Let’s talk about trolls. No, not the online hater type; it’s the original ones from mythology I want to cover today. You probably have your own go-to image of a troll, whether it’s big or small, deadly or cuddly. Yet the name has been applied to a surprising range of creatures, mostly from Scandinavian mythology. Most of the traditional trolls are antagonistic to humans, but beyond that, what makes a troll? Where do these trolls come from, and how did they go from menacing gods and cave explorers to prancing about in children’s movies? Let’s take a look.
I’d like to thank Mr. Ohh from Mr. Ohh’s Sideways View for suggesting today’s topic. Mr. Ohh wrote: “I think the creature I’d like to hear from is trolls. I see them in various books but never have seen their origins.” Ironically, trolls have been on my list since early on, but I had originally planned to cover them when I encountered my first internet troll. The WordPress community has proved more than civil, however, so it ended up on the back burner. I’m so glad to have a much better reason to finally dig into the question of troll origins!
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
There are many types of trolls, but all ultimately come from Scandinavia. The word “troll” is generally traced to the Old Norse “trǫll,”1 with similar words found in Swedish, Danish and Icelandic. In Norse mythology, “troll” was often used as a synonym for “jötunn,” commonly translated as “giants.2 These jötunn/trolls were the main enemies of gods and humans in Norse tales, tending to eat humans while fighting gods. Like Norse dwarfs,3 they turned to stone in sunlight.4 They were often ugly, sometimes stupid, and in cases may have had more heads and limbs than normally issued. Some have suggested these jötunn-style trolls were “rejected deities” who had to live in cold, dark places instead of the more desirable realms of the Vanir and Aesir.5 This might be one reason they were so grumpy and violent.
Not all trolls were giants, however. Another type bears a striking resemblance to the general “wee folk” type. This smaller version more often lived in forests or “burial mounds” than caves.6 Like their larger cousins, they might eat or at least kidnap humans, with an especial enmity towards Christianity. A Danish story tells of “trolds” disrupting the building of a church until the townsfolk promise to give them the first bride married there.7 They also tended to trash houses on Christmas Eve.8 Yet compared to jötunn-style trolls, these beings were more complex and even occasionally sympathetic. Troll mothers often appear to take away changelings swapped for human babies when the humans mistreat or endanger the changeling.9 There are also stories of troll-human marriage and half-troll heroes, like Ketil Trout.10 I haven’t found any notes on similar relations between jötunn/trolls and humans, but feel free to share if you have!
There may even have been trolls that were about human-sized. The smaller trolls are sometimes sorted into the category of “Huldrefolk” or “hidden folk.” The Icelandic version “huldufólk” tends to mainly refer to elves today, while the Danish “Underjordiske/underground people” includes “Elle folk or elves, Trolds or goblins.”11 Among the Huldrefolk are creatures who are “handsome and blond, but are set apart from humans by their long tails.”12 The females, called huldras, seduce and entrap human men through her song and beauty. Some tales describe huldras as having a hollowed “backside like a rotten tree trunk” instead of a tail.13 Huldras are sometimes identified as forest spirits instead of trolls, but if they are trolls, they are a notable exception to the trolls-are-ugly rule.
Where did trolls come from? There’s plenty of debate on this topic, and no definite answers. One theory I ran across proposes that legends of trolls preserve dim memories of encounters with Neanderthals. This argument points to trolls being called “Old Ones” and intermarrying with humans as we know Neanderthals did.14 While it’s a cool idea, I would not consider tales of troll hybrids strong evidence since genetically impossible births are common in mythology around the world. Take this Portuguese legend involving a fish, for instance. The argument also relies on both trolls and Neanderthals being “cave dwellers” with heavy builds and “pronounced brows.” Jötunn-style trolls, which are generally considered the earliest version in etymologies, do fit this image, but what about the other types?
