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?


The Danish “Nisse” – from Roman God to Santa’s Helper

The nisse (“neh-seh”) has been around for so long it’s become a ubiquitous cultural figure. You probably don’t know it as the nisse. You may know it as an elf. Or a goblin. Or a gnome. In Denmark, however, it’s a nisse. Let me tell you about its history. Let us learn where your idea of a nisse meshes, and perhaps even clashes, with mine.

The Nisse as a Roman Household God (750 BC – 500 AD)

Historians believe the oldest ancestor of the nisse to be the Roman household God Lar Familiares. In return for his housekeeping services, Lar Familiares demanded payment in the shape of sacrifice and prayer from the family whose house he protected and maintained. The Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (254-184 BC) referenced Lar Familiares in “Aulularia”, a play in which the god helps an old man hide a pot of gold. When the old man dies, his son desires the pot of gold, but Lar Familiares won’t reveal where the pot is hidden, claiming the son has neglected praying to him. Only when the daughter-in-law interferes, befriending the God through her prayers, does the pot of gold find its way to her.

Lar Familiaris (wikipedia)
The Beginning of Lar Familiares as a Nordic Nisse (981)

The first documented account of a Nordic nisse is from the year of 981. It’s the saga of the Norwegian King, Olav Tryggvason. Given that the saga is from a historical period during which Christianity was slowly blanketing Scandinavia as a whole, the nisse was by default heretical in nature.

From Olaus Magnus’ Historie om de nordiske folk, 1555

The saga tells the story of an Icelandic farmer by the name of Kodran. A creature called Årmanden (“The Year Man”) lived inside a rock on Kodran’s property. In return for Kodran’s sacrifices to Årmanden, Årmanden gave Kodran advice on the future and the farm, telling him what crop to invest in, what livestock to keep… but only until Kodran’s Christian son visited the farm. The son had a priest in tow. They convinced Kodran to turn his back on the heretical Årmand after which they expelled him from his rock by spraying it with holy water and singing psalms.

The Nisse as a Heretical God (1000-1750)

Christianity rolled across Denmark, creating hell on earth for the nisse, putting it in the same category as the Devil himself with monotheism to blame for it. In the 1200s, the Swedish nun (who was later sainted) Birgitta Birgersdatter wrote a decree against the nisse, warning against praying to the heretic God. Likewise, the German monk and reformer Martin Luther (1483-1546) instructed priests in how to exorcise the nisse. Denmark’s last officially convicted witch, Anne Palles, was executed on April 4th 1693, but not before she confessed that a Niels Goddreng lived on her farm. In the shape of a horse, no less. “Nisse” is a noun created from the name “Nis”, which is a nickname for “Niels”. “Goddreng” translates as “good boy”. As such, Anne Palles confessed to having Nisse Good Boy living on her farm. Such a heretical claim no doubt helped incinerate the flames of the fire that soon saw her burned.

When Niels Gårdbo Terrorized the Farmers… (400-1500)
Eventyr om Nisser, H. C. Ley, 1849

Gårdbo was an earlier Danish name for “nisse”. “Gård” means farm, and “bo” means live. Before Christianity, during the middle ages, a Gårdbo was believed to live on every farm in existence. Niels Gårdbo, Lille Niels or Tomten was an elderly, pipe-smoking man with an extremely hotheaded temper. Every Saturday he demanded “sødgrød” (porridge) in return for assisting the farmer in feeding the animals and tending the fields. If he was given no porridge, hell broke loose. He would tie the cows’ tails together, would ruin the farmer’s tools, or even exert physical violence on the farmer and his family. A Norwegian folktale tells of a girl who ate the porridge and was beaten to a bloody pulp by the Gårdbo so that she nearly died.

An unhappy Gårdbo could also choose to leave, leading to catastrophe for the farmer; if the Gårdbo left of his own volition, he took all luck and fortune with him. On the other hand, the farmer could not escape his Gårdbo. The Gårdbo followed the farmer no matter where he moved. Needless to say, the best a farmer could do was to treat his Gårdbo right.

The Nisse as Santa’s Helper (1800-now)

“Julemanden” (Santa) was introduced into Danish culture around the 1800s. At this same time, the first book was published that attempted to account for the idea of the nisse. One hundred years later, by the year 1900, the hot-tempered Gårdbo had become the Julenisse. “Jule” means “Christmas”. This link between the idea of the Gårdbo and the later Julenisse shows in the beloved Danish Christmas song from 1911, På Loftet Sidder Nissen med sin Julegrød (“the nisse sits in the attic with his Christmas porridge”). Relatedly, Danish parents put porridge in their attics during Christmas time, and while their young children were asleep, they would scoop porridge from the bowl, making the children believe that the nisse had eaten the porridge during the night.

In 1836, the Danish painter Constantin Hansen hosted a Christmas party in Rome. As part of his decoration, he put up paper-clippings of a red-orange nisse on a black background – the very first julenisse in history. Not long after that, the nisse appeared in Christmas tales all across the Nordic countries. Then, in 1858, the first female nisse came to life. Suddenly, the nisse was no longer a household God who stomped terrorized poor farmers in return for porridge; now he helped Santa deliver gifts to children all across the world.

From Greenland, of course, and not the North Pole, as any good Dane will tell you…

Den Store Danske Encyklopædi, Gyldendal, Bind 14, 1999.