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"Huldra's Nymphs" (1909)
by Bernard Evans Ward
|Similar creatures||Siren, Succubus, Mermaid|
A huldra is a seductive forest creature found in Scandinavian folklore. (Her name derives from a root meaning "covered" or "secret".) In Norwegian folklore, she is known as the Hulder. She is known as the skogsrå (forest spirit) or Tallemaja (pine tree Mary) in Swedish folklore, and Ulda in Sámi folklore. Her name suggests that she is originally the same being as the völva Huld and the German Holda.
Males, called Huldrekarl, also appear in Norwegian folklore. This being is closely related to other underground dwellers, usually called tusser. Like the female counterpart, the huldrkarl is a shapeshifter who often lures girls under a fair countenance.
The word hulder is the indefinite form in Norwegian (ei hulder means "a hulder"). In the feminine, the definite form is huldra ("the hulder"), the plural indefinite form is huldrer ("hulders"), and the plural definite form is huldrene ("the hulders").
The masculine form is en hulder (indefinite singular), hulderen (definite singular), huldre (indefinite plural), and huldrene (definite plural).
In collective plural, one would use huldrefolk (indefinite) and huldrefolket (definite) meaning "the hulder people". There is also an adjective connected, to be huldren, which can be interpreted as uncanny, or often "being under the hulder's spell" (i.e. suffering from inexplicable madness).
A hulder is a stunningly beautiful naked woman with long hair, and has an animal's tail. In Norway, she has a cow's tail, and in Sweden she may have that of a cow or a fox. Further in the north of Sweden, the tail can be entirely omitted in favor of her hollow or bark-covered back.
The hulder is one of several rå (keeper, warden), including the aquatic Sjörå (or havsfru), later identified with a mermaid, and the bergsrå in caves and mines who made life tough for the poor miners.
More information can be found in the collected Norwegian folktales of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe.
Relations with Humans
The huldrer were held to be kind to charcoal burners, watching their charcoal kilns while they rested. Knowing that she would wake them if there were any problems, they were able to sleep, and in exchange they left provisions for her in a special place. A tale from Närke illustrates further how kind a hulder could be, especially if treated with respect (Hellström 1985:15).
A boy in Tiveden went fishing, but he had no luck. Then he met a beautiful lady, and she was so stunning that he felt he had to catch his breath. But, then he realized who she was, because he could see a fox's tail sticking out below the skirt. As he knew that it was forbidden to comment on the tail to the lady of the forest, if it were not done in the most polite manner, he bowed deeply and said with his softest voice, "Milady, I see that your petticoat shows below your skirt". The lady thanked him gracefully and hid her tail under her skirt, telling the boy to fish on the other side of the lake. That day, the boy had great luck with his fishing and he caught a fish every time he threw out the line. This was the hulder's recognition of his politeness.
In some traditions, the hulder lures men into the forest to have sexual intercourse with her, rewarding those who satisfy her and often killing those who do not. The Norwegian hulder is a lot less bloodthirsty and may simply kidnap a man or lure him into the underworld. She sometimes steals human infants and replaces them with her own ugly huldrebarn (changeling huldre children). In some cases, the intercourse resulted in a child, being presented to the unknowing father. In some cases, she forces him to marry her. Stories of such relationships were common in Norway a long time—an elderly man from Valdres claimed he had a child among the hulderpeople on Norwegian radio broadcasting. He was still alive around 1980.
Sometimes she marries a local farm boy, but when this happens, the glamour leaves her when the priest lays his hand on her, or when she enters the church. Some fairy tales leave out this feature, and only relate how a marriage to a Christian man will cause her to lose her tail, but not her looks, and let the couple live happily ever after. However if she is treated badly, she will remind him that she is far from weak, often by straightening out a horseshoe with her bare hands, sometimes while it is still glowing hot from the forge or even lift up a tree trunk.
If betrayed, a hulder can punish the man severely, as in one case from Sigdal, when she avenged her pride on a young braggart she had sworn to marry, on the promise that he would not tell anybody of her. The boy instead bragged about his bride for a year, and when they met again, she beat him around the ears with her cow's tail. He lost his hearing and his wits for the rest of his life.
The hulder has long been associated with hunting; she might blow down the barrel of a huntsman's rifle, causing it never thereafter to miss a shot. Some men are not so lucky, or perhaps skilled, and escape her only after surrendering their sanity.
Associated with Christianity, a tale recounts how a woman had washed only half of her children when God came to her cottage; ashamed of the dirty ones, she hid them. God decreed that those she had hidden from him would be hidden from mankind; they became the huldrer.
A multitude of places in Scandinavia are named after the Hulders, often places that are by legend associated with the presence of the "hidden folk". Here are some examples showing the wide distribution of Hulder-related toponyms between the northern and southern reaches of Scandinavia, and the terms usage in different language groups' toponyms.
- Huldremose (Hulder Bog) is a bog located on Djursland, Denmark famous for the discovery of the Huldremose Woman, a bog body from 55BC.
- Hulderheim is located southeast on the island Karlsøya in Troms, Norway. The name means "Home of the Hulder".
- Hulderhusan is an area on the southwest of Norway's largest island Hinnøya, the name of which means "Houses of the Hulders".
- Ulddaidvárri in Kvænangen, Troms (Norway) means "Mountain of the Hulders" in North Sámi.
- Ulddašvággi is a valley southwest of Alta in Finnmark, Norway. The name means "Hulder Valley" in North Sámi. The peak guarding the pass over from the valley to the mountains above has a similar name, Ruollačohkka, meaning "Troll Mountain"—and the large mountain presiding over the valley on its northern side is called Háldi, which is a term similar to the above mentioned Norwegian rå, that is a spirit or local deity which rules a specific area.
The hulder may be connected with the German holda.
- AnneMarie Hellström, Jag vill så gärna berätta. ISBN 91-7908-002-2
- Neil Gaiman, American Gods (10th Anniversary Edition). ISBN 978-0-7553-8624-6
- The article Huldra in Nordisk familjebok (1909).
- K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, p 147 University of Chicago Press, London, 1967