Tag Archives: teeth



Informant: So… There’s these two cute little, I would almost call them little trolls. And they’re called Karius and Baktus. One has black hair, one has red hair. And they live in this little boy’s mouth… So it’s about a boy called Jens… And, it’s um… And he loooves white bread and sugar and syrup… And so… These two little trolls are kind of the, uh, the bacteria living in his mouth I guess… Or whatever is causing him to have cavities… And so the story shows them building houses and balconies and almost little towns in this boy’s mouth… And how they don’t like the toothbrush, and every time the toothbrush comes they hide ‘cause they’re scared of the toothbrush. And every time this little boy eats sugar food they get so excited and cheer him on and say yes they want sugar and syrup and white bread… Whereas if he eats, like, healthy food, they’re very upset and sad… But you know, they hammer, and do construction in this boy’s mouth to build all their houses and that hurts Jens, the little boy… And so, the story goes… He finally ends up at the dentist, and the dentist fills all his cavities. So now that the dentist has filled all the cavities, they don’t have anywhere to live… And now when the toothbrush come next time, they don’t have anywhere to hide anymore and so they’re flushed out. And so… Jens is obviously happy, but Karius and Baktus, the two little trolls, are not so happy anymore. 


Informant: It’s kind of sad actually… It’s kind of funny now that I’m talking about it, how the good is actually sad you know what I mean? 

Interviewer: So… Who tells this story? Why is it told? Where did you learn it? 

Informant: Well “Karius og Baktus” is one of the more popular stories for kids. Like almost every child has heard their parents tell it. And they have theater performances now. It’s also filmed. So, I mean, you can pretty much see any version of it… And it’s used to teach kids to eat healthy. Because in Norway we don’t eat a lot of sugar, except for on the weekends or special occasions… And we never eat white bread really… Everyone in Norway loves to bake and bakes their own bread which is like… Multigrain or whole wheat. Um… It’s just all very healthy. So parents use the story to teach kids to eat healthy so the trolls don’t, uh, build houses in their mouth and hammer and start building. Because obviously cavities hurt, you know?


“Karius og Baktus” exemplifies the pedagogical and cautionary nature of tales. Norwegians have, for many years, used this story to influence their children’s eating habits, warning against the damaging effects of too much sugar. The informant was told the tale as a child, and went on to pass it onto me, her child. Children’s minds are very impressionable, which is perhaps why children are so frequently the audience of tales. The tales are entertaining––thus retaining childrens’ attention––but are also vessels for important lessons. It is likely that tales make the lesson easier to grasp and to summarize. “Karius og Baktus,” for example, highlights each phase of developing and fixing a cavity. Rather than explain to a child time and again that sugar causes cavities and cavities hurt, a parent needs only to mention “Karius og Baktus” and the child will understand immediately what is meant. It is much easier for a child to grasp the severity of cavity-induced pain if they have something to compare it to and visualize (ex. having little trolls hammering away at your teeth). It is also likely that the entertainment factor of tales is, at least in part, what helps the lessons “stick”––what ensures they are retained. The informant remembers this tale to this day. As do I, and I surely will always associate cavities with “Karius og Baktus.” 


Book version:

Egner, Thorbjørn, et al. Karius and Baktus. Skandisk Publications, 1994.

The Tooth Fairy

Informant: “When [my children] were growing up and their teeth fell out, we would tell them to put the tooth under their pillow, and during the night the tooth fairy would come and leave a dollar under their pillow and take the tooth.”

Collector: Where did you first hear about the tooth fairy?

Informant: “Well, I first heard it from my mother when I was little. My mom told me to take the tooth and put it in this little pouch with a picture of a tooth on it, and when I woke up there would be a quarter in there. I guess the tooth fairy has upped the amount of money she gives up nowadays [laughs].”

Collector: Do you know why the tooth fairy wanted teeth?

