The word Skogsrå is composed of two words skog and rå. Skog in Swedish means forest, while rå is a keeper or warden of something. This is important when looking at the many stories are about Skogsrå being an erotic being. Her very name dictates that she is a ruler over the forest, just like her sisters Sjörå, Havsrå, and Bergsrå.
The name Skogsrå is the most used word in Sweden, while it is only used in the area around Oslo in Norway; instead, Norway calls her Huldra. The Norwegian Huldran is identical to the Swedish Skogsrå according to many sources. At the same time, some say Huldran is the same as the Swedish Vittra.
Description of a Skogsrå
Most are in agreement of what a Skogsrå looks like. Still, there are some differences in behaviour depending on where in the country you originate from.
There are two significant aspects of a Skogsrå that all agree upon, but then there are some details that might differ. Both of these two major characteristics are not historically present even if we today accept them both.
Another interesting thing to note is her backside description in combination with what she is called. In Sweden where she is most commonly described with the hollow back, is also the place where more disrespectful names are used. In contrast, the opposite happens in the area where she has a tail.[J]
A clear sign that you are in the company of a Skogsrå is her back. She will most likely try to cover it or hide it in some ways, but if you manage to catch a glimpse, you will see that it is treelike. It might be hollow like an old rotten tree trunk. Sometimes it wasn’t a hole nor was it decayed, and her back was instead covered in bark, making her back look like a regular tree trunk. Some describe it involving moss, both when it is rotten and when it seems more like a dry stump.
This description is most common in the southern parts of Sweden and Denmark.
Another clear sign that the woman is a Skogsrå is her tail, which she often hides inside her skirts. It is described as that of a cow or horse, but also foxtails are mentioned.
This is more common in the middle parts of Sweden, and there is a transition area where she had both a tail and the treelike backside.
There is a wide variety of how Skogsrået is dressed in the tales about her. Some she appears naked, or near it.[J] Others she is only described as “beautifully dressed” and might not be what one considers fitting for a walk in the forest.
Others say she is dressed in materials of the forest. This could be a white skirt with grey and black dots much like the bark of a birch, a green shirt the colour of moss, and earrings the colour of resin.[H] Or it is a more literal interpretation of actually wearing the greenery of the forest as clothing.[C]
Some talk about her being dressed all in white.[F]
Her true appearance
There are som tales where she is with a man and has made him promise to make a sound when he returns from being away. When he forgets to do what he’s promised and arrive at the hut where they stay, he sees her for what she truly is. In these instances, she is an old lady with a long nose and hands so big she uses them as rakes.
Some say she can appear beautiful to the man she loves, and therefore he has to give her a sign while approaching.[H] There are also a few tales where she gets beautiful when she gets married or otherwise gets accepted by the church.[M]
There are also some more rare attributes used to describe Skogsrået.
She is sometimes described to have large breast which she throws over her shoulder while running. This is especially common in the tales about Odens jakt (Odin’s hunt), which I will describe in more detail later on.
When talking about her hair, it is often described as blonde, long, and flowing, which are sometimes portrayed to be used to cover up her backside.[J]
Some sources say that her skin shimmers in green[D], while a few described her as consisting of only wood if you looked closely. In contrast, some say she has patches of animal hair.[I]
Some sources say that both her feet are hoofs. While some talk of only one being that. In Blekinge, Sweden, it is said that her right foot is a horse’s hoof.[B]
The behaviour of Skogsrået is described differently depending on who she interacts with. Her actions also tend to vary if the tale is erotic or not.
Overall it can be said that she has an attitude towards men as they had towards women in their everyday life. This is extra clear when a man wants to get rid of Skogsrået, where women wanting the separate from men faced hardships that might exceed even what Skogsrået might cause.[M]
Skogsrået is very proud and is easily offended. When she found herself being disrespected and rejected, she could make life miserable for whoever was the culprit.
This is even more critical in the tales about her tail—if someone made fun of it or drew attention to it, she would become angry. The best way to handle seeing her tail is kindly informing her to hide it again. Be sure not to say the word “tail” but rather make her aware by saying for example, that she should tuck in her skirt.
