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Thursday, 27 October 2016

The Gravedigger’s Tales

There is not much for a bathing guest in Eidsvoll to do except attend to the requisite constitutional walk. I sought out Per Gravedigger already on my second day, in Store Finstad, a good league south of the river. I found the house he lived in after spending some time amidst the disorderly nest of withdrawn outhouses and farmhouses. There was no one in the parlour, but an old woman sat at her spinning in a dusky cabin. I asked her some questions. The first one received no answer more than a measuring look; the second and third were answered with a “huh?” When I finally asked for the fourth time, if she could tell me where Per Gravedigger was, she answered “Oh, it’s still a good league to the grave.”

“No, Per Gravedigger!” I shouted.

“Yes, Grave lies to the east. If you go along the valley, you will find it.” I later discovered that the neighbouring farm is called Grave.

“Grandmother is hard of hearing,” said a voice from a gloomy corner, where the light now had begun to reach. It was a young girl with a smaller child on her arm.

“Can you tell me where I will find Per Gravedigger?” I asked her.

“He’s not at home,” she answered.

“Don’t you know where he is?”

“I suppose he’s at Styri, at my aunt’s.”

“Where’s Styri, then?”

“On the east side.”1

“Is it far?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Is no one else at home?”

“No, they’ve gone to a wedding.”

“What about the next cabin?”

“I don’t know.”

Nevertheless, in the next cabin, I learned what I needed to know. There was nothing for me to do but go on to Styri.

Outside in the gallery, I found the aunt in the figure of a tall, dry, middle-aged wife, her grey hair combed up under a black cap. She came to meet me with a measured cordiality, and said: “May you be pleased to go in.”

A little disappointed over the difficulty I had already experienced, I asked if Per Gravedigger should be there.

“Oh, do you perhaps want to order a grave for someone?” she asked.

“No, not at all; I have heard that he is supposed to know a good number of old tales and stories, and I wanted to hear some of them,” I said.

“Oh, in that case, had old Anders, Per’s father been here, well – he was a man who could tell. When he began, then it was almost as if there would be no end.”

“Dear God! Can’t you find old Anders for me?”

“Yes, I certainly can. Old Anders has been dead two years. Per knows some too, but it’s not so easy to get him in the mood; he’s a little difficult like that, don’t you know. No, old Anders, he could tell stories. You didn’t need to ask him twice. But it’ll be just two years ago this Michaelmas.”

“That doesn’t help me much,” I interrupted, irritated that the blessed Anders was no longer alive. “Isn’t Per here?”

“Well, blow me if he wasn’t here, too. It’s true. But he wanted to reach the sexton. You’ll find him at the sexton’s. And if he’s not there, then he’ll be at Blakken, or the parsonage – if he’s not digging a grave in the churchyard; old mother Habberstad is dead.”

My patience was now nearly at an end. But as everything appeared to indicate that one had to have more of this gift than is usual, when dealing with Per Gravedigger, I decided to save my last morsel. I tried to move along. But now the wife had taken a translucent glass from the dresser, and poured a dram of raw brandy, which she presented to me with a piece of candied sugar on a plate, while she grew distant with a series of exclamations about how peerless old Anders had been in the telling of tales.

“Per is nearly certainly at the sexton’s, and if not there, then he’s at Bakken, or at the parsonage – if he’s not in the churchyard,” she called after me as I left through the gate. It sounded like mockery, for these were the very places I had just left or passed.

I determined, meanwhile, to look for him first in the last place, the place that in her opinion was the least probable.

Lørenskog Church. Image by I, Chell Hill, CC BY 2.5

It was one of those cold, miserable summer days as I went over to the church, through the dark alleys of the parsonage gardens. The rain had ceased, but with every gust of wind, it drizzled down from the leaves in the crowns of the trees. The fog and the clouds drove low among the tops. The light fell matt and grey across the graves and plain memorials. The wind soughed through the branches, and no bird sang from the foliage. A foreboding of autumn already seemed to pervade this quiet, lonely meadow, wherein only the church stood as a comfort, its tower and spire pointing towards the heavens.

