The Myths of “Nørre Vosborg” – black dogs, murderers and toilets

Nørre Vosborg

Last week I visited Nørre Vosborg, a herregård (“manor house”) from the 1300s in West Jutland. I was on a road trip and didn’t mean to go there, but my husband came across a book that accounted for the many myths of Nørre Vosborg, and we promptly decided to spend one of our nights there.

Nørre Vosborg is one of the few manor houses of old that dot the west coast of Denmark. Indeed, it’s one of the few things that dot the rural west coast at all; the flat and barren bleakness of that coast is akin to the English moors, only with sand dunes and the roaring of the violent sea.

Story has it that the Devil himself (who, as you may recall, is a recurring character when it comes to Danish castles and manor houses) once wandered Denmark, generously sowing manor houses. Unfortunately, his sack of seeds punctured somewhere around South Funen, dumping a giant load of manor houses in that region, so when finally he got up to West Jutland, he had precious few castles and manor houses left. Nørre Vosborg is one of them.

Let’s see what Nørre Vosborg has to offer…

Entrance to Nørre Vosborg
The Contractor’s Curse

The original manor house was a farm built on a meadow at the banks of Nissum fjord, although it was rebuilt farther inland in 1532 after a violent storm surge. Word has is that when Nørre Vosborg was originally built in the 1300s, the owner and knight, Niels Bugge, doubted the skill of his contractor. As the contractor rode away from the farm/manor house, believing a job well done, Niels Bugge sent a vassal after him, ordering the vassal to tell the contractor that the tower of the castle was leaning. If the contractor turned around to look at the tower, thus showcasing doubt in his own skill, he was to be beheaded immediately per the order of Niels Bugge – but the contractor did not turn around. Instead, he answered: “Ikke hælder tårnet, thi trofast har jeg bygget det, men sig din Herre, at engang skal der komme en mand fra vest indsvøbt i en blå kappe, og han får vel tårnet til at hælde”.  He claimed that a man cloaked in blue would come from the West and make the tower lean. In the end, it was not a man who came, but the blue sea itself. When a violent, westerly storm surge passed in 1532, it flooded the meadows near the fjord, necessitating that Nørre Vosborg be rebuilt farther inland.

Let that be a lesson to trust your contractor.

Niels Bugge, knight and original owner (photo credit here)
The Gardener’s Herbs

Continuing with the thread of Niels Bugge, he had spent too much money on the manor house itself, thus resulting in him going easy on the landscaping. When an urtegårdsmand (“herb gardener”) offered to do the landscaping for a sum of money, Niels Bugge turned him away. The gardener promised, however, that if he was hired, he would sow three types of special seeds. These seeds would never waste away, no matter the circumstances, but would prosper forever. Niels Bugge hired him on the spot, unable to justify declining such a prosperous offer. The three seeds were caraway, garlic and red cloves. To this day, they still prosper all over the Vosborg fields. When they die in one place, they quickly flourish in another.

The fields (and forest) attached to Nørre Vosborg
The Black Dog and the Altar Stone

In the 1500s, Skærum Church had an altar stone that was later moved to Nørre Vosborg (and then eventually lost somewhere on the grounds). The altar stone itself is not of much interest. Rather, it’s the ghostly guardian of the altar stone that turns heads: a black dog. The story goes that a Corporal from Svenskekrigene once visited the region. He was a most boastful man, so upon hearing of this guardian dog, he decided to have a look at the dog, bringing his daughter along. When he found the dog, he tried to kick it, but his foot went right through its body. The dog then grew in size, so large that it coiled its snake-like body around the Corporal, choking him. He prayed to God, but the dog did not stop. It was only when his daughter prayed that the dog let go of her father. She was rewarded with a new dress the following morning, appearing mysteriously in her bedchamber, and the Corporal himself went from a most boastful man to a God-fearing one. 

Current Skærum Kirke (photo credit here)
The Ghost of Knud Gyldenstjerne

In the immediate years after Knud Gyldenstjerne’s death (1528), nobody dared sleep in Nørre Vosborg for fear of his ghost as it roamed the halls of his old home. A house was built in a nearby field. The inhabitants of the house retreated to this house at the first hint of sunset, leaving Knud free to haunt his home on his own during nighttime. Eventually, two priests and a priest-in-learning were called in to help. The three men set up station in the Knight’s Hall. The two priest lit candles on the table, but the priest-in-learning lit a candle above the door. He also cut three wooden pegs that he squeezed into a crack in the dining table. When the first peg shot loose, he claimed Gyldenstjerne had risen from his grave. When the second peg shot loose, he claimed Gyldenstjerne had reached the bridge over the moat. When the third peg shot loose, the door opened to the Knight’s Hall, revealing Knud’s ghost. The gust of wind that followed his entrance snuffed out the two priests’ candles on the dining table – but not the priest-in-learning’s candle, the one above the door. When Knud could not extinguish its flame, the priest-in-learning could easily abolish him to the swamp.

