Skogsra Are Forest Spirits in Swedish Folklore

A Pocket Tale

Forest Nymph
Erik Khalitov/Vetta/Getty Images

In the several main archives in Sweden are holdings of over one hundred thousand Norwegian folktales in print or manuscript form. Expand outward to include the rest of Scandinavia and there will, of course, be much, much more. This recorded lore and tradition attests to how vast and rich a culture of storytelling has existed in this part of the world.

Let's return now to Sweden and enter its forests. Let us also go back in time, though not really so far, a mere one or two hundred years will suffice. It's peaceful here with the trees, the air so clean and pure, the sky high above a blue or a gray — and the silence deep, profound, too deep now, you see we've been out for days, on a hunt or to burn charcoal, and the silence has become so intense that it seems we don't even hear the sounds of our own actions. 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 skogsra, ah, we must always be on the alert for the skogsra.

Forest Spirits

Just as the sjora are water spirits, inhabiting streams and lakes and having considerable influence there, the skogsra 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 in front; from behind she looks like a hollow tree trunk. Often she is combing her hair, and sometimes she has a tail. Notably unpredictable, these folklore babes seem as easily to bestow good fortune as trouble. If one is favored by a skogsra one 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.

We'll look at one of the many stories and legends about the skogsra.

There was a married man. Once when he was out looking for some cattle he met the skogsra. 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, very draining, but he could never resist her. He'd never seen her from behind (ed: I guess he'd never seen a copy of the Kama Sutra!). Eventually, it got to be too much for him; the poor man became so sated and limp that he could hardly walk. He didn't know what to do.

So one time he went to the skogsra and asked her what he ought to do about a little bull he said he had. He told her that the little bull was such a problem; he never did anything but mount the cows and he just wouldn't stop, so that by now the animal was completely wiped out. Tibast, she said, and vandelrot would do the trick. (Tibast, or Daphne mezereum — February Daphne; and vandelrot, or Valeriana officinalis — Valerian root, are the herbs told in this Southern form of the legend. Other local herbs are told in the Northern versions.)

So he got some tibast and vandelrot and pinned it to himself and went that evening to meet her. 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, so that he saw her from behind, and thus she disappeared.

Evil Intentions

The man in this legend narrowly escapes an obscure doom, and this is the tone of many such legends. The skogsra, even when treating one well, have evil, disruptive intentions, and their very presence fills one with foreboding. Quite a bit of this folklore offers advice on how to avoid, conquer or escape from these situations and influences — much as contemporary urban legends do in our time — playing upon the temptations, fears, and fantasies of those who hear the tales or tell them.

So you may return home now and to present time — have a safe journey! For my part, I seem to be feeling an irresistible urge to stay here in the forest awhile, and dally with one of these skogsra.