Having men see her tail can be cause for such embarrassment that she leans him alone, either for the night. Sometimes she is thankful for his handling of the situation that she lets him be in the future too.
If she encountered someone disrespecting the forest would also be a cause for anger, and the culprit would find himself unlucky in the future, if not hurt or even killed.
But if you should show respect, it is equally important to not try and be funny, since Skogsrået either doesn’t understand humour or choose to ignore it. It’s been known that she has taken a joke seriously. One tale talks of a man that found himself stalked by a Skogsrå because of his playful greeting “Good evening, fiancé!”
Sexual and erotic
Skogsrået is described as flirty. She is said to always be on the lookout for lonesome men in the forest she can take to bed. She is described as having a tendency to quickly fall in love, while men where describe as unable to resist her and easily seduced.
In these stories, it is a few things here that are noteworthy. One is that Skogsrået is not a sexual object for men, she is the subject.[L] Also, remember that Skogsrået has sex with whomever she wants, does it when she wants to, and the way she wants it. She was in charge and the active part while the man was the underdog.[I]
As time went by, the sexual aspects of Skogsrået became more common, being more frequent in newer tales than the old ones.[I]
What is important to remember is that of all tales about the Skogsrå only a small portion, about 10%, are erotic in nature. The very foundation of her existent is based on her being a ruler of the forest.[M]
A Skogsrå is most often helpful when encountered. An exception to this is when she is in the mood for some erotic activities. When she feels like it, she can help and warn charcoal burner’s as the pile starts to burn or help children that have become lost in the woods. Some even tell of her helping girls to find missing cattle.
She is also told to help hunters through leading animals into their paths or bless their rifles to never miss.
Equal height among men
Skogsrået had a bad habit of wanting people to be of the same length. If she found a long and a short man, she would try and make them equal by enlarging the short one and chop the tall one.
This tale isn’t unique to the Skogsrå and has existed in Greece since the birth of Christ. A giant named Procrustes attacked people passing by stretching or cutting them to force them to fit the size of a bed.
In some areas where it was common to have cattle, it is also common for Skogsrået to have some. Her cows are told to be white and gave more and better milk than regular cows. When Skogsrået called her animals, it is described to be so beautiful no human can sound as good.
More common is that she calls other animals by other names. Her “dog” can be a wolf, while a “cat” might be a lynx, she has been known to say “ox” and mean “bear”. She often has other animals on the side, or instead, of the cattle. This is because of her role of protector and ruler of the forest and all those living in it.
The further north you get in Sweden these tales gets more common, and after a while, it gets exchange with Vittror instead of Skogsrå.
How Skogsrå lives and their view of family and children.
One or many?
There are tales where Skogsrå seems to be living together with each other. Some stories are mentioning family living in the surrounding forests.
In some parts of southern Sweden, there are tales about a male Skogsrå, called Skogsmannen (the forest-man). Some say this is the husband to Skogsrået, and that she might call for him when she needs help.
Many tales are about how Skogsrået gets children with a man. The direction these stories take varies though, and they can be of widely different nature.
Some focus on the children, and how they are stronger than other humans, and eats much more than human children.[D] Some focus on how other men help them with a newborn baby and gains Skogsråets favour thanks to it.[E] Other tells of men having a family with Skogsrået in the forest during the summer while having a wife and children on a farm he returns to during the winter. This often continues for many years and multiple children with Skogsrået.
Skogsrået could also leave the man with the children, which was outside of the norm from that time. The woman rarely left her husband nor children.[I]
Origin of Skogsrået
There are a few speculations about where Skogsrået and other beings came from, some more likely to be the genuine belief. In contrast, other’s have some reliable proof or arguments to have been made up later on.
One explanation for the origin of Skogsrået is that they are part of the group that fell with Lucifer. When he was thrown out from heaven, many of his ilks landed on earth and became what we today know as naturväsen (nature spirits). If they fell into the sea, they became Sjörå, while those landing in the forest ended up being Skogsrå.
