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.

WriterWoes #7 – The creative process!

This post is actually inspired from a comment that I made on another post that got me thinking about my structural process when I write stories – and when I unleash my creativity in general, I suppose.

Despite my love for speculative fiction and the world building that this entails, be it large or small, my writing process is not geared towards years of planning and outlining prior to putting my pen to paper.

My creative process, be it painting or writing, is more… visceral, I suppose.

When I paint, I stray away from motifs and settle on abstract, impressionistic scenes.

Likewise, when I write, I get most of my inspiration while I write.

I build my world while I write it.

I do my research while I write.

I rarely ever do much before I start writing.

This means that there’ll be lots of pauses in my writing, where I head off to do extensive research or to expand on my world and characters, but the point still stands that I will have written at least five to ten chapters before I stop to do this.

I also prefer to plan my outline while I write, meaning that, well, my outlines get all sorts of messy, but then I color-code the different branches of the outline, making some of the text bold, some of the text larger, and— you get me?

Suddenly, somehow, there’s now an outline based on aesthetics – on visuals alone!

It makes sense, I guess, having been a painter for as long as I’ve been a writer.

The creative process is different for everyone, but I do think that it’s important to sit down and consider what your creative process is. If anything, simply because it will become far easier to nurture and cultivate your inspiration and motivation that way…

… and who doesn’t want that, amirite?

WriterWoes #4: What’s in a talent?

This will be a long one, I warn you.

I almost didn’t want to delve into this question.

Why, you ask?

Well, delving into this question means delving into a debate that is as old as time – the debate as to whether talent trumps hard work or vice versa – and I feel that there is next to nothing new to say about it, so why should people want to hear my two cents in the matter?

But, but, but—then I remembered an interview with Neil Gaiman. He always proves a great inspiration to me, and he is often on my mind while I write my own pieces. In this particular interview, a member of the audience bemoans how she wants to be a director, but she has been told multiple times that there are too many artists in the world, and that she should pursue something more noteworthy than directing. Gaiman responds as such: “saying that there are enough artists is like saying we have enough scientists, we have enough designers, we have enough politicians (…) but nobody gets to be you except you. Nobody has your point of view – except you.”

Now, when I first heard this interview some odd years ago, his answer resonated strongly with me, and I find that it still does to this date.

Why am I paraphrasing this interview now?

Well, even if the talent/work debate is as old as time and has been discussed by far more established and adept authors than yours truly, my two cents in the matter still remains of value… because nobody has my point of view except for me!

And, so, what is my point of view?

In the 7th or 8th grade, I had a teacher that I, to this date, still remain in contact with. In Denmark, you have what we call “class-teachers”, meaning a teacher that follows you consistently from 1st till 9th grade. In my case, that was my Danish/English teacher by the name of Lene (and my math teacher, but that’s kinda irrelevant for this conversation; sorry, Jes!). I consider Lene the very reason that I decided to pursue a life in writing. Never before have I received the same interest and support as I did from her, not even as I got older and the opportunities for mentoring began to properly present themselves to me.

My point of view in this debate has, in all probability, sprung from hers. I remember quite clearly how she one day stood up from behind her desk and told us, the many hopeful youngsters sitting before her, that 50 percent talent/passion and 50 percent hard work would take you far in whatever endeavor you should choose to pursue in life.

I’m aware that this might be seen as a halfassed answer to a much difficult debate, but that’s not the way I see it. The way I see it, you cannot succeed in any craft unless you make the effort to cultivate and actualize your talent/passion.

Like good and evil, and like black and white, one cannot exist without the other.

Without talent and passion, there will be no effort.

Without effort, there will be no beautiful, breathing, actualized talent.

That is my point of view, and it is a point of view that is not liable to change any time soon, but rather live on to a seventeenth- twentieth- thirtieth- XXXX anniversary.


So, I think I’ll let that be the end. Yes?