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Giants in Norrland folklore

The petroglyphs of Nämforsen. Photo: Sendelbach (CC BY-SA)

Johan Nordlander retells tales of giants in Norrland.

The people, they say, have been getting worse and worse. He who is old enough sees it very well. In the old days, both men and women were strong and healthy, so that it was a joy to them; but now they are only sickly and wretched. Now boys are to go to school till they are sixteen and eighteen, and then they are just lazy. If only they read tocke, which is a good thing, but at least they read the words of God; it is scarce they learn the catechism, so that the parents may not be ashamed at the house hearings. And the boys, well, it is hardly worth while to speak of them. Now it is not possible to get a real maid: they all want to be a mamseller and just sit and crochet and sew and mess around, so it is a real sin. A farmer's daughter is soon too harmful to milk and nurse. But then they grow pale and sick and toothless, so that many have to pay more for doctors and chemists than they spend on expenses.

No, it used to be different. Back then, brides and maidens were strong, healthy and red-blooded, so it was fun to see them. But then they didn't drink so much coffee either. And so it has been in the past, and before men were, there was a race called giants. But they, they could be big and strong and manly. - This is a common reasoning, when you get old men into the chapter on giants. Then follows some legends.

In Fors it was good about giants. They had their moose-vones, moose-grouse, north of the river (Indalselfven) at Bispgårds-forest. When they came to the river, they stepped over it; and then one can understand how big they would be.

But if they were great and strong, they were also good eaters. There is an old fable (tale) about it, too. There in Böle in Fors there were two giants, and both were married. Once one of the giants fell ill. One day the wife of the other giant saw the sick man's wife and said to her: how is your husband today? Then the other replied: he is probably nothing but bad: he has not been able to eat more than gnawing on seven moose heads1. But if he ate when he was sick, how could he not eat when he was well?

Near the church in the same parish lived a giant. One day, when his wife was out, she noticed some strange things in the field, which she had never seen before. There was a man with a horse driving the harrow. She was curious to know what it could be, and took the man, horse and driving gear in her apron, carried it all home and showed it to her husband, saying that she had found a strange mole. But the man commanded her to carry it all back, for, said he, these are the people that shall come after us. This happened when the people began to settle there in the region.

According to another version of this common saying, the giantess wanted the strange things for toys. On the estate Gremmelgård in the parish of Häggenäs in Jemtland a giantess Gremla, who gave his name to the farm as well as to a stone, Gremla stones, located on the road between Österåsen and the church. Gremla is said to have thrown this towards the church with his garter, the marks of which can still be seen. Gremla's daughters are said to have taken the Norwegians who had arrived in the country with cattle and farming tools in their apron2).

In the village of Omsjö in Liden in Ångermanland, giants have long been fans3) There also lived a man who was always out hunting and fishing both early and late. The giants did not like that. One day, when he was out, he heard one giant calling to the other. Rom-rommel i Bärge, said one; hva' vill mig Stor-klinger i Skalln? said the other, and was answered, I want to borrow the big kettle to boil Lasse lang in thighs, who is out so late in the evening and morning.4).

In Linsell parish in Herjeådalen I have recorded the following variant. There was a fisherman, who was so stingy, that he did not even keep Sunday holy. Some others, who therefore agreed to really scare him once. They took the opportunity when he was rowing early one Sunday morning to fish through a narrow strait with high mountains on either side. They stood on either side of the strait and spoke to each other as follows:

Hu-hu, hu-hu Hammar in Salute! -
What do you want then, Svinkom Bärge? -
Yes' want to borrow your big-kitty. -
What are you gonna do with him? -
Ja' ska' koka Lasse lang i lår, som aldrig vet göra hälgemål.

But when the fisherman heard this, he was terrified and stopped doing Sunday work. Annu a variation of this tale is found in Bernow, Beskrifning öfver Wärmeland. There it concerns a greedy and harsh Mrs. Rangela at Edsholm Castle, who was threatened to be boiled for the high toll she took from all who crossed the castle bridge.

