By Susan Holmberg
On the northern hill above the town of Sundsvall, an outdoor museum takes the visitor back to the time of dairy maids and mystical folklore. Called simply Norra Berget (or Northen Mountain), it sits on a patch of land that was first used by the Lapps for summertime reigndeer grazing. This practice continued for centuries until larger permanent settlements began to appear in the middle ages. During that period, the heavily forested land was used for summer grazing for the cows and goats belonging to local farms. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that this lifestyle began to fade, as industrialization brought electricy, cars , brick buildings and wage-based employment to the area.
It was at this time that the outdoor museum movement swept across Norway and Sweden. An expressi
on of national romanticism, it embraced a desire to preserve the agricultural lifestyle that was rapidly disappearing. It was considered important to preserve not only the furniture and other objects of times past, but also the buildings and farmsteads themselves. The first such museum in Sweden was the well-known Skansen in Stockholm, established in 1891.
Similar homages to the past came a bit later in the rural north, perhaps because urbanization itself came a few years later. In Sundsvall the preservation society was formed in 1906 and the first building was brought to the site in 1908. Today there are 45 buildings reflecting regional farm and forest life from the 17th through the 19th century.
One of the most popular attractions at Norra Berget is the “fäbodvall” area, where small wooden buildings designed for housing, animals and storage wend their way along a crispy pine dirt path. In the fäbodvall one encounters young men and women dressed in period costumes conducting the rituals of daily life in the late 1800’s. Fäbodvall means dairy patch, and actitivities revolve around milk, cheese and butter production.
Amidst the buildings one finds long wooden benches covered in sheep’s wool surrounding a large fire pit. This is where the meals are enjoyed, where dairy products are tended, and where stories are old late into the long summer nights.
The guides at the museum are professional story-tellers and ethnographers. They educate the public about the rich history of folklore in the northern forests – a folklore that remains surprisingly intact despite modernity and the digital age.
The folklore of the forest is rich in creatures that must be respected. “The most important thing is to respect the Nature”, explains Rikard Scholtz, guide, millenor and food historian. “There are a lot of creatures here, but they are not bad, they just need to be respected or else they can cause trouble”.
The most prevalent among these creatures are the so-called Vittror, who are invisible and live underground. Because of this, one must make sure that they do not spill water on them or disrupt their underground pathways. Before pouring out hot water for example, one must “warn” the vittror so that they can get out of the way.
Vittror can be heard laughing or tending their cattle, but they cannot be seen. Where did this story come from? Rikard explains:
“There are different versions depending on location and time, but the main idea is that there was a Mother who lived in the forest. She had over a hundred children, so many that she did not know their names. They had no food and no clothes. One day, God was walking around and when she saw him she felt bad so she hid them under the floors. She hid as many as she could. When he knocked on the door she introduced him to only five children and God cursed her and made her children invisible. From that time she had to take care of a hundred invisible children”.
Christian influence is apparent in the pivotal role of God walking, talking and inflicting punishment. In some instances the Mother figure is Lillith. The church exerted a strong influence on rural populations since the early middle ages. It was mandatory to attend church until the late 1800’s, for example.
Living on the summer pastures was in some ways a retreat from this moral rigour – dairy maids were not required to attend church every week because of their location and vocation.
When asked whether this “escape” from the authority of the church engendered a retreat atmosphere with youthful romance and gaiety, Rikard explained that yes, to a degree this was true, but that pregnancy outside marriage was highly stigmatized despite being fairly widespread. Boys came up to the pastures on the weekends to visit the girls, for this was the only place that one could find unmarried women. An older adult was (supposedly) present during these visits, but nature had a tendency to take its course. When this happened, the girl paid a terrible price.
One of the more powerful cautionary tales for girls to avoid getting pregnant were the so-called myrling stories. A “myling” is a dead child who returns to torment the mother and eventually drive her mad.
According to legend, many single mothers killed their children by putting them out in the forest with just a jug of milk. They would bury them and place iron scissors or a knife above the body in an attempt to prevent their spirit from rising. It was common for animals to go and dig up the bodies, moving the knife and making it seem as if it had “disappeared”. Realizing that the spirit had risen, the mothers lived in fear of these “demon children” in the forests. The mothers (but no one else) could hear their screams, and eventually they would go mad.
This tale was reinforced by the similarity between a child’s cry and the scream of a fox. Sounds in the night.
White lady of the well – ghosts from the mine and the sawmil
One of the interesting features of Sweden’s industrialization process is the fact that it was equally rural and urban. Much of early Swedish industrial development was forest-based, with the establishment of so-called “brukssamhällen” or forestry works. These were villages built around the sawmill or mining industry situated in the northern forests.
Because people were moving to new places but remaining in a forest setting, many of the tales and creatures adapted to the new conditions.
“The creatures are adapting, turning into other things, like mining ghosts, sawmill ghosts, the white lady of the well, the black lady of the mine. Often there was a crazy lady who jumped into the well or the mine. She was more like a poltergeist. Something that had gone wrong had to be fixed”, Rikard explains.
As with the Vittror, most things requiring a “fix” involved some sort of sacrifice. If someone died prematurely or by accident, this needed to be explained and repaired – blaming it on ghosts or trolls as opposed to bad luck somehow made it easier to cope.
Skogsrå and Näcken – temptress creatures of the forest
While much of the folklore consists of beings who are not harmful but simply require respect, some creatures are demon-like. Most notable among these are the temptress creatures of the forest – skogsrå for men and näcken for women. Equal opportunity temptation.
A skogsrå is a beautiful women who lures men into the forest. Seen from the front she is beautiful, but seem from the back she is just a rotted log. In the area around Sundsvall - Medelpad and Jämtland – she is also equipped with a fox tail.
The näcken is a naked young man seated in a river playing the violin. He lures the girl into the stream, causing her to drown. A google search on the word “näcken” yields numerous pictures of contemporary Swedish men assuming this rather amusing position.
Children were also lured into the forest and unhealthy behavior by a horse or some other creature playing a musical instrument. One example of this is the story of the Hårgaberget, a hilltop in nearby Hälsingland. According to this tale, the devil appears as a man playing the violin. He causes the young people to dance incessibly. He leads them over the mountains and takes them far away where eventually they die from starvation and exhaustion.
The moral of these tales, of course, is to prevent dangerous or risky behavior, particularly among the young.
Life in the forest was a life full of rituals. The cosmology of creatures living alongside the people of the forest helped them make sense of their precarious and changing world. It is worth a visit to such places to add a sense of warmth and depth to our understanding of the shared human story.