Nisser in Telemark - Old Legends
Legend from Telemark: M.B. Landstad, 1802-1880
(Nisse, plural Nisser, a mythical being of Scandinavian Folklore)
There is no place so full of Nisser and where one has paid so much attention to them as in Nissedal. But there is also no other place where the faith in the Nisse has been more deeply rooted and lasting, yes, all the way up to our own time.
There the nisse is both on water and on land. It seems as if one has reason to believe that the valley got its name from the nisse. If this is indeed so, then there is in that name a remarkable testimony about these small beings’ power over the folk-beliefs as well as the age of their residence right.
They had arrived there with the first settlers. In Nisser (the Nisser-lake) there was a remarkable little lad. One had not liked to straightforwardly call him Nisse, but they had a nickname for him and he was named “Nisse-goddreng”. He shows himself at night when people are out in their boats on the water. Then he leaps up on the oars, hinders the progress and slows the speed of the boat. It seems amuse him to interfere in this way.
Olav Arnsteinsson who is well known in Nisser and has lived there both night and day for fifty years, assures that “han hev vurti fær det fleire vendur”. He has both seen and felt how Nisse-goddreng has jumped outboards on the oars. He has followed Olav over long stretches and hindered Olav awfully. But when he appears it was generally so dark that Olav could not really get a good look at the creature, so he cannot describe accurately the looks of the fellow.
But he considers that he is about the size of a cat. And if you say to Olav Arnsteinsson that it could have been just an animal, a fish or a bird, he considers that talk in poor taste. He does not want to go into it any more because he seems to sense that one should not make fun of him when it comes to fish or fowl.
Besides, there are others that have seen him better than me, says Olav, - and from Arilds time he has been known under the name Nisse-goddreng. It is also generally the opinion of people of Nissedal that such a being resides in Nisser.
The nisser are small like children, but very strong. They are dressed in gray cloth and have a knitted cap on their head. But in our area the cap is not always red in color. They have much to do in the barn, the stable and the livestock quarters.
They are both willing to work and helpful to their friends, but to those who wish them ill they are both vengeful and mean. They often have great fun playing pranks, and when the pranks are successful, they laugh heartily. They like receiving porridge and good food, and folks have habitually offered them such gifts in the way the ancients offered gifts to the inhabitants of the netherworld.
The offering intended for the nisse is set out either in the hayloft or by a tree out in the fields. It is not so long ago that a woman at Fjone in Nissedal set out porridge with butter and beer for the nisse each Christmas Eve. She put this out under a tree out in the field. In the morning the vessel was empty and turned upside down. The husband did not like this worship and told his wife to discontinue it, but it did not help.
One Christmas Eve he went down to the tree with his axe intending to cut it down. But before he had hit the tree three times the Nisse arrived, seized him and gave him a proper beating.
The man got such a beating by the tiny Nisse that he was unable to walk home. He remained there more dead than alive until they found him.
In Nissedal the nisse helps himself to what he requires to a greater degree than in other places. He shares everything with the farmer on the property where he lives. This happens this way: He takes a third of all the crops on the farm for his own household. But how and when this sharing takes place, that is something no one knows and no one has noticed. As a result the Nisse is helping in all the work on the farm. He follows the workers and he imitates them in all details.
The Nisse wife follows the farmer’s wife and works side by side with her during the harvest. But if the farmer fails to place his axe just right over the grain bales when everything is brought in, then the Nisse comes and extracts mead from the grain and then it loses its energy. This is the reason there is so much more light grain in Nissedal compared to other places.
At Flatland in Vrådal there was a Nisse residing. He cared for the cows and did it very well. But one night a cow was missing from the barn, and they could not find it anywhere. It could not have gotten out, and it was not found inside, it was as if it was sunk into the ground. On the third day after the cow disappeared they heard it “moo” in the cellar. There they found the cow. But they had to cut open the floor to haul it up again. The nisse had moved it down there. He had a bone to pick with the milkmaid who had refused him lodging in the hayloft.
In Synstedveien I Seljord there were a great many Nisser in the old days. Up in the fields stood an old ash stub. It was there they set out a beer bowl and porridge for them. When the maids went to the brook to fetch water in the evening, the Nisse tripped them so they fell and got all the water over themselves. Then the Nisser laughed: ha, ha, ha! so it echoed in all the surrounding hills.
In the evenings it had to be quiet, otherwise the Nisse would make noise when the people wanted to rest. But in Tov Synstetveits time, the grandfather of the Tov that lives there now, the Nisser had to move, because he was not good to them and continuously made trouble for them. A late evening he had fetched water and had carried it up, he threw the “såstangen” from him so it made a fearful noise. No sooner had he come in, before he heard the same kind of noise outside. Then he realized the Nisser had made their presence known.
