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A troll is a supernatural being in Norse mythology
Norse mythology
Norse mythology, a subset of Germanic mythology, is the overall term for the myths, legends and beliefs about supernatural beings of Norse pagans. It flourished prior to the Christianization of Scandinavia, during the Early Middle Ages, and passed into Nordic folklore, with some aspects surviving...

 and Scandinavian folklore
Scandinavian folklore
Scandinavian folklore is the folklore of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and the Swedish speaking parts of Finland.Collecting folklore began when Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden sent out instructions to all of the priests in all of the parishes to collect the folklore of their area...

. In origin, the term troll was a generally negative synonym for a jötunn (plural jötnar), a being in Norse mythology. In Old Norse sources, beings described as trolls dwell in isolated rocks, mountains, or caves, live together in small family units, and are rarely helpful to human beings.

Later, in Scandinavian folklore, trolls became beings in their own right, where they live far from human habitation, are not Christianized
Christianization of Scandinavia
The Christianization of Scandinavia took place between the 8th and the 12th century. The realms of Scandinavia proper, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, established their own Archdioceses, responsible directly to the Pope, in 1104, 1154 and 1164, respectively...

, and are considered dangerous to human beings. Depending on the region from which accounts of trolls stem, their appearance varies greatly; trolls may be ugly and slow-witted or look and behave exactly like human beings, with no particularly grotesque characteristic about them. Trolls are sometimes associated with particular landmarks, which at times may be explained as formed from a troll exposed to sunlight. One of the most famous elements of Scandinavian folklore, trolls are depicted in a variety of media in modern popular culture.

Norse mythology

In Norse mythology, troll, like thurs is a term applied to jötnar, and are mentioned throughout the Old Norse corpus. In Old Norse sources, trolls are said to dwell in isolated mountains, rocks, and caves, sometimes live together (usually as father-and-daughter or mother-and-son), and are rarely described as helpful or friendly. In the Prose Edda
Prose Edda
The Prose Edda, also known as the Younger Edda, Snorri's Edda or simply Edda, is an Icelandic collection of four sections interspersed with excerpts from earlier skaldic and Eddic poetry containing tales from Nordic mythology...

book Skáldskaparmál
The second part of Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda the Skáldskaparmál or "language of poetry" is effectively a dialogue between the Norse god of the sea, Ægir and Bragi, the god of poetry, in which both Norse mythology and discourse on the nature of poetry are intertwined...

, a scenario describing an encounter between an unnamed troll woman and the 9th century skald
The skald was a member of a group of poets, whose courtly poetry is associated with the courts of Scandinavian and Icelandic leaders during the Viking Age, who composed and performed renditions of aspects of what we now characterise as Old Norse poetry .The most prevalent metre of skaldic poetry is...

 Bragi Boddason
Bragi Boddason
In his Edda Snorri Sturluson quotes many stanzas attributed to Bragi Boddason the old , a court poet who served several Swedish kings, Ragnar Lodbrok, Östen Beli and Björn at Hauge who reigned in the first half of the ninth century...

 is provided. According to the section, once, late in the evening, Bragi was driving through "a certain forest" when a troll woman aggressively asked him who he was, in the process describing herself:

Old Norse
Old Norse
Old Norse is a North Germanic language that was spoken by inhabitants of Scandinavia and inhabitants of their overseas settlements during the Viking Age, until about 1300....

Troll kalla mik
trungl sjǫtrungnis,
auðsug jǫtuns,
élsólar bǫl,
vilsinn vǫlu
A vǫlva or völva is a shamanic seeress in Norse paganism, and a recurring motif in Norse mythology....

vǫrð nafjarðar,
hvélsveg himins -
hvat's troll nema þat?

Anthony Faulkes translation:
'Trolls call me
moon of dwelling-Rungnir,
giant's wealth-sucker,
storm-sun's bale,
seeress's friendly companion,
guardian of corpse-fiord
A grave is a location where a dead body is buried.Grave may also refer to:*Grave accent, a diacritical mark*Grave , a term used to classify sounds*Grave , a term for "slow and solemn" music*Grave , an old name for the kilogram...

swallower of heaven-wheel;
what is a troll other than that?'

John Lindow
John Lindow
John Lindow is a professor specializing in Scandinavian medieval studies and folklore at the University of California, Berkeley and author. Lindow's works include Norse Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Rituals, and Beliefs, a handbook for Norse mythology...

They call me a troll,
moon of the earth-Hrungnir [?]
wealth sucker [?] of the giant,
destroyer of the storm-sun [?]
bellowed follower of the seeress,
guardian of the "nafjord" [?]
swallower of the wheel of heaven [the sun].
What's a troll if not that?

Bragi responds in turn, describing himself and his abilities as a skillful skald
The skald was a member of a group of poets, whose courtly poetry is associated with the courts of Scandinavian and Icelandic leaders during the Viking Age, who composed and performed renditions of aspects of what we now characterise as Old Norse poetry .The most prevalent metre of skaldic poetry is...

, before the scenario ends.

There is much confusion and overlap in the use of Old Norse terms jötunn, troll, þurs and risi, which describe various beings. Lotte Motz
Lotte Motz
Lotte Motz, born Lotte Edlis, was an Austrian-American scholar who published four books and many scholarly papers, primarily in the fields of Germanic mythology and folklore.-Life:-...

 theorized that these were originally four distinct classes of beings; lords of nature (jötunn), mythical magicians (troll), hostile monsters (þurs) and heroic and courtly beings (risi)—the last class being the youngest addition. Ármann Jakobsson calls this theory "unsupported by any convincing evidence" and argues that since the sources disagree, it may be most fruitful to investigate each text separately.