Also, Neanderthals may not have lived in caves full time. The popular image of “cave men” arose partly because archaeologists tended to focus their attention on these sites where bones and artifacts preserved easily.15 It’s now more acknowledged that Neanderthals had a life outside of caves. That makes sense given that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of most early humans required roaming a lot, and caves don’t transport well. Neanderthals might have used these natural fortresses more during the colder months, maybe even as cultural centers since they make great places to store artifacts. The fact that bones preserve so well in caves does make me wonder if some early troll legends might have been inspired by Neanderthal fossils rather than living individuals, much like fossilized dwarf elephant skulls are thought to have inspired tales of cyclops.16 That’s just my own speculation, though.
Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that trolls had an entirely human origin. I ran across one interpretation of Icelandic huldufólk as an “indigenous” population invented by Vikings so they could feel more like conquerors.17 I don’t know if this reasoning was explicitly recorded in primary sources. Still, humans through the ages have run into conflicts with neighboring cultures that often lead to reimagining those “others” as inhuman. Some trolls show complex societies, even their own holidays and customs. Perhaps they reflect people who did not practice the dominant religion of the Scandinavian storytellers. One article even speculates that the “altered state” of humans who are taken by trolls and return is an explanation for “mental illness.”18 Maybe instead of a prehistoric encounter, trolls represent an antagonistic or simply different human other warped into a monster by hostile imagination.
Finally, etymology suggests a purely mythological source for trolls. The Neanderthal argument tries to relate “trǫll” to “troglodyte” to support the cave dweller idea, but most known relatives of “troll” refer to magic. The Old Norse “trylla” is generally translated as “to turn into a troll, to enchant,” while Norwegian “trolldom,” Danish “trolderi,” and Swedish “trolleri” essentially mean “magic, enchantment.”19 “Trolleri” has the specific connotation of “magic intended to do harm.”20 In fact, quite a few different creatures—from boars to undead humans—were counted as trolls when using or driven by negative magic.21 This reminds me of the possibility that “álfr” meant a quality or a title as much as a literal species of Norse elf. That would explain why boundaries between álfr, trolls, and jötunn were so ambiguous, and also why trolls are such a diverse bunch. I also notice that “heathen gods” are on that list. If trolls and jötunn were once the deities worshiped before Thor and Odin’s lot, that would certainly explain the term “Old Ones.”
Trolls have left their mark around Scandinavia, and not just in legends. In 1276, King Magnus Haakonsson of Norway made it illegal to disturb the “mound-dwellers.”22 I’m not sure if that law is still in effect, but a 2006 poll indicated that about 24% of modern Icelanders believe huldufólk “likely” exist.23 Perhaps that belief is reinforced by the many places named for or associated with trolls, such as Reynisfjara Beach and Tröllaskagi in Iceland, and the Trollhätte Canal in Sweden. Norway is full of troll-ish places, including Trollstigen, Trolltunga, and Trollfjorden. The Kjosfossen waterfall in Myrdal, Norway, even hosts huldra-inspired performances for tourists where a woman in red sings and dances near the spray.24 And of course trolls permeate the cultural landscape, from the play Peer Gynt to the cute Swedish comic-book beings known as Moomins, originally called “Mumintrollen.”25 Whatever their origins, trolls have remained a source of fascination in their birthplace.
Trolls also migrated across to the British Isles, possibly courtesy of the Vikings. The trows of Shetland and Orkney folklore are one early example of creatures likened to trolls. A trow resembles the small trolls rather than the giant ones, described as “an ugly, mischievous, little creature that resided in the ancient mounds.”26 I’ve seen no indication they petrify in sunlight, though they usually only appeared at night and even then only those with special sight could see them. Their mound-homes, known as howes or knows, were said to be decked out in gold and other riches. It’s often claimed that “trow” is a local version of “troll,” but as Sigurd Towrie of Orkneyjar points out, a place called Trollashun seems to contradict that theory.27 Towrie instead purposes that trows are a native concept that may have taken on troll-like (or draugr-like) elements from Scandinavian settlers while retaining a distinctive Orkney flavor.