From the farthest corner of the churchyard, I heard the clang of a spade. The gravedigger stood digging down in a grave. On a tuffet close by stood the sexton’s magnificent great goat, which I knew well from previous visits, with its beard and horns, eating grass. I stood a while and considered the gravedigger. He was an aging man, but you could not say that he was aging well. His vocation did not appear to have any mitigating or reconciliatory influence on his mind, for he looked out upon the world with a bitter expression on his hypochondric face. I felt such physiognomy ought to be somewhat familiar; I searched my memory for it, and eventually recognised it from a stubborn horse I once had been troubled with. When he paused his work to rest for a moment, he looked up and caught sight of me; I had hitherto stood there unnoticed.

“Good afternoon, Gravedigger,” I said.

He took measure of me from top to toe, spat into his fists, and began to work again.

“It’s heavy work you have in this wet weather,” I continued, undeterred.

“It’s no easier in the sunshine,” he answered with a vinegary grimace, continuing to dig.

“Who are you digging this grave for?” I asked, in hope that a conversation might grow from the question.

“For the devil and the church,” the gravedigger answered. I had to ask for an explanation of this.

“The devil takes the soul, and the church gets the money,” he replied.

“Not like that! I meant, who will lie in the grave?”

“A dead woman,” answered the gravedigger.

The bridge was thus demolished. I realised this could not lead to any desirable result. Impatient with the rain, which again had begun to fall, and irritated over what was in all probability a failed expedition, I told the gravedigger that I had sought him out to hear tales and stories from the olden days, told him that he certainly would not be telling them for nothing, and that he should even be pleased to tell them to someone like me, who believed in such things that people commonly didn’t in our days, etc.

From time to time during this speech, the gravedigger looked at me with his beady horse-like eyes. His look threw a dark cast across my hopes.

“I am just as glad, whether folk believe or disbelieve what I have to tell,” he said. “But I know what I have heard and what I know; I will not be someone’s fool, sitting and telling them stories like some gossip-wife. Even if it were for the king himself,” he added, as extra confirmation.

I had already begun to leave, when he stopped once more, half-turned away from me. After pushing his hat over to one ear, he began to rummage, first in one, then in the other waistcoat pocket, but he did not seem to find what he was looking for. His face grew visibly longer, especially after he had completed a new, resultless search of both culpable pockets.

I quickly understood that he had run out of tobacco, and in satisfaction thought: now my luck has turned. In my botany crate, I had one of Tidemand’s sought-after quarter rolls, and as I feigned reaching for a handkerchief, by means of sleight of hand, I caused the roll to fall on to the very edge of the grave he stood in. Quite calmly, I bent down to retrieve it, and studied not to notice the ray of sun that crossed the gravedigger’s face at the sight. As if lost in thought, I picked it up, called to my horned friend, which stood close by on the edge of the grave, and let it bite off a big bit of the roll.

“How far is it to Tønsaker?” I asked.

The gravedigger mumbled something about abusing God’s gifts, but answered, more politely than previously, that it was about a mile on the other side of the sound.

“And to the gold works?” I asked.

“Seven miles,” said the gravedigger. “But where does this fellow come from, then, if I may be so bold as to ask,” he added, with the oddest of looks on his face.

“Most recently, I came from Store Finstad, where I asked after Per Gravedigger,” I replied, laying the roll back into the crate, after giving the goat another bite. There was no answer to this, but Per Gravedigger began digging eagerly. Beside earth and stones, he threw up half-rotten splinters and crumbling bones with the spade. Among the bones that rolled towards my feet was a female cranium of such a beautiful and perfect shape that Retzius would have considered it an ideal of the Scandinavian type. I picked it up, and considered it carefully.2

“It was no old woman who owned that skull,” the gravedigger began again.

“I see that,” I replied.

“She was a farmer’s wife here in the village, and she was held in respect and honour,” he continued his remark.


Had the gravedigger remained in his contrariness, he would no doubt have held his tongue, now. But a roll of tobacco, even if only the hope of one, had a wonderful effect on his mood.

“Cranky on the inside; spotless on the outside.”

No reply from me.

“But that is a deliciously fine tobacco, that which you have there in your tin box.”

