It is instantly recognisable. The stare and the silence you get when you ask a native Bornholm resident whether the subterraneans exist. It’s as if the topic touches a raw nerve, or deep-rooted taboo. Even so, many Bornholm residents have quite specific basic knowledge about the subterraneans, a story about them they can retell, and some have even had a personal experience undeniably linked to the subterraneans.
But who are they, these subterraneans? Perusing old documents and books, you will soon discover that the subterraneans are frequently referred to as small creatures who inhabit the island’s numerous burial mounds, striking uplands, rock formations, large boulders or other unusual locations in the landscape. The first chronicled narratives from the 1600s tell how the subterraneans live lives that resemble us ‘terraneans’: they marry and have families just like we do, for instance. They are often described as ‘small creatures wearing red caps’, and they are difficult to distinguish from humans in many of the stories. They cultivate the land, bake bread, drink beer, eat sausages, and have such wild parties that it is occasionally possible to see a burial mound rise up on luminous posts and hear lively music coming from within.
The subterraneans’ relations with humans are rather ambivalent, however, and not without complications. Because there are also stories of subterraneans who go in search of prey and try to kidnap women and children and steal beer to take with them back to the mound. They are also fond of inflicting punishment on anyone who excavates a burial mound or drives too close with a tractor and plough. The worst thing you can do is let your cattle graze on top of a subterranean dwelling, because the animal droppings will gradually ooze down through the ceiling. Such stories can be disquieting to farms that fail or cows that run dry. It can also result in someone getting injured or, in the worst cases, dying. The subterraneans can also be helpful, however. They can obtain grain if a harvest fails or show the way to where money or treasure is hidden.
One of the experts who is thoroughly familiar with the subterraneans is anthropologist Lars Christian Kofoed Rømer. He completed his PhD in 2018, which was an anthropological field study of the correlation between Bornholm legends and native Bornholm residents’ relationship with the countryside. In his view, legends, stories and experiences involving subterraneans are an important aspect of many native Bornholm residents’ relationship with nature and the landscape.
Lars has wandered the Bornholm countryside for hours. He has walked around the island with hunters, local rambling or museum societies, scouts, metal-detector enthusiasts and school classes to gain insight into their relationship with the landscape, nature and the subterraneans. He has now formed a start-up named ‘Sansâga’ with Rikke Houd and Jón Hallur Stefánssons who, like himself, are fascinated by personal, local stories and landscapes. Sansâga produces short audio tours – brief, site-specific podcasts that you listen to via the Sansâga Walks app as you walk. The podcasts include a story of how the subterraneans built Hammershus Castle.
“For quite a number of people, the landscape is filled with stories, some of which have something to do with the subterraneans,” Lars says. “These stories are a type of cultural preserve. When a parent or grandparent passes them on to children or grandchildren, it establishes a form of affiliation with nature and particular sites. It also upholds social norms for how to interact with and treat nature,” he explains. “This could be a story that instils particular respect for a specific area of a forest, for example.” There are also many stories about the subterraneans which converge with archaeological finds on Bornholm. Lars thinks that this could reflect the fact that some of the stories go beyond folklore, and are suggestions or hints about physical traces of our forefathers.
Similar stories are found in many other parts of Denmark, but the remarkable aspect of Bornholm’s is that they do not take place only in the realm of folklore, i.e. ‘once upon a time’. Because on Bornholm there are people alive today who can recount their own experiences and encounters with the subterraneans. For example, a man from Olsker broke his leg and was near death from a bee sting shortly after having ploughed a section of his field so deeply that it exposed a large burial site. Another man, named Bjørn, from Gudhjem, suffered from insomnia after having blasted away a section of bedrock in his back garden. Every night, his sleep was disturbed by the sound of someone or something constantly running through his bedroom. And Klaus, a diligent amateur archaeologist from Østerlars, experienced actually being called out to a field by an unknown voice. The last remnants of snow had just melted, when he saw something just a few metres in on the field: a small golden figurine like the ones found in thousands at Sorte Muld near Svaneke. It seemed as if it was waiting to be found and brought to safety. A fourth example is Dorthe of Østermarie who saw two subterraneans during a walk in Poulsker Plantation more than twenty years ago. As she sat meditating on a tree stump, she saw two small shapes out of the corner of her eye; one was a small woman who looked up at her inquisitively. Another siting was by Loa, who as a child was on a camping holiday in Vang with her parents and saw a subterranean playing on a stone mound on Hammer peninsula. When she looked into the mound, she was frightened because she saw a little man with a long white beard wearing a pointed hat made of leaves with a red ribbon. Stories told by living people about experiences or encounters with subterraneans abound on Bornholm.
Although many will certainly give a little smile or shake their head in disbelief, it is perhaps not so strange that many Bornholm natives have the feeling that there is something alive in the landscape. Something to be protected and venerated. And you would be wise to respect the subterraneans, especially if you are not a Bornholm native. Because Bornholm’s subterraneans have a militant streak and are concerned not only about their own home but the entire island and the landscape. Over time, they have been seen and heard on countless occasions during times of unrest. They march through the landscape playing drums and flutes, or ride large horses wearing uniforms and equipment that glitter like gold and silver – all to help Bornholm’s militia defend the island and repel its enemies whenever they attempt to come ashore and take over the island. Past events in Danish history have indeed profoundly influenced the local psyche, as, in times of unrest, Bornholm natives have perceived the help from the Danish Royal Family and the state as being minimal. There is a sense that Bornholm is often left to its own devices, and that those who deserve the real credit for Bornholm still being part of Denmark are a subterranean army and those individuals who had the will and courage to give higher priority to defending the island than their own well-being. Living persons can also tell stories of having seen Bornholm’s subterranean army. Take Viola of Poulsker, for example, who at the age of 9 or 10 was picking wild strawberries along the road on a summer’s day when she suddenly heard military music in the distance. When she looked around for the source of the sound, she saw a small company of red-coated figures walking down the road playing drums and trumpets.
If you have an appetite for even more stories from the Bornholm countryside, you can download the Sansâga Walks app at www.sansagawalks.dk. The audio tours will be launched in the summer of 2020.