While trows might be mostly their own thing, true trolls did make their way into English lore. The word “troll” didn’t officially appear in the English language until a book of Norwegian folktales by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe was exported in 1858.28 However, some consider Grendel from Beowulf a jötunn/troll.29 Aside from Grendel, I haven’t found many notable examples of the English troll. Many of the classic troll stories, such as “The Three Billy Goats Gruff,” are in fact Norwegian in origin. Trolls may have been minor elements in the British folklore world, blending in with either fairies or ogres until the specific word for them was adopted. Once names and concepts came together, however, they quickly became common elements in fantasy fiction.
Trolling the Media
Today, all the classic troll types show up across media formats, as well as some new inventions. J. R. R. Tolkien helped bring Jötunn-style trolls back into the public imagination with cave trolls in Lord of the Rings,30 and they remain a common monster in RPGs. Small trolls got their own pop culture hit through Danish woodcutter Thomas Dam who carved a toy troll in 1959 and ended up founding the troll doll craze along with his company Dam Things.31 These cutesy dolls are the inspiration for the musical magic of DreamWorks Trolls (2016) and Trolls World Tour (2020). Each troll has their own unique style, but most follow the doll pattern of a big poof of colorful hair over a large head and a tiny body. And of course we also now call people who make malicious comments online “trolls.” Interestingly, while their antagonistic behavior may seem to fit the archetypal troll, the internet “troll” comes from the verb “troll,”32 meaning to search or fish for something.
Even some of the obscure types show up, like the huldra. Stanley, the title character from the 1994 animated film A Troll in Central Park, is a relatively standard small troll, but he sports a long huldra-like tail and has plant-growing abilities that would fit with a forest spirit. True huldras appear in the Norwegian horror film Thale (2012), where two crime scene cleaners at a remote house discover a huldra who has been subjected to experimentation and modifications. Like traditional huldras, Thale looks human except for her tail, while the wild huldras in the surrounding forest are animalistic and violent. Sharon Blackie uses the hollowed-back version of the huldra in her short-story collection Foxfire, Wolfskin, and Other Stories of Shapeshifting Women. This huldra appears more to help a weary wife regain her wholeness than to seduce men.
Artist’s interpretation of the Troll Queen from East. Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
One interpretation of trolls that always sticks in my mind comes from Edith Pattou’s novel East, inspired by the Norwegian tale “East of the Sun, West of the Moon.” These trolls are tall with “perfect” features, rough white skin like tree bark, “gravelly” voices,33 long lives, and powerful “arts.” They live in the icy world of Huldre—Rose calls it Niflheim—and see our world as “a place to get slaves and raw materials.”34 The Troll Queen desires to marry the long-enchanted human prince she kidnapped . Yet she still feeds him rauka, a drug given to “softskin” slaves to suppress their memories and keep them docile until they are left to die on kentta murha/”the freezing field” having “outlived their usefulness.”35 The troll child Tuki’s friendship with Rose and his horror of kentta murha suggest troll hearts are not inherently cruel. They are just too comfortable in a system that oppresses others to try something different.
On the lighter side, Guillermo del Toro’s animated show Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia provides a refreshingly complex vision well-rooted in mythology. These trolls are a diverse lot, with several peaceful tribes plus the human-eating Gumm-Gumms, changelings, and even a troll hybrid. Almost all turn to stone in sunlight and even have stony skin, possibly referencing the idea that trolls petrify because they are “born of stone.”36 Trollhunters are traditionally trolls themselves, so teenage Jim faces contempt and suspicion from the troll community who worry a fragile human isn’t up to slaying rogue trolls to keep both worlds safe. Unlike the creatures in the unrelated Norwegian movie Trollhunter (2010), these trolls range from goofy to evil but are never dumb brutes. Bular mainly wants to have his father back, and ARRRGH’s Tarzan-grammar actually comes from childhood trauma.37 Though still fundamentally different from “us,” these trolls are as fully rounded as the humans they fight, befriend, and sometimes even love.
Jim and Toby visit the underground world of trolls for the first time after narrowly escaping Bular.
