Icelandic Folk Legends: Tales of apparitions, outlaws and things unseen, page 1
Icelandic Folk Legends
Tales of apparitions, outlaws and things unseen
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Icelandic Folk Legends
© Alda Sigmundsdóttir
Little Books Publishing
The pattern on the cover of this book is a traditional Icelandic design, taken from the book
Íslensk sjónabók - Ornaments and Patterns found in Iceland.
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Table of Contents
Apparitions in Icelandic Folk Tales Ghosts
Trolls and ogres
Elves and hidden people
The Deacon of Myrká Church
The Vanished Bride
The Legend of Úlfsvatn Lake
The Hidden Man and the Girl
Kráka the Ogre
The Outlaw on Kiðuvallafjall Mountain
The Hidden Woman’s Curse
Satan Takes a Wife
The Church Builder
Fostered by a Hidden Woman
The Story of Himinbjörg
About the Translator
One evening, many years ago, I was travelling through south Iceland with two of my cousins. We stopped in the town of Vík to camp for the night. After pitching our tent at the campsite we decided to take a walk before turning in. It was in the middle of summer, so it was broad daylight even though it was late in the evening.
After a short stroll we came to a place where we had a gorgeous black sand beach on our right, a grassy area (on which we were walking) in the middle, and a steep mountainside on our left. The waves were rolling in, and on the beach was a large colony of arctic terns. As many readers will know, arctic terns are exceedingly aggressive birds, and as we passed, literally hundreds, if not thousands, of them flew up screeching and shrieking, instantly starting to dive-bomb our heads in an effort to drive us away.
Suddenly we stopped dead in our tracks. Through the screeching of the birds we heard this incredible sound, like a huge banquet going on, with hundreds of people laughing and talking, glasses clinking, dinnerware clanking … all coming from somewhere beyond the cliffs. We looked at each other, completely mystified. Where was that sound coming from? Was it from the campsite? We decided it couldn’t be – we’d only just left it and the number of people required to make that sound, not to mention all those glasses and dinnerware, could not possibly have been transported there in such a short time. Was it from the town? Hardly – the sound seemed like it was just beyond our line of vision and the town was too far away. Was there a banquet hall around, somewhere? Perhaps back from where we had come? We certainly couldn’t rule it out, even though none of us had seen one.
The strange thing was, the party sounded like it was inside the cliff, but we obviously knew it couldn’t be. Or could it? We had pretty much ruled out all possibilities, and were starting to think Shakespeare had hit the nail on the head with the immortal words: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
We stood there for about ten minutes. That is how long it took us to recognize that the sound was being made by the combination of the birds screeching and the waves rolling in, echoing off the cliffs to our left. At that moment we realized that this was the sort of fantastical experience that must have made our ancestors conclude that trolls lived inside the mountains. How could they possibly have come to any other conclusion?
We mused on this a while as we continued our trek. We thought about all those formations rising out of the lava fields that seemed to move in the mist or twilight. Or dark shapes on the rims of the mountains, which appeared to be alive in the fading light when silhouetted against the sky. And what about the howls of the wind in the midwinter nights? Surely it was not too much of a stretch to believe those were the voices of the dead – particularly if the presence of ghosts was a normal part of life for you.
Suddenly it became clear how natural phenomena such as these could become transformed into stories that people told each other. After all, stories were what kept the spirit of the Icelandic nation alive in those long, harsh, oppressive winters, when people were forced to spend most of their time indoors. With wood virtually nonexistent, the Icelanders made their houses mostly out of rocks and turf. There was hardly any light or ventilation, since anything that allowed for such comfort also released precious warmth. All the members of a household, which typically included the farmer and his family, various farmhands, and sometimes orphans or widows who had been allocated a place at the farm, lived together in communal quarters called the baðstofa. The word baðstofa literally means “bath chamber” and at the time of the settlement it was used for the room in the house where people bathed. However, as the Icelanders gradually stripped the land of its abundant forests and firewood became scarce, people were forced closer and closer together in an effort to stay warm. Eventually, all the members of a household occupied the baðstofa, which was only around six or seven ells wide (just under four meters, or about thirteen feet) and was often built above the sheep shed to utilize the warmth from the animals. There were beds along both walls and a narrow aisle in the middle, and this was where people lived, slept, ate and carried out their winter tasks – working the wool, knitting and weaving, making shoes, clothing and tools, preserving food … essentially all the tasks that required working with the hands and could be performed indoors. Those tasks were reserved for the winter, of course, since the summer, with its precious light and more accommodating climate, was used for outdoor work.
