Friday, March 7, 2008


Over at the Dutch artist Isabella's gallery, Land of the Dreamers, I ran into this depiction today - of Stromkarl, the Scandinavian water spirit, "riverman." Isabella says this of him:

It is said he knows how to play eleven different musical compositions, ten of them he plays often and anyone is free to listen. The eleventh he only plays at night as it could be dangerous for any living soul to hear it. It's said that when he plays the tune all things start to move from their places....

In fact, according to Brewer's Dictionary of folklore and fable, if anyone hears or plays the eleventh melody, "tables and benches, cups and cans, old men and women, blind and lame, babies in their cradles, and the sick in their beds, begin to dance."

What a beautiful and perilous folk figure Stromkarl must be! As wild as Orpheus with his lute. This is actually my first encounter with Stromkarl, and information on him is surprisingly scarce. Is he not well known in the West? Finding material on him is proving as tricky as carrying water in one's hands up a hill. I intend to begin raiding several local libraries and universities to learn more. I know a top-notch scholar of Scandinavian folklore whom I will have to interview shortly. I have located references both to Stromkarl as a character and to stromkarl as a plural of water spirits, a term analogous to naiad or selkie, rather than a name for an individual. Of depictions in art, so far I have only found Isabella's - even deviantart, that massive online catalogue of contemporary photos, paintings, and sketches, has no Stromkarl. If not for Brewer and a few other references, I might almost think Isabella had made him up. (I would be delighted by that.)

I have found one folktale that refers to stromkarl, actually while I was writing this very post. The written variant is very brief, and to be found in a truly ancient little piece of anthropology, a volume from 1841 entitled Fragments from German Prose Writers, translated in the UK by one Sarah Austin. As the fragment is brief, I will offer it in its entirety here:

Norwegian Legend:
Two little boys were playing by the side of the river, and they saw the Stromkarl, or water-spirit sitting on the shore and playing his harp. Then the children called out to him and said, "Stromkarl, why are you playing? There is no salvation for you." Thereupon the Stromkarl fell to weeping bitterly, threw his harp away, and sank in the deep waters. When the boys returned home they related to their father, who was a godly man, what had befallen them. The father said, "You have sinned against the Stromkarl,--go back and comfort him, and tell him that he too shall be saved." When they went back to the river, the Stromkarl sat on the shore weeping and lamenting. And the children said, "Weep not so, Stromkarl, our father says that thy Redeemer also liveth." Then the Stromkarl joyfully took his harp and played sweetly till the sunset.

Jacob Grimm. (Deutsche Mythologie.)

This is a curious version of the Norwegian, made the more so because it has been translated at least twice - once into German, again into English, and probably many more times as it circulated through German villages - and so this version probably suffers from outrageous replica failure - like the Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox of a print of some painting. And where does this odd tale find its theme and its origin? In the conflict between Christianity and paganism? In the nostalgia of a people for forgotten tales and old rites? Or in the joy of finding compatibility in two traditions? A very curious tale.

I wish I could find more on this stromkarl and his history. If anyone knows anything of him, drop us a comment here!


Isabella said...

Indeed it's hard to find something about strömkarl but I can tell you a little bit more about him.

First of all there are two names for this figure. The Swedish version is called Stromkarl and the Norwegian version of this creature is called Fossegrim. They are both the same creature and the stories about them are identical.

(perhaps you can find more about Fossegrim)

And then I can tell you about a ritual that is related to the legend.
It's said that those who want to receive musical virtuosity should go to a waterfall on a Thursday night and sacrifice a white goat by throwing it in the river. While throwing the goat into the river you should look another way, cause the water spirit can get furious if you look him in the eyes.
If stromkarl or Fossegrim accepts the offer he will shake your hand till it bleeds.
What he will teach you depends on the size of the goat. A small goat won't bring you far for he will then only teach how to tune your fiddle. But if you sacrificed a big goat he will make a genius of you.
It's said that he could make a musical virtuosity of you in only three lessons!

About many well known musicians in Europe it's said they have made a deal with this water spirit.

This is all I can tell you about this mysterious creature....

