Don’t mention the tail! A look into the hidden world of the Huldrefolk.
For the Orkney Storytelling Festival this year, I had the good fortune to be asked to do a talk about the Huldrefolk – an otherworld community that I know well from Norwegian folk belief, but which has many parallels in the folklore of other countries, too, including here in Orkney. “Huldrefolk” is actually not their true name, but a taboo name meaning “the hidden people” as if it’s dangerous to say their true name.
The huldrefolk are invisible, so most people don’t actually know what they look like. Accounts from those who have seen them say that huldre women are very beautiful: Tall, healthy and fair, with very long hair that hangs in a plait down their back – or is it their tail? There are also other, and uglier, reports: Some say that the beautiful huldra maiden has a strange cavity in her back. Huldre men often have a very long nose, so long that when they ride it touches the saddle or even the tail of the horse in front! It is also sometimes reported that they wear blue or grey, and that when exposed they can transform themselves into little grey balls that just roll away and disperse.
The huldrefolk are commonly believed to live in glorious invisible farms existing in parallel to the human habitation. Humans can’t normally see then, but certain people with special gifts can, or they may reveal themselves to ordinary people now and then, very suddenly, before disappearing out of sight again. It doesn’t have to be very far from human habitation and people who see a huldre-farm are inevitably surprised to come upon a farm they have never seen before.
Alternatively, their parallel existence consists of sharing human dwellings by complementing their yearly cycle: While farmers in Orkney banished their cattle outside of the hill-dyke while crops and pastures were growing in the summer, farming folk in Norway moved their cattle to mountain shielings where young girls were in charge of looking after the kye, milking and producing cheese and other dairy products. For that reason, you are not meant to stay at the shieling after the autumn flitting day. There are stories about people who just needed to finish some work, such as get the last of the cheese made or finish a fabric they were weaving, or finish chopping some wood, but if the work goes on after the set date the huldrefolk get angry: they have the shieling booked!
In other stories, their parallel world is underground and may in fact be located directly below human farms. In these stories, they are called “underjordiske” – subterraneans. Like trolls, huldrefolk are also reputed to live inside mountains and also inside smaller knowes and hills. In that sense, they are not unlike the fairies that live in mounds in Scotland and Ireland.
There are also magical huldre islands, come-and-go islands that you suddenly see like the Celtic Tir-nan-Ogh or the famous Heather Blether west of Rousay. These islands are known as “Huldreland” and each one may have a specific name as well, such as the one outside the outermost island of the Lofoten archipelago, which is called Utrøst. Sometimes people sail through a mysterious fog before the island suddenly appears, sometimes the island is a welcome life-saver for sailors or fishermen caught in storms – but once you are there, you might not return to the world of humans. These islands are like the Orcadian Finfolkaheem. The most famous Orcadian isle of this sort is of course Hildaland, and I like to speculate that Hildaland is the same as Huldreland and that it means the hidden land, just as huldrefolk means the hidden folk – and if that is the case, we may also think that the Orcadian word “hill-folk” for some otherworldly people that live in the hills is not actually as plain as it seems. Perhaps it corresponds to huldrefolk and means the hidden people?
Huldrefolk can be helpful to humans if they wish, helping with the harvest or building dykes, as long as you are polite to them – and they enjoy a reward of good food and beer. Sometimes the huldrefolk warn humans if there is something going on with the kye. For example, once a cow had gone missing and the farmer was out looking for her when he heard someone calling from the forest: Here is your cow! He followed the voice and there was his cow right enough. Huldrefolk can even help humans fight wars. You don’t see them, but you know they are fighting for you because you hear their drums! In all these stories I have just told of huldrefolk helping humans, they remain invisible but can be detected by their voices and other sounds.
Occasionally, huldrefolk need help from humans, too. A story which is told all over Norway is about a woman who helps a huldre woman give birth. After delivering the child safely, the midwife accidentally rubs some potion in her eye which was meant for the baby. It gives her the permanent ability to see the huldrefolk. This tale is also told in Britain and Ireland, and the tale type is known as “midwife to the faeries”.
