Birds and their meaning in Nordic Folklore


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

Long before human beings had ever dreamed of entering the sky realm birds were considered to have otherworldly abilities letting them fly as messengers and communicators between heaven and earth. Birds became important as a way for humans to read signs from the spirit realm, and they were held in awe and even feared. Different birds communicated different warnings and auspicious messages.

The Raven


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

The raven is probably the bird with the most spiritual significance in the Nordic countries. The raven was Odin’s bird, or rather birds, he had two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who resided on his shoulders occasionally flying down to the earth realm to be Odin’s eyes on earth. The Norse people considered Raven feathers to be magical, they could among other things pick any lock, perhaps even the lock to someone’s heart.

Another Norse legend tells us of a small pebble that could be found in a raven’s nest, and if you could get hold of this pebble you could, by putting the pebble in our mouth, turn invisible. This pebble was especially sought after by warriors. But if you misused the pebble to do mischief you would be turned into an owl, the least auspicious birds according to the Norse belief, so it came with a fair warning to be used with extreme caution.

If two ravens were seen fighting while a wedding was taking place this warned of a bad marriage, and the wedding could be stopped. If a chieftain saw seven ravens fighting in the sky this meant that war was coming and he had to start preparing his warriors. These signs were taken seriously and followed, without question, by the Norsemen.

The Eagle


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

Another significant bird in the Norse symbolism was the eagle. The eagle in most cultures is a symbol of freedom and strength. To the Norsemen the eagle was even more significant. Odin, the king of gods, could turn himself into an eagle in order to fly to earth to drink the elixir of life that kept him immortal and forever young. So if you saw an eagle in the sky you could never really know if it really was Odin in disguise, and accordingly you were on your best behavior around eagles, trying to display honor, courage and bravery. The symbol of an eagle was therefor often used to inspire bravery in warriors.

The Cormorant


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

The Cormorant was, to the old Nordic people, the messenger between the “Folk of the Forest” and the humans. They brought warnings to people from the Folk, such as “danger is coming”, this the Cormorant demonstrated by unfolding their wings and holding them up in a protective gesture before the people the warning was meant for. This also gave them the status of being a protector. They could also warn the fishermen of bad fishing by flying against the boat when the men were on their way out to sea.

The Wood Grouse


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

The Wood Grouse was nicknamed the trollbird by the old Nordic people. The reason for this was that they thought the wood grouse actually was a troll woman turned into a bird. She was someone to be careful around because she could be unpredictable and moody, sometimes choosing to do good while other times she was full of mischief luring young men into the woods to seduce them and kidnap them. But if you found a feather of a wood grouse you were very lucky because it had healing properties, especially for “womanly” ailments.

The Swan


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

There is an old Norse legend that tells of the origin of the Nordic Lights. The legend states that there was a flock of seven swans who were too late to migrate and got stuck in the ice on a lake. Their frozen wings blazed over the sky and turned into beautiful green and blue lights. So whenever the Nordic Lights appeared on the sky it was the seven frozen swans fluttering their wings.

The Dipper


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

The Dipper is the Norwegian National bird, maybe because of its mystical past in the Norse culture. The Dipper, who spends most of its time on the ground near waterfalls, was in close contact with the underlings, the fey folk living underground. These underlings were considered to be hostile towards humans who tread on their homes, and the Dipper could plot with the underlings taking revenge of anyone who disturbed their nest or young ones. So the Dipper was a bird who were left alone and avoided at all cost.


Art by the Norwegian Fairytale artist Theodor Kittelsen.

As we can see, birds have a long and mystical history in the North. Most of it is now forgotten and just considered to be old superstition, but many people still swear by birds when it comes to telling the weather or whether or not the fishing is good. Birds do have a deep connection to nature and the elements, and can still be a valuable messengers and teachers when it comes to changes in nature. Besides, some claim that the symbolism around birds is still important today as it points to deeper truths about ourselves and about life.

What do you think?

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The Scandinavian Nisse

Midthun
Art by Kjell E. Midthun

Did you know that the way Santa Clause looks like today; his boots, top hat, coat and even his long beard is inspired by the ancient legends of the Scandinavian nisse?
You see, nobody had really seen santa clause, so when they wanted to put his picture on Christmas cards and in books they had to use their imagination and try to imagine what he looked like. To spark their creativity they looked towards Scandinavian folklore for inspiration. And there, hidden among trolls and elves and various underlings, they found the little Scandinavian nisse.

svein solem 4
Art by Svein Solem

The Scandinavian nisse, or tomte, as he is called in Sweden, is quite different than Santa Clause. He is very tiny, and lives either in the forest or on a farm, or sometimes even in the mountains.

svein solem pinterest
Art by Svein Solem

The forest nisse lives under the roots of trees or in hollow trees. You might sometimes spot these forest nisse abodes in nature, you might see a tiny opening leading underground, or a little hidden pathway into the hollow of a tree trunk. The forest nisee gathers berries, nuts and fruits in the autumn to fill his pantry for the harsh winter. The forest nisse’s purpose is to take care of the little animals in the forest and to help them if they are hurt or if they can’t find food in winter. Sometimes the forest nisse can be mistaken for a mouse and be caught by an eagle, an owl or a fox, but when they discover that it is in fact a nisse and not a mouse they have caught they immediately let the nisse go and apologizes sincerely.

skanidsk.com svein solem
Art by Svein Solem

The farm nisse lives on people’s farms. He helps take care of the farm animals. If the farmer is nice and gives the nisse rice porridge topped with lots of butter, sugar and cinnamon on Christmas Eve,
the nisse helps him take care of the farm. But if the farmer doesn’t believe in the nisse and consequently doesn’t give him his rice porridge, the nisse may play a prank on him, like stealing his washing from the cloth line or switch the sugar with salt, or he might even leave the farm if he gets angry enough. Every Norwegian knows that if you want to run a successful farm you’ve got to have a happy nisse helping out!

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Art by Svein Solem

There is a third kind of nisse, the mountain nisse, but very less studies have been done about this particular nisse. It is only recently the stories of this very shy nisse has come out in daylight and been told to children. Some say that the mountain nisse’s top hat is blue instead of red like the farm nisse and forest nisse. This is probably to blend in more with the mountains. The mountain nisse’s life purpose is to make sure that the air is clean and crisp, as well as to make the blue hour, the hour before sunset and sunrise, during the winter season.

K. Midthun
Art by Kjell E. Midthun

The nisse can live as long as 300 years. He marries if he falls in love, something that only happens once in a lifetime for a nisse, and it is not always the nisse girl chooses him!

Nisse Couple - Svein Solem
Art by Svein Solem

In Norway children grow up with stories of the forest nisse, the farm nisse and the mountain nisse. So instead of giving Santa Clause milk and cookies on Christmas Day, children in Norway prepare rice porridge for the nisse and leaves it for him outside the house on Christmas Eve. And of course the porridge has to be topped with lots of butter, sugar and cinnamon.

The legends of the nisse dates back to ancient pre-Christian times, even before the Vikings, and is a treasured part of Norway’s and Scandinavia’s rich cultural heritage and folklore.

To know more about the artists, please see these links:
Svein Solem: http://www.sveinsolem.com/nisser.html
Kjell E. Midthun:https://www.facebook.com/pages/Galleri-Midthun/111736875585437