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The Llewellyn Journal

The Merry Nisse

This article was written by Brad Steiger
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The night that I encountered "him" proved to be a life-altering event. The presence of this entity provided me with my personal proof of the reality of other dimensions of being, and set me on the quest that has dominated my life path. That night, when I was a child of nearly five, I saw what is commonly referred to as an elf, a brownie-or, in the Scandinavian culture that is my heritage, a nisse. There are probably no cultures that do not have their own version of this often ancestral household spirit. Traditionally, Scandinavian families left a small portion of food out at night for the nisse to enjoy. I remember discussing the nisse with a friend in the Mesquaki (Fox) tribe, who said that they never forgot to leave an offering of food for their household spirit’s evening nourishment.

Tricky Guardians
In the Scandinavian tradition, the nisse look after hearth and home, a kind of guardian entity-but one with an attitude. Nisse can be extremely volatile if provoked, and they are very often mischievous little tricksters. I have spoken to many folks who remember as children having their hair pulled, their toys hidden, their cat’s tail pulled by the nisse. Although few of my friends admit to having seen nisse, a good many have strongly sensed their presence. On that long-ago evening when I caught a nisse watching my parents, I believe that I suprised him as much as he did me, but he quickly regained his composure and gave me a strange kind of smile that was as benevolent as it was puckish. At the same time, I sensed that it was a conspiratorial kind of smile, as if we would forever share a secret that was profound in its simplicity. I don’t remember what happened after that, because his eyes suddenly became very compelling and seemed to grow larger and larger. And the next thing I knew, it was morning. When I reported my experience to my parents, they were far more indulgent than one might suppose. According to my Danish mother’s family tradition, we were in the lineage of Hans Christian Andersen and such encounters with the wee ones were not unexpected. Grandma Dena often spoke of the “pantry elf,” another name for the nisse, and Grandma Anna reported seeing the entities as little bits of sparkling light. As I have recounted my experience over the years, many listeners have expressed their opinions that I may actually have met an extraterrestrial alien-a “Grey”-or a ghost; but I suspect that I came face to face with a nisse. And although I have never seen such a creature again, I have never lacked for evidence of their presence in my home. And I must give full credit to my initial encounter with the being for my desire to learn more about the human psyche and our niche in the universe, and for my various psychic safaris to investigate a wide range of unexplained phenomena-from poltergeistic disturbances and haunted houses, to UFO manifestations and woodland monsters. Because of my childhood meeting with a nisse, I learned at an early age that our species is part of a larger community of intelligences, a far more complex hierarchy of powers and principalities-both seen and unseen, physical and nonphysical-than most of us are bold enough to believe.

Finer Points of Creature Lore
We must at this point make the distinction between nisse and trolls. Although a few years back some enterprising Danes made a fortune cleaning up the image of trolls and selling them to an unsuspecting public as cute little creatures with big bug-eyes, dolphin grins, and bushy red hair, real trolls are nasty buggers who can assume gigantic proportions and wreak havoc whenever they choose. To be even more precise, they are fiendish giants, very often associated with hostile, darkside sorcerers. I have heard many an ill-informed salesperson refer to the benignly grinning troll dolls as Scandinavian elves or nisse. To be fair, however, among more contemporary and less traditional Danes there did develop a tendency to confuse the identity of the huldrefolk (elves often involved in changeling tales) with trolls, and to envision them as brownie-like beings. Though it is difficult to imagine how any entities involved in baby-napping could ever be considered cute and adorable.

Tiny Demons
I must admit, there have been times when I certainly didn’t consider our nisse as charming and adorable, either. Once when I was a teenager, the nisse decided to terrorize me when I was home alone on the farm. It began with doors opening and closing of their own volition, terrible poundings on walls and windows, and the palpable sense of a menacing presence. Interestingly, our dog, Queen, a collie/wolf mix who took no nonsense from anyone or anything, also sensed-or may even have seen-the wild and crazy nisse. Her hair bristled, she bared her teeth, and she directed her warning growls at an unseen troublemaker. It was incredible to watch her attention being directed and redirected at various places in the house as the invisible entity moved from place to place, thudding walls and scattering books and papers. Queen and I finally retreated upstairs, determined to make a brave last stand against our assailant. I will never forget kneeling with my .22 rifle, my faithful dog snarling at my side, awaiting the creature as it noisily ascended the stairs, step by step. Thankfully, before I could shoot any holes in the walls, there was a peculiar “whoosh” of air around us, a tiny sound of tinkling laughter, and the spooky game was over. Queen shook her head and whined in puzzlement, and I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that there really was no monster in the house about to rend us limb from limb. It had all been a merry prank played on me by the nisse. As I considered the impetus for such an eerie demonstration, I recalled reading an issue of the great old pulp magazine Weird Tales, and my father remonstrating that such stories could pop back into my memory at the most inopportune times to frighten me. Of course I had scoffed at such an ill-founded paternal warning and laughed that a robust 15-year-old such as myself could not be easily frightened by anything. Almost as I had spoken those words, I sensed an unseen presence accepting the challenge.

Peaceful Coexistence
As I became an experienced investigator of psychical manifestations, I eventually encountered the gamut of eerie displays-spectral appearances, ghostly voices, and a seemingly inexhaustible range of poltergeist demonstrations. For the past many years, the activity of our household nisse are benignly mischievous. Most often, a book or file that I have had in plain sight on my desk will suddenly not be there when I reach for it. After a brief search to prove what I already know-that I have not misplaced the objects-I will say aloud, “All right, guys. Bring it back right now!” I might wait a couple of minutes before I leave the room to get a drink of water or to check on my wife Sherry, and when I return, the missing book or file has been returned to the center of my desk. Sherry, who also enjoys Swedish heritage among her United Nations ancestry of French, Italian, Irish, and Chippewa, soon caught on to the games that nisse play. I will often hear her shouting out from her upstairs office, “Nisse! That’s enough. Leave me alone now! Bring back my papers!” In our household, we enjoy a very peaceful coexistence with the nisse. Some are obviously always concerned with our health and happiness and serve as guardians of our home. Others, well, they are a bit more fun-loving and will always delight in temporarily hiding objects that we had moments ago been using. Such behavior, though, is really not all that obnoxious. Annoying sometimes, yes, but, after all, the nisse keep our house from ever becoming the least bit boring!

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