John Bauer 1915

Look at them, troll mother said. Look at my sons! You won't find more beautiful trolls on this side of the moon. (1915) by John Bauer

A troll is a jinn in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore. In origin, troll may have been a negative synonym for a jötunn (plural jötnar), a being in Norse mythology. In Old Norse sources, beings described as trolls dwell in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves, live together in small family units, and are rarely helpful to human beings.

Later, in Scandinavian folklore, trolls became beings in their own right, where they live far from human habitation, are not Christianized, and are considered dangerous to human beings. Depending on the region from which accounts of trolls stem, their appearance varies greatly; trolls may be ugly and slow-witted or look and behave exactly like human beings, with no particularly grotesque characteristic about them. Trolls are sometimes associated with particular landmarks, which at times may be explained as formed from a troll exposed to sunlight. One of the most famous elements of Scandinavian folklore, trolls are depicted in a variety of media in modern popular culture.



The meaning of the word troll is uncertain. It might have had the originally meaning of supernatural or Magic with an overlay of malignant and perilous. Another likely suggestion is that it means "someone who behaves violently".

In old Swedish law, trolleri was a particular kind of magic intended to do harm. It should be noted that North Germanic terms such as trolldom (witchcraft) and trolla/trylle (perform magic tricks) does not imply any connection with the mythical beings. Moreover, in the sources for Norse mythology, troll can signify any uncanny being, including but not restricted to the Norse giants. The ambiguous original sense of the word troll appears to have lived on for some time after the Old Norse literature was documented. This can be seen in terms such as sjötrollet (the sea troll) as a synonym for havsmannen (the sea man) – a protective spirit of the sea and a sort of male counterpart to the female sjörå (see huldra).


We can discern the forming of two main traditions regarding the use of troll.

  • In the first tradition, the troll is large, brutish and a direct descendant from the Norse jötnar. They are often described as ugly or having beastly features like tusks or cyclopic eyes. They are often regarded as having poor intellect (especially the males, whereas the females, trollkonor, may be quite cunning), great strength, big noses, long arms, and as being hairy and not very beautiful (Once again, females often constitute the exception, with female trolls frequently being quite comely). This is the tradition which has come to dominate fairy tales and legends (see below), but it is also the prominent concept of troll in Norway.

As a rule of thumb, what would be called a "troll" in Norway would in Denmark and Sweden be a "giant" (jætte or jätte, derived from jötunn).

  • The second tradition is most prominent in southern Scandinavia. These trolls are very human-like in appearance. Sometimes they had a tail hidden in their clothing, but even that is not a definite. A frequent way of telling a human-looking troll in folklore is instead to look at what it is wearing: Troll women in particular were often too elegantly dressed to be human women moving around in the forest.

Reversely, what would be called trolls in southern Sweden and Denmark would be called huldrefolk in Norway and vitterfolk in northern Sweden (see wight). The south-Scandinavian term probably originate in a generalization of the terms haugtrold (mound-troll) or bergtroll (mountain-troll), as trolls in this tradition are residents of the underground. Whereas the large, ogrish trolls often appear as a solitary being, the "small" trolls were thought to be social beings who lived together, much like humans except out in the forest. They kept animals, cooked and baked, were excellent at crafts and held great feasts. In their living quarters, they hoard gold and treasures.


Trolls are mostly associated with the element of Earth.


Opinion varied as to whether or not the trolls were thoroughly bad or not, but often they treated people as they were treated. Trolls could cause great harm if vindictive or playful, though, and regardless of other things they were always heathen. Trolls were also great thieves, and liked to steal from the food that the farmers had stored. They could enter the homes invisibly during feasts and eat from the plates so that there was not enough food, or spoil the making of beer and bread so that it failed or did not end up plentiful enough.

The trolls sometimes abducted people to live as slaves or at least prisoners among them. These poor souls were known as bergtagna ("those taken to/by the mountain"), which also is the Scandinavian word for having been spirited away. To be bergtagen does not only refer to the disappearance of the person, but also that upon returning, he or she has been struck with insanity or apathy caused by the trolls. Anyone could be taken by the trolls, even cattle, but at the greatest risk were women who had given birth but not yet been taken back to the church.

Occasionally, the trolls would even steal a new-born baby, leaving their own offspring – a (bort)byting ("changeling") – in return.


More often than not, though, the trolls kept themselves invisible, and then they could travel on the winds, such as the wind-troll Ysätters-Kajsa, or sneak into human homes. Sometimes you could only hear them speak, shout and make noise, or the sound of their cattle. Similarly, if you were out in the forest and smelled food cooking, you knew you were near a troll dwelling. The trolls were also great shapeshifters, taking shapes of objects like fallen logs or animals like cats and dogs. A fairly frequent notion is that the trolls liked to appear as rolling balls of yarn.

To ward off the trolls you could always trust in Christianity: Church bells, a cross or even words like "Jesus" or "Christ" would work against them. Like other Scandinavian folklore creatures they also feared steel. Apart from that they were hunted by Thor, one of the last remnants of the old Norse mythology, who threw Mjolnir, his hammer, causing lightning bolts to kill them. Though Mjolnir was supposed to return to Thor after throwing, these hammers could later be found in the earth (actually Stone Age axes) and be used as protective talismans.

