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)

“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?


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.