Another version is that when God walked on earth during creation, the devil took his place and ascended into heaven. While there, he sat and created thousands of spirits. When God returned to heaven, he threw them all out. And they fell down like rain, into the sea and forest and mountains.[J]
A third theory from Christianity is that when Adam was married to Lilith, they had many children. They had so many that Lilith was ashamed of them. When she was expecting a visit from God, she hides half of them away, but God knew. He curses that half to be hidden forever, and it is descendants of those children that are what we today consider naturväsen.[J]
The Catholic Church was generally tolerant of the folklore. When Protestants took power, they launched a campaign against them and painted them as demons to be fought. This is where the origin stories above most likely come from, and describes Skogsrået as a demon or fallen angel. That it would be the original origin story is entirely out of the questions, since Skogsrået and other beings existed long before Christianity entered the picture.[L]
More likely that the need to explain things is the origin. It could be why some people have better luck hunting than others, or why some succeeded or failed in their work in the forest. It could also be a way to remind people to treat the animals and flowers of the woods with respect and reverence.[G]
The more modern and scientific reasoning puts focus on the fact that it can get very lonesome in the forest for those saying they’ve seen a Skogsrå. They are out there by themselves for long periods, and Skogsrået might be the creation of men’s sex dreams and fantasies. This is strengthened when looking at the aggressive and active role Skogsrået has in these tales.
There is also illusion theory where you think you see something that looks like something else. One example could be seeing the remains of stumps and believing it to be a person. This could be the explanation for the notion of Skogsråets hollowed back.[J]
Powers of Skogsrået
There are two clear types of powers that Skogsrået uses—some sexual in nature and some related to her role as protector of the forest.
Skogsrået both help and hinder all those that wander in the forest, but most tales are about men. There are some stories where women talk to her and get help finding lost animals, or a child is helped to find their way back home. The sexual aspect and possessive and jealousy are only talked about in regards to men, though.
There is one tale about a woman in Värmland, Sweden that had learned that you should avoid talking to Skogsrået if you meet her. But after the meeting, she thought Skogsrået had such a kind smile that she wanted to speak to her the next time they meet.[L]
She doesn’t go after all men, but many of the men that come into the forest. The tales often mention hunters and charcoal burners, for example. These are solitary work, and they are usually in the woods for extended periods, some for months at a time. The reason for men being the victims can be many, one might be because this lonesome kind of working condition results in a longing for company. Many longs for the company of a woman, could be their own wife or in a general sense, and Skogsrået can sense that. Or it could be the fact they are alone and therefore easy victims.
If a man was engaged or thinking of getting married, he was even more at risk. Beings from folklore often used the uncertainty a human felt when taking a big step in their lives, and Skogsrået was no exception to this. Getting married is a significant change, and means great upheavals in their lives.[H]
The norm of masculinity in the 17th century was of strength and control, and falling victim to Skogsrået was regarded as “unmanly”. The male ideal of that time was threatened by the fact they couldn’t resist desires and the following suffering. This is reinforced by Skogsrået being described as the active party, both initiating sex and during the actual act.[I]
There are some things that you could use to identify victims of Skogsrået. One thing that is shared with all supernatural beings is that they will feel exhausted and weak. They might even feel a bit sick, and a lack of appetite leading to them becoming scrawny.
If you are living with someone or otherwise can notice their nightly activities, you might see them running to the forest at strange times. They leave at any time regardless of what they are doing, sometimes as often as every night. Skogsrået has them in her power, and they must run to her every time she calls. This happens even if someone sleeps with Skogsrået only once, that is enough to give er that power.
Some say that the victim’s soul has stayed with her, and they, therefore, turns quiet and distracted. He always longs for the woods, even she when she isn’t calling. This could also happen just by her knowing someone’s name, even if they didn’t have sex with her.
If a man tried to break up with a Skogsrå or even rejected her advances, she could punish him hard. Some hunters have been told to change jobs because he will never again hit anything in the forest. There are ways to get free from the hold without gaining the complete wrath of Skogsrået, which I will explain in more detail later on.
There are a few things that Skogsrået does in most tales, while some only occurs a few times. This excludes any actual sexual activities since that isn’t really an ability as much as an activity she indulges in.
