Faroese folk-tales & legends

John F. West

Illustrations by Barður Jákapsson

Shetland Publishing Company Ltd., Lerwick, 1980. 174 p.

Símun of Kirkjuböur

pages 107-12

Símun Símunarson, nicknamed Hulda-Símun or Troll-Símun, was grandson to Jenis Símunarson, farmer of Laðangarður Farm in Sumba, of which much is told in other stories. Símun got the lease of Kirkjuböur in Streymoy; his wife was the sister of Jógvan Olavsson, the Skúvoy farmer. He is not said to have been kind towards his wife, though neither did he treat her cruelly. Símun was an extremely big-built man; for his jacket he needed three lengths of double-width cloth. He was also strong and sure-footed; none of his farm-hands dared to go in front of him on a sheep round-up, unless he wished to lose his life. If it happened that the sheep escaped the round-up, then Símun was always the foremost of all in their recovery.

Up on Kirkjuböur Felltop lived a hulduman. He set a large flock of grey and black sheep to graze in Símun's hill pasture and drove the Kirkjuböur sheep away from the good grass up into the stoniest parts of the felltop, so that a large flock became so lean they were almost starving, whilst the hulda sheep were fat. Símun became aware of the hulda sheep and swore that if he got hold of the hulduman, he would pay him back for it. One day, when Símun was out fishing, bad weather came on him, so he had no recourse but to struggle to land. When Símun had got his boat up towards a landing-place, he saw another boat lying in front of him. He at once recognised the hulduman, and they began to quarrel.

The hulduman asserted that he had an equally good right to the landing as Símun. "So you'll say you have rights to other things as well," answered Símun; "you must be the one who is spoiling my upland pastures with those flocks of grey and black sheep." The hulduman now said that his kinsmen had used the pastures before him, and he himself would use them in the same way. Their words became more and more heated, and finally Símun jumped at the heathen to attack him. It ended with Símun winning and threatening to kill the other; but the hulduman bade him grant him his life and safety, and Símun agreed to this on condition that the heathen promised to move away from Streymoy with everything that belonged to him and never set foot there again. The hulduman agreed to do this and then went to the ridge above Froðböur in Suðuroy to live. After this nothing was heard of him for three years.
Click here -> 400x545 pix.
"But he showed then the knife, and they could do nothing to him."

At the northernmost end of Sandoy lies a small island, Troll's Head, which belongs to Kirkjuböur; on this island, now as formerly, they keep sheep and sometimes beef cows and oxen. Three years after the hulduman had gone to Froðböur Ridge to live, a strange ox, grey in colour, began to graze on Troll's Head. Símun did not recognise this ox and had it called out at three St. Olafs law-sessions in succession, but with no result; no-one would claim the ox, and the third time Símun said that now he would take and kill the ox for himself, since no-one seemed to own it. Jógvan Isaksson from Skúvoy, a very wise and skilful man, who used to be chosen to propose the toast to the king after each law-sessions, advised Símun to let the ox alone; the one who had put it on the Head might well take it away again (he suspected that a hulduman owned the ox). But Símun paid no heed to this; that autumn he would have the ox, he said.

One morning late in October, well before daybreak, Símun got up and woke his farm hands to go with him to the Head; some spoke in favour of going, and some advised against it. At Infield Farm lived Baraldur, nicknamed Troll-Baraldur, for Baraldur was a man with second sight. Símun bade him accompany him on his journey that same morning, but Baraldur said that he did not care to go and bade Símun give the journey up; but Símun said he did not care what a damned old fortune-teller said; he must have had some bad dream or other during the night, as usual.

So off they went from the house, seven men together, to the Head to get that fine ox. Símun was fasting - his wife had not made him any breakfast, for they were on bad terms because he had struck her; and neither had he recited the Lord's Prayer. They came to Troll's Head, but the hulda ox, which formerly had always been so docile, showed his mettle that morning and was so shy that they could not lay hands on him and the men were inclined to give up. Evening came; and then the ox stood quietly in front of them. They bound him and lowered him into their boat. They began to row home, and Símun was in high humour.

As he looked to the side he saw a boat come through Troll's Head Sound and make straight for his own boat. Símun could not escape, because the other boat was nearer to the land, so without delay they ran alongside. The boat foreman got up and leapt into the Kirkjuböur boat. Now Símun recognised once again the hulduman whom he had conquered before. The hulduman at once seized the ox to get it into his own boat, but Símun leapt from his place and the two began to fight. Símun flung the hulduman down into the bow scuppers and shouted to a lad to get him the 'sharpy' that was under the hatch. The lad did not understand, and asked, "What?" Then Símun became angry, scolded the lad and shouted, "The knife!" But now this word had been pronounced, the hulduman began to break loose and rise to his feet again. He took a red silken band and tied it round Símun's wrists, and then took both Símun and the ox into his boat and bound them. Then the hulduman rowed south-eastwards past Skálavik. The Kirkjuböur boat was smashed in pieces. One man, named Tobergur, came drifting on a plank into the calmer waters near Kirkjuböur, and he has given the account of these events.