Informant: “Oh that’s actually a really good question, I’m not really sure… Wow, that’s weird, we’ve been doing this for who knows how long, and no one’s ever asked what she does with the teeth. I guess I just never thought to ask because for me it was always just you wake up and ‘ooh! A Quarter!’ and then not really think about it. I’m not even sure if she actually needed the tooth, I remember one time I actually physically lost my tooth, and I was really bummed because I wouldn’t get my quarter, so my mom told me to put a white bean under my pillow instead, and that was supposed to work because the tooth fairy would think it was a tooth or something. Actually, now that I think about it, I think I remember hearing that she used the teeth to string necklaces or make stars or something like that”

Informant is a middle aged mother of three who lives in the suburbs in the Midwestern United States. She identifies as of “American” heritage, which she bases on her admission that she never particularly looked into her family’s European heritage. The informant’s daughter is a recent college graduate.

Collector Analysis: This particular folklore is actually (in the collector’s opinion) fairly widely spread in the United States, and in fact this collector actually heard a similar story growing up. The most curious aspect of this story is that most of the people who have heard of the tooth fairy have little to no idea why this fairy is collecting teeth. Of course, the experience of losing one’s baby teeth as a child is a nearly universal aspect of human life, and it is quite possible that this story originated as a way to encourage children to report their lost teeth to their parents, who of course would be interested in the dental health and developmental progress of their children. It also may have been meant as a way to encourage children to remove their loose teeth, as it is possible that keeping a loose tooth in one’s mouth for too long could potentially cause health and/or hygiene complications.

“Heard it from the horse’s mouth”

I was talking with my friend and I said that I needed to hear a fact straight from the person who said it, and then she said something like, “yeah, you have to hear it from the horse’s mouth.” I inquired what she meant by this, where she had heard it from, etc. This is what she told me.

Informant: “My mom says, ‘I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth’ and that means that you heard it from the person who said it, so it’s authentic.”

Collector: “Do you know why it’s specifically a horse?”

Informant: “I don’t know, but she did grow up around a lot of horses. She grew up on a cattle ranch. And they all rode horses around.”

Collector: “So do you think this is specific to farmer culture or rancher people, rather than city folk?”

Informant: “I think so because you tend to… your language is dependent on your surroundings. You use analogies based on where you live, or on the things that you know”

The informant didn’t know much more about the origins of the proverb, but after some basic online search, I found that thefreedictionary.com offers the following explanation: “this expression alludes to examining a horse’s teeth todetermine its age and hence its worth. [1920s]” As my informant mentioned, this expression probably originated from a culture that was accustomed to being around horses, so its relevance in the future might be questionable. 

Teeth Falling Out in a Dream Means Deceit

My informant told me about a time when he was younger, maybe thirteen, and he had a dream about his teeth falling out. In the dream, his teeth began to feel loose and when he touched them they started to all fall out. He remembers being mortified and having a great sense of anxiety; the dream felt very real. When he woke up, he told his grandma, who lived with him. She got angry at him and told him the dream meant he had been telling lies; this was common knowledge in China. He tried to tell her he hadn’t been, but she wouldn’t believe him. His parents didn’t think much of the dream, though, and didn’t think their son had been telling lies.

He said he remembers the incident because the dream felt very real and it had disturbed him. He’d also been very upset to have his grandma angry at him when he felt he hadn’t done anything wrong. I could even see him become uncomfortable as he remembered the event.

I think it’s interesting to see that while his grandma put a lot of stock in this folk belief, his parents, the next generation, did not. This could reflect a changing attitude in the world and show how more recent generations are more apt to side with science and logic rather than trust old folk beliefs and superstitions. I also think it’s interesting to see that losing teeth became symbolic of telling lies, as if the lies had been so caustic that when they exited the mouth, they caused the teeth to fall out. Or maybe losing teeth in the dream was almost like a punishment for lying. I’ve heard the more modern belief that losing teeth in a dream represents a lack of confidence or feeling of insecurity. Because we use teeth to forcefully chew our food, they represent power, and seeing them fall out could reflect a sense that we have lost power in our lives. Another interpretation I’ve heard of the dream is that it indicates a family member will die, though I don’t know how that necessarily relates to teeth falling out, except maybe because people lose their teeth when they grow old and approach death.