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The troll within us

5 March 2012

I’ve got a fondness for trolls, I really do. Proper trolls, mind, not internet trolls. (To read more about internet trolls I’d recommend Lucy’s Football‘s post ‘Who’s That Trip-Trapping Over My Bridge?’. Seriously. Go read it now. It’ll make you laugh until you cry.) Neither do I mean those awkward non-trolls depicted in most films, including (sadly) The Lord of the Rings. Peter Jackson, what were you thinking? Trolls aren’t dumb semi-conscious monsters; they are intelligent beings with language, culture and a social structure of their own. Think more John Bauer than John Carpenter.

The classic troll

A proper troll

Being of Scandinavian (well, Fenno-scandian) heritage, I grew up with all the classic tales of trolls and as a little boy I saw them as scary but familiar beings: big, old, powerful, ugly and knowledgeable in the magic arts. (Incidentally, to perform magic is called att trolla in Swedish.)

Later on, I read about the old Norse pagan myths where the Asa-gods Thor, Odin and the others were fighting the giants (jötnar in Norse, jättar in Swedish) in Utgaard. Those giants later became the trolls of the Scandinavian folklore, and were considered very old and wise although often distrustful and hostile towards people.

This is all very well and fascinating in its own right, but what really make trolls such amazing creatures is that they might have been real. Yes, in the disreputable world of cryptozoology, trolls might be an actual real biological species. Obviously, it’s not going to be like the trolls in the Norwegian film The Troll Hunter, but rather a separate species of human beings. Let’s go over the typical characteristics of a troll again:

A classic jötunn - and yes, that's a person standing in front of him

  • Old: Trolls are supposed to be the old ones, living in the land many thousand years before modern humans arrived.
  • Ugly: Trolls are generally seen as ungainly creatures, with big noses, pronounced eyebrow ridges and low slanted forehead.
  • Old-fashioned: Although handy and capable of producing tools and clothes, trolls are generally seen as using crude, obsolete technology, which rarely is a match to modern human counterparts. They are also often depicted with old-fashioned, crude clothing made mainly from animal hides.
  • Strong: Trolls have traditionally been endowed with superhuman strength, being able of feats well beyond that of ordinary people. They can carry heavy loads for long distances and withstand a lot of bodily damage without being seriously hurt.
  • Wise: Even though not considered geniuses by any stretch of the imagination (rather the opposite, in fact), trolls are believed to possess an old-fashioned kind of wisdom and knowledge in the old magic arts. What these magic arts could have been is obviously open for interpretation, but one could guess they might include particular medicinal knowledge or a knack for predicting the weather, the seasons, the growth patterns of plants and the migration of animals.
  • Elusive: always distrustful of humans, and not seldom hostile, trolls tend to keep to themselves, far away from human habitation. In fact, the mere presence of humans often trigger trolls to migrate to even more remote lands.

The old ones

The original troll?

All of the above point in one direction, and I’m sure you’ve probably guessed where I’m going with this by now: trolls are Neanderthals. Think about it. Neanderthals are known to have inhabited Northern Europe by the time our species arrived some 30,000 years ago. They were strong and wise but old-fashioned and certainly no beauties by human standards. They would probably have been elusive as well, and would mostly have tried to keep to themselves far away from modern humans. You can almost imagine the merciless progress of humans and the inevitable decline of the Neanderthals, as we expanded our reach and they were forced to move further and further North, into more and more inhospitable terrain.

Even though I wouldn’t mind taking credit for this theory on the origin of trolls, I must refer to the brilliant (and now sadly deceased) Finnish paleontologist Björn Kurtén. During the 1970s and 1980s, he wrote a series of ‘paleofiction’ novels on when modern humans first encountered Neanderthals in inter-glacial Scandinavia. (By the way, if you can get hold them, the novels are well worth a read and are not ‘sciency’ at all.)

There is however a final twist to this tale. You might recall a post I wrote some time ago on the last of the human species? There I mentioned recent studies showing the presence of Neanderthal DNA in non-African humans. So, this would suggest we interbred with Neanderthals and probably absorbed much of their population into our own. Which means.. Yes, that’s right: some of us have got a tiny bit of troll blood flowing through our veins. How cool is that? Very, is how. Very cool indeed.