In Scandinavian fairy tales trolls sometimes turn to stone if exposed to sunlight. Some have attributed this aspect of the myth with pareidolia found in naturally eroded rock outcrops.


Like many other species in Scandinavian folklore, they were said to reside in underground complexes, accessible from underneath large boulders in the forests or in the mountains. These boulders could be raised upon pillars of gold.

In some Norwegian accounts, such as the middle age ballade Åsmund Frægdegjevar [1], the trolls live in a far northern land called Trollebotten – the concept and location of which seems to coincide with the Old Norse Jötunheimr.

There are many places in Scandinavia that are named after trolls, such as the Sweden|Swedish town Trollhättan (Troll's bonnet) and the legendary mountain Trollkyrka (Troll church).


The Trolls are represented as dwelling inside of hills, mounds, and hillocks--whence they are also called Hill-people (Bjergfolk)--sometimes in single families, sometimes in societies. In the ballads they are described as having kings over them, but never so in the popular legend. They are regarded as extremely rich for when, on great occasions of festivity, they have their hills raised up on red pillars, people that have chanced to be passing by have seen them shoving large chests full of money to and fro, and opening and clapping down the lids of them. Their hill-dwellings are very magnificent inside. "They live," said one of Mr. Arndt's guides, "in fine houses of gold and crystal. My father saw them once in the night, when the hill was open on St. John's night. They were dancing and drinking, and it seemed to him as if they were making signs to him to go to them, but his horse snorted, and carried him away, whether he would or no. There is a great number of them in the Guldberg (Goldhill), and they have brought into it all the gold and silver that people buried in the great Russian war." - The Fairy Mythology by Thomas Keightley



Legends from the Middle Ages and earlier feature a kind of trolls of horrifying dimensions. This might reflect a past view of trolls as distinctly bad creatures that would soften in later folklore, or just be another example of fantastic tales demanding fantastic dimensions.

Many of the fairytales featuring trolls were written in the late 19th century to early 20th century, reflecting the romanticism of the time, and published in fairytale collections like Tomtar och Troll. These tales, and illustrations by artists like John Bauer and Theodor Kittelsen, would come to form the ideas most people have of trolls today.

Asbjørnsen and Moe's collection feature a number of traditional fairy tales where trolls hold princesses captive, such as The Three Princesses of Whiteland, Soria Moria Castle, and Dapplegrim, and two where trolls invade homes on Christmas Eve to make merry, Tatterhood and The Cat on the Dovrefell. Female trolls may conspire to force the prince to marry their daughters, as in East of the Sun and West of the Moon, or practice witchcraft, as in The Witch in the Stone Boat, where a troll usurps a queen's place, or The Twelve Wild Ducks, where she turns twelve princes into wild ducks. In other tales, the hero matches wits with the troll: Boots and the Troll, and Boots Who Ate a Match With the Troll.

Norse mythologyEdit

In Norse mythology, troll, like thurs, is a term applied to jötnar, and are mentioned throughout the Old Norse corpus. In Old Norse sources, trolls are said to dwell in isolated mountains, rocks, and caves, sometimes live together (usually as father-and-daughter or mother-and-son), and are rarely described as helpful or friendly. In the Prose Edda book Skáldskaparmál, a scenario describing an encounter between an unnamed troll woman and the 9th century skald Bragi Boddason is provided. According to the section, once, late in the evening, Bragi was driving through "a certain forest" when a troll woman aggressively asked him who he was, in the process describing herself:

Old Norse:

Troll kalla mik
trungl sjǫtrungnis,
auðsug jǫtuns,
élsólar bǫl,
vilsinn vǫlu,
vǫrð nafjarðar,
hvélsveg himins –
hvat's troll nema þat?

Anthony Faulkes translation:

'Trolls call me
moon of dwelling-Rungnir,
giant's wealth-sucker,
storm-sun's bale,
seeress's friendly companion,
guardian of corpse-fiord,
swallower of heaven-wheel;
what is a troll other than that?'

John Lindow translation:

They call me a troll,
moon of the earth-Hrungnir
wealth sucker of the giant,
destroyer of the storm-sun
beloved follower of the seeress,
guardian of the "nafjord"
swallower of the wheel of heaven [the sun].
What's a troll if not that?

Bragi responds in turn, describing himself and his abilities as a skillful skald, before the scenario ends.

There is much confusion and overlap in the use of Old Norse terms jötunn, troll, þurs and risi, which describe various beings. Lotte Motz theorized that these were originally four distinct classes of beings; lords of nature (jötunn), mythical magicians (troll), hostile monsters (þurs) and heroic and courtly beings (risi)—the last class being the youngest addition. Ármann Jakobsson calls this theory "unsupported by any convincing evidence". He has gone on to study the Old Norse examples of the term troll and has concluded that in the Middle Ages, the term is used to denote various beings such as a giant or mountain-dweller, a witch, an abnormally strong or large or ugly person, an evil spirit, a ghost, a blámaðr, a magical boar, a heathen demi-god, a demon, a brunnmigi or a berserk.

