Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Saturday, 15 January 2011

FOR WHOM THE BELL TROLLS!


Painting of trolls by Swedish artist John Bauer (1882-1918) (Wikipedia)

Trolls are famously frightened of sunlight and the tolling of church bells, but did you know that they are also scared of thunder and sometimes transform into ball lightning? No? Well you do now, and so do I – thanks to an extremely interesting email that was kindly sent to me just a few days ago by a ShukerNature reader.

One of the delights of writing this blog has always been the receipt of additional and often very unexpected, significant information from its many readers and followers, some of whom post their thoughts and data directly here, whereas others send theirs to me privately. In this vein, after emailing me previously with valuable new data in response to my post on the night-raven (and which I duly included in full within the comments section of that post), on 8 January 2011 Swedish correspondent Håkan Lindh sent me another very informative and enlightening email, but this time on the subject of Scandinavia’s most famous folkloric entities - trolls.

If, like me, you were a child somewhere in Europe or North America during the mid-1960s, then it is very likely that your first encounter with the term ‘troll’ came via those ubiquitous toy figures originally created in 1959 by Danish fisherman and woodcutter Thomas Dam but which soon became toy sensations worldwide. Of varying size and often unclothed, but invariably topped with great shocks of silky hair, ‘troll dolls’ were created in their millions and in every conceivable combination of skin and hair colour. Fascinated by these weird yet strangely intriguing entities (clearly my future passion for cryptozoology was already beginning to surface!), I pestered my parents into buying me a sizeable, multicoloured array of them – and, hoarder that I am, I still have some of the smaller ones standing in line along the shelf of one of my bedroom bookcases, as well as a larger, fiery-haired biker troll! (Yes, my motorbike passion was an early developer too!)


My miniature troll dolls retained from childhood (Dr Karl Shuker)


From these Westernised toy trolls, it was just the smallest of steps for me to begin reading in British and American books of fables and folklore about more traditional, Nordic trolls – or what I had at least assumed until now were traditional Nordic trolls. Here I came across all of the classic troll stereotypes – slow-witted, hideously ugly, huge, hairy, and unclothed, living underground during the day and only emerging at night, liable to eat unwary humans if any strayed into their dark, forested domains, sometimes encountered lurking beneath bridges, and fated to turn to stone if caught above-ground by the first rays of the morning sun.

And then, in later years, along came cryptozoology, which introduced to me the exciting notion that perhaps trolls were more than just a myth. Could they instead have been inspired by misty, preserved memories from long ago of encounters between modern man’s ancestors and Neanderthal man? And could some of these latter have even survived into historical times, explaining reports of woodwose or hairy wild men allegedly spied in various of the more remote reaches of Europe? Moreover, there were even suggestions that perhaps trolls were man-beasts, comparable to the Himalayan yetis and North American bigfoot.

But how close – if indeed close at all – were any of these varied Western concepts of trolls to those prevalent in their Scandinavian homelands and traditions? Let’s just say, as you’ll now discover, that Håkan Lindh’s email to me regarding trolls was nothing if not eye-opening - revealing that the ‘real’ Nordic troll is very different indeed from what I had previously been led to believe or expect. It also contained a most interesting snippet concerning the possibility favoured by some cryptozoologists that dragons were real animals:

"I have been interested in cryptozoology for as long as I can remember, but I’m also very sceptical of the value of folklore as a source. Sure, stories may sometimes hide grains of truth, but folklore itself spins that according to its own "rules".

"The early folklorist/ethnographer Hyltén-Cavallius did a serious cryptozoological survey in the nineteenth century Sweden about dragons. His theory was that dragons really were a Scandinavian species of python, so he sent out advertisements to get in touch with witnesses. And people did contact him, but it is obvious that what they told him was of no real substance, exaggerated stories of grass-snakes and the staples from dragon-folklore mostly, so it ended in nothing. Hyltén-Cavallius sure was a pioneer, but also seen as something of an eccentric already in his own time. His theories about trolls and giants were also seen as too much.

"Besides a general knowledge of a phenomenon, I’m unsure if there are much facts to find from folklore.

"I read a few years back on the net about cryptozoologists trying to identify our trolls as some kind of bigfoot, and that is very strange indeed. Trolls are never described as giant apelike animals, they are people living in societies, wearing clothes, having laws and language etc just like humans. They are not even very monstrous to look at, troll-girls especially could even be exceptionally beautiful. However, they were magical, and "contrary" to humans. They lived under cliffs and mountains, they shunned steel, they feared thunder, were not Christian, and were cunning thieves. As shapeshifters they were most often seen as shadows, animals or "balls of string" (ball-lightning perhaps), and of course often they were invisible.

