The mythical trolls: Why are Norwegians fascinated by them?

A troll warning sign near Norway's Trollstigen road. Photo: Mark Konig / Unsplash

Are trolls real? Decide for yourself – after joining us on a full-scale exploration of trolls in Norway, that is.

“There are people who believe that the stone markers along the road used to be giants,” said Swedish writer Olaus Magnus (1544-1557) in his monumental study Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (History of the Northern People, 1555). 

But… Giants aren’t trolls, are they? Well, not in the sense of the word that we know it today. In the past, however, “troll” is thought to have encompassed a whole lot more than it does in its modern-day meaning.

“Troll” is a word with a puzzling past. So let’s begin tracking the elusive Norwegian troll at its root, literally.

The Norway “troll”: A mini etymology

Trolls originated in Norse mythology and folklore, and the creatures are a cornerstone of Nordic legends.

From the first written records pertaining to Nordic countries, the image of trolls was commonly that of a monstrous (and usually evil) being associated with magic.

Though the exact etymology of the word hasn’t been entirely constructed, there are specific North Germanic origins considered to be probable parent words.

Here are just a few:

Old Norse – trylla, meaning ‘to turn into a troll, to enchant’

Norwegian – trolldom, meaning ‘magic, enchantment’

Norwegian – trylle, meaning ‘to conjure’

Norwegian dialect – trosa, trysia, meaning ‘to fly off impetuously’

Danish – fortrylle, meaning ‘to enchant’

Danish – trolderi, meaning ‘magic, enchantments’

Swedish – trolleri, meaning ‘magic, enchantment’

Swedish – tryllekraft, meaning ‘magic power’

Swedish dialect – trösale, meaning ‘hobgoblin’

In the Middle Age-era Nordic countries, the word “troll” was used ambiguously and certainly not only to denote large, hairy, aggressive beings we the world may conduct our minds to today.

It was really used for any creature that was able to practice magic, especially in terms of controlling the environment, and also any creature that was, in turn, possessed or awakened by sorcery.

In medieval sagas, “troll” denoted everything from wild boars being controlled by sorcerers and heathen deities, to undead warriors and non-human, ogre-like soldiers. Old Norse texts also refer to the same being as a “troll” and a “berserker” in the same breath. 

To complicate things even further…

There are two main types of trolls

After a while, two main types of trolls began to crystalize in Norse mythology and folklore – but they don’t come with names of clear etymologies, nor with universal attributes, either.

We’re on a search for the occult, which is indiscernible by definition, after all.

Troll type #1: The Trogre

The Icelandic sagas and Eddas, as well as Scandinavian folktales, featured ogre-like giants. This type of giant being was called troll in Iceland, troll and jotun (or jotul) in Norwegian folktales, trold and jœtte in Danish, and jätte in Swedish.

A giant-like troll depiction. Photo: Yuri B / Pixabay

For the sake of distinction, we’ll call these big guys “trogres” (why not complicate the etymology even further at this point, right?)

In older Norse literature, the trogres are primordial and even connected with the origins of the universe. However – they’re evil.

Trogres were cast in the roles of anti-heroes against the gods, and then the humans. Trogres were the perfect monsters and enemies; they would give protagonist heroes the chance to establish themselves as brave, powerful, and victorious.

Once Christianity was introduced to the region, trogres became enemies of the church, too. They were depicted as the embodiment of all things impure and were frequently depicted ravaging churches and attacking priests. 

The giant trogres, in general, didn’t have much dialect or personality of their own. As a result, they weren’t shown as intelligent, but rather as pure brute force serving as monsters for heroes to battle.

Afraid of the sunlight (and probably only that), trogres lived in dark and often dangerous places like cliffs, caves, and deep crevices. The reason they shied away from the sun was that it could petrify them into solid stone. 

Which brings us to later folk traditions. After being primordial giants, trogres played etiological legends, which explained the origin of strange natural phenomena such as lakes, craters, and rock formations. There are even Norwegian mountain trolls.

You may have even stood on a trogre’s tongue if you’ve been to the Trolltunga (Troll’s Tongue) rock formation in Vestland County, Norway. Trogres are the subject of many such legends; another is that rock formations around the Faroe Islands formed because a pair of trogres attempted to move the Faroe Islands to Norway.

Troll type #2: The Troblin

Less prevalent in sagas and Eddas, a different type of Norwegian troll still appears in Scandinavian folktales. As opposed to the trogres, this type is small and robust – but equally troublesome.

