Nisse, Folklore’s Hidden Guardian of the Homestead

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A nisse is a spiritual creature from Ancient Scandinavian folklore that in modern times is usually associated with the Winter Solstice and Christmas season.

It is believed that nisse originate before the Asa belief, which predates Christianity.

nisse and cat

Nisse are one of the most familiar creatures in Scandinavian folklore and have appeared in many works of Scandinavian literature. They are both solitary and mischievous domestic sprites responsible for the protection and welfare of the farm and homestead.

It is generally described as being no taller than 90 cm (3 ft), having a long white beard, and wearing a conical or knit cap in red or some other bright color. They are often depicted as having the appearance somewhat similar to that of a garden gnome.

Garden Nisse

Most often nisse are imagined as being a small, elderly man (size varies from a few inches to about half the height of an adult man), often with a full beard; dressed in the traditional farmer garb, consisting of a pull-over woolen tunic belted at the waist and knee breeches with stockings.

This was common farmer clothing in rural Scandinavia.

Nisse/tomte (Norwegian farmers) harvesting oats at Fossum in Jølster during the 1880s

However, there are also folktales where nisse are believed to be shape-shifters able to take a shape far larger than an adult man. In The Hidden Hollow, a nisse is depicted as being about the size of a common house cat.

nisse
In modern Denmark, nisse are often seen as beardless, wearing grey and red woolens with a red cap.

Since nisse are thought to be skilled in illusions, they are also believed to sometimes be able to make themselves invisible.

Portrait of an invisible nisse.

One is unlikely to get more than a brief glimpse of a nisse, no matter hard they tried. Nisse are quick and work hard to stay hidden. This is the primary reason we don’t really know what they look like to this day, except about how tall they are.  Some Norwegian folklore claim that they have four fingers and sometimes have pointed ears and eyes which reflect light in the dark, like those of a cat.

Other names for nisse:

  • Nisse (Denmark and Norway), Tomte (Sweden) Tomte literally means “homestead man” and is derived from the word tomt which means homestead or building lot.
  • Tonttu (Finland), haugkall, haugebonde, tuftekall, and tomtegubbe
  • Brownie/brounie or urisk (Lowland Scots)
  • brùnaidh, ùruisg, or gruagach (Scottish Gaelic)
  • Hob, hob goblin, hobgoblin (England)
  • Household spirit, household diety, house elf, imp, Robin Goodfellow, Puck
  • Ancestral spirit, wight, niðsi, dear little relative, nixie
  • Domovoi (Slavic), Heinzelmännchen (German)
  • Lob, lubber fiend, lubberkin, lurdane, Lob Lie-By-The-Fire
  • Jack o’ the bowl (Switzerland), Koro-pok-guru (Japan)
  • Just to name a few…

They are very common

Nisse are good wights who take care of the house and barn when the farmer is asleep, but only if the farmer reciprocates by setting out food for the nisse and he himself also takes care of his family, farm and animals. This is with emphasis on treatment of the animals – they like them much more than they do humans.

They are also said to inhabit houses and aid in tasks around the house. However, they do not like to be seen and will only work at night, traditionally in exchange for small gifts of food. Among food, they especially enjoy porridge with butter and honey. They usually abandon the house if their gifts are called payments, or if the owners of the house misuse them.

If the nisse is ignored or maltreated or the farm is not cared for, he can sabotage a lot of the work on the farm to teach the farmer a lesson or two.

An illustration made by Gudmund Stenersen of an angry nisse stealing hay from a farmer.
An illustration made by Gudmund Stenersen of an angry nisse stealing hay from a farmer.

Although the nisse should be treated with respect and some degree of kindness, he should not be treated too kindly. In fact, there’s a Swedish story in which a farmer and his wife enters their barn an early morning and finds the little grey old man brushing the floor. They see his clothing, which is nothing more than torn rags, so the wife decides to make him some new clothes but when the nisse finds them in the barn he now thinks he is too elegant to perform any more farm labor and thus disappears from the farm.

Incidentally, this is the Scottish-Anglo way to get rid of a nuisance nisse (brownie, house-elf, or hob). It is said to give them new clothes and they go away forever. (Dobby’s a free elf now!)

