A huldra is a dangerous seductive forest creature found in Scandinavian folklore.
She is a member of a family of a very ancient beings that inhabit the forest, but remain hidden from humankind.
In Scandinavian folklore, the huldra (Norwegian, derived from a root meaning “covered,” “hidden,” or “secret”) is a very elusive and seductive creature of the forest. The huld-rå being is a rå, which is a keeper or warden of a particular location or landform. The different species of rå are sometimes distinguished according to the different spheres of nature with which they were connected, such as skogsrå or huldra (forest), sjörå (freshwater) or havsrå (saltwater), and bergsrå (mountains).
Other names include: huldra, huldrå, hylda, skogsrå or skogsfru/skogfru (meaning ‘lady (ruler) of the forest’ or ‘forest wife/woman/spirit’) and tallemaja (‘Pine Tree Mary’). They are often referred to as Ulda by the Sámi.
As a whole, they are known as huldrefolk or huldufólk. They are hidden folk of the forest.
Her name suggests that she is originally the same being as the Völva Huld and the German Holda.
“In Scandinavian mythology, Huld is only referenced by völva or seiðkona, which is a woman who practiced the seiðr. She is mentioned in Icelandic tales and sagas, such as the Ynglinga saga, Sturlunga saga and a late medieval Icelandic tale. One source states that she is Odin’s mistress and the mother of the demi-goddesses Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr and Irpa. As her name suggests, Huld may be in origin the same being as the Huldra and the German Holda.” <Nordisk familjebok (1909)>
The males are called Huldrekall (hulder man), huldu, or huldrekarl are often said to be hideous in appearance and have grotesquely long noses.
Both the male huldrekarl and female huldra are forest and mountain dwelling creatures that take the form of tall and very beautiful humans with long flowing hair.
The female huldra is almost invariably described as being incredibly, seductively beautiful.
The huldra is a stunningly beautiful, sometimes naked woman with long hair; though from behind she is hollow like an old tree trunk and has an animal’s tail. In Norway, she has a cow’s tail and in Sweden she may have that of a cow or a fox. Further in the north of Sweden, the tail can be entirely omitted in favor of her hollow or bark-covered back.
Most Tales tell of a tail. (ba dum tss)
In Norway, the huldra has often been described as a typical dairymaid wearing the clothes of a regular farm girl, although somewhat more dazzling than most girls.
One of her methods is to appear suddenly out of the rain and mist, friendly and enticing to the point that no man can resist her charm.
They lure them into the forest in order to secure her freedom or sometimes to suck the life out of a man.
They may appear nude in their most basic form, or disguise themselves and hide among humans, masquerading as farm maidens. If a human manages to somehow see their back or tail, the spell is broken and the human is no longer susceptible to the huldra or huldrekarl’s seductive advances.
Lore of huldra and huldrekarl tell of them using their beautiful appearance and seductive charm to lure young men and women back to their caves or subterranean homes where they may be kept a slaves, lovers, or worse – depending on the tale.
Sometimes the humans are released, but are cursed with the constant temptation to return to their captor. Other tales describe them getting married to humans, losing their tails, and becoming human themselves – but retaining their magic.
Some huldra or huldrekarl are inherently deceptive and evil, but many respond to the treatment they receive. If treated kindly, they have been known to use their magic to help humans and solve their problems. If treated unkindly, they can be hateful and vengeful. Much like any other being in the world.
Christian Norse say that if a huldra can manage to get married in a church, her tail falls off and she becomes human.
However, it is also said that she can become very ugly. It is often said, that the young and beautiful Huldra is moody and dangerous, but when she becomes old and ugly that she also becomes gentle and caring to the man who made her Christian.
The huldra has an aquatic counterpart called the ‘havsfrun’, ‘sjörå’, or ‘Havsrå’ (sea wife/woman) who is very similar to the Sirens Odysseus meets in the Odyssey. Or possibly that of mermaids luring men to their deaths at sea.
There is also the bergsrå, which are in caves and mines. They make life tough for the poor miners, but this is perhaps because the miners are encroaching in their dwellings.
The mountain huldra (bergsrå) are said to lure men down into endless cave systems that they wouldn’t be able to find their way out from. The bergsrå (Mountain Rå), Bergatrollet (Mountain Troll), or Bergakungen (Mountain King) are a mythical creature of the mountain, or Rå, in Norse mythology.
Like the forest huldra, the mountain bergrå can be either male or female. It lives in the mountain with a court of relatives and sometimes surrounded by trolls. It was a common phenomena in the mythology about the bergsrå for humans to be bergtagen (literary: “taken into the mountain”) and spend time with the bergså in the mountain.
A typical description of such a claimed occurrence was given by Sven Andersson in 1691, when he was on trial for having sexual intercourse with a female bergrå.
The forest huldras were held to be kind to colliers (wood burners that make charcoal) and watched their charcoal kilns while they rested. The colliers knew that she would wake them if there were any problems. This allowed the to sleep and be rested. In exchange for her help they left provisions for her in a special place.
One day, a boy in Tiveden went fishing, but he had no luck.