The warden of the forest
In her role of the forest’s protector, she does many things. Mostly this is to help or hinder hunters completing their jobs. She rules over the animal living in the woods and can put them into the paths of a hunter she likes. At the same time, she can make sure a hunter misses individual animals no matter how good he aims.
She can also direct this same blessing or curse onto specific guns, instead of the person behind them. She can take a rifle, blow into the mouth and say if it is a good or bad gun, and whatever she says will become the truth.
Some say that when a hunter misses, no matter how well he aims, it is because that animal is under Skogsråets protection. Some say that it is Skogsrået herself in animal form, and therefore cannot be hit.[J]
Distorting the vision
One common theme that keeps occurring in stories involving Skogsrået is her ability to mislead people. She usually does this by distorting the vision of those in the forest and have them walking in circles.
Another way she could use her ability to distort the sight of people was to appear as their wife or fiancé. Turning into someone the man already trusts makes it easier for her to trick them into sleeping with her. This could also be how she changes into animals and other things in the forest.
A third option she is said to use this power is not to have people get lost, but think they are somewhere they are not. There is a tale of a man that was out in the forest looking for a missing animal, came home, undressed, and prepared for sleep. But as he sat on the bed, he broke the spell. He realised that his clothing was on a bush and he was sitting on a rock in a marsh. If he had gone to “bed”, he probably wouldn’t have woken up the next morning.
Some abilities of Skogsrået are only mentioned in a few sources, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t abilities that were believed in. They are not as common as some other powers to write about though.
One rare ability is that she has the power to bend a horseshoe with her bare hands.
In one tale, Skogsrået has married a man that starts to abuse her. When he sees her pressing together an oversized horseshoe, he gets scared. He asks why she has accepted the abuse instead of hurting him. Skogsrået replies that she listened to the priest during the wedding who said to always care for each other and decided to spare him.[I]
Riding on elks
Multiple sources state that the elks are Skogsråets mounts, but it is only mentioned in passing and not elaborated on. These animals are said to be protected from hunters and can be identified by the saddle on their backs.
It wasn’t only sex that could give good hunting luck, some say that you could leave an offering in the form of a coin or some food on a sump in the forest. This could lead to gaining Skogsråets favour and being free to shoot as much game as you wish. Sometimes the stump where the offering took place was decorated with flowers or birch twigs, another sign of appreciation.[J]
A common belief that protects you from Skogsrået is to not give her your name. If she doesn’t know your name, she doesn’t have any power over you. Some tales are about how a man uses the same technique that Odysséen used against the cyclops Polyfemos–by saying his name is “Nobody”.
How to break free
If you do end up under the influence of a Skogsrå, there are still multiple ways to get free. Different methods might be needed depending on which power she used.
Turn jacket out-and-in
If you find yourself lost in the forest, then one solution is to turn part of your clothing inside-out or backwards. This can help to break the clutches of a Skogsrå, and even prevent meeting her at all.
By doing this, it is said that you will wake up from what seems like a dream, and can find the path out from the forest again.
Daphne Mezereum & Valerian
The protection of Tibast (Daphne Mezereum)and Vänderot (Valerian) is occurring in many tales. It is always the cure for a man that has gotten caught in a sexual relationship with a Skogsrå.
Most often it is the wife asking either the Skogsrå or a “Wise lady” for advice about a bull running to the neighbours’ cows instead of keeping to their own. But the cure isn’t given to any cattle, but rather the husband that keeps running to the Skogsrå.
In some versions there is a third ingredient, some say it should be the garlic[G]. In contrast, others say moss from the north side of the chimney[F].
One tale says that by putting parts of garlic inside the pipe of the gun, Skogsrået cannot affect the weapon, neither for the good or bad.
Most often, however, garlic is told to help with a man that has been caught by Skogsrået and wants out. Sometimes in combination with Daphne Mezereum and Valerian[G], others say to mix garlic with tar and grass from the north side of the chimney.
Profanity & God’s name
Another rather simple cure was to swear or to mention God. Doing so would break from her enchantment both sexually and walking in the forest.
Using God as a way to break free is most likely a consequence of Sweden being Christian during the time the tales about Skogsrået was collected.[I]
What scares Skogsrået
Even Skogsrået is afraid and fears certain things just like everyone else.