Such was the power of a correctly placed candle.

The buildings attached to Nørre Vosborg – former stables now functioning as a gourmet restaurant and a conference/party/wedding/etc. venue

The Murderer Henrik Johan de Leth & his Blasphemous Wife

(TW: mild animal abuse)

Henrik Johan de Leth was, as the myths go, the cruelest owner Nørre Vosborg had. Supposedly, he was both a murderer and enjoyed animal cruelty. One of his victims was a young vassal from Kyttrup. After discovering that the silver spoons of the manor house had gone missing, Leth blamed the young vassal. When the spoons were found in the pigsty, Leth still blamed the vassal. He forced him to run in circles, bound to one spot with a rope, while Leth whipped him as punishment. The young vassal died later that same night. When the nearby Ulfborg Church underwent renovations centuries later, the unidentified body of a young boy was found in the Gyldenstjerne chapel (the predecessors to Leth). At the time, it was widely agreed that this boy was the vassal Leth had whipped to death. Supposedly, Leth also killed a gardener of the estate and enjoyed mistreating animals. He would capture dogs, cut off their ears and paws, and have them bleed to death. The ghosts of these dogs can be heard howling at nighttime. When Leth himself died, he did so by falling off a horse that dragged him along the ground (good riddance). He now haunts the manor house alongside his predecessor, Knud Gyldenstjerne. Leth’s wife also haunts the house, although she is an affable ghost. Perhaps because her greatest living crime was to turn the family’s private chapel into a chicken coop?

Current Ulfborg Church (photo credit here)
Frederik VII and the Nørre Vosborg toilet

When Nørre Vosborg was visited by Frederik VII (mid-1800s), the owner was the Tang family. Rumor has it that both the king and Mr. Tang had to visit the restroom at the same time, so they went together. This, of course, meant they ended up doing their private business together. In the middle of the deed, the king realized he could not do his private business alongside a man of no rank. He promptly, while sitting on the toilet, appointed Tang etstatsråd, a Danish/Norwegian honorary title of 3rd rank that allowed daughters access to nunneries and remained valid until 1909.

The toilet seen from the outside
H. C. Andersen’s Summer Vacation
H. C. Andersen’s Parasol

With all this myth shrouding the manor house it’s no wonder that H. C. Andersen decided to pay Nørre Vosborg a two-week visit during the summer of 1859, documented by his many diary entries. During his visit, he wrote poems, engaged in ornate paper cutting, and fantasied about the ghosts that haunted the place. He slept in the private chapel of the house, which had been refurbished for this purpose. Using a wordplay in Danish, he claimed in his diary that ”en hvid Dame viser sig på dette Sted, men hun har ikke besøgt mig; hun ved vel, at jeg lider spøg, men ikke Spøgeri.” (“a white lady rests here, but she has not visited me: she must know I like fun, but not hauntings”).

A parasol that H. C. Andersen used to shield himself from the violent winds of the west coast still remains at Nørre Vosborg, as does some of his paper cuttings.

(H. C. Andersen’s paper cuttings, photo credit: Lars Bjørnsten)

Myself & Husband
“Sagnenes Danmark”, by Gorm Benzon

The Castle Ruins of “Hammershus” – where the devil may kill you…

Me, from my best side

Bornholm is a Danish island that’s physically far removed from Denmark and situated closer to Sweden. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve heard it referred to as Danmarks ferieø (“Denmark’s vacation island”). The islanders have their own distinct dialect and culture that rides heavily on local myths, so I thought I’d introduce you to some of the myths I encountered while I, as tradition has it, went on my own vacation there.

An Origin story steeped in magic
Location of Bornholm (courtesy of google maps)

Northern Bornholm has a unique coastal line. For the extremely flat and low-lying Denmark, anyway, so please bear with me here. It’s made up of cliffs and caves deep enough to have their own breed of cave spiders who deposit their eggs like lanterns across the cave ceilings. Hammershus is also northern Europe’s largest castle ruin, originally built as an outer bastion of the Danish kingdom, so Denmark could essentially (try to) regulate the traffic and trade of the Baltic Sea. It was a profoundly important strategic position. Because of that, the oldest part dates back to 1100. And, as with anything so old, magic and superstition both have their important bits to say as regards the history of Hammerhus.

When stonemasons first attempted to build the castle, all attempts were foiled by the “subterranean creatures” (think tiny trolls/gnomes/spirits) living below ground and protecting Bornholm’s landscape. The eventual placement of the castle was decided upon by way of tying two stallions together with one rope and releasing them into the wild. Wherever the two stallions laid down to rest became the placement for the castle. This method proved enough to satiate the subterranean creatures, so that when the castle was finally in the process of being built, it happened so fast people suspected the creatures of assisting during nighttime when the stonemasons themselves were asleep. Relying on this sort of magic could not do, so the stonemasons took a living man and walled him inside the castle, thereby transferring “the power of man” into the castle, thus negating the magic of the subterranean creatures.