From our twenty-first-century perspective, it is hard to fathom that people could exist in such conditions – and stay sane. Imagine living in such close proximity to other people, in houses that were dank, musty, and filled with bugs. Washing was considered unnecessary and hygiene was non-existent. People smelled, chamber pots smelled, the fish oil used for the lamps smelled, and the animals beneath the floor smelled. The bedding was cleaned only once a year, in the spring, when it was taken out and washed in urine, then rinsed in a brook and laid out on shrubs to dry. Similarly, the floors were cleaned only once a year, when debris and other matter that had formed a thick cake-like substance on the floorboards was scraped off and dumped outside.
Yet, people survived. Not only did they feed their bodies, but they managed to feed their minds and spirits as well. The Icelanders at this time forged a standard of literacy that was among the highest in the world. Despite their abject poverty, virtually everyone in the country could read and write, people were remarkably well informed about history and geography, and they read daily from the Scriptures. All of this was primarily due to one wid
The word kvöldvaka is a compound noun: kvöld meaning “evening” and vaka essentially meaning “staying awake.” Basically this was the term used for the indoor activity that people undertook in the evenings, and which consisted mostly of storytelling. It was done to pass the time while they sat on their beds and carried out whatever winter tasks they had been allocated. Their stories consisted of folk tales, like the ones that you will read in this book, stories of heroic exploits (sometimes their own, sometimes those of others), re-tellings of the Icelandic Sagas, epic poetry recited in a sort of singsong fashion (called að ríma in Icelandic), or gossip from the neighboring farms. Indeed, there was a whole subculture of vagrants who moved from one farm to another, whose “job” it was to pass news (or gossip!) from place to place. They stayed at different farms for longer or shorter periods, and many of them were considered a nuisance – but not those who were good storytellers. They were almost always welcome. Some of them even stockpiled books that they carried around with them, stuffed inside their outer clothing, which was then bound with string around the waist to prevent the books from falling out the bottom.
The kvöldvaka was also where children were taught to read and write, and as such it played a hugely significant role in creating the abovementioned standard of literacy.
In almost all cases, the kvöldvaka ended with the so-called húslestur, literally the “house reading,” which consisted of someone, usually the master of the house, reading from the Scriptures. While the húslestur was being performed, everyone stopped what they were doing to listen, or at least engaged only in quiet activities, such as knitting. The húslestur generally began and ended with a hymn where everyone joined in, and when the reading was finished, the members of the household thanked the reader by saying þökk fyrir lesturinn, or “thank you for the reading.” After that, everyone retired. The húslestur is mentioned in a couple of tales in this book as part of the religious motif that runs through the stories like a red thread in a tapestry.
Personally I find the strong role that Christianity and religion plays in the Icelandic folk stories fascinating, particularly since the nation is so very secular today (confirmations and religious holidays notwithstanding). Most of the apparitions and supernatural beings that feature in the stories represent the antithesis of Christian values, and as such are to be feared and shunned. Some of them, like the elves and hidden people, would try to tempt mortals to leave their Christian ways and to join them – something that was considered a mortal sin and would surely lead to ruin. As such they served as morality tales, as much as stories for people’s entertainment.
Today, television and computers have replaced the kvöldvaka, and science has helped debunk the beliefs that in the past were attributed to mystic beings, spirits, and other apparitions. It is a new era ... and yet, Icelandic folk legends remain very much alive in the psyche of the Icelandic people. Not in the sense that we take them literally or speak about them daily – I don’t know of anyone who would, for example, talk about the elf family that lives in the boulder next door, as though they were a normal part of life (in spite of what the foreign media, or tourist marketing people, would have you believe). Yet if that same someone was out on a hike with a friend and passed by a particularly imposing boulder, they might remark on the “impressive elf-stone” or similar.
That being said, as I write this I am reminded that the Icelandic psyche is fraught with paradox. Consequently it is my duty to say that modern Icelanders have been known to divert roads past boulders that people have claimed were elf rocks. In fact, not too long ago an Icelandic MP had a boulder transported by ferry from the mainland to his home in the Westman Islands, and actually paid a fare for the “elf couple” that was supposedly being moved along with the rock. Given the media coverage this received, not to mention this particular MP’s somewhat, ehh, colorful track record (he did time for extortion, which he committed while in office) I hope you will forgive me for doubting the sincerity of his actions, and to ascribe this particular exercise to a striving for attention rather than a genuine concern for the poor, uprooted elf couple.
