The Scandinavian Myths about the Black Death

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Black Death: The World's Most Devastating Plague

By: Dorsey Armstrong, Ph.D., Purdue University

Unlike the rest of the western Europe, the Black Death entered Scandinavia quite late in 1346 via trade routes. The most fascinating thing about the Black Death in Scandinavia was the kind of folklore and myths that arose during that time.

Image of a religious establishment in Norway.
During the first few months of the plague outbreak, people in Scandinavia continued to observe the custom of gathering at the home of the deceased. (Image: Haidamac/Shutterstock)

People’s Reaction during the First Few Months of the Outbreak

Many accounts from Italy, France, and other parts of Europe talk about family members abandoning ill loved ones or neighbors out of fear of the plague. However, in Scandinavia, this did not happen at first. In the first few months of the outbreak, people continued to observe the custom of gathering at the home of the deceased with friends and neighbors to pay respects. Some relatives also showed up quite promptly in case there were any matters of inheritance that might need to be attended to.

As expected, during the onslaught of the Black Death, many fled from infected towns in a pattern that is seen repeated all over plague-stricken areas. But in Scandinavia, when people did flee, they tended to go en masse, as a community, rather than in family units or small groups. They were fleeing the place in which plague had broken out, but they were not actually fleeing the cause—indeed, in most cases they were bringing it with them.

The Case of the Lonely Survivor

One well-known account talks about how a large group of people from Bergen fled into the mountains to a place called Tusededal, where they started to build a new settlement for themselves. Unfortunately, the plague had hitched a ride with them, and within a short while, everyone who had fled to the new community died—with the exception of one girl. According to tradition, these facts only came to light some years later, when visitors to the area encountered this girl running wild. Although she seems to have been quite feral at first, she was eventually re-domesticated and married into a good family.

Image showing a lonely girl
Rype, a young girl, was the last survivor among a large group of people from Bergen who fled into the mountains. (Image: lassedesignen/Shutterstock)

The girl was given the name Rype, which means wild bird. As the last survivor of this community established in the mountains, she was the sole inheritor of all that land. According to plague expert Philip Ziegler, for centuries after the Black Death, the Rype family were one of the largest landholders in the area, proudly tracing their claim on this territory back to the days of the Great Pestilence.

Learn more about the plague’s effects on the medieval church.

Folklore and Myths that arose in Relation to the Great Mortality

A very particular kind of folklore and myths arose in relationship to the Great Mortality in Scandinavia. In Norway and Sweden, these legends tend to take the form of stories about a single surviving old man or woman, who sometimes becomes the anthropomorphized embodiment of the plague itself. In other cases, the stories are about lone survivors who light fires or ring bells in an attempt to find other survivors.

For instance, after the plague, there was only one person left in Valsgard parish, and that was a girl. She was the only living person on the northern side of the fjord. She went and cried out and heard that a man yelled the same way from the southern side of the fjord. They moved in together and were married. This kind of story makes sense, in that it is a folktale about the ability of the community to survive and propagate itself. In several variations of this story, there is either yelling or bell-ringing or the setting of fires to try and help the survivors find one another, and this is a particular Scandinavian custom that has been transplanted into plague stories.

Characters That Become Literal Embodiments of the Plague

According to a folktale from Sweden: “There the plague went from farm to farm in the shape of a little tiny woman. She always carried with her a little broom, and there where she went in and swept in front of the door, all the people in the house died; but at those farms where some people should survive, she hit the door with the broom handle as many times as the number of people who would die in the house.”

In some versions of this legend, the so-called plague hag is accompanied by an old man, and he, too, has an implement that identifies him: “When he went forth with his shovel, some people were spared; but where she went forth with her broom, not even a mother’s child was left alive.” Sometimes the old man and woman are actually children. One version from Sweden states that “The plague first came as a girl with a broom, there death cleaned house, and a boy with a shovel where he came, some people remained alive.” In any event, one of the most important things to note about this is that the motif of the plague anthropomorphized as a traveling pair—whether old or young, carrying shovel and broom—does not occur anywhere outside of Scandinavia.

This is a transcript from the video series The Black Death: The World’s Most Devastating Plague. Watch it now Wondrium.

Variation of the Scandinavian Plague Myths

In Norway and Sweden, the plague is described as a person or people wandering through the land, bringing death and disease with them. On the other hand, in Denmark, the plague is most often associated with a mist. This may have something in common with the standard European medical theory about infected air or miasma being the source of plague, but, at least, one scholar contends that this preference for one form of folktale over another is because of the “suitability of the landscape” in Denmark.

One can see from one community to another because the horizon is relatively open. A drifting localized fog easily could be seen and imagined drifting over the Danish fields. As the disease migrated inland, the unsuitability of a wandering fog to the rugged landscape precipitated a predominant emphasis on anthropomorphic representations of the plague.

Temporary Return to Human Sacrifice

Image of a painting showing plague victims.
One of the horrifying things that happened during the plague was human sacrifice to stop the spread of the infection. (Image: Everett Collection/Shuttertsock)

The most horrible thing that happened when the plague struck Scandinavia was a temporary return in some places to human sacrifice in an attempt to appease the plague. This can be seen clearly in the following example. During the great plague, many people died here in the parish. The plague was stopped in a town called Gravamåla. It happened because they buried a pair of live children in the ground. Nobody knew whose children these were. Their parents had died from the plague, and they wandered from farm to farm and begged for food.

Then, there is this account:

When the grave was finished, they told the girl to get into it to see if it was deep enough. The girl did as they asked. However, when she got into the grave, they reached for the spade and buried the girl alive in the grave with the heaped-up dirt. From the next day on, no people in the town got sick, and the plague had disappeared. Timothy Tangherlini cites both of these as plague legends, but a number of other scholars concede that such things may indeed have actually taken place in some instances.

Learn more about the artistic responses to the Black Death.

Common Questions About the Myths in Scandinavia Regarding the Black Death

Q: How did people in Scandinavia flee the plague-stricken areas?

In Scandinavia, when people fled the plague-stricken areas, they tended to go en masse, as a community, rather than in family units or small groups.

Q: Who was the last survivor of the community from Bergen, that fled to a place in the mountains called Tusededal, to escape the Black Death?

The last survivor of the community established in the mountains to escape the Black Death was a girl who was given the name Rype, which means wild bird.

Q: In Denmark, what was the plague associated with?

In Denmark, the plague was most often associated with a mist.

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