The Skogsra: Evil Swedish Woodland Spirits

The Skogsra: Evil Swedish Woodland Spirits

I have been reading "Let Me In" by Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist, and one of the chapter intros caught my eye.  A brief poem by Viktor Rydberg titled "Skogsgraet."  The word "skogsgra" was left untranslated, with a footnote from the translator defining it as "a beautiful but sinister forest spirit."

Rydberg, a Swedish poet of the mid to late 1800s, wrote of the Skogsra in the same light as Keats wrote of La Belle Dame Sans Merci.  Rydberg's poem "Skogsgraet" tells of a "strong and handsome bachelor" named Bear, who goes hunting in the woods one autumn night.  Bear falls in love with a skogsra which he glimpses on the shore of a moonlit lake, and he is forever ruined. Doomed to a life alone, because he can love only the Skogsra, who he of course can never have.

Sweden has a vast and intricate history of folklore around spirits and the "wee folk."  The skogsra is a forest spirit known for leading men to their death.  (Her male counterpart, the huldra, are responsible for luring women to their death.  No word on whether either spirit is willing to lure same-sex humans to their doom.  Damn those heteronormative forest spirits!)

Although she looks like a beautiful naked woman from the front, from the back she looks like a hollow tree trunk.  In other words, the skogsra is literally a hollow delight ("like so many beautiful women," a more cynical person might say).  She is deceptive as well, with beauty on one side and a terrible emotionless inanimate horror on the other.

This also explains why she is impossible to spot if you are looking for her.  The skogsra need only turn around to essentially become invisible.  She has the perfect camouflage!

The skogsra belongs to a category of beings known as the Hulder.  This is a catch-all term for Swedish woodland spirits.  The etymology of the name links it to the Germanic language, and the German tradition of forest spirits is similarly strong.  Presumably the Hulder emigrated to Sweden from Germany ages ago, presaging the spread of humanity.

The Hulder are protective spirits, described by Wikipedia as "wardens."  They could be fickle, although a small sacrifice or kindness in their name could be enough to win their favor.  Leaving a bit of food or drink out for the Hulder is an excellent way to get on their good side. 

Should you encounter a Hulder, either male or female, be unfailingly polite.  The Hulder appreciate good manners, and have been known to bestow favors upon those who treat them with the appropriate respect. 

While the Hulder may occasionally take a human lover, the children of such unions (who are truly "mixed-race") are said to be unfailingly hideous.  A skogsra will often perform a changeling move, swapping her own ugly baby for the prettier baby of an unsuspecting human couple.

Both the huldra and the skogsra, Lord and Lady of the woods, are still respected in many parts of Scandinavia today.  Local legends which identify certain boulders as being the home of the Hulder have caused Icelandic road crews to divert their road projects, so as not to disturb the Hulder.

Photo credit: Flickr/Marieke Neumann