“This knave thinks so, too,” I replied, as I beckoned the goat and made as if to give it more tobacco.

“Well, if only old Anders my father were still alive,” said the gravedigger hastily, as with an upturned bone, he attempted to prevent his happy accomplice from partaking of the goods I had intended to give it. “He could tell stories. What I know is not much.”

“Now I understand that you too want a piece of tobacco, Per Gravedigger. Look here’s what the goat has left for you. You would have had the whole roll, had you been more willing before. But tell me something now.”

“I suppose I should, then, for I see that you are a fair fellow, and not some monkey,” replied the gravedigger as he gathered his tools and climbed out of the grave. “Damned beast!” he shouted, maliciously striking at the goat. “Such goats are the worst vermin imaginable; they should be slaughtered, as many as they are.”

After relieving his heart with these outbursts, he sat himself on a gravestone and began to tell.

“You are not the first person I’ve told this to,” he began. “If you will believe it, then you may; if you won’t believe it, then it’s all the same. Now, there was a farmer in this village. He’d heard that the witches would gather to play and such at night in the church during the holidays. He didn’t believe it, but he thought he’d like to see if it was true, and it’d be fun to see who the witches were in the village. So on the eve of Easter, he sat himself in a pallet in the church gallery, and just like that a whole company arrived, with a great black dog at their head. When they came to the church door, the dog stood up on its hind legs and pawed at the door, which opened despite its being locked.

“‘Did you see that?’ said the woman who was closest to the dog to another. And it was her here,” added the gravedigger as he held up the skull.

“‘No, I would never have believed it, even if you had told me,’ the other one replied, who walked beside her. And she was a good woman of the village here. So many followed after them now that he almost couldn’t keep count. But he knew them all, and he would never have believed that there were as many witches in all Romerike as those he saw there from just Eidsvoll parish. They jumped and they did all the blasphemous things that anyone might imagine, both in the pulpit and on the altar. When they ran out of things to do, they conjured a cow up into the tower, and let it slide down the stairs, with all four legs in the air. He thought he recognised the cow as one belonging to the parsonage, and when the witches were done, and everything was over in the church, then he went to the parsonage. When he came into the stall there, he found the cow. It was quaking, and so sweaty that it frothed at the mouth.

“But then, a long time afterwards, there was once upon a time a wedding, and the master of the kitchen at the wedding was the same man who had seen all this on the evening before Easter. And the woman who had led the pack of witches was also there. When it was time to go to the table, they wanted her to take her seat first, for she was such a good wife, you know. But she was now so bashful, and made herself precious without measure. The master of the kitchen begged and pleaded with her to take her seat, but finally, he grew weary of this, and so he said to her, quite deliberately:

“‘Go first, you; you’re used to it by now, I should think. You weren’t the least bit shy the last time I saw you, at Easter when you were the first to dance with Old Erik, both on the altar and in the pulpit.’3

“Then she fainted, and from that moment, she had not a single day of good health.”

The gravedigger fell silent, and his face again assumed its dour, contrary expression. But I kept on asking about witches, their journeys, and episodes, and examining him for so long that I got him to promise to tell me everything he knew of such things.

“There were some shooters,” he began again, “who were at a bird lek one night at Easter.4 Just as they sat in the hide, in the morning twilight, they heard such a roar and rush from the sky that they almost believed it to be a great flock of big birds, coming to settle on the marsh. But the devil it was birds! When they came over the tops of the forest, it was a flock of witches that had been to an Easter lek. They came riding on brooms and muckrakes, on billy-goats and nanny-goats, and on the most unreasonable things that can be imagined. When they were close by, one of the shooters recognised a witch, for she was a neighbour to one of them.

“‘Maren Myra!’ he cried, and she fell down in a pine tree, and broke her leg at the thigh. For when one recognises them, and calls them by their name, then they have to come down, no matter how high. They picked her up and delivered her to the sheriff, and in the end, she was to be burned alive. But before they got her up on the pyre, she asked if they’d take the scarf from her eyes a little. Yes, they would do so, but first they turned her away, so that she couldn’t look towards fields and meadows, but far out across the hills. And wherever she laid her eyes, the forest was scorched quite black.

