Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Folklore - Superstition and Supernatural Beings

grave hill, gb
Today we might be afraid of walking out in the dark, because we hear and read about people being attacked and mugged. And we are strongly affected by what is happening in the world of today, but  at least we can try to do something to set things right. In the old days were people afraid of things they could do nothing about, except defending themselves with their own homemade magics. And there were no city lights in the dark. Have you tried to walk out in a dark evening  in the countryside in a desolate place far away  from the city lights, a black night without moon and stars? It is so dark that you cannot see your own hands. And Creatures were waiting out there.... 

The Mountain People /The Hill People

In the old days were people convinced that the Hill People lived under the farm or in the hills. The name bjergfolk was a common description of trolls, dwarfs, hill-people, little people and other creatures underground. If the farmer annoyed the people in the hill by ploughing or if he caused damage on the hill, then he might be hit by death or bad luck.  If people disappeared without a trace, they had been taken by the Hill-people and brought into the hill. Especially were brides-to-be in great danger of being kidnapped. He who wanted to protect himself against the Hill-people could make the sign of the cross or say the Lord's prayer, when he saw the little creatures. And it was a good thing to carry  - always - some steel, like a knife or scissors.

mist in moor, gb

Huldremose, gb
Ellefolket/ The Elves
The creatures in the moor and the forest were the elves, and here and at the gravehills lived the will-o'-the-wisp, a small male-like creature, who made light around himself. He was also dangerous, he wanted to lead people astray. As a protection might people pull off one stocking or another piece of cloth and turn the inside out. Some of these creatures were also the elf-king and his girls. The elf girls were beautiful pale girls, dancing round in circles - either they danced together with the person, who was passing by, until he died of exhaustion, or they lured him down into their hill and kept him there or out in the moor, where he drowned. But many of those creatures were an explanation of natural phenomenons. When the mist was hanging  heavily among the trees and above the moor it was the moor wife who was brewing beer, and the mist was the steam from her kettle. The expression "Mosekonen brygger..." " the moor wife is brewing" is still used today.
R.Aning Bell/Art Noveau

Gjøl church, gb

The Neck, a water spirit in the lake and the river 
      The Hel Horse, the * Big Sow and the Church Lamb.   
The Neck was a water spirit who lived in lakes and water streams, sometimes in the shape of a horselike creature. He lured human beings into the water by playing wistful melodies on his violin. If the Neck was seen he demanded human lives.
The Hel Horse walked on church yards, it was a three-legged, headless horse, a sign of sickness and death for the unlucky person who saw it.

It was also bad luck to meet the *Gravso, the Big Sow in the church yard in the evening hour or at night. Some said the sow was the ghost of a murdered child or a child born in concealment, who had been buried outside the consecrated earth.
In the church or at the church loft was the lamb, a ghostly animal with three legs, its white wool reached the earth, trailing on the ground. Meeting the church lamb was a sign of death, and if the person looked into its eyes, he would die himself. This supernatural legendary animal might also seek out a human, who had to die.

Silkeborg Museum, sbn

Lindormen /The Lindworm
The Giant Serpent
There was also a fear of snakes, a belief in a man-eating, dragonlike giant snake:  The Lindworm. People were convinced this snake lived under the earth by farms and churches - and that it was born under the lime trees. Several legends describe how a Lindworm blocked the entrance of the village church. The giant worm lay down along the church and grew bigger and bigger, until it could reach around the building. In some churches with a walled-in north door says the legend that this was caused by the ravaging Lindworm. They had to cut a new door in order to pass the giant worm and go into God's house.
The Mare and The Werewolf
We often say today: "I had a nightmare" if we've had a bad dream - or "This is a nightmare..."  if we meet a problem etc., but in the old days was it really something that scared people. The Mare was a supernatural, womanlike creature, who was sitting upon the chest while people were sleeping, causing terrible nightmares. People could protect themselves against the Mare by carving a mare-cross upon the bed - or by placing linseeds around the bed while saying special incantations.
The Werewolf is a human being in the shape of a wolf. From  a village Finderup near the town Slagelse was in the end of the 1800s told about this terrible creature. " A werewolf looks like an ordinary wolf except that it has only three legs. It is a bewitched man who is like everyone else in the day-light, but in a few nights he  becomes a werewolf and goes far and wide. A human could be freed from this unhappy condition by eating an innocent (unborn) baby's heart. Pregnant women would not go out alone in the night, but if they were followed by a boy, the werewolf had no power. The werewolf-man was also released when it was told while it was attacking a pregnant women - "You are a werewolf!" 
The Witches
 When people went to bed in the old days they might turn their clogs upside down, so that the witches would not use them for their witchcraft. People believed that the witches were in collusion with the devil himself.In folklore the witch was a scapegoat of bad luck and problems which were difficult to explain. Women mostly were exposed as witches, and they used their magic in order to harm humans and animals.Those sorceresses  might bring bad luck to the whole country and its people and animals by their exorcism. They were considered to be everywhere, even "take residence" in animals like cats and hares.
A Danish legend tells this: " There was an ugly woman down in Midforest, she was  named Mette Snedkers, and she could change herself into a calf. Her husband was Peder Snedker -  and often while in bed he thought he was lying beside a red calf. A fisherman named Hans Høj, who was a very bold guy, often went hunting, and he sometimes met a hare which he shot at, but it was just sitting staring at him, and he couldn't even chase it away. Then he said to himself: I'll come after you! And he loaded his gun with a silver button - and he hit the hare, but it ran away nevertheless. The ending was that no one saw Mette Snedkers bare-headed anymore, and people claimed that the silver button was in her head. When she died she was dressed by a close relative, and she was seen by no one else."
Fanefjord church, gb
The ideas about witches can be documented back to prehistoric times, and the tales build upon the belief that there were people born with supernatural abilities.

