Trolls through Time


Storybook troll by the Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen, c. 1900.

Translating the Chanson de Roland — the epic poem about Charlemagne’s campaign against the Muslims in Spain in 778 — for a Norse audience,1)In Norse, Karlamagnús saga. the Norse poet describes one Muslim emir thus: “The man was full of magic and sorcery and fraud and would be called a troll if he were to come up here to the northern part of the world” (33).

And you thought trolls lived under bridges? And how did we get from that to ugly-cute plastic dolls and Moomintroll?

“Troll” is an elusive category, but John Lindow does his best to sort it out historically and thematically in Trolls: An Unnatural History (160 pp.)

This short but well-researched book tells how troll in the old sagas overlapped with giant, witch, land-wight (landvaettir) and people — not just fierce warrirors but shape-shifters, Saami shamans, and even Greenland Inuit, whose lifeways seemed so unusual to the Norse settlers there (43).

One 14th-century saga describes trolls encountered in Helluland, usually taken to mean Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic (35). Were these indigenous trolls?

To “give someone to the trolls” meant to kill them.

The word’s origin is uncertain. It might have come from verbs meaning “to enchant” or “to tread” or “rush away,” with Lindow himself leaning towards an origin connected with magic.2)In the Norwegian translation of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a trollmannen (51). It was “an all-purpose word for supernatural beings” (51).

A troll transformation occurred in the 19th century with the rising interest in folklore-collecting. Still huge, trolls were depicted affectionately by a variety of Scandinavian artists.

Trolls (by that name) entered in the English-speaking world only in the 1850s, notably in George Webbe Dasent’s Popular Tales from the Norse, published in 1859, which familiarized Anglosphere children with the Three Billy Goats Gruff (100).

The movie Trollhunter (which is a lot of fun) invokes and tweaks all the old images — giants, bridges, goats, hostility to Christianity. In Lindow’s opinion, it is the best modern troll-flick. “Trolls have some way to go before they catch up with zombies, but they are certainly a presence in film and media” (122).

Notes   [ + ]

1. In Norse, Karlamagnús saga.
2. In the Norwegian translation of Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a trollmannen (51).

A Viking is Nothing without his Oar

The Nydam ship was found in southern Jutland in 1863. It has recently been dated via dendrochronology to 310–320 CE, and the deposition in the bog where it was found is likely to have taken place 340–350 CE. The picture shows a German replica of the ship, built in 1935.1)Harald Åkerlund, Nydamskeppen: En studiei tidig skandinavis kskeppsbygnadskonst (Göteborg: Sjöfartsmuseet, 1963). (Photograph in Schleswig-Holsteinisches Landsmuseum.)

Norwegian scholar Eidar Heide tracks down the origin of the term “Viking” in an etymological article. Like a lot of people, I had thought it came from a word for “bay” or “inlet,” the first proposed word origin that he examines.

Not so, he argues, it’s all about the rowing — and the word itself actually predates the era of “the Vikings” as we typically think of them (PDF file, in English).

Note to readers: the abstract is at the end of the paper, not the beginning.

Scroll down here for a link to others of his articles on the history and archaeology of Viking ships, some in English and some in Norweigan.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Harald Åkerlund, Nydamskeppen: En studiei tidig skandinavis kskeppsbygnadskonst (Göteborg: Sjöfartsmuseet, 1963).

Ancient Precedents for a Norwegian’s Pro-Psychedelic Campaign


This cartoon was not part of the New York Times story, in case you wondered.

A campaign to legalize LSD, MDMA, and other psychedelics in Norway reaches for ancient precedents. Didn’t the Sami (Lapp) shamans maybe use entheogens? What about those Viking who allegedly chewed on Amanita muscaria?

(Via law-blogger Ann Althouse)

Pentagram Pizza for April 21st

Week-old pizza from the back of the refrigerator …

• Here’s an idea for a novel: “two down-on-their-luck entrepreneurs who stumble upon the idea of reviving for-profit idolatry. Selling statues of household gods to the masses, and building a neo-pagan religion around it.” Um, I think that people have been doing this for some time.

Circus Breivik. Norwegian scholar of esotericism Egil Asprem analyzes the trial of Anders Behring Breivik. (He wrote about the shootings for the current Pomegranate.)

This trial will be about two things: psychiatry and ideology. Two drastically conflicting reports on Breivik’s mental health have already ensured this. Added to this, of course, is Breivik’s own clearly stated wish to be judged as sane, and have his actions confirmed as ideologically motivated.

Teaching classical philosophy to Brazilian schoolchildren:

I assured the students that until the nineteenth century hardly any philosopher was an atheist. Plato’s Euthyphro—with its argument about the relationship between ethics and the will of the gods—gets us into a lively discussion.

* This is called “edgy, irreverent outreach” by some of today’s Christians Jesus Followers. I think the pastor needs to look up “pathos” in the rhetorical dictionary, because he is doing it wrong. But to be fair, some long-ago saints would have agreed with him.

• Alcohol  “sharpens the mind.”  But “beer goggles” are real too.

Canada braces for more Danish aggression.