"After the industrialism arrived, illustrators of children’s books like John Bauer created the "modern" troll, but those were not the trolls people actually believed existed once.

"So there is nothing in the real folklore that connects trolls with bigfoot-type cryptids. No more than British fairies actually.

"But cryptozoology will continue to be a favourite interest of mine, just as folklore is, even if I’m sceptical about [whether] the two subjects will really meet very often."


Troll societies bound by laws and gifted with language, the wearing of clothes, exceptionally beautiful troll maidens, and the ability to change into spheres of string or lightning? It all sounds less like the grunge-associated trolls of yore that we all thought we knew, and more like the synopsis for a new slick fantasy movie franchise.

That gives me an idea! Hold on – what do you mean there’s already a series of films out there starring a giant green ogre who actually turns out to be quite a caring, sharing, loveable kind of guy?! You’ll be telling me next that there’s also a series of films out there starring modern-day vampires more concerned about romantic teenage angst than blood, and sporting a fetchingly wan pallor to match! What? Oh...


My biker troll doll (flanked by a pair of Biker Mice From Mars!) (Dr Karl Shuker)

16 comments:

  1. Hi again.
    When it comes to pretty troll-girls,it has even in half-joke "feuds" between villages.In my hometown there is a suburb that once were a seperate village.The story goes that in the hill near that village once lived really nice trolls who was kind and helpful to their human neigbours.They had a daughter however,who was so pretty that they kept her hidden and let noone see her.One farmer boy decided to take a peek and by trickery succeded,but her parents noticed.So they forced him to marry her,and from this troll-human marriage the population in that village decended,which explained why people from there was so much more handsome than other villages and the nearby town Halmstad.
    This is more of a joke-story,but more serious tales about troll-human marriages do exist.There are a few stories about human-giant marriage too,and children getting supernatural strength by being breastfed by trollwomen who lost their own babies.
    And of course,trolls were believed to steal human babies and women who had just given birth.Those stories can be very similar to British Fairy-stories.

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  2. I still think that nordic mythic races may be remnants of some tribal memory. The modern view of neanderthals no longer puts them as hairy troglodytes but as simply another human, so perhaps their wearing clothes and disliking steel (which certainly seems appropriate, as neanderthals used wooden steaks for hunting), and having language simply means that neanderthals were more human than we thought. As for the language, one school of thought says that a neanderthal raised in a modern family would be almost identical psychologically.

    One could make a similar memory connection of little people, since in the colonial days, English scientists were convinced that african pygmies formerly occupying the british isles were the basis of the fairy myth. And, of course, ebu gogo myths also feature stealing babies.

    And this brings us to the logical conclusion, giants (perhaps not the nordic kind, but definately the modern cryptozoological kind) would be the tall and muscular, and perhaps hairy Homo erectus and relatives.

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  3. Troll may have been abit of a catch all word. Dr Lars Thomas who is writing a two volume book on Nordic cryptids says he has uncoverd information about one of the old Danish kings. The kinf loved to hunt and his favourate quarry were trolls. The description given of both male and femal troll in the account match very closley the descriptions of the almasty that i was given in Russia by eye witnesses.
    As for Hyltén-Cavallius lidorms, i have never brought the rather lame grass snake explanation. I thing what people were reporting may have been the young of the larger lake dwelling lindorms still reported to this day. My freind AAdam Davis saw such a creature in Lake Sejord.
    All the best Richard Freeman

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  4. Hi Håkan, Thank you so much for these great stories about trolls, and for opening our eyes as to the true nature of the traditional Nordic troll before it became 'modernised'. I can't resist adding some further details here that you've sent me directly, because they are not only so entertaining but also very noteworthy inasmuch as they demonstrate well that the tradition of encountering trolls is far from dead and restricted to folktales:

    "Incidently, new reports of trolls, tomtar, älvor, skogsrå etc are still made. They may not be as numerous as in the past, and get no publicity at all. But the archives of folkloristics do collect these modern reports too. The dad of a friend of mine for example claimed he saw a female Vittra once. Complete with hollow back and all. And my ex father-in-law claimed that he once saw a group of Vättar(small human-looking beings, generally indifferent to humans but sometimes friendly, often live under the floors of human homes) walking through the living room one evening and then disappear with a flash into the electric contact in the wall. Very modern Vättar I suppose, but that is just to be expected when old stuff continue into modern times. Folklore evolves too, which just makes it more colourful...
    I couldn´t hesitate to send a picture of the local Troll hot-spot, Virsehatt. They were believed to live under this high cliff, and were for the most part nice trolls. But not always. One Christmas night a farmer passed by and saw the whole cliff standing om golden pillars with huge bonfires lighted under. The trolls,changed into giant cats, danced and leaped around it all. When he came home, he told his family and added as a joke: "...and our old moggy jumped highest of all of them". This very ordinary cat got up and said: "Did I indeed?" and tore out the farmer's throat before disapearing for ever. So never tease a cat, it just may be a troll in disguise:-)".