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. 11 March 2012 18:09

    Fantastic post — when I lived in Iceland, studying the old troll stories was one of my favourite parts of learning the language, as well as the etymology of a word like jötunn (in Anglo-Saxon, the cognate is eotan, thought to be derived from “one who eats you”). I too wonder about the prehistoric roots of some of our folktales and this is a convincing argument for the trolls. I seem to recall that there was another prehistoric variant of humans, who were actually gigantic — don’t know the scientific name for them but I remember reading that they may have been an evolutionary dead end because the human foot bone structure could not adequately support that kind of weight.
    Anyway, that’s a tangent! I blogged recently about the modern incarnation of trolls — and like you, I don’t mean mere Internet creeps. You might find this interesting:

    http://davidjfuller.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/hunting-monsters-criminal-minds-as-beowulf/

    Like

    • 11 March 2012 18:37

      Hi David! Glad you liked my post! Your own post looks intriguing; I’ll look it up when I get to my computer next.

      Like

    • 11 March 2012 19:15

      Update: Read your post and really liked it! :)

      Like

    • 11 March 2012 21:09

      Perhaps you mean H. heidelbergensis? They did routinely reach more than 2m tall, but were only present in South Africa. Their close relatives H. neanderthalensis were the ones migrating to Eurasia.

      There was also a giant ape in Asia called Gigantopithecus, which was 3m tall. But that one was no human and probably quadrupedal. There are also rumours of a huge homidid in Ice Age Australia, but no fossils have been found.

      Like

  2. 12 March 2012 00:45

    Yay, troll-post! (And thank you for the link! Laugh til you CRY? Aw, Andreas. You’re the best for my self-esteem.)

    “always distrustful of humans, and not seldom hostile, trolls tend to keep to themselves, far away from human habitation” – other than the hostile part, I think I might be a troll.

    I MIGHT BE A TROLL ANDREAS.

    Does that mean I can do magic? I’d like that.

    Like

    • 12 March 2012 06:14

      Well, let’s see, shall we? Unruly hair – check. Crazy eyes – check (or so you say). Avoiding humans – check. Do you tend to dwell in cave-like locations? Do you cast spells on strangers, making them believe what they know is not true? Well, that’s what theatre is about, isn’t it? So, yes, I’m afraid you might be a troll.

      Like

      • 12 March 2012 11:09

        I don’t currently dwell in a cave-like location, but given the option, I would, in a minute. I always keep my curtains drawn, making my apartment cave-like, if that’s any indication.

        Well, I’d be upset about this, but you like trolls. So that’s a nice comfort to me. I guess I’m ok with being a troll.

        Like

  3. 12 March 2012 03:34

    Amy, I’m pretty sure I am also a troll–except for the hostile part. But I am equally sure I cannot do magic, because, yes, I have tried.

    Like

    • 12 March 2012 06:21

      Have you? And it didn’t work? That’s too bad! But you know, there are different kinds of magic; perhaps you just need to find the right one?

      Like

  4. 12 March 2012 09:11

    This is an excellent post. I was already suspicious, but now I’m sure I know several trolls.

    Had never considered that Neanderthals were the same as trolls, but it makes perfect sense. I really does.

    Nice photos by the way.

    Like

    • 12 March 2012 12:52

      1) Thank you! Yes, we see them everywhere, don’t we? Walking down the street, sitting on the train, behind the counter in the post office..

      2) Yes, I think so. And it would tie in nicely with the concept of the ogres, who were the trolls of the Mediterranean countries (there were plenty of Neanderthals in that area when we moved in).

      3) Thanks! They were a nightmare to get to keep still. Except the Neanderthal; he was very accommodating.

      Like

  5. Lina permalink
    13 March 2012 20:06

    I have always known I´m part troll, I´ve only got one earlobe.

    Like

    • 13 March 2012 20:15

      You do not have only one earlobe! I’m sure you’ve got two like any civilised human being! After all, I would have noticed if my own sister was a troll.

      (Although.. One of your eyes is partly a different colour as well.. Hmm..)

      Like

  6. 19 March 2012 04:04

    Ok, yeah, I’m big and strong, and people like me to do work, but when they make these shrill noises it gets me all… excited. I’d like to get a place off away from everybody. Tell me about the rabbits, George.

    Like

  7. 28 March 2012 21:48

    Hi There,

    I was wondering if you had any additional info or what movie that first troll picture is from,
    the one with ear rings and says A proper troll ? Thanks Very Much :)

    Like

  8. sasgdea permalink
    1 January 2013 00:11

    Stop trolling

    Like

  9. 14 August 2014 16:33

    Excellent post however I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject?
    I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more.

    Cheers!

    Like

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