“Now, this woman left a daughter behind her, and they placed her with a parson in Gudbrandsdalen. She can’t have been more than nine years old, but she was mean, and full of witchery. Once, the parson told her to carry some wooden shingles that were lying in the yard into the kitchen.

“‘Bah! I’m sure I can get them in there without carrying them,’ she said.

“‘Really?’ said the parson. ‘Let me see.’

“Well, she immediately conjured a wind, so that the shingles flew into the kitchen. The parson asked her if she could do more. Yes, she could. She could milk, she said, but she didn’t like to, for it hurt the cattle. The parson asked her to, but she was reluctant. In the end, though, she would do it anyway. So she stuck a knife into the wall, and placed a milk churn underneath, and as soon as she touched the knife, the milk ran into the churn. When she had milked for a while, she wanted to stop.

“‘Oh no, you; continue milking, my child,’ said the parson.

“No, she would not. But the parson spoke to her for so long that she began again.

“‘Now I must stop,’ she said, after a little while, ‘for otherwise there will only come blood.

“‘Oh no, you; continue milking,’ said the parson, ‘and don’t you worry about that.’ She didn’t want to, but eventually she gave in and continued milking.

“After a while, she said, ‘Well, if I don’t stop now, the best cow will lie dead in the stall.’

“‘Milk on, my child, and don’t concern yourself about that,’ said the parson, for he wanted to see what she could do.

“She was reluctant, but the parson pressed her until she gave in and continued milking.

“‘Now the cow has collapsed,’ she said. And when they went out to the shed to see, the best cow the parson owned lay dead in the stall. So they burned her, too, just like they had done her mother.

“Yes, she was a terrible witch, that one I’ve just told you about,” continued the gravedigger, “but there was one who I think was even worse, for she took her husband out of bed one night, and rode on his back all the way from Gudbrandsdalen to the church in Bergen. And while she was up in the tower, observing the Easter lek with the others and Old Erik, her husband had to lie stark naked outside the church, freezing the whole night long. And it was terrible weather; the snow was drifting, and the man was so exhausted that he was desperate. When morning approached, he got up a little, but he was freezing and his teeth were chattering. Just then, someone came walking by.

“‘In God’s name, please tell me where I am,’ said the man.

“‘Well, you’re at the church in Bergen,’ he replied, and when he saw the girth that the man wore around his middle, then he understood how things stood – for witches were there both at Easter and at Christmas, in those days – and so he said: ‘When she comes out, the one you are with, then take the girth, throw it over her from behind, and ride home again, or you won’t be able to stand it.’

“Well, when the witches came out, the man did as he said; and he rode her home as quick as you like.”

“Didn’t she have her grease horn with her?” I asked.

“She probably didn’t take it with her, for she would have greased her body before she left home,” said the gravedigger. “But your talk of grease horns brings to my remembrance some stories that are supposed to have happened a long time ago.”

“Let me hear them,” I said.

“On a farm in Ringebu,” he said, “there was a witch, who was terribly bad. But there was one who knew she was a witch. He went there and asked if he might spend the night, one evening of a weekend, and he was allowed to, too.

“‘You mustn’t be afraid if you see that I sleep with my eyes open,’ he said. ‘It’s a habit of mine, and I cannot help it.’

“Oh no, she wouldn’t be afraid, she said.

“Just like that, he began snoring, and slept very soundly, with his eyes open, and just as he lay there, the woman took out a large grease horn from beneath a stone in the hearth, and greased her broomstick.

“‘Up here and down here to Jønsås,’ she said, and flew up the chimney to Jønsås, which is a great mountain pasture.

“The boy thought it would be fun to follow after her, and see what she was up to up there, for he thought she said ‘up here and down here to the ridge beam.’ So he took the horn from beneath the stones in the chimney, and greased some firewood. ‘Up here and down here to mønsås,’ he said, and then he went up and down between the hearth and the ridge of the roof all night, and knocked himself almost to death because he had misheard.5

“After that, the boy went into service there, and in the evening of the same day, a year afterwards, he sat and lay down to sleep on the bench, and stared so eerily before him with open eyes. Just like that, the woman took the horn from the hearth, greased her broom, and then she flew up the chimney again. The boy noticed where she had hidden the horn, and when she had definitely gone, he also flew off. And they saw no more of the boy, or the sleigh. This took place on the farm at Kjæstad, and the Kjæstad horn is renowned, even today.