The hulda boat now sailed away southwards. When it came athwart Skúvoy, Símun's father-in-law, Jógvan Isaksson, was out on the hills, saw the boat and recognised him. "Símun would not have fared thus today, had he been kind to his wife," he remarked; yet he said he would delay the hulduman for a time, so he went to the edge of the cliff and flung a limpet-shell down into the sea in front of the boat. Then he went home and said, "Tonight Kirkjuböur is without a master." For three tides the hulda boat was held in the Berg whirlpool and could not get away. Then Jógvan sent his son to the edge of the cliff with a sheath, and bade him throw it over, so that it would fall into the sea in front of the boat. The lad did so. Then the boat was released, and the huldumen were able to row where they wished.

Their chief now kept Símun with him on Froðböur Ridge where he had his habitation. He was not harsh to Símun in any other way, now he had got power over him. The huldumen, on the other hand, were always harsh towards him when their chief was not present; where Símun had his dwelling-place, they used to hang their working-clothes, rain-sodden rags, tangled and soaking fishing-lines, and other things that would annoy him. Every evening Símun used to go out alone, and then it was generally his custom to kneel down and look at the moon. The hulda chief saw him lying there one evening weeping; he then went up to him to comfort him, and told him that henceforth the others should not do him any harm. The hulda chief reproved them, but it was of no use.

One day the Froðböur men went up into the hills to take sheep at the autumn ram-lamb slaughter. When the sheep had been bound and carried to the house, one of the men lingered by the sheep fold. He saw a man coming towards him and thought he wanted to meet him. When the man approached, the Froðböur man recognised that this was the late farmer of Kirkjuböur. Símun greeted him and asked him news of how things stood in Kirkjuböur, whether his widow had remarried, and such like. The Froðböur man told him everything: his widow had married one of the farm hands, and this farm hand had been granted the Kirkjuböur lease. He asked Símun how he found life, whether he had not a mind to slip back home to Kirkjuböur. Símun answered that he neither could nor would escape from the folk he was with. He said he had an evil time, except when they were away from the house; then he lived more pleasantly, for the chiefs wife was kind to him. They did a great deal of fishing, and every time they came back, he had to sit under the water dripping from their fishing-lines, Símun bade the Froðböur man to give him some advice on how he might better be assisted against them. The Froðböur man thought he was little able to help him better his conditions; yet he got Símun a tiny knife, which he bade Símun carry always upon him and use when necessary. If they attacked him, he was to show it to them. As they were standing talking, two huldumen came for Símun; but he showed them the knife, and they could do nothing to him.

The Froðböur man met Símun on the hills twice after this, and now Símun said that his life was better, for he had gained power over the huldumen and taught them sense and good manners; now they no longer dared to do him any harm. Then one day the same man from Froðböur went up the mountains towards the ridge. There he met a man, but thought he knew what kind he was, and thus did not want to get into conversation with him. He turned off the path, but the the hulduman intercepted him and cursed him for the knife he had given to Símun, who was now their master. He and his people would remember that against him and pay him back for it in full. The Froðböur man bade him try: "If I give Símun a little knife, I would be sure to keep a big one for myself, and I would expect that to help me." After this nothing more was heard of Símun and the hul-dufolk on Froðböur Ridge.

From J. Jakobsen: Færoske Folkesagn og Æventyr, pages 88-93.

This story is a fascinating one for the light it throws on the hulda beliefs of the Faroe Islanders in former times.

Símun of Kirkjuböur was Simon Simonsen, the great-great-great-grandson of Regin of Hörg, the antagonist of Regin of Toftir in the legend of that name (page 4). Simon Simonsen of Kirkjuböur appeared in court in connection with a dispute with Mikkel Joensen, the Lambi farmer of the legend Oli Hatless (page 55), in the year 1618. In the following year, however, the records refer to Simon's widow. His disappearance is thus fairly closely dated.

The disappearance of Simon Simonsen is mentioned by the author Lucas Debes, writing in 1673, as an instance of Satan's influence in the Faroe Islands. According to Debes, the high bailiff had ordered Simon to take possession of the ox in the king's name, since it seemed to be without an owner. On the way home, both ox and men disappeared without trace, though the boat and its oars came safely to land, and three Kirkjuböur oxen were recovered from the sea.

The summit of Kirkjuböur Fell is extremely barren and stony, indeed practically without grass.

The islet of Troll's Head belongs to the farm and to the parish of Kirkjuböur, but is six or seven miles from Streymoy. Thus the hulduman was not breaking his promise when he grazed the grey ox there.

Jógvan Isaksson of Skúvoy was the brother of Annika of Dímun (see page 69).

As well as the other indiscreet actions which Símun committed when he set off for the ox, to go fasting, and without first reciting the Lord's Prayer were outstandingly foolish, according to Faroese belief in former times.