Another example of an old legend finding its way into our lives today is in the story of the hideous ogress Grýla, with which just about every man, woman and child in Iceland is intimately acquainted. Grýla, you see, eats naughty children, and Icelandic parents, desperately concerned for their children’s safety, warn them about this early. According to lore, Grýla lives in a cave and has a habit of coming into residential areas for the express purpose of stuffing disobedient kiddies into her sack, carrying them back to her cave and throwing them into a large cauldron of boiling water she perpetually has on the fire. Curiously, though, Grýla does not appear to have a taste for her own offspring. She is the mother of the thirteen Icelandic Yule Lads, who happen to be renowned for their naughtiness – yet there are no reports of her having eaten any of them.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is, while we no longer take our folk legends literally, they are nevertheless part of the glue that holds the Icelandic nation together. They are a common heritage, a cultural point of reference that every Icelander can relate to. They give us an identity, and make us feel like we belong to something larger than ourselves.
Some of these stories will no doubt seem vaguely familiar to many readers, in particular “Gilitrutt” and “The Church Builder,” both of which bear a strong resemblance to the well-known “Rumpelstiltskin.” That is because folk legends tended to migrate, taking on the special characteristics and features of the different areas where they took root (what the eminent ethnologist Carl Wilhelm von Sydow termed oicotype). Many Icelandic folk legends are therefore the Icelandic oicotypes of various known legends.
Interestingly, there is one particular motif in Icelandic folk tales that is unique to Iceland. I’m sure we are all familiar with the bad stepmother (or stepfather) motif – but in Iceland, we have the motif of the good stepmother, which apparently is not found in folk tales elsewhere. Mind you, I have not done any extensive research on this, but have it directly from the mouth of one of my university folkloristics professors, and I would hope she knows what she is talking about.
I have been asked why I chose the particular stories that appear in this collection. Full disclosure: I didn’t. My translations of these tales originally appeared in print in 1998, and the publisher at the time was the one who selected them. I can surmise that at least some of them were chosen for their popularity – “The Deacon of Myrká,” for example, is probably the best-known Icelandic ghost story. Others stories present themes or motifs that surface in many different Icelandic folk legends, such as the wrath of the hidden people when mortals refuse their requests for help (“The Hidden Woman’s Curse”), or the hidden valleys beyond the mountains where mysterious outlaws reside in relative affluence (“The Vanished Bride”).
In this edition I have added this introduction and the subsequent “field guide,” plus three more stories that were not in the original publication: “Gilitrutt,” “Búkolla,” and “The Story of Himinbjörg.” I chose the first two because they are well known and well loved, and because my grandmother told them to me when I was little. The last I chose because it features the aforementioned motif of the good stepmother.
In the interests of accuracy, I should probably add a proviso: despite the title of this book, not all of these stories are legends. Many of them fall into the category of folk tales, and some, like “The Story of Himinbjörg,” are more akin to fairy tales. Rest assured, though, that they are all very much a part of Iceland’s cultural legacy.
A few words about the style. Since the stories were originally passed down verbally and subsequently written down, they tend to be in a very terse, clipped format that presented a bit of a challenge in the translation. It is a little difficult to capture the right tone in such cases, while still getting across the pulsing heart of the narrative. To some, the s
And while I’m on the subject of “Þorgeir’s Bull,” allow me to add a quick note: for the print edition of this book I have included the two Icelandic special characters Þ and Ð (or ð). They are pronounced, respectively, as a voiced “th” sound (as in “thistle”) and a silent “th” sound (as in “there”).
Finally, this introduction would not be complete without a few words about the preservation of the folk tales. In the mid-nineteenth century there was widespread nationalistic revival in Europe, which gave rise to a new interest in folk stories that had been passed on verbally. Interested parties began collecting such tales and writing them down, the best known undoubtedly being Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in Germany, whose efforts resulted in the renowned Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In Iceland, a similar undertaking was initially launched by two men: Jón Árnason, a scholar and later Iceland’s national librarian, and Magnús Grímsson. They published a collection entitled Íslenzk æfintýri in 1852, which garnered a lukewarm reception, as folk stories were not considered significant or important by the general population at that time. A few years later, a German scholar named Konrad von Maurer travelled in Iceland and recorded stories, culminating in a published book in Leipzig in 1860 entitled Isländische Volkssagen der Gegenwart. He also assisted Árnason and Grímsson in having their collection of Icelandic folk stories published in Germany, where they appeared in two separate volumes between 1862 and 1864. Grímsson passed away in 1860, but Jón Árnason continued to record stories in succeeding years. It would be almost a century, however, before his full collection of Icelandic folk tales was published in six volumes, from 1954 to 1961. The stories in this book are taken from that six-volume collection, which today is commonly referred to as Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar, or The Folk Tales of Jón Árnason.