    Thanks again, Håkan, for these wonderful tales and reports - it's good to know that trolls have somehow made it into our modern-day technological world!

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  5. Hi.
    The problem with trolls in saga-litterature and ballads is that those sources are litterature,not folklore.In these sources trolls and other beigns is always made bigger,more dangerous and monsterous than the version everyday people actually believed existed.The difference is that those tales were never told as "true" stories,they always happened long ago,in a fantasy-version of reality,not here and now.Folkloristic tales however were told as true stories,and "proofs" were often cited,like pointing out some place in geography where it happened,or the simple "my-relative-told-me-this-and-he/she-never-lied".But this version also were the one people took steps to protect themselves from,or had rules about to behave towards if you suspected they were close,not the monstrous version from tales about heroes from the past.Just like British farmers did believe in fairies,but not really the Tinkerbell-type from Victorian-Edwardian childrens litterature.
    As for neanderthals,there has only ever been found one single stone tool of their type of technology in Scandinavia.That indicate that they may lived here before the last ice-age,but not a single bone or any other finds have so far turned up.The chances for them to turn up is not very big either,since the whole of Scandinavia was covered in a 3000 meter thick layer of solid ice that really played havoc with the landscape.Bones or tools would likely been ground to dust,or scattered,exept in rare occasions.Modern humans didn´t arrive until 9000-10 000 years ago.So there was noone here to remember them if they lived here earlier.
    As for Hyltén-Cavallius,he didn´t look for lake-monsters but landliving dragons.So the lakemonsters of past and present is a different story.Lindorm,as a synonym for dragon,were mostly used about landliving monster snakes,and in some areas they even believed the lindorm lived inside linden-trees.
    There are a few modern sightings of bigfoot-type creatures from Sweden,but none of the witnesses identified what they saw as trolls or any other type of folklore-creature.
    Best Wishes
    Håkan

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  6. Hi everyone, Great comments and much-valued extra information - thanks! The first time that I ever came across a crypto-connection for trolls was in a 1960s non-fiction book on mysteries called Stranger Than People. (See intro to my Dr Shuker's Casebook, in which I discuss the impact that this book had on me re mysteries and the unexplained as a child, rather like On the Track of Unknown Animals had re cryptozoology.) In that book, it was suggested that perhaps trolls were based upon Neanderthal Man (of course, back in the early 1960s NM was still being portrayed as a much more brutish, primitive hominid than we nowadays know it to have been). In any event, trolls as relict hominids (as opposed to more ape-like entities comparable to bigfoot) is an intriguing concept.

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  7. http://users.skynet.be/fa023784/trollmoon/TrollBlog/trollblog.html

    Great Toll blog
    Relic hominids could have moved into Nordic countries after the ice retreated just as modern humans did. I think the almasty is not a neaanderthal but something larger and more primative. I allso think the likeness betwen the almasty and some troll descriptions, as pointed out by Dr Lars Thomas cannot be ignored.
    As for Lindorms, they were thought to start life as small snakes that got bigger and bigger. Eventualy they moved into lakes and even the sea. In some stories they coil around a church and crush it. Giant bulls were supposedly raised to fight them. Theys elephantine bovids were fed just on milk. The fight usualy ended in the death of both beasts as the lindorm tried to swallow the giant bull.
    Of course this is just mythological but its seems like almastys and trolls lindorms and lake / sea monsters are connected.

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  8. For plenty of information re Scandinavian trolls of many different types and activity, check out the following blog, brought to my attention by Richard Freeman - thanks, Rich!

    'TrollMoon - Celebrating the Scandinavian Troll in Art and Folklore':

    http://users.skynet.be/fa023784/trollmoon/TrollBlog/trollblog.html

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  9. Re. the throat-tearing troll cat from the company of dancers.There is a gentler English form of this story called 'The King of the Cats' which has been alleged to have Irish origins.The English story is localised in Cannock Chase ('the Wilderness of Cank'),Staffordshire,in its earliest version (16th century).The story concerns,not a cat dance,but a cat funeral and when the cat's master the sexton describes the cortege and what the chief cat mourner said ('Tell Tom Tildrum that Old Tim Toldrum's Dead'),Old Tom,the sexton's cat exclaims in a squeaky voice 'If Old Tim Toldrum's dead,then I'M THE
    KING OF THE CATS!'and vanishes up the chimney,never to be seen again.
    Irish legend features a monstrous cat called
    Irusan who at one point runs off to his cave with a captive poet in his jaws.
    A Scottish legend from the Isle of Lewis features two would-be sorcerers who gain their magic powers through a barbaric ritual, involving roasting a series of black cats alive on a spit until the monster cat Big Ears appears (without Noddy!)to grant them their wish.This is referred to as Taghairm
    (literally :'echo')a name usually given to a rite of Highland divination involving sensory deprivation to 'call the spirits' - in which a man was sewn up in a bull's hide and left to endure the 'white noise' of a waterfall all night.

