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?


“Den Hvide Dame” & “Den Grå Dame” – Danish Castle Hauntings

Not many know this, but the Danish monarchy is the oldest continuing line in the world. On paper, it dates back to Gorm the Old in the year 900 and Harald Bluetooth in the year 940 (yes, this is whom Bluetooth® is named after). This long legacy considered, Denmark have tons of manors, estate and castles, meaning we also have tons of ghosts. Let me introduce you to the two ghosts I know best….

VOERGAARD CASTLE – Ingeborg Skeel: Den Hvide Dame (“The White Lady”)
credit: Christoffer Håkansson, 2017

Before we delve into Voergaard’s Hvide Dame (“White Lady”), the castle itself deserves a quick run-through. I’ve visited a handful of times, and each time I’ve been gobsmacked. The castle has immeasurable treasures and artefacts. In 1955, the Danish Count Ejnar Oberbech-Clausen brought his private art collection from four French castles to Denmark to all be accumulated in Voergaard. He later died in 1963. Childless, he established a private fund designed to maintain the castle and its inventory for the future – and what an inventory that is.

Paintings by Goya and Rubens (credit: Bitten Holmsgaard, 2017,

In Guldsalen (“Hall of Gold”), paintings by Rubens and Goya hang side by side. The adjacent Musiksalon (“Music-salon”) holds Napoleon’s private clock and dinner plates. Three tapestries from the Vatican adorn the chapel, gifted by Pope Pius IX. The castle also holds the letters of Marie Antoniette and the last French King, Louis XVI, that they wrote right before they were guillotined. Lastly, one of the oldest Chinese artefacts in Europe stands within the castle: a 1000-year-old incense stove (that probably should be given back to China). The finest treasure of the castle, however, may be the legacy of Ingeborg Skeel. It’s certainly fine enough to have been granted a reputation – a reputation for the paranormal, that is.

A Vatican tapestry gifted by Pius IX (credit: Bitten Holmsgaard, 2017,
Chinese 1000-year-old Incense Stove (credit: Bitten Holmsgaard, 2017,
The Blood Stain (right above the stain, on the wall, there is a depiction of Skeel drowning Philip Brandin)

The oldest part of the castle is from 1481. In 1521, Ingeborg Skeel took over the estate and turned it into a renaissance castle. She commissioned the Dutch builder, Philip Brandin, for the project. Stories have it that she pushed him off the bridge and into the moat, drowning him, after he finished the project, so she’d never have to pay him. Stories also have it that she used her embroidery scissors to cut the fingers off a child who stole a spike from her, and that she cut off the arms of another child who stole timber from the castle woods. In the north-eastern tower, a boy is said to have been murdered where a bloodstain had soaked so deeply into the floor that continuous cleanings can’t remove it. None of these stories are verified. In fact, most verified stories portray Skeel in a positive light, caring for the elderly and the poor. Her reputation suffered under her entrepreneurial spirit and her skills as a tradeswoman. She was disliked and villainized for not conforming to the expectations for a woman of her time, resulting in her paranormal legacy.

So, what is this spooky legacy?

Much like when Ingeborg Skeel was alive, her ghost does not lie idle. At the very beginning of her sightings, she appeared outside the windows on the 2nd floor where there once was a gallery in the 1600s. Her carriage would come riding into the courtyard, and she would aimlessly wander the hallways of the castle. If the door to the east-wing, top-floor corridor was closed, she was at her angriest; this was her final destination. At one point, the sightings got bad enough that a priest was summoned. The ghost was forced into a nearby swamp and speared to the ground with an oak stake, keeping it in place – or so everybody thought. Nowadays, her ghost is said to take one step closer to the castle on every New Year’s Eve, advancing on the castle from the spot in the swamp where it was staked in place. On the day that Ingeborg Skeel’s ghost finally reaches the castle, the castle will burn to the ground.

SÆBYGAARD CASTLE – Karen Skeel: Den Grå Dame (“The Gray Lady”)
Sæbygaard Castle (credit: Sæby Turistbureau)

Privately lived in as late as 1988, Sæbygaard Castle is a funky mix of modernity and restoration. It has a fully functional kitchen from the 80s, yet also a Knight’s Hall (Riddersalen) done up in full the restored glamor of the past. Although smaller and cheaper than Voergaard, Sæbygaard is not cheated from having a ghost of its own – Den Grå Dame (“the Gray Lady), also known as Karen Skeel (yes, same surname as Ingeborg Skeel).

I grew up here. Sæby is my hometown. The first time I heard of Den Grå Dame was when my older brother and his classmates did a school trip to the castle, spending the night learning about the local history and hoping to catch sight of Den Grå Dame. Like a true older brother, he returned to tell his gullible little sister the horrifying tale of how he met Karen Skeel. I should probably ask him to recount that story now…

The castle seen from the back (credit:
The back-facing courtyard and the stone stair turret (credit:

Karen Skeel’s ghost is said to haunt the front-facing tower of the castle, which is adjacent to the Knight’s Hall. A tall, stately woman has been sighted, entering the hall from the tower at precisely 12 am, dressed in black with a white pipe collar. The sounds of chains follow her. She carries a knife in her hand, arm raised in preparation to strike. She drops the knife, however, when she reaches two particular chairs in the room, after which she crumbles to the ground with a tearful shout.

The style of clothing makes for the evidence that this ghost is Karen Skeel who died in 1601. She lived a childless marriage of 34 years, leading to the assumption that she was a witch. Needless to say, this assumption laid the groundwork for her paranormal legacy.

None of these tall tales are on the level of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard, but there is a bloodstain, at least, so who’s to say there can’t be more, yet to be discovered?