Not Odd, but Wise

I came across an interesting story while reading a 1991 paper called “‘Be Bold but not Too Bold’: Female Courage in Some British and Scandinavian Legends”, by Jacqueline Simpson. The story is a variant of a Norwegian legend that Dr. Simpson calls “The Interrupted Fairy Wedding”.

Photo: Wikipedia

In this legend, a young woman is alone in the mountain pastures tending to cattle when she meets a hulder, or mountain fairy. The hulder tries to marry the young woman by force. The wedding is generally interrupted by a villager (her father, or her sweetheart) who arrives in time to shoot steel over the bride’s head. The wedding entourage vanishes.

The variant of this legend that I’m especially interested in was collected in 1948:

[The story was] told as having happened to a certain Anne Rykhus who is described with such particularity that it is obvious that she was a real person; from internal details, it seems she must have lived at least fifty years previously.

Every evening, Anne would stay late in the pasture, because an attractive young man visited her there. Eventually, she agrees to marry him. Anne’s dog, “knew quite well that it wasn’t a real man” who visited her, and he runs back to the farm. This alerts the farmer (Anne’s father?), who arrives in time to fire a gun over her head, and drive away the hulder.

Here’s the interesting part:

Everything vanished as if it had sunk into the ground. Only Anne was left, and she just sat and stared straight ahead of her. ‘How are things with you?’ asked the man. ‘I want to go home to the village’ said she, and began to weep.

He took her home, but from that day she was never like other folk. She used to say that when the farmer fired that shot up there at the dairy, the man she had been about to marry shouted at her, ‘You’ll see much, but understand little.’ And so it was. She could see all sorts of beings which were invisible to others. Sometime she would see the path so full of them that she would take a stick and drive them away. She could also see things which would come true later. She once declared she could see wagons on wheels going up the valley of their own accord, and fifty years later the railway came through Fron, just outside the house where she had lived. What’s more, she declared she could see things like huge birds high in the sky, and some years later aircraft passed over the village. After some years had gone by, Anne Rykhus was no longer considered to be odd, but wise.

This variant is significantly different from the others that Dr. Simpson gives in her paper. Doesn’t it remind you of the story my mother told me, about the ibanan maid? (And my uncle dropped by, to add a few more details about this maid in the comments.)

The Norwegian story has no invisible boyfriend, but it does feature “The Hidden People” — that is, invisible beings. And the story seems to be about a historical person: a woman, Anne Rykhus, who begins to manifest behaviors that could be schizophrenia.

The symptoms of schizophrenia generally appear between the ages of 16 and 30; but as my mother said about her grandmother’s maid, “they didn’t know about those things back then.” So perhaps the villagers blamed it on the hulder. They even had an existing legend — the interrupted wedding — to hang the explanation on. Did Anne really foresee the railway and aircraft? Well, hindsight is always super-psychic, and stories do have a way of getting embellished. But now this village has its own legend, a real, honest-to-goodness seer. And rather than being shunned, as must happen to so many like her, Anne Rykhus is honored.

Who knows if what I’ve speculated has any basis in reality. But it makes a good story, and sometimes, that’s what counts.

2 thoughts on “Not Odd, but Wise

  1. This is very like the legends of the fairy people that are to be found in Scottish tales, right down to the use of metal to scare them off – they also don’t like running streams, so the protagonist of the story can escape the (generally benevolent seeming) fairy-folk by crossing a fast running burn (stream).

    I’d never thought of the mental illness factor – the isles have a long history of people who claim to be ‘second sighted’, to see ghosts and the future, and the descriptions of the way they are seem less like schizophrenia and more like that phenomenon, which apparently happens, of people who are otherwise quite sane who nevertheless have hallucinations. I wonder if the seeing of ‘things’ can be culturally sanctioned, in the way that some mental illnesses are specific to particular cultures or locations?

    1. It is interesting to see motifs that carry from country to country and region to region…

      Re. the “seeing of things” being culturally sanctioned — I suppose that Catholic mystics fall in that category. The reward for seeing and hearing “things” is often sainthood: Joan of Arc, St. Teresa of Avila. Hildegard of Bingen had visions, too, I believe. And others I can’t think of off the top of my head.

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