Scandinavian folklore

Later, in Scandinavian folklore, trolls become defined as a particular type of being. Numerous tales about trolls are recorded. in which they are frequently described as being extremely old, very strong, but slow and dim-witted, and are at times described as man-eaters and as turning to stone upon contact with sunlight. However, trolls are also attested as looking much the same as human beings, without any particularly hideous appearance about them, but where they differ is in that they live far away from human habitation, and, unlike the and näck—who are attested as "solitary beings", trolls generally have "some form of social organization". Where they differ, Lindow adds, is that they are not Christian, and those that encounter them do not know them. Therefore trolls were in the end dangerous, regardless of how well they may get along with Christian society, and trolls display a habit of bergtagning ('kidnapping'; literally "mountain-taking") and overrunning a farm or estate.

While noting that the etymology of the word "troll" remains uncertain, John Lindow defines trolls in in later Swedish folklore as "nature beings" and as "all-purpose otherworldly being[s], equivalent, for example, to fairies in Anglo
Anglo-Saxon is a term used by historians to designate the Germanic tribes who invaded and settled the south and east of Great Britain beginning in the early 5th century AD, and the period from their creation of the English nation to the Norman conquest. The Anglo-Saxon Era denotes the period of...

The words Celt and Celtic can refer to:In ethno-linguistics:*Celts, a people of the Celtic nations*Celts , the modern Celtic identity*Celtic languages...

 traditions" and that they "therefore appear in various migratory legends where collective nature-beings are called for". Lindow notes that trolls are sometimes are swapped out for cats and "little people" in the folklore record.

A Scandinavian folk belief that lightning
Lightning is an atmospheric electrostatic discharge accompanied by thunder, which typically occurs during thunderstorms, and sometimes during volcanic eruptions or dust storms...

 frightens away trolls and jötnar appears in numerous Scandinavian folktales, and may be a late reflection of the god Thor
In Norse mythology, Thor is a hammer-wielding god associated with thunder, lightning, storms, oak trees, strength, the protection of mankind, and also hallowing, healing, and fertility...

's role in fighting such beings. In connection, the lack of trolls and jötnar in modern Scandinavia is sometimes explained as a result of the "accuracy and efficiency of the lightning strokes". Additionally, the absence of trolls in regions of Scandinavia are described in folklore as being a "consequence of the constant din of the church-bells". This ring caused the trolls to leave for other lands, although not without some resistance; numerous traditions relate how trolls destroyed a church under construction or lunged boulders at stones at completed churches. Large local stones are sometimes described as the product of a troll's toss. Additionally, into the 20th century, the origins of particular Scandinavian landmarks, such as particular stones, are ascribed to trolls who may, for example, have turned to stone upon exposure to sunlight.

Lindow compares the trolls of the Swedish folk tradition to supernatural mead hall
Mead hall
In ancient Scandinavia and Germanic Europe a mead hall or feasting hall was initially simply a large building with a single room. From the fifth century to early medieval times such a building was the residence of a lord and his retainers. The mead hall was generally the great hall of the king...

 invader Grendel
Grendel is one of three antagonists, along with Grendel's mother and the dragon, in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf . Grendel is usually depicted as a monster, though this is the subject of scholarly debate. In the poem, Grendel is feared by all but Beowulf.-Story:The poem Beowulf is contained in...

 in the Old English poem Beowulf
Beowulf , but modern scholars agree in naming it after the hero whose life is its subject." of an Old English heroic epic poem consisting of 3182 alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia, commonly cited as one of the most important works of Anglo-Saxon literature.It survives in a single...

, and notes that "just as the poem Beowulf emphasizes not the harrying of Grendel but the cleansing of the hall of Beowulf, so the modern tales stress the moment when the trolls are driven off."

Smaller trolls are attested as living in burial mounds and in mountains in Scandinavian folk tradition. In Denmark, these creatures are recorded as troldfolk ("troll-folk"), bjergtrolde ("mountain-trolls"), or bjergfolk ("mountain-folk") and in Norway also as troldfolk ("troll-folk") and tusser. Trolls may be described as small, human-like beings or as tall as men depending on the region of origin of the story. James MacCulloch theorizes a connection between the Old Norse vættir
Vættir or wights are nature spirits in the Norse religion. These nature spirits divide up into 'families', including the Álfar , Dvergar , Jötnar , and even gods, the Æsir and Vanir, who are understood to be prominent families among them. The term 'families' is often translated as 'clans' or...

 and trolls, theorizing that both concepts may either stem from (or ultimately derive from) spirits of the dead.

In Norwegian tradition, similar tales may be told about the larger trolls and the Huldrefolk ("hidden-folk") yet a distinction is made between the two. The use of the word trow in Orkney and Shetland, to mean beings which are very like the Huldrefolk in Norway strongly suggests a common origin for the terms. The word troll may have been used by pagan Norse settlers in Orkney and Shetland as a collective term for supernatural beings who should be respected and avoided rather than worshiped. Troll could later have become specialized as a description of the larger, more menacing Jötunn-kind whereas Huldrefolk may have developed as the general term applied to smaller trolls.

See also

  • Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr
    Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr and Irpa
    In Norse mythology, Þorgerðr Hölgabrúðr and Irpa are goddesses. Þorgerðr and Irpa appear together in Jómsvíkinga saga, Njáls saga, and Þorleifs þáttr jarlsskálds...

    , a goddess whose surname is attested in various forms, sometimes containing -troll as a second element