A Dive Into the Mythology of Hilda

Image Courtesy Netflix

For as long as humans have been around, we have tried to explain the world around us. Before the advent of modern systematic and scientific methods of understanding the world, we told stories, infusing the natural world around us with spirits, gods, and monsters. Those stories and legends still find their way into our modern media, whether adapted from the original stories into films such as Aladdin or The Little Mermaid, or more subtly inspiring the narrative such as O Brother, Where Art Thou, or Black Orpheus.

I don’t think I am alone in being impressed by the mythology used in the Netflix original series Hilda, based on the graphic novel series of the same name. It draws inspiration from Scandinavian folklore to build a world that feels full and alive. The trolls, spirits and magic users that pop up throughout the series are taken directly from stories ancient people living in northern Europe used to understand the world around them. Understanding the source material for these stories can shine a new light on this delightful series and help us to understand the stories they are trying to tell.

Perhaps the creature Hilda and her friends have the most contact with are trolls. In the series, trolls are large monsters who turn to stone in the sunlight and will attack anyone unlucky enough to be in their path. Although the second season seems interested in making the trolls more friendly and capable of being understood, they are still a salient threat in the world. In the myths that inspired the series, trolls are similarly large, powerful, and scary creatures to be avoided. Artwork depicts them as hideously ugly, monstrously large, and fairly unintelligent. There are many stories where a cunning individual is able to trick a troll into doing some work for them. Legend has it that certain cathedrals throughout Scandinavia are the result of clever priests tricking a troll into using their massive strength to build them.

Image Courtesy Netflix

Hilda also makes friends with Alfur, an elf that she meets after signing paperwork allowing her to see the elf civilization that sprouted up around her home. In the original myths, elves were masters of illusion, who could appear or disappear at whim. They were fair and beautiful creatures, who were never all that they seemed. The obsession with paperwork and bureaucracy seems to be the show’s addition, but it is welcome and leads to an interesting dynamic between elves and the other magical creatures.

In season one we were also introduced to the Marra, or as they were referred to in the original mythology, the Nattmarra. In the show, the marra were portrayed as teenagers who would sneak into children’s rooms at night and give them nightmares for their own amusement. They played a similar role in the original mythology, sitting on their victim’s chests and giving them nightmares. They could purportedly turn themselves into sand in order to slip through keyholes, or the smallest cracks in a door or house.

The Vittra also make an appearance in season one, as surly spirits who live in tunnels underground, and attack anyone who strays too close. In season one Hilda falls into one of their tunnels by mistake while trying to earn a Sparrow Scout badge. If she ran into a Vittra taken directly from the mythology, this encounter would not have gone as well. Vittra were far nastier spirits, who tended to their cattle in underground tunnels. Disrespecting a Vittra could prove deadly for a human. Stories have it that humans could anger these spirits by plowing in their land, or even not warning any unsuspecting Vittra below if they were using the bathroom. Vittra would set up accidents to injure or kill humans who took them for granted.

Perhaps one of the most interesting spirits in the series thus far were the Nisse, or house spirits that occupy “Nowhere Space,” a hidden room made up out of all the hidden space in your house. Hilda goes on many adventures with the Nisse, or Tomte as all Nisse are named, entering nowhere space for means of fast travel and storage. In ancient Scandinavia, these spirits could be both helpful and harmful depending on how you treated them. They were known to perform small chores around the house or barn if you leave a cloth with a bowl of porridge out for it to eat. If you treat your Nisse too nicely, however, it will start to get a big head and think it owns the place and will stop doing any work whatsoever. Since the Nisse were often associated with Yule ceremonies, the festival that would later be associated with the birth of Christ, leaving porridge out for a Nisse is believed to be the origin for leaving cookies out for Santa. Nisse were also believed to leave candies or gifts in children’s shoes during this festival.

Image Courtesy Netflix

In the second season, we are introduced to more characters specifically associated with the Yule ceremonies in what may be the creepiest episode of the whole series. Gryla, the ogre who eats the naughty children brought to her by the Yule Lads each year. Despite Gryla’s myth going back to the 13th century as a boogey man character, used to scare children into good behavior, she is first associated with Christmas in the 17th century. Although the descriptions vary based on time and location, Gryla would originally travel to villages, and ask the parents to give her their disobedient children. Later associated with Christmas, she would come out of her cave once a year and devour any child she sensed to be naughty. The stories about the Yule Lads also vary by location, sometimes being nasty pranksters and other times as bloodthirsty as their mother Gryla herself.

I have always found myths to be timeless in their ability to tell stories that resonated with humans. There is a reason so many of these stories are woven into popular culture today, in even less obvious forms than this. I hope this helped you to understand some of the background of this fascinating show, and if you are reading this before watching Hilda, please do yourself a favor and stream both seasons on Netflix right now.

-Patrick Bernas