The troll within us
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
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:
- 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
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.