The witches from folklore can not always be compared to the wise village women, who had acquired their abilities - and who made magic with animals and herbs in order to heal sick and weak people. This group of women - and also wise men - were the victims of persecution and burnt at the stake in the large witch hunts in Europe in the Middle Ages. Denmark's last "official" witch, Anne Palles, was executed in 1693. But the belief in the witches did not disappear. As late as in the 1800s is an example of, how local people at Brigsted village beat a woman to death, because they suspected her to practise damaging  magic. It was said in the 1800s: "If you see a man with eyebrows meeting above the nose, you'll have to take care not to socialize with him or her, for this is a sign that this person in question is able to do witchcraft."

In the old days were the bonfires lit on hilltops and other high places in the landscape as a protection against the wild witches, who had to be chased to "Hekkenfeldt" (similar Hell). It was also a protection to carry a rowan twig or a little cross made of rowan twigs in the pocket. The twigs and branches from rowan could be fastened by windows and doors to protect the house, since the wicked witches did not like the strong smell of the rowan tree. In the area at Viborg in Jutland were the cows decorated with garlands of St.John's Wort - and the witches were not able to steal the nourishing milk. In Vendsyssel the farmers stroke the ashes from Christmas Eve upon the back of the horses, when they knew the witches were loose - and the horses were then protected against witchcraft.

When the witches were loose, no sensible person dared to go out after dark. The farmers removed all loose tools at the farm like brooms, shovels, pokers, ploughs etc. - or else they would be changed into riding animals. As a deterrent to others were told about a farmhand, who was bewitched into a horse and used as a riding animal for the witch party.

Source: Carsten Lingren, Hverdagens Overtro - i det moderne Danmark, 2003.

*Gravso (The Big Sow) was according to folklore a ghost animal in church yards. Meeting the sow was a sign of death. The sow had red-hot eyes and sometimes a razor-sharp back and raised bristles.The tradition of the sow being a death-warning is known back to 1587, where it is mentioned by a priest from Copenhagen. Another tradition says that it was children born and put to death in concealment , who appeared in this shape.The ideas about this sow, also called glumsoen, is limited to southern Scandinavia.


Joan said...

Some of these are a bit scary. That snake for instance.. the worm. I love all these stories though. Every culture seems to have similar stories to explain the inexplicable. Thank you Grethe for sharing.

Thyra said...

Hej Joan! Yes they are scaring. People must really have been afraid of the dark back then. They believed in those creatures, today we are afraid of other things!

turquoisemoon said...

I can't imagine living back in those times of terror. Bad luck or even just the night brought fear. The fear of the unknown caused so much chaos. Now we "know" things, but we still create chaos. We humans are amazing.... Thanks for sharing such interesting information.

Thyra said...

Hello Cheryl, I cannot imagine either how it must have been. And imagine they only had candle light in the house at night - or some glows from a fire on the floor in the common room. They have told each other the most terrible stories in the long evenings! Today we talk about other terrifying things which make us powerless. Thank you Cheryl for your good posts. I have thought much about the last one.
Have a nice week-end!
Grethe ´)