Most people have heard of Santa’s more terrifying European counterparts, like the Austrian Krampus or the French Père Fouettard, but did you know that Iceland has its own cast of winter monsters?
Modern Iceland is one of the few European countries whose residents still believe (to some extent) in the existence of elves and fairies, known as the Huldufólk. (I heard a great explanation for the continued belief while traveling in Ireland, where certain trees are still considered “fairy trees” that should never be touched: the fairies might not be real, but my grandfather and his grandfather and his grandfather never touched that tree stump, so why risk it?) And wouldn’t life feel more magical and mysterious if we all believed that there were still creatures out there that we didn’t know much about?
In Iceland, this continued belief even goes so far as to alter building projects and road work, since the Huldufólk don’t like people to encroach on their land. But their presence in modern Icelandic culture is one of the things that makes this isolated country so unique and beautiful.
In particular, several of these beings relate to the Christmas season, so what better time to learn about them?
Grýla is a giantess from the Prose Edda, the 13th-century compilation of Icelandic mythology and legends written by Snorri Sturluson and one of our main surviving sources of Old Norse. Over time, Grýla became associated with the Christmas season, when she finds misbehaving children and turns them into stew. She is also the mother of the 13 Jólasveinarnir, or Yule Lads.
The Jólasveinarnir are usually depicted as more innocent mischief-makers, although in some early legends they kidnapped children just like their mother. Today, though, children leave out an empty shoe for the 13 days before Christmas; if they had been well-behaved, they would receive a small present or candy from one troll each night.
Grýla also owns Jólakötturinn, or the Yule Cat, a huge black cat that also likes to eat people. One Icelandic tradition is that anyone who finishes all of their work for the year receives a new piece of clothing to wear on Christmas; the lazy people who didn’t finish in time and had to wear their old clothes would then be eaten by Jólakötturinn. A 1987 song based on Jóhannes úr Kötlum’s poem tells the legend of Jólakötturinn (see the video below).
Iceland’s rich tradition of folklore includes many other fascinating characters. I’d love to learn more about other Christmas legends; can any of them compete with Grýla gruesome family?