Scandinavian folkloreEdit

Later, in Scandinavian folklore, trolls become defined as a particular type of being. Numerous tales about trolls are recorded, in which they are frequently described as being extremely old, very strong, but slow and dim-witted, and are at times described as man-eaters and as turning to stone upon contact with sunlight. However, trolls are also attested as looking much the same as human beings, without any particularly hideous appearance about them, but where they differ is in that they live far away from human habitation, and, unlike the and näck—who are attested as "solitary beings", trolls generally have "some form of social organization". Where they differ, Lindow adds, is that they are not Christian, and those that encounter them do not know them. Therefore trolls were in the end dangerous, regardless of how well they may get along with Christian society, and trolls display a habit of bergtagning ('kidnapping'; literally "mountain-taking") and overrunning a farm or estate.

While noting that the etymology of the word "troll" remains uncertain, John Lindow defines trolls in later Swedish folklore as "nature beings" and as "all-purpose otherworldly being[s], equivalent, for example, to fairies in Anglo-Celtic traditions" and that they "therefore appear in various migratory legends where collective nature-beings are called for". Lindow notes that trolls are sometimes swapped out for cats and "little people" in the folklore record.

A Scandinavian folk belief that lightning frightens away trolls and jötnar appears in numerous Scandinavian folktales, and may be a late reflection of the god Thor's role in fighting such beings. In connection, the lack of trolls and jötnar in modern Scandinavia is sometimes explained as a result of the "accuracy and efficiency of the lightning strokes". Additionally, the absence of trolls in regions of Scandinavia are described in folklore as being a "consequence of the constant din of the church-bells". This ring caused the trolls to leave for other lands, although not without some resistance; numerous traditions relate how trolls destroyed a church under construction or lunged boulders and stones at completed churches. Large local stones are sometimes described as the product of a troll's toss. Additionally, into the 20th century, the origins of particular Scandinavian landmarks, such as particular stones, are ascribed to trolls who may, for example, have turned to stone upon exposure to sunlight.

Lindow compares the trolls of the Swedish folk tradition to supernatural mead hall invader Grendel in the Old English poem Beowulf, and notes that "just as the poem Beowulf emphasizes not the harrying of Grendel but the cleansing of the hall of Beowulf, so the modern tales stress the moment when the trolls are driven off."

Smaller trolls are attested as living in burial mounds and in mountains in Scandinavian folk tradition. In Denmark, these creatures are recorded as troldfolk ("troll-folk"), bjergtrolde ("mountain-trolls"), or bjergfolk ("mountain-folk") and in Norway also as troldfolk ("troll-folk") and tusser. Trolls may be described as small, human-like beings or as tall as men depending on the region of origin of the story. James MacCulloch theorizes a connection between the Old Norse vættir and trolls, theorizing that both concepts may either stem from (or ultimately derive from) spirits of the dead.

In Norwegian tradition, similar tales may be told about the larger trolls and the Huldrefolk ("hidden-folk") yet a distinction is made between the two. The use of the word trow in Orkney and Shetland, to mean beings which are very like the Huldrefolk in Norway may suggest a common origin for the terms. The word troll may have been used by pagan Norse settlers in Orkney and Shetland as a collective term for supernatural beings who should be respected and avoided rather than worshiped. Troll could later have become specialized as a description of the larger, more menacing Jötunn-kind whereas Huldrefolk may have developed as the general term applied to smaller trolls.

Theories and analysisEdit

Theories about origin and existenceEdit

In the genre of paleofiction, the distinguished Finnish paleontologist Björn Kurtén has entertained the theory (e.g. in Dance of the Tiger) that trolls are a distant memory of an encounter with Neanderthals by our Cro-Magnon ancestors some 40,000 years ago during their migration into northern Europe. Spanish paleoanthropologist Juan Luis Arsuaga provides evidence for these types of encounters in his book, The Neanderthal's Necklace. The theory that Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons occupied the same area of Europe at the same time in history has been theorized based on fossil evidence. Other researchers believe that they just refer to neighboring tribes. The problem with this theory is that neither Neanderthals or Cro-Magnons existed in this part of Europe during the ice-age. Most of Scandinavia was covered by a large glacier and the area was not occupied until much later.

A more plausible explanation for the troll myth, is that the trolls represent the remains of the forefather-cult which was ubiquitous in Scandinavia until the introduction of Christianity in the 10th and 11th centuries. In this cult the forefathers were worshipped in sacred groves, by altars or by gravemounds. One of the customs associated with this practice was to sit on top of a gravemound at night, possibly in order to make contact with the deceased. With the introduction of Christianity however, the religious elite sought to demonize the pagan cult, and denounced the forefathers as evil. For instance, according to Magnus Håkonsen's laws from 1276 it is illegal to attempt to wake the "mound-dwellers". It is in these laws that the word troll appears for the first time, denoting something heathen and generally unfavourable.

This fits with the trolls in Norse sagas who are often the restless dead, to be wrestled with or otherwise laid to rest.

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