“But then there was a woman on a farm in Dovre, who was also a witch. It was one Christmas Eve. Her maid was washing a brewing vat. Meanwhile, the woman took out her grease horn and greased her broom, and just like that she flew up the chimney. The girl thought this was a foul kind of art, took the horn, and put a little grease on the vat. Then she flew off and didn’t stop before she came to Blåkoll.6 There she met a whole host of witches, and Old Erik himself. And he preached for them, and when they were finished, he wanted to look them over and make sure he had met them all. Then he caught sight of this maid who sat in the brewing vat; he didn’t recognise her, for she hadn’t registered herself with him. So he asked the woman she was with if she would register. The woman thought so. So Old Erik gave the girl a book, and asked her to write in it. He meant she should write her name, but she wrote what school children usually write when they try a new pen: ‘The one who feeds me is God, in Jesus’ name,’ and she was thus allowed to keep it, for Old Erik was not fellow enough to take it back. But there was clamour and uproar on the mountain, don’t you know. The witches took crops and whipped whatever they had to ride on, and all at once, they set off through the windy weather. The girl wasn’t slow, but also took a crop and whipped the brewing vat, and set off after them. They set down once, and rested on a high mountain. Below, there was a broad valley with a big lake, and on the other side was another high mountain. When the witches had rested, they whipped and went over. The girl wondered whether she could go across, too. At last, she whipped and came over to the other side, too, and was unharmed.

“‘The devil how quick this brewing vat is!’ she said. But she suddenly dropped the book, and fell down, and came no further because she had spoken and called upon him, even though she had not registered. She had to walk the rest of the way, wading through the snow, for she had no free ride any longer. And it was many leagues.”

“It may be interesting to fly with the witches on broomsticks and in brewing vessels,” I said. “But it must be terrible, once in a while. The north wind is bitter at altitude, and you may break your neck before you know it. It is better, therefore, to go to the church tower gatherings. You may watch them as you sit on an upturned heap of turf. Is that not so, Per Gravedigger?”

“No, you shouldn’t sit on a sod,” said Per Gravedigger, didactically; “you should stand with a sod of turf lifted high in each hand, and they should be cut widdershins, and you should have your hymn book on your breast, and three grains of barley in your mouth. One grain means Our Lord, and one means his Son, and the third the Holy Spirit. And when you place yourself such, then neither Old Erik nor the witches will try anything. Had he done this, a man I’ve heard of, then perhaps he would’ve come better from it. Well, he did come from it, in a way, but it was with his nose and both ears, as they say.

“This man had heard that the witches held a tumultuous lek and uproar in the church tower in the evenings during the holidays. He thought that he would like to join them, so he went up one Christmas Eve and sat in a corner. He probably had some turf with him, but I don’t suppose he had done it correctly. Just like that, they began to arrive. One witch after the other flew through the apertures, some on brooms, some on shovels, some on goats, and some on rams, and on all manner of strange things otherwise. Amongst all these was a particular woman, a neighbour of his. And when she saw him, she flew over and stuck her little finger up his nose, and held him like this, just as I might hold a trout by the gills, and flew out of the belfry.

“‘Will you promise that you will never tell that you have seen me here, or shall I drop you?’ she said.

“‘Never!’ he said, for he was an obstinate one. ‘Come and catch me, Devil!’ he screamed as she dropped him, and so the devil came driving in a narrow sled, and stood beneath and caught him so that he didn’t so much as scrape his knee. Now, the devil would drive him home, too. But the man sat, striking and shouting and carrying on, so that the devil had difficulty remaining on the runners. And as they came close to his farm, he drove at a water trough, so that the sled tipped over, and the devil ended up lying on one side of the water trough, and he on the other. Had he not done this, then he would not have escaped the devil’s claws, but now the devil had no more power over him.

