Monday, June 8, 2015

The Huldra/Hiisi and the Voynich Manuscript

Past time for a change in perspective

By now a fair amount of people understand that the Old Norse word víkingr denoted not a nationality, but an occupation: a Viking was anyone who took part in an overseas expedition.

Even so, the term "Viking" is very often used to cover all sorts of artifacts that in fact may simply be from
Punkva, Czech Republic
northern people who existed during the age of the viking expeditions. When we think of a northern woman during this time, we might gravitate toward the image of shield maidens, thanks to the media, because, let's face it, the postmodern male will pay handsomely for such graphics that are both sexy and kickass. And certainly, evidence for shield maidens exists.

But I think classicism as a whole has skewed our perspective miserably on the mythopoeic cosmos that was the playing field for the vast amount of north Europeans up until the late 16th century. We fall back on talk of Pan, Dionysus, Sybils, etc., when in fact it's entirely the wrong vocabulary and as much a bad habit as "Viking"-izing everything coming from the north in the Middle Ages. This leads to an over-simplification of the cultural forces at play in the North lands and furthermore almost entirely nixes an already elusive strain of cultural tradition that can be traced to very ancient times.

It could very well be that warriorhood, while certainly a part of life, was very much seen as a subcontext of the whole and that the main engine that ran the vehicle of Nordic life was in fact somewhere entirely elsewhere--that we've thrown a classical lens up, emphasizing one aspect of their world while wholly missing the boat on the root and crux of it.

Try to imagine a world in which all things Viking are simply a subdivision of that vaster world, and more toward the head isn't Thor or even Odin but the demagogue who spins out, pulls along, weaves, and snips their strings. It's why their world, they knew, had an end, and why there was an entity outside of their world who could tell them the end of it. Some people are not going to like that interpretation, but it is useful  to remember that in the Völuspá a so-called god is being hushed.  

According to many myths told around the world, in the past women used to be disguised as spirits to control
men. Then the men discovered the masquerade and in turn threatened the women as spirits. According to the men, the women never learned that the masked males were not truly spirits, but that was the big secret to be found out at a male's initiation rite:
The Old Man pops open a Beck's, says, "Welp, Junior, the boogie-man scaring the Hell out of your mother and sister is me," haves a good laugh with him; Junior's a man now. A more scholastic example of such a male initiation ceremony is described at the bottom of this post. Very old story, very prevalent. But what's going on from the woman's perspective? What happens when Mom gets fed up? Or Sis? Most women throughout history probably did not want to be big-bosomed, kickass shield-maidens or sex-slaves or chess pieces. They actually probably now and again wanted peace and quiet and a thought or two put behind the actions of men. They may even never have abandoned seeking out a secluded place or two where they could get on with the business of culture: pass on their own knowledge to one another, sing among themselves, tell their stories, paint the walls, come up with inventions like the loom, the flute, the quern, the pot, other necessities of life... 

This could be why deep in the recesses of caves you will find art on the walls and they, it has been discovered recently, were most likely made by women.
Of course this is all a gross oversimplification of actual history, but there's a gist to it, and what's more, and utterly fascinating is that there's evidence that women did precisely that--they hid out. It was common enough not to be an anomaly but rather something of a tradition--an accepted fact, and they were good at it.

Various types of past female utopias have been constructed by scholars like Gimbutas, Eisler, Stone, Mor, Sjoo, and Dashu--epochs, whole civilizations where and when "once somehow we got it right though now somehow we lost it," or so the refrain goes. Perhaps to some extent some cultures did grant more freedom and power to higher ranking women than the rest of the world at the time, especially the classical world--Greece, Rome, the Levant, which, you know, if you think about it, isn't really saying that much. We got a sky god swooping down as various animals and raping girls and as his punishment they get turned into stuff by his wife. See that little flower over there? Well there was this pretty little maid and the god Blah-Blah.... We teach these stories in our universities and call them high-brow.

I find them sick.

Anywhere these cultures have touched you're bound to dig up some pretty brutal misogyny, which is going on...still. Adoring his mother and revering the Virgin Mary appears to have done little to stop a man from beating "his" wife, which has been seen as his right, even his duty, to do, in some pockets of the world, still is. Up to the 17th century in Britain, you could even sell your wife. That is, if she survived childbirth, witch hunts, plague, and no washing machine. Until Catholicism and then the Restoration swept through Fennoscandia, those women did fare better than their southern sisters. Various shades of egalitarianism existed. The mere fact that Finnish women owned their own boats should cause anyone to just pause and consider: we're talking having your own wheels in the fifteenth century. That's big. 

A map created by Olaus Magnus in 1539 shows a possible Kven settlement in northern Norway - Berkara Qvenap. Nearby is this couple.
If he was a world-class trader, perhaps she was a world-class administrator. Perhaps these were occupations as real as that of any Viking, but far more quiet, far less heard of, and curiously far less celebrated. The great epics of the North lands have as central themes wooing savvy, beautiful, not-easy-to-impress women of a different but indigenous tribe and going to such women for wisdom. She's everywhere in the tales and yet at the same time apart and inaccessible.

The Huldra as a professional escape artist is an ancient theme. She spans epochs and continents. She calls the shots, and if she can't, she disappears underground until she can. It's called survival. She's wily like that, which is why it's so hard to catch up with her. Even her name means hidden. Dylan Thomas speaks of "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower." She's that force and the green fuse her tool (read Tannhäuser, Eric of Pomerania, Dvergatals, leeks, or the Dønna stones...), and indeed, there was a whole following devoted to her, which to this day resists a precise name, so let's just say the Huldra (or if you're Finnish, Hiisi).

In Lore

The Huldra is a figure found in Scandinavian folklore, including Norwegian  Swedish, and Sámi. In Norwegian, they are known as skogsfru, or skovfrue, meaning “Lady of the Forest”. In Swedish they are known as skogsra, “forest spirit” or Tallemaja, “pine tree Mary”. They are often referred to as Ulda in Sámi. Their male counterpart is known as a huldu, or huldrekarl in Norwegian.

Both the male huldrekarl, and female huldra, are forest and mountain dwelling creatures, that take the form of tall, very beautiful humans with long, flowing hair. Their backs are hollow, like a rotting tree trunk, and they often have animal-like tails. They may appear nude in their most basic form, or disguise themselves and hide among humans, masquerading as farm maidens. If a human manages to somehow see their back or tail, the spell is broken, and the human is no longer susceptible to the huldra or huldrekarl’s advances.

Tales of huldra and huldrekarl tell of them using their beautiful appearance, and seductive charm to lure young men and women back to their caves, or subterranean homes, where they may be kept a slaves, lovers, or worse - depending on the tale. Sometimes the humans are released, but are cursed with the constant temptation to return to their captor. Other tales describe them getting married to humans, losing their tails, and becoming human themselves - but retaining their magic.

Some huldra or huldrekarl are inherently deceptive, and evil, but many respond to the treatment they receive.
If treated kindly, they have been known to use their magic to help humans, and solve their problems. If treated unkindly, they can be hateful, and vengeful.

The Huldra, Hylda, Skogsrå or Skogfru (Forest wife/woman) as a dangerous seductress who lives in the forest is said to lure men down into endless cave systems, that they would not be able to find their way out from, or lure them into the forest in order to secure her freedom or sometimes to suck the life out of a man. One of her methods is to appear suddenly out of the rain and mist, friendly and enticing to the point that no man can resist her charm. She has a long cow's tail that she ties under her skirt in order to hide it from men.
If she can manage to get married in a church, her tail falls off and she becomes human. However, she also becomes very ugly. It is often said, however, that the young and beautiful Huldra is moody and dangerous, but when she becomes old and ugly, she also becomes gentle and caring to the man who made her Christian. 

She has an aquatic counterpart called "havsfrun" or "Havsrå" (sea wife/woman) who is very similar to the Sirens Odysseus meets in The Odyssey.

In Iceland

Huldufólk (Icelandic hidden people from huldu- "pertaining to secrecy" and fólk "people", "folk") are elves in Icelandic folklore. Building projects in Iceland are sometimes altered to prevent damaging the rocks where they are believed to live. According to these Icelandic folk beliefs, one should never throw stones because of the possibility of hitting the huldufólk.

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has explained the existence of huldufólk tales by saying: "Icelanders are few in number, so in the old times we doubled our population with tales of elves and fairies."

They are also a part of folklore in the Faroe Islands. In Faroese folk tales, Huldufólk are said to be "large in build, their clothes are all grey, and their hair black. Their dwellings are in mounds, and they are also called Elves." They also dislike crosses, churches and electricity.

There are four Icelandic holidays considered to have a special connection with hidden people: New Year's Eve, Twelfth Night (January 6), Midsummer Night and Christmas night. Elf bonfires (álfabrennur) are a common part of the holiday festivities on Twelfth Night (January 6). There are many Icelandic folktales about elves and hidden people invading Icelandic farmhouses during Christmas and holding wild parties. It is customary in Iceland to clean the house before Christmas, and to leave food for the huldufólk on Christmas. On New Year's Eve, it is believed that the elves move to new locations, and Icelanders leave candles to help them find their way. On Midsummer Night, folklore states that if you sit at a crossroads, elves will attempt to seduce you with food and gifts; there are grave consequences for being seduced by their offers, but great rewards for resisting.

Michael Strmiska writes: "The Huldufólk are... not so much supernatural as ultranatural, representing not an overcoming of nature in the hope of a better deal beyond but a deep reverence for the land and the mysterious powers able to cause fertility or famine."

Anthropologist Jón Haukur Ingimundarson claimed that huldufólk tales told by 19th century Icelandic women were a reflection of how only 47% of women were married, and "sisters often found themselves relegated to very different functions and levels of status in society... the vast majority of Icelandic girls were shunted into supporting roles in the household." He goes on to say that these stories justified the differences in role and status between sisters, and "inculcated in young girls the... stoic adage never to despair, which was a psychological preparedness many would need as they found themselves reduced in status and denied the proper outlet for their sexuality in marriage, thereby sometimes having to rely on infanticide to take care of the unsolicited and insupportable effects of their occasional amours, an element... related in huldufólk stories."