When the giants in the above-mentioned Liden were displaced by humans, they wanted to keep the Tjipar ridge, Viksjövik and Nämnforsen, all places in Liden. - The last place, a rapids in the Ångermanelfven, is remarkable for the existing petroglyphs and for the abundant salmon fishing. In a pit between pitfalls "in former times 20 to 30 salmon could be obtained at once, but now 6 and 7 are the maximum" (Hulphers). This latter circumstance explains the giants' love of the place, for to them salmon was a food as important as it was tasty.

This is also evident from the story of Starkotter, Starkad, which is very famous in some parts of Medelpad. We suspect, however, that it is our older antiquarians who have given this region the honour of being his native place, and that the name has come to the general public from Tuneld's geography and Hulphers' description, who, in pronouncing it, distort it in all sorts of ways. In Fors it was pronounced Starkodder with the ending o. What is told about him, however, fits a giant so well, that the tales must be old and only in recent times transferred to Starkad.

Every summer he walked from Alnön by the sea to the parish of Fors in Jemtland to catch salmon in Gedunsen, the now excavated case in the Indalselfven at the end of the former Lake Ragunda. On the hike here he always carried a large copper kettle. The salmon could not get higher than Gedunsen, for the trap was too high. Here, therefore, salmon were gathered in abundance, so that one could catch almost as much as one wanted. When Starkad had fished enough for the year, he returned to Alnön, where he spent his lonely life. His neighbour and friend Bol lived no nearer than in Bolby5) in Borgsjö parish. As his residence lay far inland, he hunted moose in abundance; and meat from them was his daily food. Starkad and Bol occasionally spoke to each other from their homes, though the distance was many miles. Starkad then said:

Salmon for breakfast, salmon for dinner, salmon for supper: I'm about to give up on this fish-eating thing;

whereupon Bol replied:

Meat for breakfast, meat for dinner, meat for supper: I'm about to give up this meat-eating.

From time to time they visited each other, and brought gifts to each other. When Starkad went to Bol, he carried a barrel of salmon under each arm; and when Bol went to Starkad, he always took a moose under each arm. - Once when Starkad was going to heal Bol, and had come up about Selanger's church, he was struck down by thunder. His grave is still visible.

In a handwritten description of Stöde parish in this county, written in 1769 by the komminister M. N. Nordenstam, is mentioned "a in his time rich and reputable man and good blacksmith" named Brätte, living at Brattås. An equally important woman, named Lucia, has been suited against Brattås in the formerly cleared, now forested Lucice bowl. She is known to visit each other once a year, between her and an old woman, living in Vi-village in Tuna parish, a little over 4 miles away. The story goes, that Lucia brought with her the meat of a whole elk, when she went to visit the old woman, who is said to have been called, We; whereas the other carried the harvest full of large salmon, when she went here (all together in the manner of heroines) to exchange food and goodwill among themselves. Elsewhere, Nordenstam adds, both Brätte and Lucia are said to have driven with moose. Here is apparently the same story as the one just mentioned about Starkad and Bol, though located in a different place.

We draw particular attention to the curious misinterpretation of the village name Wii, as it is still generally written. The pronunciation has probably been Vi-village, whereby Vi has been understood as a personal name, in the same way as a giant Bol has been derived from the name Bolby. We have here a confirmation of the fact that local legends of a mostly mythical nature are particularly concerned with place-names, which imply memories of paganism and cult. Further on we shall have occasion to speak of a giant Frogs on Frös-ön in Jemtland. Burman also mentions a giant Geese, who shall have lived on Cast-mon, a fateful village at Mo in Berg parish. In a village Seed in Ångermanland will be a very rich woman, Seed-frog called, have lived. In true giant fashion, she shod her horses with silver shoes.

From the legends told, it appears that giants were both great and strong. Yet they also did not live in peace and quiet without fear, for the sound of thunder was their terror. Of this Mark told the following tale. On Gotland6 a settler lived by a lake near a mountain called Hoberget (with an ending o). In this mountain lived a goblin, called Hobergs-gubben, who halp the settler in many parts. When he went fishing, he made it known to the old man in the mountain, who then always helped him to a rich catch.