Good luck with you research on Stromkarl,


Dante's Heart said...

Here is another depiction of the fossegrim:

Very haunting, that fiddler by the waterfall!

Dante's Heart said...

And how beautiful, the way this folk tale connects music and the sound of water.

Dante's Heart said...

This is an interesting piece someone has written up over at Monstropedia (the fantasy version of Wikipedia). It is sparse, but it is something!

I am intrigued by this part:
"Stories also exist wherein the Fossegrim agreed to live with a human who had fallen in love with him, but many of these stories ended with the Fossegrim returning to his home, usually a nearby waterfall or brook. Fossegrim are said to grow despondent if they do not have free, regular contact with a water source."

Anonymous said...

Water creatures
Theodor Kittelsen's Nøkken from 1904.

The Fossegrimen is a spirit who lives in waterfalls and is neither good nor evil. The Fossegrimen is a magnificent musician who plays the fiddle day and night. If an aspiring fiddle player ventures to seek his help, the Fossegrimen will gladly help, for a price of course. He must go to the waterfall and offer the Fossegrimen a nice meal, usually a good plump joint of meat. Many stories tell of travelers who have tried to palm the Fossegrimen off with an inadequate piece of meat, resulting in the Fossegrimen just teaching the student how to tune his fiddle rather than play it. He never leaves his waterfall, but it is generally believed that the Fossegrimen is young and handsome.

Nøkken, näcken, or strömkarlen, is a fresh water dwelling relative of the Fossegrimen, but unlike his kinsman, the nøkken is both dangerous and clever. The nøkken plays a violin to lure his victims out onto thin ice or in leaky boats and then draws them down to the bottom of the water where he is waiting for them. The "nøkken" is also a known shapeshifter, usually changing into a horse or a man in order to lure his victims to him.

In the depths of the Baltic Sea, lives the draug. The draug is a terrible creature who sails through the sea in half a boat. If a man happens to see a draug, he is in mortal danger unless he races the draug and wins.

Water spirits, among others the nix, are often presented in the shape of a devil. A water spirit would hide in the rapids and lure people into the water to drown. He was also believed to be able to transform into a predatory kelpie (bäckahäst or bækhest).

In Scandinavian folklore, dragons are commonly known as lindworms, monstrous serpents with or without hind legs. In Norway and Denmark, they typically live in the ocean, and here, tales of marine monsters appear to have the widest dissemination, although a famous specimen is also said to reside in the Swedish lake Storsjön. The Norwegian lake Seljordsvatn is also famous for its claimed inhabitant, a serpent known as Selma. The coasts of Norway are reportedly also haunted by the terrifying Kraken. Sea serpents, with their glowing eyes and long manes, are also prevalent in Scandinavian folklore, as well as their invisible kin the sea-whip.

Anonymous said...

also see "neck"


LITTLE Kerstin she weeps in her bower all the day;
Sir Peter in his courtyard is playing so gay.
My heart's own dear!
Tell me wherefore you grieve?

"Grieve you for saddle, or grieve you for steed?
Or grieve you for that I have you wed?"
My heart's, &c.

"And grieve do I not for saddle or for steed:
And grieve do I not for that I have you wed.
My heart's, &c.

"Much more do I grieve for my fair gold hair,
Which in the blue waves shall be stained to-day.
My heart's, &c.

"Much more do I grieve for Ringfalla flood,
In which have been drowned my two sisters proud.
My heart's, &c.

"It was laid out for me in my infancy,
That my wedding-day should prove heavy to me."
My heart's, &c.

"And I shall make them the horse round shoe,
He shall not stumble on his four gold shoes.
My heart's, &c.

"Twelve of my courtiers shall before thee ride,
Twelve of my courtiers upon each side."
My heart's, &c.

But when they were come to Ringfalla wood,
There sported a hart with gilded horns prowl.
My heart's, &c.

And all the courtiers after the hart are gone;
Little Kerstin, she must proceed alone.
My heart's, &c.

And when on Ringfalla bridge she goes,
Her steed he stumbled on his four gold shoes.
My heart's, &c.

Four gold shoes, and thirty gold nails,
And the maiden into the swift stream falls.
My heart's, &c.

