A Christmas themed legend: Nisse and Tomte

As promised in my previous post and in the spirit of Christmas, I would like to share a little research I have done recently regarding the legend of the Nisse and Tomte. Thoroughly ignorant of Scandinavian folklore the existence of these beings was only brought to my attention during a recent West Dean workshop, sadly not because I managed to see one myself but because one of the other attendees created a fantastical sculpture of one and I was prompted to do a little reading.

Both the nisse (usually Norwegian and derived from the name Nils which is the Scandinavian form of “Nicholas”) and tomte (usually Swedish and a word for “homestead man”) are small (anything from a few inches up to 3ft tall as legend has it), solitary, domestic sprites who look after and protect farmsteads and are responsible for the care and welfare of the farm animals. They have long white beards and wear colourful clothes, often red. They are known as “gift bearers” and are therefore considered to be one of the Swedish and Norwegian versions of Santa Claus although not the same thing. While they appear to be caring workaholics who have a particular fondness for pigs, legend has it that they are not easily managed, do not tolerate interference or rudeness from the humans they work for and have a reputation for throwing their toys out of the pram if they don’t get a bowl of Christmas porridge (with butter) on Christmas Eve (sounds a little like me when I used to work in an office environment!) Woe betide any human who does offend one of these beings as their retributions range from small pranks, to killing livestock, and packing their bags and leaving (a sure way to ensure your farm becomes a failure and you are resigned to a life of poverty!).

These sprites appear to have little respect for human law and social niceties, and are not beyond stealing from neighbours to aid the prosperity of the farm in which they are currently residing (so where exactly did that gift come from?). There are also stories of people being driven mad by these mischievous sprites and of poisonous bites resulting in death if magical healing isn’t quickly received. It is also thought that they may be spirits of previous generations who resided in the homestead and possibly represent the “soul” of the first inhabitor.

Looking at modern, popular images of nisse/tomte, they remind me of the painted gnomes that my grandparents used to have in their garden, all rosy cheeked and jolly. However, reading some of the stories about them, I am visualising a more sinister character and I rather like this depiction “Nisse” by Johan Thomas Lundbye (1842).


Some of you (particularly if you are Scandinavian!) may be more familiar with these legends than myself so please feel free to comment below if you have anything to add.  As my regular readers will be aware I find myth and legend fascinating and am always keen to learn more.

I am now settling in for a relaxing Christmas break of knitting, audiobooks and a bit of naughty food and drink. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your company in 2014 and to wish you all a happy holiday and a creative 2015.

Fantastical Mixed Media Sculpture

My brain is buzzing with potential narratives after spending a fantastical weekend at West Dean College on a mixed media sculpture course with Samantha Bryan, she of fairy and fairy dust spreading contraptions fame. As you know I am getting more and more interested in 3’d’ work and being a big fan of Samantha’s art (and her imagination) I hoped that this course would provide me with a few additional methods of combining soft sculpture with other harder media. It certainly did and while a few of my colleagues followed the literal fairy route, most of us came up with some pretty diverse sculptures (and related narratives) ranging from a dog, to an elderly trapeze artist, to a Tomte (yep I didn’t know what that was either but am planning to do a Christmassy post on this soon so watch this space).

We started off with an evening making heads out of air dry clay, a media that I haven’t really used before. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds, particularly getting a smooth finish with a clay that is rapidly drying in your hands, but it did give us a great opportunity to play with beads and other found objects we had lying around, as well as creating simple expressions. So by the second day I had a library of heads to work with Worzel Gummidge style and could start sketching possible bodies to match.

"clay head sculptures"

Fantastical clay heads

Next came a simple wire “stick man” and the process of creating a stuffed body and suitable feet and hands. Pierre (an alien amphibian) evolved from the bean head, a happy accident as originally the beans were applied to the clay as ears but came out more like eyes! Webbed feet and hands ensued.

"mixed media sculpture"

“Pierre” mixed media sculpture

The other sculpture I nearly completed was also an alien (I do seem to have a Sci Fi obsession at the moment but then you know my thoughts regarding the origins of fairy stories so I guess it was inevitable on this course). This chap took a bit of effort building up his muscular legs using wrapped strips of newspaper but I kinda like him. Excuse the base. I forgot to take something suitable with me and had to use one of my bead containers. On the plus side I now have two holes in the top of a bead container, which renders it pretty useless for its purpose so I now have an excuse to consume another box of Hotel Chocolat champagne truffles. He needs a bit of finishing and a suitable stand so don’t look too carefully. He also needs a name as I haven’t come up with anything suitable just yet (suggestions welcomed!).

"mixed media sculpture"

Beaded Alien Man who needs a name sculpture

This is such a fun process I am already thinking about what to do next (and yes you guessed it, probably incorporating knitted fabric!). So, I am off now for a Sunday evening laze in the bath to dream up more alien characters. Until next time…..