Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Thursday in Norwegian Folklore

This post is also available, albeit without pictures, as a .pdf.

For Norwegians, folklore is synonymous with the works of Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. These 19th century friends collected and published folktales from their journeys around the country. Some of the tales are framed in narratives that are intended to convey the context in which the tales had been communicated for generations, while others are presented as narratives on their own. The collected folktales of Asbjørnsen and Moe consists of at least 147 texts (some editions join certain texts together), and reading these, it is apparent that Thursday appears conspicuously often.

Searches for the days of the week in Asbjørnsen and Moe show that certain days – Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday – are not mentioned at all. This suggests that any mention of the other days may be viewed as more or less significant. Sunday is mentioned in 19 texts, Monday is mentioned in three, Saturday in nine, and Thursday in 12. When these results are looked at a little more closely, it becomes plain that Thursday is the most significant day in Norwegian folklore.

Sunday is mentioned most often in reference to it being the Christian day of worship and rest. People are abroad on Sunday, so it is also a day when extraordinary things are discovered, because people are not in their ordinary places, or about their ordinary business. Once in a while, the motives of the underworld in subverting Sunday may be gleaned from the text, however.

The most comprehensive treatment of Sunday may be found in “Matthias the Shooter’s Stories”.1 Matthias relates an episode in which his brother encounters a hulder – an apparently beautiful woman of the forest who seduces men, only for them to discover that she is an agent of the underworld who is after their souls. This encounter, which causes Matthias’s brother much suffering, and necessitates a long recovery, takes place on a Sunday. It might be that the day it happens is simply provided to give a more credible context – the brothers had been out fishing all night, and came home on the Sunday morning. This was when they had the opportunity to spend a night fishing, for there was no work on Sunday – or it may be a literary device, designed to contrast the evil of this event against the sanctity of the day. Even so, it is possible that the intention of the hulder is to subvert the sanctity of Sunday, as a way of exacting vengence on the Christians. There appears to be no way past the ambiguity.

Of the three texts that mention Monday, two mention it in the context of a more-or-less illicit extension of the Sunday rest. In “Hulder Kin”, “the maiden Marie and the small boys”, who have spent the weekend visiting a squire, beg to be allowed to spend the night at the squire’s house, travelling rather during the day on Monday, instead of on Sunday evening, so that they might enjoy the view on their way home.2 In the same way, but from a different perspective, Monday in “A West-Country Skovdal” is mentioned simply to reinforce the impression that a man who used to go away every Saturday evening was neglecting his responsibilities on his farm and sawmill, since sometimes he did not return until as late as Monday.3 In both of these cases, Monday is merely an extention of the day of rest, begged as a favour, or taken as a liberty.

In “The Master Thief”, however, Monday assumes some degree of mystery.4 The district governer encourages the master thief to play a vicious prank on the parson. The master thief disguises himself as an angel, therefore, and visits the parson three Mondays in a row. Why Monday is chosen for this activity is not revealed; what should be plain, though, is that the parson has six days to recover somewhat from his injuries before he must appear in public at church.

Saturday, on the other side of the day of rest, is somewhat more mysterious than Monday. Although it is sometimes mentioned in the same manner – an extension of Sunday’s rest – there are two tales in which Saturday is given more significance. In “The Fox Widow”, the fox’s widow is visted four Saturdays in a row by would-be suitors: a bear, a wolf, a hare, and finally, a fox.5 (Spoiler: she marries the fox.) The reason these anthropomophic animals bring their suit on a Saturday may be explained by referencing another of Asbjørnsen and Moe’s texts, “A Sunday Evening at Pasture”, where a drunken old school master tries to bully a younger man from his seat:

Young people these days are impertinent. This is because they don’t taste the rod often enough. You loud-mouthed lad! you stuff a pipe in your mouth, and run off a-courting every Saturday, and insult dignified men who possess much more learning than you; stand up when I speak to you, I say.

It appears that courting on a Saturday was simply a local custom in rural Norway – why should the animals behave any differently?6

The reference to Saturday in “Matthias the Shooter’s Stories”, is more satisfying.1 Matthias tells of a Saturday when he goes to give his horse its nightly feed, and meets a nis in a stable. He gets a broom to chase the nis out, and the nis knocks him over. “And when I got up again, he was standing in the stable doorway and he laughed and laughed till his red woolen hat nodded.” Since this is the only time in Asbjørnsen and Moe that Saturday features as the day where humans and the underworld meet, it is difficult to draw any conclusions about the significance of the seventh day of the week.

