The ‘nollning’

Nollning (literally ‘zeroing’ – they haven’t earned any credits yet) – is a kind of initiation ritual for new students and an academic tradition that stretches far back in time. A kind of nollning called the deposition (from the Latin depositio cornuum, “taking off the horns”) already existed in the 17th century. It was an initiation ritual that all new students were forced to go through.

The deposition tools – pliers, a saw, and a plane – were used to take off the ‘horns, ears and tusks’ of the new student; attributes symbolising the student’s bestial, unpolished nature. Finally, the person leading the ceremony poured salt on the new student’s tongue, threw wine over his head and declared that he was now a free student. This was followed by a year of servitude to an older student. The deposition ceremony and its subsequent year of bullying quickly spiralled out of control, and the deposition was banned in 1691.

A painting depicting 17th century 'nollning'.
In the 17th century, the prospective student was dressed up in multi-coloured clothes, given horns, donkey ears and boar tusks, and herded with an axe before an audience who mocked him.
Picture: Uppsala University Library

Deposition tools from the 1600s.
Deposition tools from the 17th century, which can be found today at Gustavianum, Uppsala University Museum.

Today, nollning has been replaced by a welcoming orientation for new students. This is common at many higher education institutions, perhaps in particular for programmes in technology and engineering. Although these initiation rituals may appear to have features in common with what went on in the 17th century, they now take quite different forms of expression. Today, bullying is naturally banned and the purpose of orientation is for the students to get to know each other, feel welcome, and have fun together.

Last modified: 2021-01-21