Sir Peter he spake to his footpage so--
"Thou must for my gold harp instantly go."
My heart's, &c.

The first stroke on his gold harp he gave
The foul ugly Neck sat and laughed on the wave.
My heart's, &c.

The second time the gold harp he swept,
The foul ugly Neck on the wave sat and wept.
My heart's, &c.

The third stroke on the gold harp rang,
Little Kerstin reached up her snow-white arm.
My heart's, &c.

He played the bark from off the high trees;
He played Little Kerstin back on his knees.
My heart's, &c.

And the Neck he out of' the waves came there,
And a proud maiden on each arm be bare.
My heart's, &c.
Tell me wherefore you grieve? [a]

Anonymous said...

The STROMKARL, called in Norway Grim or Fosse-Grim [b] (Waterfall-Grim) is a musical genius like the Neck. Like him too, when properly propitiated, he communicates his art. The sacrifice also is a black lamb [c] which the offerer must present with averted head, and on Thursday evening. If it is poor the pupil gets no further than to the tuning of the instruments; if it is fat the Strömkarl seizes the votary by the right hand, and swings it backwards and forwards till the blood runs out at the finger-ends. The aspirant is then enabled to play in such a masterly manner that the trees dance and waterfalls stop at his music. [d]

The Havmand, or Merman, is described as of a handsome form, with green or black hair and beard. He dwells either in the bottom of the sea, or in the cliffs and hills near the sea shore, and is regarded as rather a good and beneficent kind of being. [e]

The Havfrue, or Mermaid, is represented in the popular tradition sometimes as a good, at other lames as an evil and treacherous being. She is beautiful in her appearance.

Fishermen sometimes see her in the bright summer's sun, when a thin mist hangs over the sea, sitting on the surface of the water, and combing her long golden hair with a golden comb, or driving up her snow-white cattle to feed on the strands and small islands. At other times she comes as a beautiful maiden, chilled and shivering with the cold of the night, to the fires the fishers have kindled, hoping by this means to entice them to her love. [f] Her appearance prognosticates both storm and ill success in their fishing. People that are drowned, and whose bodies are not found, are believed to be taken into the dwellings of the Mermaids. These beings are also supposed to have the power of foretelling future events. A Mermaid, we are told, prophesied the birth of Christian IV. of Denmark, and

En Havfrue op af Vandet steg,
Og spaade Herr Sinklar ilde.

A mermaid from the water rose,
And spaed Sir Sinclar ill.

Fortune-telling has been in all countries a gift of the sea-people. We need hardly mention the prophecies of Nereus and Proteus.

A girl one time fell into the power of a Havfrue and passed fifteen years in her submarine abode without ever seeing the sun. At length her brother went down in quest of her, and succeeded in bringing her back to the upper world. The Havfrue waited for seven years expecting her return, but when she did not come back, she struck the water with her staff and made it boil up and cried--

Hade jag trott att du varit så falsk,
Så skulle jag kreckt dig din tiufvehals!

Had I but known thee so false to be,
Thy thieving neck I'd have cracked for thee. [g]

[a] As sung in West Gothland and Vermland.

[b] Fosse is the North of England force.

[c] Or a white kid, Faye ap. Grimm, Deut. Mythol., p. 461.

[d] The Strömkarl has eleven different measures, to ten of which alone people may dance; the eleventh belongs to the night spirit his host. If any one plays it, tables and benches, cans and cups, old men and women, blind and lame, even the children in the cradle, begin to dance.--Arndt. ut sup.,

[e] In the Danske Viser and Folkesagn there are a few stories of Mermen, such as Rosmer Havmand arid Marstig's Daughter, both translated by Dr. Jamieson, and Agnete and the Merman, which resembles Proud Margaret. It was natural, says Afzelius, that what in Sweden was related of a Hill King, should, in Denmark, be ascribed to a Merman.

[f] The appearance of the Wood-woman (Skogsfru) or Elve-woman, is equally unlucky for hunters. She also approaches the fires, and seeks to seduce young men.

[g] Arvidsson, ii. 320, ap. Grimm, p. 463.