Nordic snow god: Who is behind Breck’s Ullr?
December 23, 2015
Everyone who's lived in Summit County over the winter knows Ullr, and those who don't quickly learn. But there's more to Ullr than parades and floats and bonfires. There are thousands of years of myth and cultural tradition. And there's a man, beneath all that, who donates his time every year, reaches somewhere deep inside and brings the god to life.
The mythology of Ullr (pronounced "OOH ler") can be traced back over millennia to the ancient frozen lands of northern Europe, specifically Norway. Ullr is a god in the Norse pantheon, sometimes said to be a son or stepson of Thor.
The main reason that Ullr means anything to Colorado today is because he is considered the god of winter and snow. He is depicted as a mighty hunter, an excellent skier and adept ice skater. He is the harbinger of winter and especially snow.
It's little surprise, then, that modern skiing culture has accepted Ullr as its god. Parades are held in his honor and bonfires burn old skis as offerings.
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Breckenridge held its first Ullr Fest 53 years ago and the event is still going strong today. Its popularity has even spread across state lines, drawing in visitors from all over. Yet many would agree that it would be a poor festival indeed without the main attraction — Ullr himself.
John Forsberg has been a member of Summit County for three decades. He's an avid skier and a well-known face. He worked many years as an ambassador for the Breckenridge Resort Chamber, organizing community events and helping out with local projects.
About 14 years ago, the previous Ullr left the county, taking his Ullr act and Ullr outfit with him. It was brought up at a meeting of the Breckenridge ambassadors that someone new must take his place.
"They (said), 'Well we need a new Ullr,' and they look around the room, and I'm the only guy with long hair and a big beard, and (they said) 'you know, I think he could do it,'" said Forsberg of his Ullr nomination.
Tall and broad-shouldered, with merry blue eyes and a grizzled, bushy black beard, Forsberg certainly fits the Ullr image on first glance. He admitted he felt some trepidation at first.
"I did not want to do it, because normally I'm kinda shy," he said. "But once I started …" it became fun.
Forsberg started making short appearances at the annual winter skate party and Ullympics events, but as the years went on he became more and more active. His enthusiasm translated to the role and soon he had made it his own. Now, when he's acting, he refers to himself as Ullr, in the third person. People love to ask him questions, he said, and he's got the banter down pretty well.
"Where's Ullr's girlfriend?" someone might ask.
"Ullr has many girlfriends!" will boom out in reply.
Ullr is absolutely a local celebrity, instantly recognizable in his fur-trimmed outfit and giant Viking horns. People spot him on the chairlifts, on the slopes and walking around town. They run up and hug him. Dogs bark, children tug his beard, adults buy him drinks.
Even on his days off, Forsberg finds himself unable to escape Ullr completely. On a trip to Florida, he took a walk down the beach only to be greeted enthusiastically by an old friend shouting, "I spotted Ullr! I found him first!" Another time, when riding the chairlift, a young boy scrutinized Forsberg closely before declaring, "You're the Ullr guy. I know you." These stories make Forsberg laugh and he jokes about trimming his beard.
The week of Ullr Fest is a full one, but Forsberg enjoys himself. He remembers meeting travel show host Samantha Brown and being interviewed by famed weatherman Jim Cantore.
He's also not afraid to let out Ullr's wild side. On parade day he marches up and down the town, making noise and stirring things up.
"I do a lot of yelling, a lot of hooting and hollering," he said, which often leaves him hoarse.
At one Dew Tour event several years ago, he got into a wrestling match with a yeti.
"It was a natural match — Ullr versus yeti," Forsberg said. "Ullr got disrespected, his helmet went flying, so I had to get the yeti's goggles and mess those up. … I had a leg up on him but he had the high ground."
Another time, a rambunctious child looked up at him and said, "'Mister, you look like a bad buffalo!'" Forsberg recalled. "I had to chase him down and school him," he said with a laugh.
That's unlikely to happen again, as Ullr is looking better than ever the past few years thanks to the sewing skills of local seamstresses Holly Robb and Sally Ensign.
"Ullr used to come in a box, and you never knew what was going to be in the box," said Forsberg, of the costume he used to rent from Denver. But in 2013, a new outfit was born, made with real fur from donated coats, and researched to look as authentic as possible. It includes a shield, staff, bow and arrows. This impressive look assists Forsberg in his Ullr duties during the festival, which are mainly to excite and inspire.
"(My duties are) to rile The Kingdom," Forsberg said, his voice rising up. "To oversee the parade, the floats, the festivities, the Ullr worshippers and to rile them up. To encourage them to bring offerings to Ullr."