Last week’s Episode 8: Black Market featured a couple of interesting new beasties to choose from for this snippet. On the one hand you have Devin Tracey, the charming Irish siren; on the other you have the alluring female huldra. And as I suspect you are least likely to have heard of huldra, she will take the limelight today.
You don’t see much of her in Episode 8, which is a shame, because I think she’s a really characterful creature. She’s of Scandinavian origin, and might be likened to a forest nymph, or a type of troll. She typically looks like a beautiful woman from the front, but from the back you might see her cow tail. If you get to see her bare back, you might find that it is hollow and made of bark, like the dead trunk of a tree.
Now, whenever I do the research for my folklore snippets, I always have the same problem: digging through endless reams of similar but vague descriptions about the creature in question. Yes, unsourced internet article #178, that’s some very interesting information you have there, but it’s no use telling me that: ‘Some stories say…’; or even that: ‘One story from the South of Norway says…’ Which goddamn story, article #178?
What is it called? Who wrote it? Where can I find it?
I found them eventually. A lot of Norwegian folklore was collected by a pair of writers called Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe in the 19th century – they are the Scandinavian Brothers Grimm. Huldra apparently feature in a number of these stories, but the problem with Norwegian folktales is that they’re in, well, Norwegian. One great source for an English translation of their work is George Webbe Dasent’s translation of Popular Tales From the Norse – but I haven’t found a story about huldra in amongst these. So instead I’m using Clara Stroebe’s The Norwegian Fairy Book, which features many of the same stories. I’ve picked out two tales which show you some of huldra’s main characteristics:
The Troll-Wife tells the story of how a human man desired a beautiful huldra – she is described as a human-looking troll with a cow’s tail. But she loses her beauty the instant she is captured by this foolhardy man, and he is forced to marry her despite her ugliness. During their wedding ceremony, her tail drops off. At first her husband treats her badly, bitter over her bad looks. The huldra remains well-mannered and even compassionate toward her husband – until one day she shows off her full troll strength by bending metal horseshoes with her hands. Surprise, surprise, her husband is suddenly much kinder to her from that moment onwards.
The Player on the Jew’s Harp is a similar story about a man wedding a huldra maiden, but in this case there is no mention of a cow tail, and she remains beautiful throughout. She is described as being one of the underground folk, known variously as the huldrefolk and ‘the hidden people’. In the story it seems these people cannot be easily seen by human eyes, and they can bewitch other creatures to be hidden as well. The man attracts the huldra’s attention with his skillful playing of the Jew’s Harp (huldra seem partial to beautiful music) and unwittingly captures her by flinging the harp at her head, accidentally drawing blood. Now, in this story a big thing is made of the fact that the huldra is not a Christian. In fact, once they are married, the husband begins to bully her because of this. She ends up displaying her strength in the same way as the Troll-Wife huldra, by bending red-hot horseshoes with her hands. For a while after that the husband is good to her and they prosper. Then his mind darkens, and he goes back to his old ways. One day he beats her, draws blood once more, and she vanishes forever. She doesn’t die; she simply becomes hidden again and spends the rest of her life protecting her husband from her own friends and family, who understandably want to make him pay for his wrongdoings. It’s a very sad tale, made bittersweet by the enduring love of the huldra for her husband. He dies an empty man, full of regret for what he has done.
In both these tales the huldra comes off as a very sympathetic character, but in other tellings she is painted with more cunning motives, actively hoping to trick a human into marrying her so that she may lose her tail and become human herself. If I come across an online English source for these stories, I’ll let you know.
In more modern news, there’s a Norwegian movie about a huldra that I am dying to see: Thale. Fantasy, horror, and my new favourite folkloric creature? Hell yes. Have you seen it? Is it worth spending a whole £8 on? 😛
Thanks for reading, see you again soon~