He went out, swinging his weapon in the dark trying to kill a few of the small creatures. But they were smart enough to avoid getting hit. Tov made as much noise as he could, then he went inside. The Nisser might not have made as much of an impact as Tov, but they continued to make small noises throughout the night so the people on the farm could not rest or sleep. But Tov had a greater penalty in store for him.
One morning he arrived in the livestock quarters he saw one of his best young cows hung. The Nisser had hanged her. It was easy to see, she stood on her head in the spot with the body up along the wall. After that the Nisser did not dare do anything but flee.
Tov heard that they moved. He was in the stabbur during the night, and it was as if there was a great parade through the property. It was the Nisser that left with all their belongings. Tov’s horse was outside and he made the noises horses make when they are frightened. When Tov went out to see what was going on, the horse was standing on two feet as straight as an arrow. Since that time no one has seen the Nisser there.
At Furustøl the nisse came and frightened the sheep owned by Anne Medås. – “Shoo, you ugly donkey,” she said, “you who frighten my sheep”. She ran to collect the sheep, and in that instant she fell and broke her big toe. The nisse laughed, ha, ha, ha!
A man from Åmot traveled to his mountain farm with a pack of milk-bowls on horseback. He had secured them well with ropes, but when he had gone part of the distance suddenly the pack fell off the horse and all the wooden milk bowls scattered as if they had been thrown. Then he heard how they laughed in all the hills: Ha, ha, ha! It was the nisser making fun of him.
At the farm Åkre in Hjartdal the nisse settled permanently in the old days. On the farm lived a couple named Bjørgulf and Torgunn. They were both eager to cultivate the people of the netherworld and they made much of the nisser and treated them well. In return they had much help from them too. When Bjørgulf came home from the fields, he left the horse and wagon outside while he went in to dine and rest.
When he came back out, the horse had been released from the wagon and taken to the stable and given both hay and water. The same kind of help was given Torgunn in the barn. She placed the portions of hay on the floor and went back into the house – she knew that the nisse would see to it that each cow would get its portion of hay. This never failed.
Torgunn was in the habit of brewing a barrel of malt each “olsok” holiday. This big barrel of beer was placed in a storage cellar used for firewood. The idea was that this was an offering to the netherworld creatures. This beer cellar of Torgunn’s can still be found and is today called the “Beer Hole”. As a reward Bjørgulf had his acres of grain tended, and no one had a more successful crop of grain than he. This is how the farm got its name.
But the nisser gave him help in other ways too, both spring and fall. No one finished the harvesting earlier than Bjørgulf Åkre. When the nisser had received their olsok-drink – the beer, they feasted and made merry. Bjørgulf and Torgunn stood in the entry and heard how the nisser partied, praised the beer and praised the farmer and his wife for their generosity. When they had been drinking a while they started to harvest grain. It went orderly and fast. And they sang as they worked:
Gjer bendlar og bitt, gjer bendlar og bitt, dess før vert me kvitt! Tru tunna vil renne, tru tunna vil renne, til halmen skal brenne!
This continued all night until the fields were harvested. The following days Bjørgulf had more than enough to do to secure the grain. Their song had a meaning indicating that they expected the beer to run as long as Bjørgulf and Torgunn were alive.
Bjørgulf and Torgunn continued to treat the nisser with beer as long as they lived, and they received thanks and much help in return. They prospered and became well to do. But when they were gone the nisser found no more beer.
The farm changed ownership and the new owner did not want to provide beer. One time when he was talking about this, he said: Beer I have no intention of giving them. But they can have my black bull if they harvest my grain in one night. It was done in one night, but the man did not keep his bargain; he did not let them have the black bull. The following spring the black bull fell down a steep hill, lay there and died before people found him again.
The place where this happened is still called the “Bull Crash”. Ever since then the nisser have not helped with the harvest at Åkre.
Another man in Hjartdal had remarkable good fortune with his livestock. No matter how many cows he had, they always had plenty of feed. The hay in storage lasted so long that he never seemed to run out of hay. Then one night the man was in the hayloft and fell asleep.
Then he was awakened by a little nisse hauling some straws of hay. He struggled and was almost out of breath and obviously had a hard time with the burden he carried. The man thought this was laughable and said sarcastically: This wasn’t much of a load to find so difficult.
Then the nisse took offense and said that he would from now on take as much from the farmer as he had given him before, then he would find out if it was worth being so scornful. It did not last long before the man had a hard time feeding his cows. Nothing worked for him thereafter and he became a poor man.
Tomte or Nisse Traditions
Voice of Christmas