Lesser Fae of the Upper Realm: Nisse

When I first conceptualized SANYARE nearly two years ago, I made a fundamental choice about the universe my characters would live in: it would be based as much as possible on human mythology, but with a modern fantasy twist. I wanted to use familiar creatures and settings in a new way, combining legends and mythos from around the world to create a unique interpretation of the history of man, and bringing it forward into a contemporary epic.

Nisse, Lesser Fae of the Upper Realm

Nisses are the hidden backbone of High Elf society in the Upper Realm, serving the elves as house laborers and tending to the horses in the barn. Often ignored by their patrons except for the required holiday gifts of food, the nisses protect the dwelling and farm, ignoring the elves right back. However, if treated well, they may choose to serve the elves directly by cooking and cleaning.

Real-World Mythological Background

The nisses in SANYARE are based on a combination of the Scandinavian tomte/nisse and the Scottish brownie.  Both creatures are similar in temperament, but different in habit and appearance.

Nisse is another name for the tomte, a creature of Scandinavian folklore. Found primarily in Denmark, Southern Norway and Southern Sweden, they appear as small (inches tall to half-human height, depending on the story) elderly men who care for the farmer's home, livestock, and the children.

Preceded in mythology by the Yule Goat, nisses are tied to Christmas and in some areas likened to Santa Claus, passing out presents on Christmas Eve. Most of the tales of nisses involve appeasing their appetite for a bowl of porridge with a pat of butter on top, a required gift on Christmas.  If he is not given his porridge, he will cause mischief, even kill livestock in retribution.

The Missing Butter Swedish Legends and Folktales - edited by John Lindow, p. 141 

There was a farm around here where they had a tomte. Porridge was left out for him on Christmas Eve. But when he arrived there was no butter. The butter was under the porridge, but he did not see it. He was so outraged, he went out to the barn and killed the best cow they had. After he had killed the cow, he ate up the porridge, and when he discovered the butter he was beside himself. But he knew that at Skårby they had a cow which was exactly like the one he had killed.

He had a busy Christmas Eve. He took the dead cow and dragged it to Skårby and led home the living one. And it all worked out well. But in the summer, when the weather had turned warm, then, as everyone knows, cows eat grass. That cow wanted to cross the river and eat the grass back at Skårby. But then the tomte had to stand in the river and make waves so that the cow could not get back to Skårby for grazing.

[Älvsåker, Halland. IFGH 937:40 ff. Printed in Helmer Olsson, "Tomten in halländsk folktro," Fmft, 24 (1937), 116. Collector and informant not stated.]

Another easy way to offend a nisse is with rudeness. A farm worker swearing, urinating in the barns, or not treating the creatures well will quickly feel the nisse's wrath. It is also wise to warn the nisse if you spill something on the floor of the house, in case he is beneath the floorboards.

Nisse are solitary figures. In the stories, they are always men, and wear a long white beard and dress in typical farmer's clothing with a red cap. Although they care for the entire farm, their favorite animal is the horse. It is sometimes said that you can tell the nisse's favorite horse because it is the healthiest, with the shiniest coat. Nisses are incredibly strong despite their small stature, performing chores at a speed that would be difficult, if not impossible, for an adult human male to accomplish.

Brownies are similar to nisses in that they help with chores around the house and require gifts of porridge or other food. However, brownies are very shy.  They only work at night and refuse to speak with humans. They live in the abandoned or unused part of the house and are usually invisible, unless the human has second-sight.  Instead of pranking the humans who offend them, they will instead abandon the house or (in a few regional tales) turn into a boggart; an evil household spirit that will follow the family wherever they go, putting clammy hands on sleeping faces, boxing ears, and pulling the sheets off of beds.


In SANYARE, I've chosen to follow the Norwegian image of a small human-like creature with four fingers and pointed ears, whose eyes glow in the dark. However, I have both men and women nisses in my story. (How else would they procreate?) They have pale skin and pale hair, and the men grow a white beard trimmed short or kept long according to their own preference. They wear peasant clothes in a mishmash of bright colors and patterns, to the dismay of their high elf patrons, who find their appearance garish (but if they're smart, they never say that to the nisse).


The nisses in SANYARE have "simple" magic that assist them with their household duties, including immense strength and telekinesis. Their magic isn't subtle, but it is effective.


As with every race, the personalities of individual nisse vary, however a few generalities can be widely applied to their species. They attach themselves to a specific property, and their families may protect that property for generations. In rare instances, a nisse will choose to attach itself to a person, following him or her to their new home and serving the individual directly.

Nisses are extremely shy, hiding out of sight of strangers, and covering themselves with cloaks and hoods when/if forced to go out in public. However, they are also quick to take offense in their own homes, and will show their displeasure through acts of vengeance, whether that's refusing to cook and clean, throwing a telekinetic tantrum and destroying entire rooms, or attempting to drive the high elves out of the home. If they are well-treated, they can be great allies to the household, and will remain loyal to their patrons, no matter the circumstances.

Nisse Characters in SANYARE

Grmelda - nisse at the estate of Rie's high elf adoptive parents, Curuthannor and Lhéwen. Fond of the family, she is comfortable in their home and does all of the cooking and cleaning in the kitchen. She also serves the family in the small dining room, appearing freely before them when in private.

Hilgor - followed Lord Garamaen into the Human Realm to serve at his beach estate. Uncomfortable being seen, he hides beneath the kitchen sink, but will venture out covered in a thick cloak with a deep hood to take care of secret errands for his patron.