The settler's wife had once given birth to a child, and the child's beer was now to be celebrated. But for the feast he would have fresh fish. So the settler told his servant to go and set the nets, and to take a sack to carry the fish home in. The servant did as he was bidden, and when he came to the mountain, he said, I will now have a multitude of great fishes. - Why only big ones? - asked the old man, "In the past your master has been satisfied with a mixture of large and small. The boy said how it was, and added that the master wanted the old man to come to the children's beer and be a godfather.

The old man thought this very remarkable, for never before had such honour been done him. He thanked him for the good news and asked who else would come to the feast. The doctor then enumerated St. Per, St. Gertrude, and so would the drummer be involved, he said. But now the old man was moved, and said that he could not possibly be with the drummer, for, he added, it is only a fortnight since he broke one of my femurs. I heard him bang the drum, and I ran as hard as I could to get home in one piece; but just as I was about to shut the door, one of the trumpins the posterior thigh, and still I have pain there. So he could not come; but, said he, is it customary to give gifts? - Yes, thought the boy, it was so. - So the old man bade the boy take the sack and go down to the cellar. For a while he poured shovelfuls of silver money into the sack. Then the boy felt if the sack was heavy, but he could carry him very well. - Do they give more? - asked the old man? - Yes, answered the boy, they that will be honest. Again the old man scooped for a while, but when the servant felt the sack, it was so heavy that he could carry no more. - Do they give more? - asked the old man. No, answered the boy, he had not seen any more poison. Then the old man said, where the boy should put out to get a big fish. This he did, and then the children's beer stood with pleasure and joy, and the big-eating old man was not particularly mourned. - A variant of this tale, known even in Ångermanland, is given in Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, p. 503. The "drummer" is none other than the god Thor, and the thrown "drumstick" is his hammer Mjölne.

A memory of the grey paganism is also to be found in the legend of the stone which a giant threw against Torberget (with the end o) in Öfverdals village of Vibyggerå parish in Ångermanland. The stone is said to be thrown from Tjärnberget and is located at the foot of Torberget.

About the above mentioned Brätte it is said, that he was a "good blacksmith". This word is not to be understood here in its present sense, but distinguishes faber, artist in general, builder in particular. The giants appear as such already in the old Icelandic literature, where they help even the gods7. The giants have been especially helpful in church buildings. Kristersen and Thiele cite many tales of this for Denmark, and for Sweden we recall the one by the giants Finn built Laurentius Church in Lund.

More than any other, however, Trondhjem Cathedral is mentioned in legend. After Mark's we give the following account. King Olof wanted to build a large and beautiful church in Trondhjem; but in order to get it done, he agreed with a giant, that he would build the magnificent temple within a certain time. If the king could not learn the giant's name before the church was finished, the king and queen would become the giant's property and come to him in the mountain. The time had come, and the church was soon finished. One day the king was very troubled, and went by himself into a forest outside the city. As he went, he heard a child qvira (wailing) in a mountain, and that the mother said to it, "Hush, hush, weep not, little child! Father Skalle will soon come home with ground and moon." The king now heard the giant's name and hastened to the church. And he came in the time of the earl, for the giant was at that very moment setting up the spire. Set the spiral correctly, Skalle! cried the king, and with that Skalle fell dead to the ground.

However many preferences the giants had over man, they were nevertheless inferior to her in the eyes of the head. For this reason they have many times been outwitted by her. A giant would once go toe-to-toe with a human. The Charles realized more fully on which side the strength was to be found, for which some deceit must be used. The man therefore proposed that they should drive the stick through a hole in the wall of the cottage, and that he himself should stand inside, but the giant outside. The giant agreed. The man then heated an iron rod, so that it turned red with fire, and thrust the pointed end out through the hole, but through the loop on the other end he drove a strong stake. He now called upon the giant to tempt, and he drew all he could. But the stick in the loop hit the wall, so that the giant could not possibly pull out the iron rod. When they had finished the test of strength, the man asked: Did you think I was strong? - Good enough, replied the giant, but you would so betray (Ångermanland). - In many similar tales in Scandinavia as well as in Germany, it is satan, who gets the short straw. He has been used instead of some giant in recent times.

