Giants in Sweden: Past and Present.
My mom, a fabulous woman who always believed — and still does — in the importance of imagination, often took me out in nature and told the magical tales connected to it. Stories of witches, ghosts, trolls and other spirits of the otherworld filled my impressionable mind. Contrary to what some might believe, I never got scared. Totally the opposite actually. It triggered me to explore and feel joy meeting the great unknown — and I don’t mean death — while out playing, alone or on her shoulders.
When visiting the island of Gotland, she brought me to see the Hoburg gigant — a rock formation, a “rauk”, said to be a giant frozen to stone. The potato nose and pouty lips impressed me, but I remember the disappointment when it was clear the “giant” only could be seen from one side, from all other sides it turned into just another rock, whose shapes aligned perfectly to create the silhouette of a face.
Sweden is a rocky country. There’s stones, small and big, everywhere, leftovers from the age of ice and snow. Huge masses of tumbling rock gathered in piles along the mountain and hill sides, as the ice slided and melted away. Here and there you’ll find impressive boulders, who found their way rolling down from their original seats until they found peace out on a field or against a wall of pine trees. Chubby, mossy monoliths from ancient times. They always seemed alive, and still do.
“A giant threw it there!”, she often exclaimed and lifted me up so I could sit on the alleged weapon of aggression. I’ve always been scared of heights, be it a chair or a tower, so I’m not sure if this part of the adventure was as fun as my mother’s stories. However, it left an impact in my mind as strong as the boulders themselves. Maybe the possible trauma of falling down left deep imprints with stories of giants, trolls and other kinds of mythological beings?
It’s interesting how the belief in giants lived on for so long in Sweden, and partly still does. The main focus nowadays though, in more old-fashioned local folklore, is trolls, gnomes and sometimes fairies. The giants have taken a backseat, even if many stories about trolls fit good into the mythology around their larger sized colleagues. It’s easier to envision smaller creatures lurking in the shadows of the dark green forests than humongous, clumsy behemoths stumbling around and throwing rocks! Their size alone would make them difficult to hide from the ever so intrusive human species. Maybe they’ve just withdrawn into the dark underground, hiding and waiting to return?
The Swedish word for giant is “jätte”, which is said to mean “storätare” or “äta” — a “great eater” or “eat”. Whether this is true or not is up to debate, but it’s not wrong to point out that the many stories once focused on their excessive eating, and not necessarily their body size. If we go further back, a far more complex saga is revealed. In norse mythology the giants were the enemies of gods and humans. Their fiercest adversary was Thor, also called Trumslagaren — the drummer. I know, “the drummer” feels more like a member of Marillion or any other progessive band, but for lack of better words that’s how it is. They might have feared Thor and the violent thunder and lightning from his hammer, but oddly enough feared Christianity even more. More on that later.
Jotunheim is the home of the giants, located beyond Asgård, the home of the gods, and Midgård, where the humans dwelled. These places belong to the universe created from the giant Ymer, or to be more specific: his body parts: “His flesh became earth, his blood seas and lakes, his teeth mountains, his hair forests” and so on. The one to blame for this is the primeval cow, Audhumbla, whose fondness for licking frost created the grandfather of the gods, Bure. His son Bor spawned, together with his wife Bestla, three naughty sons: Oden, Vile och Ve. These twats ended up tearing Ymer apart and created an enormous flood of blood, which drowned most of the giants. The remaining giants seeked shelter in Jotunheim, and to the east Järnskogen (The Iron Forest), where giants in the shapes of wolves lived. Towards the east, on an island, Ägri the giant and his wife Ran lived, causing havoc and doom for seafarers. Out in the sea one could find, if unlucky, another giant, Hymer. Around the universe Jörmungandr the serpent was slithering. Like all religions, more or less a daytime soap! It was a dangerous time to say the least; easily offended, scheming and blood thirsty giants in every darn corner!
When Christianity was introduced from the 8th to the 12th century, not by force according to some historians, but willingly, the few remaining giants tried to strike back by throwing rocks at the churches. Boulders near churches are said to be proof of this futile attempt at resistance. When failing to defeat the new religion, they left to find new homes in the wilderness.
Already in Gesta Danorum (the 1220’s), by the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, giants were mentioned as indigenous people in Scandinavia. This was also shared as a fact in two later historical works, Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (Olaus Magnus, 1555) and Sumlen (a collection of historical notes written down by Johannes Bureus during the 15th century). But it was all seen as something eradicated by God’s punishment. At last, the behemoths were gone… or were they?
