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06/27/2006 Archived Entry: "Trolls & Hobs"

Peter with a troll

Making acquaintance with a troll in Norway

During a recent discussion with some visitors from Norway, we chatted about aspects of folklore which are very similar in both our countries. I referred to the Norwegian trolls, mythical creatures which never appear in daylight but whose antics are made aware to us by road signs which say, "Beware of trolls." Similarly in Ireland I spotted a road sign which said, "This is the way the fairies went" and one of the gifts I received during that visit was the model of a leprechaun.
It was evident these creatures persist, if only in our folk stories and mythical tales but it was during my chat with friends from Norway that I was reminded of the nisse. In Norway, this is an elf-like creature said to be about the height of a one-year old child but with the face of an old man. Usually he dresses in a tight grey suit but sometimes wears a pointed red cap; on Michaelmas Day, however, he wears a round hat like farm workers.
It is said that every farmhouse in Norway used to have a nisse. He would conceal himself during the day but at night would emerge to tidy the house, clean the floors and bring in water ready for the following morning. Outside, the stables, cowsheds and barns would be tidied and cleaned with all the necessary tasks being completed before morning. It appears that tidiness was vital to a nisse and some would even visit churches to prepare them for morning Mass.
If someone was unnecessarily untidy or careless, or cruel and thoughtless to others, then the nisse would grow angry and punish the wrongdoers. I am not sure how such punishment was inflicted but it seems that, on occasions, a nisse could make himself very unwelcome by being too fastidious. There are stories of nisses becoming so unbearable that the resident farmer and his family would leave the premises.
One Norwegian story tells how a farmer and his family, anxious to be rid of the nisse, packed all their belongings onto several carts with the intention of leaving the farm. As they were giving one last lingering look at their former home, the nisse popped out of a tub on the tail-end cart and said, "So we're moving today, eh?"
Folk stories from several European countries tell of similar creatures in almost identical situations. The Germans, for example, have a kobold, the Swedes have their tomtgubbe or tomte which means old man of the house, the Dutch have redcaps while the Scots have their brownies and Northumbrians their dunnies. The Cauld Lad of Hilton in County Durham is sometimes depicted as a ghost but occasionally as an elf-like mischief-maker and in North Yorkshire the moorland people have their hobs. If the tale of the nisse leaving home with the resident family sounds familiar, then an identical yarn is told about the Farndale hob.
The Farndale hob worked cheerfully for farmer, Jonathan Gray helping with tasks such as leading hay, shearing sheep, tidying the premises and generally performing a range of routine but important jobs, often with a display of amazing strength. He asked for no reward except a full jug of cream to be left in the barn at the end of each day. However, when Mrs Gray died, and Jonathan remarried, his new wife could not understand the need to put a full jug of cream in the barn each night. Secretly, she substituted a jug of skimmed milk. Thereafter things began to go wrong. The hob stopped his work and became mischievous; the milk turned sour, foxes attacked the poultry, the cattle became ill, fire burnt down a building and all manner of other things happened so that the once- thriving farm was facing ruin. Jonathan decided to leave and so, with several cart loads of household goods he prepared to depart from Farndale. A neighbour saw him and asked what was going on. "We're flitting," said Jonathan. And at that point the lid of a tub on the cart was lifted as, to his horror, the brown and wizened face of the hob appeared from inside and, "Aye, we're flitting."
This is just one of several stories of hobs in and around the North York Moors, their presence being perpetuated in the names of locations like Hob Garth, Hob Thrush and Hob Meadow. A hob was an elf-like little fellow whose entire body was covered with coarse brown hair, and he worked with no clothes on.
Versions of this familiar old story appear in several countries which make us wonder how, when and why these tales originated.

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