With the origin story of Hammershus steeped in myth and legend like this, it’s no wonder the devil found its way to the castle sooner rather than later…

The devil’s path

Word has it that the devil lives in a cave beneath Hammershus. Here, he (she? it?) keeps watch over a subterranean path that stretches south from the castle, following the coastline. This subterranean path starts directly beneath the ruins of Hammershus and ends by Helligdomsklipperne (“Sanctuary Cliffs”), named so because people once traveled to these cliffs to drink from Helligdomskilden, a holy spring.  

Anybody who tries to walk this path will have their necks wrung if the devil comes across them, though that hasn’t stopped people from trying, according to local legend. Two farmhands once made a bet about who came first if one of them took the devil’s path and the other walked above ground. They left at the same time, and when the farmhand who walked above ground reached Helligdomskilden, he saw his friend was already there – only the devil had wrung his neck and put him there to make an example of him. Once, a goose was made to walk the devil’s path while the owners of the goose walked the same path above ground. As with the two farmhands, the goose arrived at Helligdomskilden first, only the devil had put it there and transformed it into a stalactite sculpture by the time its owners arrived. The sculpture still stands today, the reason for why this part of the devil’s path is called Gåserenden (“goose trench”).

Helligdomsklipperne (“Sanctuary Cliffs”)

Helligdomsklipperne are named after the holy spring that once emerged from these 20-meter-tall cliffs. For thousands of years the surf in this spot has eroded the coastline, creating deep gaps into the rocky plateau. What’s left from this erosion are tall granite pillars and steep cliffsides filled with deep caves and pathways – the so-called ovne (“ovens/stoves”).

Section of Helligdomsklipperne, “Sanctuary Cliffs”

Of these many caves, Våde Ovn/Sorte Gryde (“wet oven”/”black pot”) is the deepest, cutting 60 meters into the rocky plateau. It’s here that you may meet the devil, and if you don’t meet him, you’ll certainly meet the Bornholm-ian cave spider, so be prepared to pick your poison.

Våde Ovn, postcard from 1950s
Sorte Gryde, postcard from 1915

A chapel, Trefoldighedskapellet, lay on the field across from the cliffs during the middle ages, and it was this chapel that fed into the belief of the holy spring. Throughout history, people have visited the holy spring during the night of Midsummer in the hopes of curing their ills. It’s a story that sounds familiar to all of us, I’d wager, and this is the version you’ll find in Bornholm.

Photograph from 1870 of a gathering by Helligdomskilden where sacrifices for better health where made (hair, crosses, cloths etc.) People still gather nowadays, with and without religious connotations.

Det Okkulte Denmark, book by Bo Bomuld Hamilton-Wittendorff
My, myself and I (aka my memory from my trip)

The Danish “Åmand/Nøkke” – What Swims Below The Water…

You’ve likely heard of sirens, mermaids and water-horses, but have you heard of Åmænd, Nøkker and Bækheste? The fear of drowning is a universal one. We see this demonstrated by the malevolent shapeshifting water spirit, a myth that crosses cultures and borders with the kind of ease only universal fear can achieve. Let’s look at the Danish fear, so we can compare and contrast it with some relatives, shall we?

Oil painting, “Fossegrimen”, by Nils Bergslien
The Åmand

“Å” means river and “mand” means man in Danish. The Danish water spirit literally translates to River Man. This isn’t much of a surprise. Danish is an abhorrently pragmatic language in that we more often than not choose to name things after their basic function. Towel is håndklæde (“hand cloth”). A straw is a sugerør (“sucking pipe”). A vacuum cleaner is a støvsuger (“dust sucker”). You catch my drift, I’m sure.

As the name suggests, the Åmand takes his shape as a moss-covered man. Occasionally, he may take his shape as a giant pike with a horse’s tail and mane. Sometimes he’ll don the shape of a bearded man in dark-colored clothing. H. C. Andersen wrote the fairy tale Klokkedybet (“The Bell Deep”), which builds on the myth of the Åmand. H. C. Andersen was born in Odense. Perhaps relatedly, an Åmand is believed to inhabit the waters of Odense.

Illustration of H.C. Andersen’s fairytale “Klokkedybet” (1858) made by Lorenz Frølich.

It’s the Åmand’s responsibility to keep his waters healthy with fish. Likewise, it’s his decision whether or not those fish are caught by the fishermen occupying the water with their dinghies. Like any good water spirit, the Åmand lures unsuspecting humans to their watery deaths. He does so by playing his violin or harp. If you trick the Åmand into teaching you his songs, he’ll trick you in turn. He’ll teach you the music of the elves and have you play it in front of an audience. Everyone in the audience will dance straight into the lake and drown themselves, yourself included. As a last resort, you can try to play the song backwards or cut the strings of the instrument, but you’d be hard-pressed in succeeding.