Towards the end of the 17th century, Olof Rudbeck the Younger, scientist, explorer and botanist, put forth the theory that the giants had been a real race of large sized human beings that had gotten extinct during the great (biblical) deluge. His father, Olof Rudbeck, was another eccentric genius who claimed that Atlantis was centered in Sweden, more specifically in Old Uppsala. A theory that hasn’t held up very well over the years. One thing’s for sure, the Rudbecks seemed to have been a fun and wacky family of adventurers and thinkers.
In the mid 17th century the director-general of the Central Board of National Antiquities, Johan Hadroph, started his mission to find antiquities all over Sweden and traveled for years cataloging the national heritage. In a document form 1666 a curious statement is made, which points towards how the belief in giants were as strong as ever:
“Andra märckelige Orter hwarest någon Kamp eller Stridh hafwer stådt, eller lijknelse effter Jättar, Jättegriffter, Jättekulor, Jättebeen eller theras Swerd och Stridztygh: Sampt andra Rum ther om någon Historisk berättelse är”, which, to put it simply, translates to that they wanted to find evidence of giants: battlegrounds, burial places, skeletal remains, weapons and local, historical anecdotes.
If they found any definitive proof for the existence of giants in Sweden I don’t know. However, whale bones, which were said to belong to giants, could be found in churches as an indirect warning of how it could go if you weren’t a god-fearing citizen. The bones were also used in folk magic, to cure for illnesses both in humans and livestock. Grave mounds we have all over the country, and some of them are said to be the burial places of giants.
The biggest and most famous one is probably Anundshög outside Västerås. On May 11, 1682, public servant Hans Spaak give his report after examining the mound: “Öster om Åhsen Norr om Upsala wägen är en Stoor Rundh ihoopburen Jordehögh, som kallas i gambla Jordebreeff Anunda högh och vulgö Anundz eller Anshögen, och sägz en konungh medh det nampnet eller en Jätte der liggia begrafwen”. In short, in his view either a king named Anund or a giant is said to be buried in the mound. In 1692, the priest Nicolaus Tiblaeu speculates who might be buried inside of it: “Een fuhl Jätte eller bärgtroll skall hafwa hafft sin wåningh, den och sedermehra uthi hedna tijdh ähr dyrckat som een gud” — An ugly giant or mountain troll, who during the pagan era was worshipped as a god. Outside an attempt to grave robbery in 1788, the mound wasn’t excavated until the end of the 1990’s, and no giant was to be found.
However, myths around these characters continued to live through folklore. In all fairness, most of the surviving stories from the end of the 19th century can probably more be seen as fairy tales rather than actual incidents. They were legends told around the campfire, gossipy tales between neighbors and travelers over wooden fences or as a warning to children to not stray too far out into the dark woods. Lakes and caves were often attributed to the labor of giants, and big cracks in the mountainsides and other anomalies were seen traces of giants at work. At Gillanda Farm a tall rock is standing, with a hump on the side. The local legends say it’s a giant frozen to stone, with his bag of bread still hanging from his back. Like with vampires, the sun was dangerous to giants. A more modern story told by Linda, a 52 year old woman in Brastad, reveals a recent version of what was more common in the past, how giants left traces in nature: “Once in my childhood, my grandfather and father took me out on an excursion in the Värmland forests. After quite a long hike we came to a mountain. There were prints of a huge butt on one of them. Next to it were the prints of huge hands, and beyond, huge feet. Everything was way too big to belong to a human. There were also smaller prints, still too big for a human, but smaller than the first — a child perhaps?”
The giants basically lived like normal human beings, except their size, and that included farming. One curious, and quite humorous, incident was told by Johannes Karlsson, born 1863, to author and researcher Ivan Löfgren, during a meeting in 1932. The story is set in Bengtsfors, and the witness, Olle i Huvudgingen (who passed away in 1917) had an absurd, but frightening experience one dark night. Olle was on his way home and was just passing the Höljen lake when a herd of enormous cows came thundering out from the forest down to the water. Up on a nearby hill he saw a huge woman standing, knitting calmly with the needles shimmering in the moonlight, at the same time. He had to squeeze himself out from between the enormous and smelly cows, to escape. He later said he found the experience very eerie, and I do believe him.
A more detailed, and somewhat realistic, experience was told by Albin Johansson, born in 1875. The setting is somewhere in Bohuslän and his father had been out hunting. On his way home he noticed how the dog, when coming back to him, acted strange and had the tail between the legs. Not long after a tall, at least three meters, naked humanoid came tumbling through the forest. It was taller than the trees around and was hairy all over. Both the father and dog got so scared they hid under a pine tree until the giant had passed. Albin’s mother had her own encounter with the beast, meeting it on a forest road and got scared half to death. Sometimes the stories about trolls and giants merge, but looking at it with current eyes it seems it could fit into more modern observations of Bigfoot.