In T. V. V. it was mentioned that the equivalent of the Icelandic thurs has not been observed in Norrland. Then I have found the name in the composition tuss-bed, a kind of wound, and in a spell of the following wording:

Between asked between:
hvad är godt för tussenbett? -
Grip in shallow water
stick in mouth;
you are living in the same room. In the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

The words are - except for the punctuation marks - copied verbatim from a list of spells, which a woman in the parish of Ragunda in Jemtland had for her needs. In order to understand this formula correctly, it is necessary to remark that, according to Mark's account, wise men are believed to have some magical entity in their service, which provides the wizard with necessary information, where to "go wrong", where to find a thief or a lost child, etc. A child had been lost from the farm, and the nine searched for it for a long time, though in vain. A person then turned to a wise man to find out where it had gone. It was evening when he came to the wizard, whereupon the wizard had him go and lie down for the night on the floor of the stable. He did so, but as the wall was gravel, he could hear and see through the cracks what was happening. About 11 o'clock at night he saw the wise man going out on the cottage steps and heard him whisper three times. At the third whisper a man came forward. The whisperer reproached him for not coming at once on the first call, but the man excused himself by saying that he had been prevented from taking notice of a man who had drowned himself. He now told the wise man where the child sought was; but the seeker, he continued, had lain and listened, and had he not so well commended himself into God's hands - according to another version, "raged" to himself so well - I would have broken his neck. When morning came, the wise man said, where should the lost child be sought? - This would now be one in the wizard's service tusse, who in turn asked other foxes about things that occurred.

The giants are also mentioned wheels as well as giants (Liden, Ångermanland). Finally, the name troll, which, however, may also include robbers, elves, gnomes and goblins. A common expression is "cross for troll", i.e. that crosses protect against trolls, (Jemtland, Ångermanland). In Fölinge, (Jemtland) it is said "cross and conjure from". All work done is crossed over, says Huphers. CourseAt the beginning of Mark's memory, a cross was drawn over the kitchen door itself and one on each doorpost, with the intention of banishing all evil fans. Crosses are drawn over the flour-veins, with the finger over the bottom of the hut, before butter is packed therein; and when this is done, many a maid, before the lid is put on, draws a cross in the butter, and presses a finger into the centre of the cross and into the ends of the arms. The arms of the cross must not reach to the edge. This is illustrated in the figure below, where the circle marks the edge of the hut. When a dough is trodden, many also strike a cross in the dough with the edge of the palm of the hand and the outstretched fingers.

Here again the use of the cross occurs in many other cases. In the T. V. V. some crosses were recorded, which were originally sacred signs. We add here a few more, which we have recovered from documents of the end of the last century and the beginning of the present one.

Cotton stamps
Sacred tree marks still in use in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

When it rains and the sun shines at the same time, it has been said in Nora (Ångermanland), that "the wizards keep on churning butter", and in Lendus, Delsboa Illustrata, Sthm 1764, it is said p. 16: rain or precipitation is foretold, when the high hills and mountain peaks begin to evaporate and shake, "or as they here in the Northlands jokingly say: when the trolls start frying herring in their heels".

At the present Östersund, people had great difficulty getting through the eastern strait, as a troll lived there and ruled over it. Every effort was made to put a stop to it, but it was not successful. Then they had to send to Germany after two run-binder, who also came and "bound" the troll. In memory of this, a stone was set up on the west side of the strait, on which he carved a writing with run-bindar-style (d. v. s. runor). A few scalps broke the stone, and then the troll began to regain power; but when he was mended, the troll disappeared. The stone with the rune-binding style is, of course, the Yemeni rune stone.

In another place in Jemtland (my wise man thought in Refsund parish) a shepherdess lived in a mountain, called Galtberget. All who travelled by road past the mountain were exposed to her and always suffered accidents here. Finally some rune-binders came to bind her. They made a fire near the mountain, and the shepherdess came to them, thinking they were some travellers. She stood amidst them on the other side of the fire and asked for a sandwich. They put one on the axe and handed it over the fire to the old man. When she brought the sandwich to her mouth, her hand stuck to her lips; and when she was about to kick her hand loose with one leg, her foot also stuck to her mouth. Then the runners put a stake under her hand and foot, and roasted her to death on the fire. A tablet was set up on the spot; but what was written there, no one could read. Then all were allowed to pass in peace. Of what tribe this old woman was, history does not tell; but the troll mentioned here just before must be a sea goat.

