In the Scandinavian tradition, the nisse is a household entity that looks after hearth and home, a kind of guardian entity—but with an attitude. Nisse can be extremely volatile if provoked, and they are often mischievous little pranksters. Naughty children sometimes have their hair pulled and their toys hidden by the nisse, who is always watching with disapproving eyes any sign of misbehavior or disobedience. And a cat that becomes too curious will likely have its tail yanked good and proper by the annoyed nisse.
The nisse is also the farmer's friend, and it often sleeps in the barn to keep watch over the animals. If a hired hand should be slow in feeding the cattle or other livestock, the nisse will be certain to give them their grain—and to mete out punishment to the sluggish hired man who was tardy in his duties. The nisse might trip him as he walks up the stairs to his bedroom or spill his hot soup on his lap at the evening meal. If treated with respect, the nisse remains an effective guardian over hearth and outbuildings. He does demand payment for the performance of his duties, and the wise householder will be certain to leave hot porridge on the step at night and to make it known that the nisse is free to take whatever grain from the bin that he might require for his own needs.
Closely related to the nisse are the huldrefolk, the hidden people, the fairy folk of Scandinavia, who are generally quite benign if treated with respect. If one should be foolish enough to anger them or violate their territory, they can become extremely malicious. Generally, though, as the following story illustrates, the hidden people are quite reasonable.
In 1962, the new owners of a herring-processing plant in Iceland decided to enlarge their work area. According to Icelandic tradition, no landowner must fail to reserve a small plot of his or her property for the hidden folk, and a number of the rural residents earnestly pointed out to the new proprieters that any extension of the plant would encroach upon the plot of ground that the original owners had set aside for the little people who lived under the ground.
The businessmen laughed. For one thing, they didn't harbor those old folk superstitions. For another, they had employed a top-notch, highly qualified construction crew who possessed modern, unbreakable drill bits and plenty of explosives.
But the bits of the "unbreakable" drills began to shatter one after another. An old farmer came forward to repeat the warning that the crew was trespassing on land that belonged to the hidden folk. At first the workmen laughed at the old man and marveled that such primitive superstitions could still exist in modern Iceland. But the drill bits kept breaking.
Finally, the manager of the plant, although professing disbelief in such superstitions, agreed to the old farmer's recommendation that he consult a local seer to establish contact with the hidden folk and attempt to make peace with them. After going into a brief trance-state, the seer returned to waking consciousness to inform the manager that there was one particularly powerful member of the hidden folk who had selected this plot as his dwelling place. He was not an unreasonable being, however. If the processing plant really needed the plot for its expansion, he would agree to find another place to live. The hidden one asked only for five days without any drilling, so that he could make his arrangements to move.
The manager felt a bit strange bargaining with a being that was invisible—and as far as he had previously been concerned, imaginary. But he looked over at the pile of broken drill bits and told the seer that the hidden one had a deal. Work on the site would be shut down for five days to give him a chance to move.
After five days had passed and the workmen resumed drilling, the work proceeded smoothly and efficiently until the addition to the plant was completed. There were no more shattered bits on the unbreakable drill.