“‘How lucky you have been,’ said the devil. ‘Had I known that you would escape me in this manner, then I wouldn’t have travelled so far for your miserable soul. When you called me, I was north of Trondheim, holding on to the back of a girl who was wringing her child’s neck.’”

Now the gravedigger said that he could not remember any more witch stories. But since he had begun so well, I thought I should take the opportunity to ask him if he had any to tell of the subterraneans.

“Hmm,” he said, “I might well have heard something from my aunt, perhaps. When she was a girl, she was at Modum, in service with the parson there; Teilmann, I think she called him.7

“There was once upon a time in the spring, when the manure was to be driven out, the parson enlisted a lot of folk, for he was a great man to farm the land, and he asked folk from far and wide, from all corners of the village to help. Now an apprentice to a certain man was also was invited, but he was unreasonably fond of society. When his master told him one evening to go to bed so that he could be ready to drive to the fields at eight, he was so glad that he lay tossing and turning all night, and couldn’t sleep. There wasn’t a clock there, so he couldn’t tell what time it was, and so he got up at around midnight, harnessed the horses and drove to the parsonage. But no living soul there was up yet at such an hour, so he walked around, watching out for some way of passing the time. Just as he walked, he came into the churchyard, and he washed the sleep from his eyes in a ditch that was full of water, for there had recently been a shower of rain. And from that moment, he had second sight. But he was half-distracted, too, and they called him mad. Either he left service, or he served out the year, I couldn’t say which, but afterwards, he wandered, hanging around in the village where there was a banquet, or something else was happening, and offered to chase out the subterraneans.

“One time, there was a wedding on a farm called Presterud, and they were wetting a baby’s head at Komperud on the same day. Then he was perplexed, for he couldn’t decide which he should go to. But in the end, he went to the wedding farm.

“When he had been sitting there for a while, he caught hold of the master of the kitchen.

“‘You look after what you have well, you do!’ he said. ‘Don’t you see that the subterraneans are drinking from the beer bucket you’ve put in the corner there? Each moment it grows emptier. But if you’ll allow me to stay while the wedding lasts, then I’ll chase them away nicely.’

“‘Yes, you can stay, surely, but how will you get them out?’ the master of the kitchen asked.

“‘You’ll see,’ said the boy. He took the tub, put it in the midst of the floor, and drew a large chalk ring around it. ‘Now take a large club,’ he said to the master of the kitchen, ‘and when I wave at you, then strike in the middle of the ring – it makes no difference where I am – when I have got them all in the ring, then strike with all your might.’

“When he had said this, he began to run around; he went both high and low, shooing and chasing them into the ring. The master of the kitchen could hardly keep on his feet, for he was laughing so hard at all the boy’s mad antics. And everyone who saw it thought him mad. But then they saw that he was not as mad as they had supposed, for when he waved at the master of the kitchen, and the master of the kitchen struck, there was a scream and a whimper that was heard throughout the house. And some who came to the wedding farm from the direction of Komperud told that they had heard such a rushing and a whining in the air, that sounded like a crowd of folk all speaking at the same time: ‘To Komperud, to Komperud to wet the baby’s head, to Komperud to wet the baby’s head!’”

Here ended Per Gravedigger’s tales. He could remember no more that evening, he said, and began chasing the sexton’s goat out of the churchyard.

  1. The east side of the river Vorma, to which Andelven is a tributary. 

  2. Anders Adolph Retzius (1796–1860), Swedish anthropologist. 

  3. Old Erik is a folk name for the devil. 

  4. A lek denotes the elaborate mating rituals of certain birds. 

  5. There is a play on words here that is difficult to adequately translate. The boy thought he heard the witch say that she wanted to go to the ridge of the roof, the mønsås, when in fact she uttered a place name, Jønsås. 

  6. There are a number of places in Sweden and Norway named Blåkoll. They are all suspected to be the site of the witches’ sabbaths. 

  7. Christian Teilmann (1743–1821) was chaplain and thereafter parson in Modum (1771–1813). 


  1. Hey Simon! I'm trying to find this folktale in norwegian and was wondering what it is called?

    1. Hei,
      This is a translation of "Graverens fortellinger" which may be found here: