Nisse dolls – an exploration

I lived a part of my childhood in Norway, and picked up a love of scandinavian mythology whilst I was out there … I was always fascinated by the nisse, a little household spirit that looks after the health and prosperity of the home. These are usually depicted as male, and I suppose their closest approximation in England is the Brownie, though the nisse was a bit capricious – you had to look after him in return, otherwise he’d bring all sorts of bad luck to you. Particularly at Christmas, nisse used to appear all over the place – as tree decorations, on kissing rings, on cards – and I remember that we had to leave him his porridge with a pat of butter on top when we went to bed on Christmas Eve to thank him for a good year, and to (hopefully) please him so we’d have a good year ahead.

I’ve still got my own little nisse – he’s gone everywhere with me since I got him, and although he’s a bit faded and slightly battered, he’s still a cheerful soul:

I was looking at him just the other day, and thinking how tactile he was – that round body invites touch – and wondering if I could translate him – or something like him – into textile.

I wanted to keep the ’roundness’ of him, but rather than using wadding to give that shape, it occurred to me that lavender might be a good alternative … and that got me thinking about the health benefits of lavender (and wondering if other herbs, like rosemary, would work?) … and that path led me, by various twists and turns, to Russian amulet dolls.

Strips of fabric, folded and tied into doll shapes – made by girls for girls, and each having a significance in terms of stages of life, and in married life, made to resolve household problems, improve health, promote fertility. And that gave me my basic doll form:

Only this one is unmistakeably female … but as I’m not really trying to stay true to the folk art form, rather exploring it for my own benefit, I’m quite happy just to run with the process and see where it takes me. So I stuffed her skirts with lavender and slip-stitched them closed, but she was still naked and needed dressing.

I wanted to use red, the traditional nisse colour, with the pointed cap, but was desperate to steer clear of the nasty doily-dolls I remember from the 70’s. I also didn’t want to tread too far down the path of trying to create an authentic russian doll – that’s not my tradition and that’s not the path this project was calling me down.

So, instead, I used scraps of red silk to fashion her a costume – it looks vaguely medieval, so she’s kind of witch-like now (in a good witch kind of way) … and the finished version kind of rolls the two ideas of nisse and amulet into something that reminds me of Hestia, the Greek Goddess of hearth and home … spun down the traditions into the romantic, virginal witch of the middle ages – mystical, powerful, but beneficient, full of the healing power of lavender. (lavender oil acts as a kind of sovereign-specific in this house 😉 ). She doesn’t have a face, and probably won’t have a face … and that again refers back to traditions – the russian dolls were left faceless to stop evil spirits entering into them, and Hestia too is kind of a faceless deity.

I love the way she’s come together … the way her hands are folded expectantly in her lap, and the way the lavender under her billowing skirt kind of pushes her forward, as if she’s in motion, a contradiction with the folded hands. But she’s a very tranquil, benevolent little household spirit … and it’s avenue I think I’m going to enjoy spending some time exploring.

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