It was tough keeping the media section of this post from growing too big, yet this is just a sampling of the troll tales out there! What are your favorite troll legends or modern depictions? I’m also curious, since I ran across a poll on this during my research, do you generally imagine trolls as scary or cuddly? Or perhaps they mean something else entirely to you. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
- Fahey, Richard, “Medieval Trolls: Monsters from Scandinavian Myth and Legend,” Medieval Studies Research Blog from University of Notre Dame, posted Mar. 20, 2020, accessed Apr. 17, 2021, https://sites.nd.edu/manuscript-studies/2020/03/20/medieval-trolls-monsters-from-scandinavian-myth-and-legend/.
- Taylor, Dean, “Trolls: The Lovable Rejects of Mythology,” Owlcation, posted Apr. 24, 2020, accessed Apr. 17, 2021, https://owlcation.com/humanities/Trolls-The-Lovable-Rejects-of-Mythology.
- McCoy, Daniel, “Dwarves,” Norse Mythology for Smart People, last modified Apr. 3, 2021, accessed Apr. 19, 2021, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/dwarves/.
- “Trolls of Norway,” Norse in Tucson, posted Feb. 10, 2020, accessed Apr. 10, 2021, https://norse-tucson.org/trolls-of-norway/.
- Gazur, Ben, “A Brief History of Trolls,” #FolkloreThursday, posted Oct. 13, 2016, accessed Apr. 10, 2021, https://folklorethursday.com/folktales/brief-history-trolls/.
- Vicary, John Fulford, A Danish Parsonage (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & CO, 1884), Chapter VII. Accessed through Project Gutenberg, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/30617/30617-h/30617-h.htm.
- Rasin, Lara, “The Mythical Trolls: Why are Norwegians Fascinated by Them?,” Norway Today, Oct. 16, 2020, accessed Apr. 10, 2021, https://norwaytoday.info/culture/the-mythical-trolls-why-are-norwegians-fascinated-by-them/.
- Vicary, Chapter XVI.
- Vicary, Chapter IX.
- “Trolls of Norway.”
- Kuusela, Tommy, “Skogsrå and Huldra: The Femme Fatale of the Scandinavian Forests,” #FolkloreThursday, posted July 16, 2020, accessed Apr. 21, 2021, https://folklorethursday.com/folktales/skogsra-and-huldra-the-femme-fatale-of-the-scandinavian-forests/.
- Hunt, Patrick, “Neanderthals, Scandinavian Trolls and Troglodytes,” Electrum Magazine, Apr. 28, 2017, accessed Apr. 10, 2021, http://www.electrummagazine.com/2017/04/neanderthals-scandinavian-trolls-and-troglodytes/.
- Nemo, Leslie, “Did Neanderthanls Really Live in Caves?,” Discover Magazine, Sep. 25, 2020, accessed Apr. 16, 2021, https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/did-neanderthals-really-live-in-caves.
- Pappas, Stephanie, “Cyclops and Dragon Tongues: How Real Fossils Inspired Giant Myths,” LiveScience, July 18, 2017, accessed Apr. 22, 2021, https://www.livescience.com/59837-how-real-fossils-inspired-giant-myths.html.
- Sallustio, Michael, “Huldufólk: The Truth Behind Iceland’s Obsession With Elves,” The Portalist, Dec. 21, 2018, accessed Apr. 21, 2021, https://theportalist.com/huldufolk-the-truth-behind-icelands-obsession-with-elves.
- “Trolls of Norway.”
- Towrie, Sigurd, “The Trows,” Orkneyjar, accessed Apr. 22, 2021, http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/trows/.
- Towrie, Sigurd, “The Oigin of the Orkney Trow,” Orkneyjar, accessed Apr. 22, 2021, http://www.orkneyjar.com/folklore/trows/trow2.htm.
- Pattou, Edith, East (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), 126.
- Pattou, 91.
- Pattou, 420.
- Furey, Lauren, “Exploring the Mystery of Scandinavian Trolls,” Scandification, accessed Apr. 10, 2021, https://scandification.com/exploring-the-mystery-of-scandinavian-trolls/.
- Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia, “Wingmen,” Part 1, episode 23, directed by Elaine Bogan, written by Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman, DreamWorks, Dec. 23, 2016.