Even in the county of Vesterbotten the trolls are not identified with the giants. From the parish of Jörn we report the following story, which according to my elder, the seminarian J. Boman, was considered to mean that bad fishing was to be expected. In the summer of 1870 there were (were) many, who saw more than a trawler on Ullbergsträskä. Hä var saint om qveln, da vä fing säjä'n (se honom). He was dressed like a rag and as big as a giant. He ran on clean water, like another man running up the snow. When he had turned than stand (while), water here (it became) ä big hole you (in, in) water in front of than, å there for than, but ä sheep's-headed (terribly) bus-bas water (became) ä.

In peculiar formations in rocks, the general public sees footprints or other marks of giants. The national antiquarian Johannes Burdus, born 1652, reports in his manuscripts, in the Royal Library's collections, called Semla, the following information from Ångermanland. "A stone is said to be at the bridge over Noreth vidh Näs in Longsäll (Långsele) sokn, which seems to have been found in after jäthinga barn" (giant child).

In Burdus there is also the following, unfortunately incompletely recorded legend: "Olofz and Knutz in Rämsledh (Rämsle village) in Solet (Sollefteå) farfadher was a giant and went over the Soletta rapids that the water did not go higher than the knee, he was as Vörten kiöpte etc. but remember the whole story, it rins like eth robbery and is not as sweet as eth was, for thet the farmer his neighbour hated him, he had him to shout and badh hold the customs, when the neighbour holt (held) the customs pulled him (the neighbour) and threw to deathhz". It is the verb listed in Rietz' Dialect Dictionary p. 254 hia, deceive, deceive. The latter part of the tale is thus a variant of the one in Hyltén-Cavallius and Stephens in Svenska folksagor och äfventyr d. I h. I under N:o I, A, about the boy, who ate in the race with the giant. The giant and the willow boy were going to cut down an oak tree. While the giant was chopping, the boy would hold the top bent down by the giant. But when the boy had well and beautifully taken the toll, the oak ran back and threw him high into the air.

When churches began to be built and their bells rung, the giants could no longer be trifled with. They sought to demolish the hated temples with hurled stones, - of almost every ancient church such tales are told, - but it was in vain. So they fled to distant mountains, or left the land altogether. Burman mentions a giant Fröse, who lived on Öneberget on Frösön. He is said to have, "when he could not bear the sound of church bells, left the country with his three sons, who were also giants, and sat down on an island in the sea, where he was then attacked by the Jews". Among these was a Fröso resident. Similar tales are found in A. E. Holmberg's Bohuslän's history and description, d. III p. 99.


  1. It is recalled that giant plans are derived from eat, as it would mean big eaters.)
  2. Information in Fahle Burman's diary entries from his travels in Jemtland in 1793-1802. In Dybeck, Runa for 1845, the same giantess is mentioned under the name Grinlid.
  3. The village is located on a lake rich in fish and is said to be the oldest in the parish.
  4. According to one variant Copper in Scotch lend the big kitty of Hammers in Hälle to boil up Go long, that hit so late on Saturday nights. In return for the loan, Hammar was to receive liver and lung, tooth and tongue, a piece of the book.
  5. This probably means Village of Soltjärns in this parish.
  6. Of this island many tales have been told in Jemland for some centuries. Marks also gave a variation of the Tjelvar story.
  7. Against compensation of Fry, sun and moon a giant would build for the gods a fortress impregnable to mountain travelers and rhyming turtles, and this in one winter. The work progressed rapidly and it began to look dark for the gods. So they met together and asked each other who had been responsible for taking away Froggy to Jotunheim and for destroying the air and the sky by taking the sun and the moon from there and giving them to the giants. Loki's cunning, however, saved the gods from their embarrassment.

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