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    Replies
    1. Could you help me find a copy of the "Wilderness of Cank" version? I've read a later Tildrum/Toldrum tale, but, apart from a very similar story in "Beware the Cat" the earliest I (or Wikipedia) can find is Lord Lyttleton's.

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  10. Hi Silas, I remember the King of the Cats story well, as I first encountered it in a book by Amabel Williams-Ellis entitled 'Fairy Tales of the British Isles' (1966) that I read as a child, and still own today. I've just been looking through it again, I'd forgotten just how interesting some of those old folktales were!

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  11. Trolls were still big at the time when Prof. Johan Bure(1568-1652)described them in Sumlen. Bure talked with eye-witnesses who had seen trolls slain in thunderstorms, but only had an opportunity of examining two trolls himself. One troll,killed by thunderbolt at Västerås in 1598,was lying on its right side for a fortnight before anyone dared to touch it. It was dressed in old clothes,wearing an untidy kirtle ("slarfvot kiortel") with wide sleeves. It was beardless,but looked like a male with coarse skin,black upright horns and tusks like those of a 2-yr-old boar. It had human nails, but long as claws. (Bure's informant was eye-witness Nils Masson from Övernäs;two other witnesses are named.)- Two trolls electrocuted by lightning (and badly burnt)on 10 July 1623 in Danmark parish in Uppland were examined by Bure on 20 July. One body (or skeleton: "ben-radh") lying on the ground,was 6 alnar (3,6m or 12ft) - i.e.twice the size of a human being - the other one may have been smaller since it had managed to seek refuge in a basement. The professor collected samples of blood and bone. - Modern scholars xplain that Prof.Bure must have been temporarily insane, but descriptions show how trolls were appre-hended in early 17th C; in other words,his trolls were traditional.
    The trolls you call traditional are based on folklore recorded in 19th & early 20th centu-ries. However, troll lore did retain several characteristics from early days. By the way, a rå (noun created from verb "rule,have power") is a solitary being,unlike troll. Not same species. Must stop now; tail hurts if I sit too long. Best wishes, Sven Rosen.

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  12. You know, I have always felt that the primitive, hairy, barely erect Almas could not be one and the same as the modern, erect, highly intelligent Neanderthal. Why is it that whenever a big hairy ape-man gets reported, it is brandished a Neanderthal?

    As for trolls, maybe they are actually two seperate creatures: the primitive uglies and the modern nicies.

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  13. As to Grendel, I know I always suspected it might be linguistically related to the North England Grindylow. I'm not certain whether that was ever proven or not, but it certainly seems likely to me.

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  14. There has always been some overlapping in stories of trolls and giants, but neither giants are described as bigfoot. Again they have language,clothes,customs etc. Sicteenth-seventeenth century scholars still continued with loads of superstitions. The great naturalist Ole Worm in Denmark owned an egg that he believed had been laid by a norwegian farmers wife. He never doubted it for a moment.Bureus himself were part of the revival in intrest in runes, and the translations made in these days of runestones found "evidence" for stuff from the Bible.Sounds like Buerus never saw any of the "trolls" himself, but he accepted the witness statements and interpretations without questions. Perhaps why his claims don´t hold up today?

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  15. Hi, happened to read this blog:

    regarding the Nordic lindorms, my own explanation for the creature is the eel! But in a unusual, gigantic form. Based on many similar descriptions from the 1800s, I can't find another explanation. Snakelike, large eyes, and a mane along it's back. Occasionally on land. There are reports well into the 1900s of these animals. I have seen a video interwiew with an elderly woman, whose grandfather shot a large white "snake" with mane on it's back in the 1920s. In a nearby lake there have been recent sightings of a large mystical animal. Of course, through the ages, with a lot folklore developing, for example into creatures like näcken, bäckahästen etc.

    The reason for a normal eel to develop into a gigantic type could be a sterile animal, which have lost the migration instinct. The eel theory also doesn't need breeding populations, only influx of young eels, of which a small portion may develop into this form. We have the lindorm poison, which could be the toxic eel blood etc. But the explanation for the gigantic form is not known. A scientific challenge. Therefore, do anyone out there have more information on gigantic freshwater eels?

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