Huldrefolk can even marry humans. Because women traditionally moved to the husband’s home, girls are taken into the mountain or into the invisible huldre farm if married to a huldre man. However, when a man is married to a huldre wife, she moves out to the human world, becomes visible and may even lose her tail if she is baptised – although often the huldra doesn’t wish to be baptised. Such huldre wives are very beautiful and good workers, but the husband must be good to her, or horrible things may happen! First of all, it is best not to mention her tail. There is a story about huldra going to a dance, and she lets a boy dance with her because he is tactful: He sees her tail, but instead of saying so he says “look what a beautiful plait of hair she has. It is so long it hangs right down to the floor.” Another man always delayed doing jobs that his huldre wife gave him. One day she was fed up of this, and took a red hot horse shoe in her bare hands and bent it straight. The man got scared and did the job right away. But the wife cried and said that being angry had made her uglier.
These stories are of course reminiscent of stories you get in Orkney about selkie wives, selkie men and fin men. However, these often contain an element of abandonment that you don’t see very much in the huldre spouse stories. The selkie wife like the huldre wife stays and is a good worker, but unlike the huldre wife she leaves after some years – as soon as she finds where her husband has hidden her seal skin.
The huldre wife, on the other hand, must permanently stay when she has been cut away from her world and brought into the world of humans by means of steel, so by cutting above or around her with a knife for example. Fishing hooks are made of steel, too, and have the same effect: There is a story about a man who was fishing for trout in a mountain lake, and naturally he was swinging his fishing rod behind him to throw. What he didn’t see, was that there was an invisible hulder girl standing right behind him, and when the metal fishing hood passed over her head, she became visible! The fisherman was startled to see a beautiful young girl behind him, and she came with him and became his girlfriend.
Huldre farms and huldre cattle can be made to stay by cutting around them or shooting above them. Such farms are known as a “finnegard”. Anything Christian such as prayers, soil from the churchyard or the sign of the cross are also effective protections against the huldrefolk. One method for bringing back people who had been abducted into the mountain by the huldrefolk or by trolls was to ring the church bells. But they had to be near enough to be heard inside the mountain, so sometimes they would even take the church bell down and carry it up to the foot of the mountain where the missing person was believed to be. I don’t doubt this would be effective: If they really had lost their way in the wilderness, hearing church bells would be a good navigation aid.
The huldrefolk had the power to cause illness in humans if they wished. Children with chronic illnesses or disabilities were believed to be Huldrefolk children that had replaced the original child. This belief is also well known from the Celtic world and from Orkney. The way to deal with this was to make the changeling expose itself for what it was. Changelings were often older than they looked, so one might for example do something absurd like pour whisky in an egg shell or serve a tiny portion of porridge in a huge bowl, which would make the changeling forget it was supposed to behave like a baby and exclaim “I’ve never seen anything like this before!” or similar. Once exposed, it would return to its own people and if you were lucky you would get your own baby back.
A precaution that was observed both in Norway and Orkney was to put something anti-demonic in the cradle. In Norway it was often scissors and although in later times it was said that it should make sure the baby grew up to be a good worker, the original intention was to ward off huldrefolk - as we know, steel has power over them and when open it also resembles a cross. In Orkney, a knife and the Bible went into the cradle for the same reason.
It is wise to take your precautions so that you don’t run into conflict with the huldrefolk. In the old farming community in Norway, people always used to say “watch out!” before they threw a bucket of dirty water out of the window, in case there were invisible people standing underneath.
It’s always best to ask the huldrefolk before you build! It might be that your new byre happens to stand right on top of an underground or invisible huldre building. There is one story about a farmer who hadn’t asked, and it turned out he had built his byre right above the huldrefolk’s sitting room. The muck was dripping down through their ceiling and right into their food! He had to take the byre down and move it.
There was also the danger that the huldrefolk could take your cattle or milk them. You would know if the huldrefolk had been at the kye, because their milk would run dry or ever worse: Turn to blood! To prevent this kind of misfortune, when it was time to let the cattle out in the spring, people used to throw fire over their backs.
A similar custom was also observed in Orkney: Ernest Marwick records that in Sandwick, when a cow was calving, they would light a fire in the byre and in Eday it was the custom to take fire from the hearth and quickly take it into the byre and throw it several times back and forth over the cow’s back.
So there are many similarities between beliefs in the Huldrefolk in Norway and the “hill folk” and “trows” and “selkies” in Orkney. These beliefs and stories are also connected to folklore further afield in Britain, Ireland and the rest of Europe. It is fascinating to discover how stories are shared, but still develop a myriad of local variations.