ByMona Torgersen, writer at
Staff Writer, lover of all things fantastical and supporter of House Martell. Follow me on twitter @monatorgersen
Mona Torgersen

Trolls — you may know them as anonymous people who leave nasty replies in online comment sections, but the real origins of trolls is a much more fascinating tale.

What are trolls and where did they come from?

Trolls are supernatural beings in Scandinavian folklore who appear in various different sizes and shapes. They can be as big as a mountain with trees growing on their noses, or they sometimes have several heads, and in some cases only have one eye. There are also smaller versions who live in forests and close to human settlements. Trolls are closely connected to nature, and they are nature spirits, much like the fairies we know from English folklore or the fauns of Greek mythology.

Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen
Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen

Their origin is believed to be from the Jotun, a race of beings described in Norse mythology. The Jotun were not evil creatures, though they did have many disagreements with the Norse gods. At some point people started distinguishing the two races, and trolls became beings in their own right. This probably happened as a result of Christianity being introduced to Scandinavia, and trolls were suddenly depicted as evil and anti-Christian. They were given new characteristics, such as being able to smell the blood of Christians, who they wanted to eat, and became allergic to the sunlight. They became beings of the night and darkness, and if they were exposed to sunlight they turned to stone.

The Hidden People

Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen
Illustration by Theodor Kittelsen

Trolls are a sub-category of what is known as The Hidden People - supernatural beings that live in a realm that is very close to our own, but just beyond our reach. Sometimes these beings leave their own realms and enter the world of humans. They can be fairies, goblins, trolls and other creatures, and they must be treated with respect. They have mystical powers and if you disrespect them they can make your life miserable. The Hidden People are a symbol of nature — the Scandinavian climate is harsh, and if you don't respect its destructive powers you won't live very long.

How do Trolls interact with humans?

Trolls are often depicted as the antagonist in Scandinavian fairytales. They are known to capture princesses, much like dragons in other fairytales, and the male protagonist has to rescue the princess from the troll.

They often try to eat humans and animals, like in the fairytale Three Billy Goats Gruff, a story about three goats trying to cross a bridge without being eaten by the troll who lives underneath it.

Credit: Peter Madsen and Forlaget Alvilda
Credit: Peter Madsen and Forlaget Alvilda

Trolls used to be depicted as having near-human intelligence, and sometimes they live in a form of society. However, in more modern interpretations, they are daft and easy to trick, barely more than mere animals. Female trolls, known as troll wives, are often depicted as smarter than their male counterparts. They can perform spells, and are similar to witches in many ways. In fact, magic was known as "trolldom" in the old days, and in the Scandinavian languages wizards are referred to as "troll men".

Easily tricked

Should you find yourself in a situation where you've been captured by a troll that wants to eat you, don't worry! Trolls are unintelligent creatures, and it's very easy to trick them. In one Norwegian fairytale a boy named the Ash Lad is captured by a troll who wants to eat him. The Ash Lad suggests they have a bet — if he is able to eat more porridge than the troll he will be released. The troll laughs at the boy and is so confident in his ability to win that he accepts the bet. The Ash Lad places his backpack on his belly, and instead of eating the porridge he pours it down his backpack.

Credit: Harald Nordberg
Credit: Harald Nordberg

After a while the troll starts complaining that he's very full. The Ash Lad advices him to do what he does — cut a hole in his stomach to let the porridge run out. The troll doesn't believe this will work, but the Ash Lad cuts a hole in his fake belly to prove it. The porridge pours out of the Ash Lad's backpack, and the troll is convinced that this is a good idea. He grabs a knife and stabs himself in the stomach, which results in the troll dying and the Ash Lad escaping with all his gold. I have to say I feel kinda bad for the troll.

Trolls in movies

Trolls have been depicted in movies many times, but the most accurate depiction so far has to be the Norwegian movie The Troll Hunter. It's a found footage mockumentary telling the story of a man who is hired by the Norwegian government to keep the trolls in check.

Well I hope that's given you a brief overview of the mystical being that is the troll. Remember kids - don't go out after dark and try not to be Christian to prevent the trolls from smelling your blood. Should you still end up in a troll pickle you'll just have to come up with a clever plan to escape, just like Bilbo Baggins did that one time! Good luck!

Sources: Soria Moria Castle, Peter Madsen, Nasjonalmuseet, Trolls, Underjordiske and Høgskolen Stord/Haugesund.


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