Fire can also be used as protection against Skogsrået, by using it to make her flee before she has the chance to enchant someone. Some tales say that she causes terrible storms if any fire is thrown at her[A], so better be careful. The weather might be the cause of her leaving the area in a whirlwind, uprooting bushes and trees in her path.
Odens jakt (Odin’s hunt), also knows as the Wild Hunt, was a troublesome time for Skogsrået. Other names of this hunt are Oskoreien (Asgard ride) and Julereien (Christmas ride), meaning the harsh time is during Christmas.
Most stories tell of a person being out during Christmas and see a woman running, and Oden riding a horse chasing her. Later, that same person sees the lady laying bound or dead upon the horse beside Oden. Some tales say it is a troll being hunted, and a Christian that had been bergtagen (spirited away) that shoot them.
Thunder and Lightning
Odens jakt and Oden being after her might be related to lightning being her worst enemy.[J] It is said that thunder and lightning are following her around. Some say this is the cause for her being erased from existence.[J]
Beings from mythology are almost always overlapping in some ways. It can be with other creatures in the same lore or even with beings in different areas of the world. And Skogsrået is no exception.
In nordic folklore
Skogsrået has some common traits and activities with other beings within the Scandinavian folklore realm.
While Skogsrået is common in the south of Sweden, she is often replaced with the females among Vittror in the north. Among Vittror it is also common with a male Vittra in the place of Skogsrået, leading to the victim being a woman rather than a man.
Another shared aspect is having cattle, while it is more common among Vittror to have them, there are tales about skogsrået having some too.
Bysen is also told to be tricking people into getting lost in the forests, much like Skogsrået.[F]
The physical description of having breasts long enough to throw over the shoulder fit both Maran and Skogsrået. Another shared aspect between these two the erotic nature of females. They are both an active role and are confident in their sexuality and what they want from a man.
Other Rå-beings (Wardens)
In the way that Skogsrået is a warden of the forest, there are protectors of many other things too, both manmade and nature itself.
In other Lore
There are some mentions about similar being in other mythologies when looking to the behaviour and activities of Skogsrået.
Incubus & Succubus
Skogsrået and Incubus and Succubus share the erotic trait of luring men to them which are then trapped and cannot leave.[J]
Notes & references
Following is a collection of anecdotes among the sources that isn’t directly related to Skogsrået.
The belief in skogsrået was so wast that there are even cases in court that mentions her. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, there are cases where young men were sentenced for “illegal mixing” (olovlig beblandelse). This means that they were guilty of having sex with Skogsrået or other folklore beings. For example, in 1691, a 22-year-old farmhand was sentenced to death for that very reason.
There’s three books that seems to be the source for most others, and those are Skogsrået, näcken och djävulen. Erotiska naturväsen och demonisk sexualitet i 1600- och 1700-talens Sverige written by Mikael Häll in 2013, Erotiska väsen written by Ebbe Schön in 2010, and Skogsrået i yngre nordisk folktradition written by Gunnar Granberg in 1935. I wish I had all three of these, or even one of them, but sadly I have not.
- [A] Folktro i Bohuslän by Ebbe Schön (1983)
- [B] Fältguide till Oknytt by Richard Svensson (2006)
- [C] Lyktgubben, Skogsfrun och andra väsen by Jan Jäger & Tor Jäger (2012)
- [D] Nordiska väsen by Johan Egerkrans (2013)
- [E] Svenska folksägner by Bengt af Klintberg (1993, originally in 1972)
- [F] Svenska sägner by Ebbe Schön (2008)
- [G] Väsenologi by Ingela Korsell (2019)
- [H] Älvor, Vättar och andra väsen by Ebbe Schön (1996)
Essay & thesis
- [I] Skogsrået och Kvinnlig Sexualitet [BSc thesis] by Lisa Lundqvist & Matilda Kallio (2018)
- [J] Skogsråets Samband med Freya [essay] by Sara Duppils Krall (2003)
- [K] Vanliga väsen i vår folktro [essay] by Ulrica Vestlund (1997)