In Nordic Names - excerpt from

Old Norse

1) hulda = 'hiding, secrecy'
1) hylja = 'to hide, cover'
2) hollr = 'faithful, loyal, gracious'


1) huljan = 'to hide, cover'
2) hulþ-s = 'lovely, faithful, reliable, loyal'
Old High German
1) hullen = 'to hide, cover'
2) hold = 'lovely, faithful, reliable, loyal'

Old Saxon

1) hullian = 'to hide, cover'
2) hold = 'lovely, faithful, reliable, loyal'

Old Frisian

1) hella = 'to hide, cover'
2) hold = 'lovely, faithful, reliable, loyal'

Old English

1) hyllan = 'to hide, cover'
2) hold = 'lovely, faithful, reliable, loyal'


2) huld = 'lovely, delightful'

Related Names

See Hulda and Holtti

Element     Example
BORG         see Huldeborg
DIS                see Hulddís
GUD        see Gotthold (German)
HER       see Huldar
JUL              see Júlíhuld
RAGN     see Reinhold (German)
RIK            see Huldrika
RUN   see Huldrún

First Element Forms

Huld- Hulde-

Last Element Forms

-hold -holdt -holt -holtti


Ferdinand Holthausen: Vergleichendes und Etymologisches Wörterbuch des Altwestnordischen (1948)
Leiv Heggstad, Finn Hødnebø og Erik Simensen: Norrøn Ordbok (1997)
Roland Otterbjörk: Svenska förnamn (1979)
Elias Wessén: Våra ord (1997)
Kristoffer Kruken og Ola Stemshaug: Norsk Personnamnleksikon (1995)

Where, Specifically

Tacitus called them the Sitones. Adam von Bremen called them northern Amazons who resided in "The Land of Women." Scholars like to say there was a mix-up with the word "Kvenland," ancient scribes taking the name too literally as meaning women. But upon further study, the evidence mounts that, no, it's not a mistake or a flight of fancy. There really was a land of women, once extensive, and in later years shrinking, receding, getting more and more elusive, until it all but entered myth. The focal point of this land appears to have been Lofoten. Doggerland might have been included in the realm's range. Certainly Orkney and the Shetlands were, and other places in the British Isles. Indeed, the Huldra by various names were throughout Europe, for example, Great Britain's shell grotto of Margate. We don't know them on their own terms and may never know them on their own terms, though the Voynich manuscript should help, as well as studying the cradle of their belief systems, which may be found in the Perm and may also have been influenced by the Scythians.
Hell is a manuscript you can begin to read and yet remain baffled by what in creation they're doing.
Hell is also in Norway, a little north of Trondheim.
If ever you do go hiking deep in the wilderness and stumble across a grotto with lots of intricate, circular, reticulated patterning, sun-swirls, eight-pointed stars, cave entrances, streams flowing as if into and out of the rock, spoons, stone phalluses (scads of them), wittily-named gnomey dwarves carved to resemble that self-same adored shape, implements for spinning like distaffs and drop spindles, a quern motif, a little celebrated lizard or snake, a strange wee roly-poly/pangolin/water vole beastie that could be the Para, a shang-hai'ed musical young man who's a little pale from being kept inside a mountain and milked of his seed, little coracle-like vehicles that seem to fly with the lick of a broomstick, possibly the thunderous sound of water drumming, and you spot some naked women with head-dresses, long single braids down the back, chanting loud and nonlinear songs in a trochaic cadence, then welp, it's too late for you. You are among the Huldra.


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The Hain of the Selk'nam: Example Male Initiation Ceremony

Selk'nam male initiation ceremonies, the passage to adulthood, was called Hain. Nearby indigenous peoples, the Yahgan and Haush, had similar initiation ceremonies.

Young males were called to a dark hut. There they would be attacked by "spirits", who were people dressed as supernatural beings. The children were taught to believe in and fear these spirits at childhood and were threatened by them in case they misbehaved. Their task in this rite of passage was to unmask the spirits; when the boys saw that the spirits were human, they were told a story of world creation related to the sun and moon. In a related story they were told that in the past women used to be disguised as spirits to control men. When the men discovered the masquerade, they in turn would threaten women as spirits. According to the men, the women never learned that the masked males were not truly spirits, but the males found out at the initiation rite.

The contemporary ceremonies used this interplay in somewhat of a joking way. After the first day, related ceremonies and rituals took place. Males showed their "strength" in front of women by fighting spirits (who were other males but the women supposedly did not know it) in some theatrical fights. Each spirit was played with traditional actions, words and gestures, so that everyone could identify it. The best spirit actors from previous Hains were called again to impersonate spirits in later Hains.

Apart from these dramatic re-enactments of mythic events, the Hain involved tests for young males for courage, resourcefulness, resisting temptation, resisting pain and overcoming fear. It also included prolonged instructional courses to train the young men in the tasks for which they would be responsible.

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