of their ancestors?

Today some explain strange lights, with that it must have been a UFO. But in the old days, people believed it was the lyktgubbe or lantern man. He was a dead person not finding peace. All land was marked out with sticks, to show who owned what. These lyktgubbar were dead men who had moved the sticks, when alive, to get land they were not entitled to.

He was considered dangerous since he could lure you out in to marshes and glades. But sometimes he would help the lost home. If so, you had to pay him or he would never let you get home, but walk around in circles. But to stop him leading you astray, you could always turn your shirt inside out.

Another nasty little man, was the kvarngubbe or mill man. He was like the little gnomes on the farms, keeping everything running at the mill. But he also made sure that the miller did not have the mill working in evenings and at night. Nor did he want it working during the weekends. Then he would stop the millstone from working.

Many men, came back to the farms describing having met the most wondrous woman in the forest. More beautiful than anything. But she was no woman, they had met the skogsrå, with a hollow back. Her domain was the forest and I guess the stories kept people on their toes, understanding to treat nature in a nice manner but also to take heed.

The hunter wanted her on his side when hunting , so he sacrificed a coin to her and then was allowed to shoot what he wanted. If it still did not work, then it was a magical animal under her protection. If she was in a good mood, she would help lost children to find their way home, but if she was in a bad mood wanting to show her power, she would get you lost and the only way to break the spell was turning your jacket inside out. But having been spellbound by her always meant wanting to get back to the forest, wanting to be alone and having few words for fellow humans. Your soul had stayed with her. Some became seriously ill, mad or died under suspicious circumstances.

Finally, the exhibition showed fairies. Tradition says that they were small, white glowing women with wings and sometimes they showed themselves as a fog, or small frogs and other insects. They liked to put diseases on people, especially small children, so you were supposed to put steel in the cradle. Like scissors. At dawn and dusk they danced an entrancing dance and humans could be enticed to join, only to find out that they had lost time, sometimes years when waking up. Or they went ill or mad.

Not only has the book become a bestseller, but the colouring society can also “delight”in the author’s first drafts for the drawings. They have been published as a colouring book. But while the exhibition at Charlotte Weibull’s was cute, the pictures are far from cute. They are rather horrifying, so I have not been tempted to buy it.

But the reason for this post, was not really to tell the story of the exhibition, but how the schools have jumped on the trend. My youngest son “Gubby” came home one day and really wanted to watch “Tinker Bell”. I thought that it was , since we had not watched those films for a long time. He gets a favourite film and then watches it every day for a couple of weeks, since he is autistic. We were in a Nanny McPhee marathon, so fairies was a surprise. But I put one of them on for him.

The next day he wanted me to see what they had made in class, and finally the penny dropped. The reason why he wanted to watch the fairies in “Tinker Bell”, was because he had not really understood what they were talking about in school. For him a fairy is “Tinker Bell” and her friends, but what they had talked about in class were the old Scandinavian myths found in the book above. They had talked about what people of old believed in and how mean those fairies were. Not quite Cicely Mary Barker’s adorable fairies nor Disney’s. But here was what the children had come up with when they were going to make fairies and their homes:

Class 1’s fairy village. More had misunderstood!

My little “Gubby’s” fairy house in front!

He was very proud, showing his fairy!

And then we have Johan Egerkrans’ version. I know which one I prefer, do you?

Sadly, I could not tell the teacher’s to take the class to Åkarp. A new exhibition has replaced the supernatural one. I am just all amazement that we actually got to go to it, since I have not set my foot at Weibull’s for decades. And the answer to my question about fabrics, which brought me there in the first place, was just as I thought. Horrendous prices, so no way I can afford to make my own folk dress!


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