It seems like the giant legend merged with another folklore legend in 1946. On August 22, Norrköpings Tidningar reported on a mysterious series of events which a first might the reader related to old stories about Jack O’Lantern/Will-o’-the-wisp — an apparition carrying lantern, or emanating a eerie light from its body. In this case, what makes it more fitting for legends of giants is of course the size. A fisherman, Karl Berndtsson, tells his version of the story to the newspaper: “When we were approaching Tärnö with our boat from the south side, we suddenly saw the mysterious lantern-bearer. It was a dark night in August at around 11 o’clock, but the new moon shone so much that we could see the outline of the beach and the old trees, which go right down to the water’s edge. Inside the Surviken Bay where the ghosts are seen — the water was level all shiny and along the beach there — walked the man or whatever we shall call the mysterious creature. It was a huge figure, which seemed very impressive, even though he was hunchbacked and with his head against his chest. In his left hand he carried one of those old-fashioned lanterns, and it shone with a powerful fire-red light. The light flickered slightly and brought the idea of a tar-fire. We were only about 30 meters from the beach, and the man must have seen us, but he took absolutely no notice of us, but went undisturbed at the same slow pace along the bay. After a while he turned up at the forest and soon disappeared among the tree trunks.”
Another witness, a sharp young man in his 20s, says the meeting with the giant lantern-bearer gave him such a huge shock he fainted for the first time in his life. In total some 20 men and women, of all ages, on and around the island of Tärnö, claimed to have seen the large, dark figure.
While there is said to exist artifacts coming from giants, nothing is conclusive. Most of them belong to legends and modern fairy tales, like the cauldron left by a giant at Löved farm in Forshaga. According to folklorist Ebbe Schön, in his book Älvor, Vättar och andra Väsen (1986), it was said to still be on the property until the 1920s. This is likely more a case of retrofitting, by imagination a creation to explain an anomaly. Let’s leave fairy tales for something more grim, a finding that caused some stir in the annals of history of giants in Sweden.
Its story is so spectacular, one might suspect that not everything is what it’s said to be. I first came upon it in issue four of UFO-Information, 1977, in an article written by Carl-Anton Mattsson. Between Vippala and Bråten in the area of Axala, you’ll find the Slängen, a farm that was built during the mid 19th century. On a beautiful September day, 1953, Evald Lind — the then owner of Slängen — decided to clean up years of soil inside his root cellar. After digging through 40 centimeters of topsoil, he found a deposit of sand. He jammed the spade down into the sand and first found some iron slag, and then something very shocking appeared: a jawbone. It was missing seven teeth and looked very old — and quite odd. The landowner, Valdemar Fröjdh, who happened to be at the farm at the moment, brought the jawbone to landsfiskal (a sort of combined policeman and prosecutor) Huss in the nearby town of Gnesta, where it was examined by dentist Harald Odmark.
Mr Odmark came to the conclusion it was at least 100 years old and from a human between 40 and 50 years of age. However, one mystery remained: it was about double the size of a normal human jawbone! A local teacher, Thomas Grahn, had the opportunity to compare it to the education skeleton at Frejaskolan, and could confirm its unnatural size. No wonder UFO-Information’s headline was as speculative as it ended up to be: “Did Giants Exist in Sörmland?”
Did Evald Lind really find the remains of a giant under his root cellar? Could there be any other explanation? After the examination the jawbone was given back to the local historical organization, Björnlunda Hembygdsförening, but somewhere along the way it got lost. In 1976 the magazine Sörmlandsbygden tried to locate the remains, but no luck — and the archives of Björnlunda Hembygdsförening shows no trace of it. The story has mainly one problem, there’s no official measurements of the jawbone available. Not even a proper and clear size comparison. Nothing is mentioned in UFO-Information, except the less than satisfying photo of teacher Grahn holding up the jawbone in front of the educational skeleton. Has it all been an exaggeration? Through my contact with Pia Forss at the historical organization I came upon a couple of interesting newspaper clippings from 1953, probably just a week or two after the discovery. The headlines surprised me.
“Jawbone in Axala basement leads to old crime” and “Discovery of skeletal remains actualizes the death of a young woman”. What is this, I thought? I had to dig deeper. The idea of a female jawbone I’ve already learned from talking with the current owner of the farm, Austrian artist Rüdiger Schwamberg, who had lived there for the last 20 years. The root cellar itself was long gone, torn down because of rot. No more remains had been found. However, according to local legends, and from the knowledge he’d acquired over the years, the jawbone belonged to a young, murdered woman. Could this be true after all? It didn’t take long to dig up — no pun intended — an incident that could have something to do with it.