Smaller but equally dangerous trolls. Photo: Norway Today

This type of creature is often referred to as a troll in Norwegian and Swedish and a trold in Danish; but the names are on occasion used interchangeably with the giant trolls.

In either case, we’ll call these tiny trolls of Norway “troblins.”

Troblins, unlike trogres, are given much more personality, dialect, interaction, and backstory. They’re social amongst each other, form relationships and families, and live in their own communities; always based far away from humans.

Nonetheless, as isolated as they are, their favorite activity is stirring up trouble amongst humans. 

In Norse folklore, the tiny troblins are frequently shown causing problems on Christmas Eve. Stories have them breaking into empty human houses and throwing parties there (also destroying the home in the party process).

They’re also depicted being noisy outside while human families try to enjoy Christmas Eve inside – and even, on occasion, being so bold as to march up to the door and demand a (hard) drink. 

Small trolls in gift shop
Depiction of tiny trolls. Photo: Norway Today

Troblins are also depicted swapping human babies for their own. One story gives an emotional, albeit in quite a twisted way, aspect to them. A troblin mother swapped her baby with a human baby. Upon opening the cradle and realizing a non-human creature was inside, the human mother took the baby troblin in but treated her cruelly. Years later, the troblin mother visited again, and asked the human mother, “Why do you treat my baby so much more poorly than I treat yours?”

Norwegian trolls in pop culture

Today, instead of hiding in the darkness, trolls hide behind screens and within the pages of books.

Some linguistic confusion in the differences between the two “types” of trolls is primarily due to a mix and match of characteristics from both the trogre and the troblin into single characters – with preferences varying from writer to writer. 

The trolls of Norway first entered pop culture became widely known through Norwegian writers and collectors of Norwegian folktales Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe. They published a collection of traditional Norwegian stories called Norske-Eventyr in 1841, which immediately gained traction on the Norwegian literary scene. Their word was translated into English in 1858 as Popular Tales from the Norse, which became very popular in the UK and US. Three Billy Goats Gruff, anyone?

Trolls further skyrocketed in popularity thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien. Much of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien is based on his in-depth studies of Norse mythology. In his fantasy land, he chose to include trogres; much like many writers who have followed the Old Norse tradition to use trolls as an anti-hero.

Tolkien’s trogres are further divided into two types: 1) ancient trolls, which he described as “creatures of a dull and lumpish nature,” without the ability to speak, and 2) trolls bred by Sauron – violent giants full of anger. In The Hobbit, Tolkien adds a comedic twist to the trolls when Bilbo Baggins is nearly eaten by them. However, the wizard Gandalf saves him by distracting the trolls until the sun comes up and – turns them to rock.

Following Tolkien, trogre-esque trolls exploded across pop culture worldwide; being featured in cult books like Harry Potter (as an aggressive, non-human being used as a distraction by the evil side), and innumerable RPGs (Skyrim, RuneScape, God of War, and the Witcher, to name a few games in which trolls are enemies the player must defeat).

Troblins, on the other hand, followed an entirely different pop culture path. 

In 1964, troll dolls (Danish: Gjøltrold) were created in Denmark by Thomas Dam. Originally modeled after troblins, the troll dolls were made much sweeter than their predecessors; always smiling and with colorful hair. The children’s toys achieved significant success on international markets.

A fool-proof way of seeing a trogre, then, is to open up a fantasy novel or fire up a screen. For a troblin, simply walk into a toy store or a gift shop in Norway.

For the adventurous souls looking to go troll hunting at the source – head to Norway’s caves, crevices, and cliffs. Just beware, because, as another troll-hunter once said: “No one’s ever really ready for a troll” (Eoin Colfer, Artemis Fowl).

Source: Norway Today

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2 Comments on "The mythical trolls: Why are Norwegians fascinated by them?"

  1. Larry Odin Opseth | 16. October 2020 at 17:10 | Reply

    I grew up with stories of trolls, and people eating wolves and and children stealing thieves. One of the stories my Norwegian grandfather Gunnar brought to America when he emigrated from the Norwegian Mountains, was a story that he used to try to scare us with that was about wolves that I turned into a little illustrated booklet that was published in the Norwegian historical monthly because it had disappeared from Norway. I am working on another of our Norwegian family troll tales. My daughter when she was little loved those stories.

  2. I was visited by a troll for two years, from age 3-5. Only thing he ever said was “I am your son”. Prety upset with this most of my life, untill i saw a legend that stated, ” If a troll tells you its name, thats how their luck is transferred from them to us. His name was Juorsun. Am i correct about the legend?

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