Nordic Spirit

Scholarly symposium looks to folklore to bridge the gap between nature and spirit, the known and the unknown

Nordic Spirit

Photo: Wikimedia Commons / National Gallery of Norway
“Far, far away Soria Moria Palace shimmered like Gold, ” oil on canvas by Theodor Kittelsen (1881). Kittelsen was one of most well known illustrators of Asbjørnsen and Moe.

David Moe
Sun City, Calif.

It is from the writings of Asbjørnsen and Moe that a journey into Nordic folklore took its point of departure at the Nordic Spirit Symposium presented at California Lutheran University by the Scandinavian American Cultural and Historical Foundation the weekend of Feb. 7-8.

 The two-day symposium presented a distinguished group of scholars and folklore experts from the United States, Iceland, Sweden, and Norway to explore the topic of spirit in the world of Nordic folklore. The theme of the event was “Magic, Creatures and Legends.”


Historical background

Peter Christen Asbjørnsen (1812-1855) and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe (1813-1882) first met each other as teenagers while attending high school at Norderhov Rectory in 1826. They developed a lifelong friendship, discovered their mutual interest in national folklore, and decided to do their future work together as a team.

Asbjørnsen, a botanist and zoologist by profession, became a forest master and studied methods of timber preservation, and, with the aid of the University of Oslo, made a series of voyages along the coasts of Norway.

Jørgen Moe, the son of a rich and well-educated farmer, graduated with a degree in theology from the Royal Frederick University (now University of Oslo), became a tutor, and spent holidays collecting folklore in southern Norway. He was also a poet and is often placed among the Norwegian Romantic poets. He was later ordained as a pastor and became bishop of Kristiansand in 1875.

Working together, they learned to develop a similar mode of literary expression. At the time, the Norwegian literary style was too heavily influenced by the Danish language to be suitable for a national folklore, but the various dialects used by Norway’s oral storytellers were too localized. They solved the problem by using simple language and maintaining the national uniqueness of the folktales. Together they paved the way for many generations of folklorists to follow.


Photo: Larry Ashim
Professor Terry Gunnell of the University of Iceland enthusiastically spoke about legends of the wild ride.

Symposium presentations

The first presentation was by Terry Gunnell, Ph.D., professor of folkloristics, University of Iceland, Reykjavik. Gunnell spoke about “Riders on the Storm, Riders at the Door: The Nordic Legends of the Wild Ride.” In southern Norway, it was a tale of a single rider chasing a supernatural woman and the more northern legends were about troll-like beings led by a female figure.

 The next presentation by Thomas DuBois, Halls-Bascom professor of Scandinavian studies and folklore, University of Wisconsin-Madison, was about “The Logic of Spells and Incantations in the Era before Magic Denial.” He spoke about the magic in daily life in agrarian Finland, about the interest in magic spells, in particular, about the interest in magic spells as they related to healing.

Ulf Palmenfelt, professor emeritus of cultural anthropology, Uppsala University, Gotland Campus, Visby, Sweden, led the next presentation on “Folk Legends as Cultural Tools for Exploring the Boundaries of Reality.” He talked about how folk tales provide a narrative in exploring the elusive border between the unknown land of the spirit and the known land of the physical world. With the use of imagination, people have tried to explain the unknown world in a way that other people could understand

“The Priest and the Devil in the Nordic Countries” was led by Gunnell. This lecture was a blend of academic discussion and storytelling about the relationship between a number of Lutheran clerics of the past and the devil. Many were seen as magicians, having studied at the “Black School” and with the help of their “Black Book,” they managed to cheat not only the devil but a number of other characters as well.

 “How to Find and Identify Supernatural Creatures: Notes from Work with the Danish Troll Security Agency” was a presentation by Timothy Tangherlini, professor of folklore, Scandinavian Section, UCLA. Tangherlini explored the social, economic and technological changes in Denmark and how that affected the supernatural beings, from the merfolk, the wet and wild people of the sea, to the dangerous basilisks, serpents and water horses, to the nisse.

Nordic Spirit

Photo: Larry Ashim
Ann-Marita Garsed, singer, songwriter and storyteller, presented folk songs from her native Norway.

Ann-Marita Garsed, Norwegian singer, songwriter, storyteller, and performer based in Los Angeles, presented folk songs from throughout the centuries, many in which the supernatural and human worlds meet, when music from one realm is heard by the other. An example is nøkken, the water sprite, who lured people into the water by the sound of his harp, or the huldra, who called her animals home or humans into peril with the sweet sound of her voice. Garsed grew up on the west coast of Norway and is deeply familiar with the folk repertory of her homeland.

The final session, led by DuBois, was about “Local Sounds, Local Legends:  Sámi Ways of Commemorating Beings and Places.” The Sámi developed the joik, to express their relationship with themselves and those around them, whether people or animals, supernatural beings or places.


The spiritual treasure of storytelling

Stories and legends are a way of explaining the unknown supernatural world of the spirit to the known natural world of mankind. We also know them from the Christian tradition. Jesus and the prophets also told many stories to explain the unknown world, and some of it was done with great imagination. With these stories, Christians, too, have taken a leap of faith in the world of the spirit.

Good storytellers make good teachers, because everyone can remember a good story and the person who told it. But unfortunately, storytelling is becoming a lost art with the advent of technology. Television, videos, and cell phones leave little to the imagination, so people tend to believe only what they can see.

But there is a whole world out there, the world of the spirit, unknown to most of the known world. The problem we all have is that we do not know what we do not know; we only know what we know. Throughout the ages, storytellers have attempted to bridge that gap with folklore.

This article originally appeared in the February 21, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.