The latter part of the story illustrates the life which the Faroemen believed the huldumen led, and the belief that the possession of a knife gave one protection against their enmity.

Papaless and the Greedy Troll

pages 124-26

Once upon a time there were two brothers, who had joined together and lived in a little house away in the woods. Together with them they had a boy who was known as Papaless, because he was a bastard child and folk did not know of any father to him. Every day two of them used to go out to cut firewood, but the third used to stay at home to cook the dinner.

One day, when the eldest was staying at home, a poor old man came, knocked at the door, and asked to come in. He was small in stature, but frightful to look at, and his beard hung down to his knees. It was so cold, he said, and he begged leave to sit by the fire for a while. The elder brother said he could. A stew-pot was hanging over the fire cooking; the stranger asked for a little to eat, for he was so hungry. The man took pity on this poor creature and gave him a crust to dip into the fat. When he had eaten this, he suddenly gained in strength. He wanted to eat all the food there was; the brother tried to prevent him, but the troll overcame him, thrashing him and flinging him into a corner almost dead. Now when the other two came home, they got nothing to eat, for the troll had eaten everything.

The younger brother said that things would not go that way the next day, for then he would stay at home. The next day the same poor old man came back, begged in the same way as before, and was given leave, for the brother thought that this could do no harm. But as soon as he had eaten, he suddenly gained in strength and thrashed the brother. When the other two came home in the evening, he was lying in the corner, almost dead. They got no meal that evening either.
Click here -> 470x400 pix.
"He was small in stature and frightful to look at."

The third day the youngest begged leave for him to stay at home; but they poured scorn on him: he could do nothing - he was no man for the job. But it could not go worse with him than with them, he maintained, and so he did stay at home. When part of the day had passed, there was a banging at the door. The lad did not want to let him in, but the troll scratched and scraped until he got the bolt loose, and then came and sat uown by the fire. He asked for something to eat, but the boy answered that he could not have anything yet, for the pot had not begun to boil. He asked the troll to help him a little first by chopping up wood and putting it on the fire under the pot. He went to a very big log and asked him to chop it apart. When the axe fell on the log, it stuck fast. The troll took a wedge and hammered it in so that he could loosen the axe; but whilst he was struggling with that, his beard fell down into the crack. The poor fellow now could not move; but the lad said that now he was going to take revenge for what he had done to the other two. He began to thrash the troll so that he wept and wailed. The troll struggled to get away, dragging the log behind him, so that his beard was torn out and the skin of his chin ripped away as well. So the troll ran away, leaving his beard behind in the log.

In the evening, the other two came home again and got a good meal. The young lad told them what he had done with the troll. The brothers thought it would be best to go in search of him, for he would probably own great riches; they thought they would quite likely find him dead. The trail of blood led all the way to a hole. The two brothers did not dare to go down; but the youngest let himself down with a rope. It was dark down there, and he searched for a long time. Then he came across some person in a corner. It was a princess, who long before had vanished from the king's palace. At length he found the troll in another corner. He called out, begging the lad for God's sake not to kill him: and he should have the princess and a full chest of gold in return.

So he spared the troll, tied the princess on to the rope, shouted to the two at the top, and bade them pull her up. Next he took the chest and tied it to the end of the rope, which they let down again. When they had pulled the chest up, the lad shouted to them and bade them lower the rope again. No, they said: now they had done well for themselves, and bade him just stay down there in the hole.

He was very miserable, for he saw no way of getting up. But then he thought of the troll, went to him and said that he was going to kill him right away. The troll implored him not to do this and promised to do whatever he asked for him. Well, then, if the troll would push him up out of this hole, then he would spare his life, the boy said. The troll began to try, climbing up on all fours, digging in his claws, and bidding the boy hold on to him. So he got out, and the troll went down again.

He went back to his house at once; the two brothers had by then gone to town and in front of the king with his daughter, whom they said they had found in the troll's lair. The king was delighted and said that one of them could take her as his wife; but she wept and said no. The youngster came in after this, went straight to the king and complained of how he had been treated. This was the man who had rescued her, said the princess. So the king had the other two put in prison. The youngster got his chest of gold back again, and married the princess; and what is more, he became king when the old king died.

From J. Jakobsen: Færöske Folkesagn og Æventyr, pages 232-5.

Several versions of this story are known in the Faroe Islands, which has particular parallels in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish folk-tale collections.

Faroese trolls are thought of as being creatures of darkness, often wild and cruel, and with a tendency to take princesses captive in order to have someone to pick lice out of their hair. But they are in many ways easy-going, are easily outwitted by human beings, and are true to their promises. In appearance they resemble human beings, but are larger and uglier.

The audience would probably think of the troll gaining entry the third time by picking a wooden Faroese lock (hvölpalás), a difficult, but not impossible task.

© OCR V. Vasiliev, 2003

Created by Vlad Vasiliev on 19 Aug 2003
Last modified on 19 Aug 2003

Hosted by uCoz