Folk tales | Pesta and the Black Death | Norway

Folklore and old folk tales often depict The Black Death in the shape of an ashen-faced old woman. Her name was Pesta.

In 1833, Norwegian priest, folklorist, and historian Andreas Faye published a collection of Norwegian legends and folktales; stories handed down from generation to generation, told and retold by the all-important storytellers of the old Norwegian hunting and farming society.

Here are some of the stories he found, related to the mother of all plagues: The Black Death.

The Black Death

The Black Death ravaged humankind in the 14th century. In Norway, the pandemic came like a firestorm in the year 1349. In a matter of months, potentially as much as 60 per cent of the population died. It was a disaster of biblical proportions. It is impossible to understand the scale of the suffering.

Pesta and her broomstick

Folklore and old folk tales often depicted the plague in the shape of an ashen-faced old woman. Her name was Pesta, a Norwegian word for the pandemic itself. She dressed in a red skirt and brought terror to all who saw her.

The dreaded creature travelled from community to community, with a broomstick and a rake. If you came upon Pesta with her rake, then you knew that she would spare some of your people. But did she start sweeping with her broomstick, then there was no point in running; no soul would be alive by the time she had finished.

Abandoned communities

Pesta wiped out whole communities. People died in their beds – or on the paths walking through the landscape. Children were left orphaned and alone.

The tale says that it took no longer than three days to die. The disease worked with such speed that people often were unable to free their livestock from the stables and the sheds. Without food and care, the animals soon succumbed to thirst and hunger.

Before long, the last man or woman was gone, and everything was still. Years passed, and Mother Nature reclaimed the buildings and the fields; the warm shelter and the livelihood that people had laboured and struggled so hard for. All gone.

Pesta on the stairs - The Black Death. Painted 1896. | Painting by Theodor Kittelsen - wikmedia - Public Domain.

Pesta on the stairs – The Black Death. Painted 1896. | Painting: Theodor Kittelsen – wikmedia – Public Domain.

The boatman

One day, Pesta came to a lake and called out for the boatman to take her across. She wore a blue skirt this time, and at first the man did not recognise her.

Gradually, it dawned on him who was there with him in the boat. He pleaded with her to spare his life. If she did, he would let her good deed be the payment for the boat journey. Pesta conferred with a large book she had in her lap, and then answered quietly: «I cannot spare your life, but I can make your death an easy one». When the man returned home, he was as tired as he had never been before. He stumbled to his bed – and moments later he was gone.

The Grouse of Jostedal

In the depths of the region of Sogn, in western Norway, high up in the mountains, you will find the valley of Jostedal.

As the plague came closer, many of the rich and powerful fled to this remote valley, hoping to escape Pesta and her broomstick.

When they had settled, they allowed no one else to enter. But in order to communicate with the outside world, people could leave letters under a rock at the entrance of the valley. This rock is named The Letter Stone to this very day. But no matter how hard they tried to keep Pesta out, she found her way in. And except for one young girl, they all died.

Sometime later, some of the abandoned domestic animals from Jostedal appeared in a neighbouring valley. Not knowing what had happened, the people there set out to investigate. And when they arrived, they moved from house to house but found no one alive. As they prepared to return home, they spotted the young girl. They called out to her, but she was like a wild animal, and she ran off into the forest and disappeared.

The people discussed amongst themselves, and agreed that it was their duty to save her. It took them a long time to track her down. She was scared and confused, and she reminded them of a local bird, the grouse¹. And that was the name they gave her: The Grouse of Jostedal. They brought the girl back to their own community, and they treated her well. For many years, the valley of Jostedal was abandoned.

But as time went by, new people rediscovered the valley, looking for a place to settle. Derelict farmhouses and overgrown fields were mended and cleared.

When the Grouse of Jostedal was older, she found love in her childhood valley and married there. As the tale goes, she stayed on in Jostedal for the rest of her life – and left a large and respected family line behind.

The Jostedal church

Years later, when a new church was to be built in the Jostedal valley, the people chose to erect it on a flat spot, close to the old vicarage. But every morning, they found the work from the day before undone, and the building materials moved to a small hill close by.

This happened over and over again. In the end, they gave up and decided to build the church on that very hill. And as soon as they started digging in the ground, as if someone had been leading them, they found the bell from the old church. The tale says that this bell is in the Jostedal church even today.

A sleeping house, covered by the forest

More than one hundred years after The Black Death, in a different part of the country, a bear hunter completely lost his way one day, when out hunting in a vast forest. He desperately looked for smoke from a fire or any other sign of a fellow human being.

The pauper - The Black Death. Painted 1895. | Painting by Theodor Kittelsen - wikmedia - Public Domain.

The pauper – The Black Death. Painted 1895. | Painting: Theodor Kittelsen – wikimedia – Public Domain.

The day was almost over, and he had given up hope of finding warm shelter for the night. But then, suddenly, he saw several buildings almost hidden by the forest, surrounded by trees more than a hundred years old. Like a haunted place it was, and the hunter reluctantly went closer.

First, he entered the main cottage. By the fireplace he found a rusty pot – on the benches some rotting yarn – and on the wall a bow and arrows. A thick layer of dust covered it all.

He jumped back as he walked over to a bed in the corner. Old human bones screamed at him, and told the tale of what had happened here, all those years ago, Pesta had paid a visit with her broomstick, and the world had stopped. Slowly, he walked through the other buildings on the old farm. Everything was there, just like people had left it.

The man decided there and then that he would claim what he had found, and start a new life in this thick and mysterious forest. He buried the bones, and very soon the old place came alive once again. He stood on the shoulders of the dead – and continued what they had started and worked so hard for.

In Norway, The Black Death lasted but a few months. But the personal suffering took generations to heal. Let us remember all those who perished. They are us – and we are them.

Recommended read: A Norwegians take on the lead up to the black death

Recommended read: The old Norway – and its last army of storytellers

Main source: «Norske folkesagn» by Andras Faye – Norsk folkeminnelags forlag 1948.
Main photo: Pesta and the boatman – The Black Death. Painted 1900. | Painting: Theodor Kittelsen – wikimedia – Public Domain.

¹ More specifically, the lagopus – rype.

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