Skogsrå: Forest Spirits of Swedish Folklore

A cloaked woman walks through a forest

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Delve into Sweden's main archives and you will discover holdings of over one hundred thousand Norwegian folktales, either in print or manuscript form. This wealth of recorded lore and tradition bears testimony to the vast culture of storytelling that has existed in this part of the world for centuries.

Turn your attention to a different part of Sweden now, and enter its forests. Let us go back in time, two hundred years prior to the present day. Imagine yourself as a native of the Swedish woodlands. It is peaceful here among the trees; the air so clean and pure, the sky high above a clear blue—the silence deep and profound. We know we are safe from the trolls, for while there are probably a large band of them on the other side of the mountain, never has it been said that there are any near here. But the skogsrå, ah, we must always be on the alert for the skogsrå.

Forest Spirits

Just as the sjörå are water spirits—inhabiting streams and lakes and having considerable influence there—the skogsrå are forest spirits, each with her own locale. They are best known for leading men astray. All who have seen one report that she has the appearance of a beautiful woman when seen from the front, but from behind she looks like a commonplace hollow tree trunk. Often she is combing her hair and sometimes she has a tail. Notably unpredictable, these women folklore seem to bestow good fortune just as soon as trouble. If a hunter is favored by a skogsrå, he may enjoy a good hunt. On the other hand, when your cow or hunting dog goes missing, or you lose your way in the forest, there are surely supernatural powers at work.

Let's look at one of the many stories and legends about the skogsrå.

Tales of Skogsrå

Once, a married farmer was out looking after his cattle when he first met the skogsrå. Unable to withstand the temptation, he went with her and he was with her every evening after that. Before long it began to be too much for him and as he became further drained of energy, he felt so limp he could barely walk; still, he could never resist her.

One day he went to the skogsrå and asked her what he ought to do about a bull he had. He told her that the bull was such a problem—he never did anything but mount the cows and he just wouldn't stop, but now the animal was completely wiped out. She recommended he use the herbs tibast and vandelrot on the bull and that would do the trick (Tibast, or Daphne mezereum—February Daphne; and vandelrot, or Valeriana officinalis—Valerian root, are the herbs told in this form of the legend, which originates in Southern Sweden; different local herbs are told in the Northern versions).

The simple farmer found some tibast and vandelrot—and pinned them to his shirt. That evening, he went to meet the skogsrå. As soon as she saw him she said, "Tibast and vandelrot are sure; fie on me for telling the cure!" And with that, she turned around, showing her back to him for the first time, and thus she disappeared.

Evil Intentions

Though the danger of the skogsrå is never fully articulated, it is clear the man in this legend narrowly escaped an obscure doom. This tone is a hallmark of the folklore surrounding the skogsrå. Even when seemingly treating a person well, these spirits have evil, disruptive intentions and their very presence fills one with foreboding. Another theme of this type of folklore is advice on how to avoid, conquer, or escape from situations and influences involving a skogsrå. This is similar to how contemporary urban legends work in our time—by playing upon the temptations, fears, and fantasies of those who hear the tales or tell them.