In 1856 two girls, Ingeborg Nilsdotter and Dölhed Anna Larsdotter, said goodbye to each other outside Mellösa church. The friends planned to meet up again after a couple of days. Anna, only 16 years old, was never seen again — and a search was put on by local authorities. The traces lead to 28 year old shoemaker Carl Petter Brunfeldt, according to some local sources known as “Flåbusen”, and it was in his dwelling, stuffed into the chimney, they found Anna’s belongings. He confessed to murdering the young girl, and was two years later, on March 17, 1858, exectued in the Axala forest and buried on the spot. Whatever happened to the body of Anna — if it was ever found — is unknown. The forest itself was known as a haunted forest, where one could hear the screams of both victims being murdered and murderers being executed. It was a known place for robberies and rumored to be a favorable burial place for children born out of wedlock. The place where Brunfelt was buried is now covered with a road.
Could the jawbone have belonged to Anna? Or maybe the murderer himself? The forest was a popular execution place, and considering the treatment of the bodies afterwards it’s not that unlikely body parts could have been spread in the area. How it ended up in the root cellar is still unknown. Maybe dragged there by an animal, or was it already in the sand that had been put there to make a fire pit?
The frustrating thing with this whole story is of course that between 1953 and 1976, the jawbone magically grew from being just a normal jawbone, to one of an alleged giant. Perhaps the tale was exaggerated over the years, or was the size of the bone deemed too ridiculous to bring up in its original report? There’s several witnesses who handled the remains and vouched for its size, however, all of them have passed away since. If the jawbone never shows up again, this will continue to be a mystery. Maybe it’s still in the area, buried by someone at the local cemetery, in secret, on consecrated ground?
In all fairness, it might have been a very tall person. All over Sweden there’s stories, sometimes verified by local archives and relatives, about unusually tall persons. One example is Ställbergsjätten (“The Giant of Ställberg”), Anders Gustav Andersson (1857–1918), who at the prime of his life was 220 centimeters in height and weighed 160 kilos. It’s easy to see how such an enormous person could have created legends just by minding his own business. While it’s difficult to say if these legends have any basis in reality (probably not, if you ask me), they sure lived on — at least up until cities, traffic, modern culture and modern rationality made its entrance.
What are giants? What’s the deal with them? Too outrageous to be the truth, or is it? Are these humongous forest friends just older versions of bigfoot — or only spawned by mankind’s vivid imagination, a way to explain and maybe even understand nature and the unknown? When christianity made its appearance in the Nordic countries, the giants opposed it. They chose to live freely, far away from religion and civilization. Are they just the manifestation, physical or non-physical, of the search and wish for freedom? The non-conformist way of living, the almost joyful disrespect of priests and the christian establishment, almost plays out like a fantasy conducted by those who dared to dream about something else. Because if the giants can be free from the chains of religion, so can we human beings be. Maybe they’ve just withdrawn into the dark underground, hiding and waiting to return? I, for one, hope it’s so.
I’ll end this with a little story shared by Malin in Hofors, that took place in 1984 or 1985, somewhere between Grästorp och Tengene: “Many years ago I saw two large beings appear on a forest road with a full moon behind their backs. They walked a little clumsily and were quite round and almost as tall as the trees around them. They stopped and each raised an arm and waved. I was about 12–13 years old and had intended to walk home through the forest, a walk of about 6 km, but got scared and took a long detour. Today I would probably have gone that way anyway.”
I love that ending, that today she would have walked towards them anyway. Because that’s what it’s about being human, to be curious and brave.
Fred Andersson is a Swedish story producer, researcher and writer with over twenty years of experience in commercial television and the author of three books. He lives in Märsta, outside Stockholm, with his photographer husband Grzegorz and two overly active cats. Join him on Twitter and Instagram.
Special thanks to Pia Forss at Björnlunda Hembygdsförening/historical archive and Rüdiger Schwamberg, current owner of Slängen.
“Har det funnits jättar i Södermanland” (Carl-Anton Mattsson, UFO-Information, issue. 4, 1977)
“Skelettfynd i Axalakällare är och förblir olöst gåta?” (Evert Hallin, Södermanlands Nyheter, July 6, 1976)
“Käkben i Axala-källare pekar på gammalt brott” (Eskilstunakuriren, September 22, 1953)
“Skelettfynd i Axalakällare aktualiserar kramskullas död” (unknown newspaper, September 22, 1953)
“Folkliga föreställningar om Jättar i Dalsland” (Tommy Kuusela, 2018)
Västmanlands runinskrifter (Sven B.F. Jansson, 1962)
“Avrättning 17 mars 1858” (Ludgo-Spelviks Hembygdsförening)
“Mystisk lyktgubbe sprider skräck” (Anders Liljegren, UFO-Information issue 5, 1970)
Älvor, vättar och andra Väsen (Ebbe Schön, 1986)
Asa-Tors Hammare: Gudar och Jättar i Tro och Tradition (Ebbe Schön, 2004)