Deep in the forests, mountains, and fjords of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark dwell a secret race of wardens, the rå. This myth is often conflated with the alfar or elves of German folklore, but they are markedly different. While the elvish appear to be aloof and supernaturally beautiful (at least, as far as the Medieval writer was concerned), unencumbered by the minutia of human life, and just as likely to smite as to assist, rå have an almost paternal awareness of mankind.
Pardon a short digression — a moment to explain why I will not be comparing my race to the elves.
I do not believe they exist. They are simply what happens to the hidden when the imagination of man takes over. Perhaps there are some particularly handsome members of my species, and perhaps they truly are ambivalent to people, but honestly, I do not think this is true. More than likely, pockets of humanity (towns and villages used to be quite isolated, especially during the colder months) met one or two of my species and learned that the only way to coexist was to pay homage, engage with care and deference. Given enough time and veneration, anything can me made godlike. Look at Gnesha, the elephant-headed many-limbed god of luck of Hinduism. He is not terribly attractive, but he has devotees the world over.
So for you fans of Tolkein, I am sorry. There will be no elves, just as there will be no vampires. Now please allow me to return to the myth at hand.
Rå come in many forms: huldrå of the forests, the sjörå of the lakes, havsrå of the sea, bergsrå of the caves. Their duty, as perceived by man, is to protect and care for the particular natural element they inhabited. When you look closely at their descriptions, however, I think you will find that they are one species, a kind of nexus of all the previous myths we have addressed. One race, living on the outskirts of the remotest regions, fending for themselves, camouflaged or clothed, crossing paths with man to varying consequences.
You say, “But they have tails, don’t they, Simon?”
Not necessarily. Some tales have tails. Others do not. And the fact is, someone could merely have misinterpreted a dead animal hanging from a belt as a tail. When you live away from humanity, and have a tenuous grip on sentience, spinning wheels are not so common. You get what you steal, and often that means you don’t get anything. Not to mention the fact that clothes often interfere with our movement. a belt is the only thing worth making really.
Hulderfolk, or ”hidden ones”, dwell in the woods, and while the “female” of the species are supposedly comely, the “male” are quite ugly, with rather prominent noses. I think it safe to point out that there probably are no gender distinctions to be made. The more attractive ones were merely much more approachable, and thusly, equated with femininity. So too is it possible, as one image from the 1800’s suggests, that the “females” were simply dressed as women. Keep in mind also, the standards of beauty for the region: pale skin, lustrous hair, strong muscle. Dark eyes and hair would have been exotic, perhaps even lovely. Thus, the myths of beautiful forrest-dwellers can probably be distilled down to an encounter in the twilight of the North with a thin, pallid, creature in a dress, who looked nothing like anything the poor sod had ever seen before. She smiled demurely, and he was smitten. So, let us take these distinctions with a grain of salt, for all the rå in all their masculine and feminine forms.
What is important to note, is that the humans who worked the kilns would often leave huldrå gifts of food, in exchange for their assistance in guarding their fires at night. In ancient Germanic folklore, the holda was a witch, her festival celebrated during the “dead time” of winter when corpses were thought to roam: “The Twelve”. You may know it as The Twelve Days of Christmas…
The havsrå are an analogue to the mermaid, in some respects. Like any myth that has persisted for a lengthy time, they have many descriptions and forms. The most common image is a lithe and naked woman, combing her unwieldy, seaweed-like hair atop a rock. They too will provide their services in exchange for provisions. Similarly, the freshwater variety appear to float up from the depths and stare at passers-by, eat fish at them, or capsize craft and rob the struggling swimmers. But they too have a kindly streak, often guiding drowning men to safety.
Bergsrå of the mountains are cave-dwellers, and while they usually spend most of their time driving miners mad by stealing their tools, eating their food, and scaring the holy breath out of them, they are also known to kidnap the odd wanderer, spend an evening acquainting themselves with him, and then setting him upon the path home.
Who can really say if any of these tales are factual? I find it more likely that men capsized their own boats while staring at the eerie, nude monster along the shore, who was doing nothing more nefarious than eating lunch. Perhaps the wayward travelers were understandably exhausted and woke to find their fires being tended by creatures they’d rather befriend than antagonize. I have done many things for humans, including tend kilns, and so long as payment was received, my teeth were never bared. Once home, these humans told wild tales, and forevermore, any passing bird that cawed at the sound of thunder was thought to be a transformed sea nymph, any woman who crossed paths with you in the forest was a witch, and any odd sound from an unstable mineshaft was probably a troll.
Who can say? What I do know is that there were many men who never returned home, and their stories are much darker. Better to meet a Rå than his hungry counterpart.