In modern times, nisse are usually associated with Christmas and the yule time. It is normal that families may place bowls of porridge on the doorsteps in a similar manner that cookies and milk are put out for Santa Claus. In the morning the porridge would have been eaten and sometimes the nisse brings presents as well.

Santa nisse coke
Did you know U.S. G.I.’s returning from WWII who’d seen nisse decorations all over the place during Christmas time and helped spread the concept in the U.S..  Coke Cola adopted the image of the Scandinavian nisse and made it into the Santa Claus you know today.

Nisse are a surviving echo of ancient ancestral spiritual beliefs.

Some scholars believe them to be wights which may have originated as general household gods or deities from before the Asa belief spread through Scandinavia.

In Old Norse, Asa (or ǫ́ss, áss, ás, plural æsir; feminine ásynja, plural ásynjur) is a member of the principal pantheon in Norse religion. This pantheon includes Odin, Frigg, Thor, Baldr and Týr.

Many ancient Scandinavians believed them to be their ancestors and are often seen as being the farmer who originally cleared the forest to build the farm. A spirit that never leaves the farm or homestead they built in their day.

In pre-Christian times, this individual would have been buried on the farm in a mound. He was sometimes referred to as the haugkall or haugebonde, from the Old Norse haugr meaning mound.  Mounds are common places in Scandinavian folklore as the lurking places for ancestors, even angry ones such as Draugr.  Most often blóts are made in their tribute to keep them appeased.
<Read more about Draugr here>

Other names are tuftekall and tomtegubbe, which all connect the being to the origins of the farm (the building ground) or a burial mound. It was thought that the nisse was a more generalized spirits of previous generations at the homestead and there are references to them following the family/clan when they are moving.

The nisse is an echo of ancient spirit.  Nisse may be derived from the Old Norse word “niðsi”, meaning “dear little relative”.

Most of the time these hidden folk are rather distant and do not meddle in human affairs. But do not meddle into theirs as they can be fearsome when enraged. They can make your life very very miserable or even dangerous – they do whatever it takes to drive you away, even arrange accidents that will harm or even kill you.

According to tradition, nisse live in the houses and barns of the homestead and secretly act as their guardian. If treated well, they will protect the family and animals from evil and misfortune and may aidwith the chores and farm work. However, they are known to be short tempered, especially when offended, and once insulted they will usually play tricks, steal items, and even maim or kill.  

Traditionally, Blóts are held every solstice and a gift (never payment) is left for the nisse, the ancestor protecting the home and family.

And you must ALWAYS remember to put out a bowl of porridge with butter and honey  for him on Christmas Eve (Winter Solstice or Jul) to show your appreciation for his watchfulness!

Nisse in popular modern stories

  • In Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files, hobs are eyeless creatures who burn in light. They serve the Queen Mab of The Winter Court of the Sidhe.
  • In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, house-elves (such as Harry’s friend Dobby) appear to be a type of nisse or hob, doing household tasks for human masters and driven from their households if given gifts of clothing.
  • In Njord Kane’s The Hidden Hollow, nisse are part of nature’s hidden folk who are both helpful and manipulative. A nisse offers to take care of the farm and tend to the household duties while a problem is taken care of, but it remains uncertain if the nisse is the root of the mischief in the first place. The nisse also hints at being an ancestor in this story.
  • The Hob appearing in The Years of Longdirk by Ken Hood is considerably different from the traditional depiction, being a powerful spirit which is amoral, neither good nor bad, but which has considerable destructive powers it can use if provoked. In Hood’s fantasy world, “Hob” and “Imp” are two names for much the same kind of being.
  • In The Hob’s Bargain by Patricia Briggs, the Hob is a powerful creature, possibly the last of his kind, who bargains to help protect a local village from a necromancer in exchange for a mate. The heroine who brought the Hob to the village agrees to his bargain in exchange for his help.
  • In An Elder Scrolls Novel: The Infernal City, they are used as kitchen slaves.

 by Njord Kane © 2017 Spangenhelm Publishing


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