As it’s the tradition for all devil figures, the Åmand can be controlled by humans if rituals are followed. If you want to bathe in his lake, you protect yourself by throwing a rock into the water. If the rock lands without making a sound, you must declare that the Åmand is bound in place. When you’re done bathing, you release the Åmand by throwing another rock into the water, making sure this one splashes loudly. If you wish to bind the Åmand in place, so you can steal his fish (aka better your fortune in fishing), you use cemetery ashes that you attach to a stake in the middle of the lake. The stake must burn, and you must finish stealing the Åmand’s fish before the stake burns down, spreading the ashes in the water. Lastly, you can make a circle of holy soil (not water, for obvious reasons, I daresay) around the Åmand’s lake. Do this on a Thursday night and the Åmand will spring forth from the lake and run away.

The Åmand demands a human sacrifice once a year as payment for playing groundskeeper – or lakeskeeper, as that’ll be. If you know anything about Danish history, this might make you think of the Tollund Man and the Grauballe Man, both incredibly well-preserved bog bodies from the late 3rd-4th century BC. Denmark has a particular history of sacrificing humans by way of drowning, so it’s no surprise our folklore reflects this.

If the Åmand gets no sacrifice, he’ll capsize the dinghies and drag sailors to their watery deaths. Like flowers on a grave, white water lilies will sprout from his garden at the bottom of the lake where he’s drowned the unfortunate sailors. These water lilies are also called nøkkeroser. This is because the Åmand is also referred to as the Nøkke, which leads us to our first intricate cultural overlap…

The Scandinavian Nøkke/Nøkken/Näck
Näcken” by the Swedish painter Ernst Josephson (1882)

Alternatively, the Danish Åmand is also known as a Nøkke (Danish), Nøkken (Norweigan) and Näck (Swedish). These modern Scandinavian names are derived from the Old Norse nykr, meaning “river horse”. In Denmark, we have a saying that goes kært barn har mange navne, which means “a beloved child has many names”. The Nøkke is very much that case: a beloved child with too many names to account for.

Taking it a step further, we also have the bäckahäst (Swedish) or bækhest (Danish), meaning “brook horse”. The bäckahäst/bækhest was often described as a majestic white horse that would appear during foggy weather. Anyone who climbed onto its back would not be able to get off again. The horse would jump into the river, drowning the rider. If this type of water-horse sounds more familiar to you than a violin-playing River Man, then that’s because it probably is. For our next cultural overlap, we go immediately west of Scandinavia – to the British Isles.

Theodor Kittelsens “Nøkken” depicts the creature as it’s portrayed in Norweigan folklore (1909)
Nøkken” in the shape of a white horse during a summer night, drawn by Theodor Kittelsen (1909).
The Celtic Water-horse

There are many names for this water spirit, all dependent on what location you’re in. Each-uisge is the Scottish Gaelic term, each-uisce is Irish, Ceffyl Dŵr is Welsh and Cabyll-ushtey is Manx/Isle of Man. What’s common for all these particular water spirits is that their primary shape is that of a viciously malevolent horse hellbent on drowning whoever sits on its back – exactly as the bäckahäst/bækhest.

Maybe you’re more familiar with the less violent, Scottish-only version of this horse: the Kelpie. The Kelpie also takes the shape of a horse, although it can adopt human form. It’s said that the kelpie retains its hooves when appearing as a human, effectively marking it as a devil figure exactly as the Danish Åmand/Nøkke. Speaking of devil figures, our last cultural overlap introduces us to Japanese yōkai, the mythological monsters hugely popularized by international media in recent times.

The Japanese Kappa
A drawing of a kappa as depicted in Koga Tōan’s book “Suiko Kōryaku” (1836)

Instead of a horse or man the Japanese kappa takes the shape of a child-sized frog with the strength of a full-grown man. Like the Åmand/Nøkke and the various water-horses, the kappa lives in the water where it lures people to their deaths. It might seem more appropriate for a water spirit to take an aquatic shape, but then you start to dig into the details, and the appropriateness vanishes. For example, the kappa has a beak rather than a mouth. It also has an indented bowl-shape on top of its head that carries water from the kappa’s lake. The kappa is a proud creature, but if you can trick it into bowing for you while on land, the water from the indented bowl on top of the kappa’s head will pour out. If the water empties out completely, the kappa will weaken and die.

Let these creatures be a lesson for you to never take the waters too lightly. This is coming from a Scandinavian who grew up by the coast in a seaside fisherman’s town. I bet I’ve been close to an Åmand or two in my lifetime. Have you?