Then he met a beautiful lady and she was so stunning that he felt he had to catch his breath. But, then he realized who she was because he could see a fox’s tail sticking out below the skirt. He knew that it was forbidden to comment on the tail to the lady of the forest, so if it must be done, it must be done in the most polite manner. He bowed deeply and said with his softest voice, “Mi’lady, I see that your petticoat shows below your skirt”.
The lady thanked him gracefully and hid her tail under her skirt, telling the boy to fish on the other side of the lake. That day, the boy had great luck with his fishing and he caught a fish every time he threw out the line.
This was the huldra’s recognition of his politeness.
However, there are tales of kind huldra and there are tales of huldra that are not so kind.
In some traditions, the huldra lures men into the forest to have sexual intercourse with her, rewarding those who satisfy her and often killing those who do not. The Norwegian huldra is a lot less bloodthirsty and may simply kidnap a man or lure him into the underworld. She sometimes steals human infants and replaces them with her own ugly huldrebarn (huldre children, a changeling).
Sometimes she marries a local farm boy, but when this happens the glamour leaves her when the priest lays his hand on her or when she enters the church. Some legends tell of husbands who subsequently treat her badly. Some fairy tales leave out this feature and only relate how a marriage to a Christian man will cause her to lose her tail, but not her looks and let the couple live happily ever after.
However it is said that if she is treated badly by her husband, she will remind him that she is far from weak by straightening out a horseshoe with her bare hands, sometimes while it is still glowing hot from the forge.
If betrayed, the huldra can punish a man severely. In one case from Sigdal, a huldra avenged her pride on a young braggart she had sworn to marry on the promise that he would not tell anybody of her. The boy instead bragged about his bride for a year and when they met again she beat him around the ears with her cow’s tail. He lost his hearing and his wits for the rest of his life.
There is legend of the ‘hunder’s blessing’. Legend states the hulder has long been associated with hunting and that she might blow down the barrel of a huntsman’s rifle, causing it to never miss a shot thereafter.
Some men are not so lucky, or perhaps skilled enough, and escape her only after surrendering their sanity.
A man returning from the forest without wits has indubitably met with the hidden folk of the forest.
Huldra in some modern references
Hulderheim is southeast on the island Karlsøya in Troms, Norway. The name means “Home of the Hulder.” It is one of many locations believed to be inhabited by huldrafolk.
The Norwegian municipality Lardal has a huldra in its coat of arms.
Huldremose (Huldra Bog) is a bog located on Djursland, Denmark, which is famous for the discovery of the Huldremose Woman, a bog body from the Early Iron Age.
In modern day Iceland, stories still abound of the huldufólk. It is said that work crews building new roads will sometimes divert the road around particular boulders which are known to be the homes of the huldufólk.
Huldra in film and literature:
- Neil Gaiman’s short story “Monarch of the Glen: An American Gods Novella” features a huldra as a main character. Story now in “Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders”
- In Njord Kane’s “The Thrall,” the main character has a brief encounter with a huldra while in the forest.
- In Frank Beddor’s book “Seeing Redd,” it briefly mentions how Queen Redd was thought of as being part troll and part huldra.
- The 2012 film, “Thale” features the forest creature huldra.
Thale (2012) Film Synopsis:
Elvis and Leo run a crime scene cleanup business and are hired to clean up after a death, when they discover Thale, a female humanoid creature with a cow’s tail that appears to be incapable of human speech, hidden in a basement. Playing a tape left behind by her captor, Elvis and Leo learn of her life in captivity, and that she has been the subject of medical experimentation. Later, paramilitary soldiers come to recapture Thale. Thale’s fellow creatures, hulders that are more satyr-like, come to the rescue and leave Elvis and Leo alive. Thale later rejoins the hulders in the wild.
Watch trailer: Thale (film) 2012
- Ashliman, D. L. “Origin of the Hidden People: Two Legends from Iceland by Jón Arnason“. D. L. Ashliman’s folktexts.
- Hall, Alaric Timothy Peter (2004). The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England (PDF). Glasgow, Scotland, UK: Department of English Language, University of Glasgow.
- Nordisk familjebok (1909)
- Ynglinga saga
- Sturlunga saga
- Grimberg, Carl; Åberg, Alf (1960). Svenska folkets underbara öden. 4, 1660–1707. Stockholm.
- Grimberg, Gunnar (1935). Skogsrået i yngre nordisk folktradition. Skrifter / utg. av Kungl. Gustav Adolfs akademien för folklivsforskning, 99-0440828-9 ; 3 (in Swedish). Uppsala: Lundequistska bokh.
- Hultkrantz, Åke, ed. (1961). The supernatural owners of nature: Nordic symposion on the religious conceptions of ruling spirits (genii loci, genii speciei) and allied concepts. Stockholm studies in comparative religion, 0562-1070 ; 1. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.
- Häll, Mikael (2013). Skogsrået, näcken och djävulen: erotiska naturväsen och demonisk sexualitet i 1600- och 1700-talens Sverige (in Swedish). Stockholm: Malört. ISBN 978-91-978751-2-7
Article by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
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