Thursday, however, is certainly an enchanted day in Norwegian folklore. One clue to its significance may be found in “An Old-Fashioned Christmas Eve”, where the narrator confuses Thursday with Christmas.7 He begins to tell a tale in which a girl is supposed to put out cream porridge for the nis. Considering this custom a waste of good food, she eats the porridge herself, and puts out oats and soured milk in a pig trough, instead. The nis takes her, and dances her half to death through the night. The point here, however, is that the narrator cannot recall whether this was supposed to have taken place on a Thursday evening or a Christmas evening. The implication is that there is little difference; there is as much enchantment connected to Thursday as there is sanctity connected to Christmas.

The custom of giving the nis his porridge every Thursday, and thus the significance of Thursday, is confirmed by the advice given to Kari the herder in “An Evening in a District Governor’s Kitchen”: “You should make sour-cream porridge and set it out by the stable barn on Thursday evening, and then I’m sure the nis will help you to load the barn, whilst the boys sleep.”8 The nis appreciates his porridge – and that it is given every Thursday – to the extent that he will work hard for his benefactor, in return.

Every mention of Thursday is significant in Norwegian folklore. In “The World’s Pay Is No Different”, the fox is promised to be allowed to tend the geese and hens every Thursday, if he but frees the farmer from the threat of a dragon.9 In “The Boy Who Changed into a Lion, a Falcon, and an Ant”, the haugebasse (a big, ugly man who lives in a mound) sends a reminder to the king every Thursday, to remind him that he is betrothed to the king’s daughter, “and the message was a dragon, which the king had to feed nine well-fed pigs each time it came”.10

Even more interesting is what happens when three consecutive Thursdays are observed, either by the subterraneans, or as a means of invoking them. In two tales, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” and “King Valemon the White Bear”, a white bear, who subsequently proves to be an enchanted king, visits three Thursdays in a row, looking for a maiden who might liberate him.11 In “Small-Short”, three grotesque trolls, who are all betrothed to the princess, come for their bride Thursday by Thursday till all are killed, and the princess is delivered.12 In “The Bush Bride”, the king is saved from marriage to a subterranean bride by his wake for three Thursdays in a row.13

Thursday is also the day to take your changeling to the rubbish heap and thrash it, according to two tales, “A wise woman” and “The King of Ekeberg”.14 If you do this on three consecutive Thursdays, the troll-hag mother of the changeling will bring your child back, and take its own again.

Finally, simply digging of a Thursday evening will summon all manner of subterraneans, as is shown in “A Night in Nordmarken”.15 Elias’s grandfather and a couple of his friends are visited by all sorts of creatures whilst digging for lost silver in the woods. On the third Thursday night, the tribulations are worse, but they catch a glimpse of the prize. On the third Thursday night of a subsequent attempt, Elias’s grandfather wrestles a bull until sunrise, which turns into a copper cauldron, full of silver.

Asbjørnsen and Moe’s texts differentiate between the days of the week. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, not being mentioned even once, may be dismissed as insignificant, from a folkloric perspective. Although Sunday is significant, it is so much more often as a day of rest and recreation than as a day that features the underworld. Monday and Saturday, most often as extensions of the day of rest, are also mentioned by Asbjørnsen and Moe. No other day compares with the significance of Thursday, however. Every single reference to Thursday in the folklore collected by Asbjørnsen and Moe concerns the workings of the underworld, and human interactions with subterraneans. Overwhelmingly, Thursday is the most significant day in Norwegian folklore.


  1. Matthias skytters historier

  2. Huldreætt

  3. En vestlandsk Skovdal”. A skovdal is …

  4. Mestertyven

  5. Reva-enka

  6. En søndagskveld til seters

  7. En gammeldags juleaften

  8. En aftenstund i et proprietærkjøkken

  9. Verden lønner ikke annerledes

  10. Gutten som gjorde seg til løve, falk og maur

  11. Østenfor Sol, Vestenfor Månen” and “Kvitebjørn Kong Valemon” respectively.

  12. Lillekort

  13. Buskebrura

  14. En signekjerring” and “Ekebergskongen” respectively.

  15. En natt i Nordmarken


This article is mentioned on the #FolkloreThursday website. There are more oblique references in The Independent, on the BBC, and finally in Dr. Işık Barış Fidaner’s article “Why Thursday? It's the monomyth!

No comments:

Post a Comment