Icelandic Folk Legends: Tales of apparitions, outlaws and things unseen, page 2
Apparitions in Icelandic Folk Tales
A FIELD GUIDE
Ghosts in Icelandic folk stories tend to be malicious and spiteful creatures – nasty pieces of work that go after people for no particular reason. Some are conjured up by people who control them behind the scenes and make them perform evil deeds. Ghosts are not able to speak the word Guð, or God – useful to keep in mind when you are uncertain whether or not you are dealing with an apparition. (Just ask them politely if they could say “Guð” for you – if they can’t then they are probably a ghost.) This is irrespective of whether it is the word Guð by itself, or as part of a compound word. For instance, in “The Deacon of Myrká,” the ghost calls a woman named Guðrún “Garún” because he isn’t able to say the first part of her name. Another feature of ghosts is that their supernatural powers seemed to become less potent over time, as in “Þorgeir’s Bull,” for example. Meaning that, if you can’t get rid of the thing, your best bet may be to simply wait it out.
Outlaws figure prominently in Icelandic folk tales. They are actual mortals who have gone to live in the highlands, far from civilization. Some have been banished from society for committing a crime, whereas others have left voluntarily for whatever reason. Some outlaws live in caves, and most of them kill livestock for food. If farmers are missing sheep, it is usually the outlaws who are blamed. Folks tend to be a bit ambivalent when it comes to outlaws. They generally inspire fear and dread – but also a grudging respect for being able to survive in the Icelandic highlands. An interesting feature of outlaw stories is that, over time, the line between them and hidden people stories began to blur. For instance in the story “The Outlaw on Kiðuvallafjall Mountain,” the outlaw lives in a boulder and winds up possessing a large fortune when he dies. In some stories, outlaws are depicted as living in remote locations with lush valleys where there are hot springs and pools for bathing. This is analogous to the way hidden people were believed to have homes filled with gold and riches, and to live in enchanted worlds, set apart from the drudgery of everyday life. An element of this may be found in “The Vanished Bride,” where the farmer comes upon a farm in a remote location that no one seems to know about, where the master of the house has an abundance of livestock and lives a prosperous life. Indeed, the personages of that story are somewhat ambiguous, and appear to be some sort of merger between enchanted hidden people and outlaws who are in self-imposed exile from society.
Trolls and ogres
These beings, who are very large and live inside caves or mountains, are typically not very bright, which is both their strength and weakness. On the one hand, their sheer size, coupled with their stupidity, makes them dangerous. On the other hand, their stupidity means they are not clever or devious, so those unfortunate enough to be captured by them can usually escape by outwitting them. Trolls are often cannibals and like the taste of human flesh. The most horrific troll-slash-ogre in Icelandic mythology is the dreaded Grýla (we met her in the introduction), who for centuries (or at least decades) has been shamelessly used by parents to manipulate their offspring into behaving (as in, “If you’re not good, Grýla will come get you!”). Incidentally, Grýla seems to be an Icelandic oicotype of a folk character designed to frighten children – a local version of the bogeyman. There are two types of trolls: the normal kind that goes about its business day or night, and the other kind that cannot bear daylight and turns to stone when the sun comes up. Those are the night trolls, and their petrified remains (read: stone pillars) may be found all over Iceland.
Elves and hidden people
These are certainly the most complex and beguiling apparitions in Icelandic folklore. They are variously called álfar (elves) or huldufólk (hidden people) but basically they are the same type of being. These elves have little in common with their diminutive counterparts in other countries. For one thing, they are not short, but tall and regal and a lot better looking than the sad, sniveling mortals around them. Their clothing tends to be opulent, made of fine fabrics with intricate embroidery. Their homes are often lavish, with sumptuous tapestries, plush upholstery and lots of silver and gold. They live inside boulders and hillocks, and are invisible to humans unless they choose to be seen. Frequently they appear and speak to people in dreams, and if they do, it is usually because they want something. If Icelandic folk legends are anything to go by, the hidden women experience distress in childbirth with alarming frequency, and mortal women are then called upon to help. If they comply, they are usually amply rewarded – for example, their fields might yield the best hay, or their rivers the largest fish. If, on the other hand, they refuse to help, they are almost sure to incur the everlasting wrath of the hidden people and experience great misfortune. In other words: do not piss off the elves.
Temptation figures highly in many hidden people stories. For instance, the most lush, verdant grass might grow on an elf hillock, but woe to anyone who dares touch it, for the homes of the hidden people are sacrosanct. You might be allowed to cut the grass anywhere else, even all around the hillock – but make sure you keep off the elf knoll. In some stories, the elves try to lure people into coming to live with them, and such offers can be exceedingly tempting because the lives of the hidden people are shrouded in mystery and glamour. Yet those who are able to resist their heathen ways are celebrated for their integrity and strength and are practically hailed as heroes. Curiously, there are quite a few stories of children being brought up by hidden people, and later returning to mortal society. Those people do not seem to have suffered at all from their upbringing – on the contrary, they normally go on to have successful, prosperous lives.
These are the apparitions found in this particular collection of tales. However, there are a handful of other beings that feature in Icelandic lore, including skoffín (offspring of a fox and a female cat), skuggabaldur (offspring of a tomcat and vixen [female fox] or bitch), nykur (water horse with hooves that face backwards), margígur (top half human, bottom half fish), and marbendill (top half dwarf, bottom half seal).
There once was a young farmer who lived beneath Eyjafjöll mountains in south Iceland. He was a dili- gent and industrious young man. The surrounding regions were considered good sheep-rearing country and the farmer owned many sheep. He was newly married when this story took place, to a young and idle woman. She was indifferent to the farm work and not motivated in the least. This upset the farmer, yet there was very little he could do.
One autumn the farmer brought his wife a large sack of wool and asked her to make it into cloth for the winter. Her response was decidedly apathetic. Winter came, and the farmer’s young wife did not touch the wool, despite her husband’s repeated urgings.
One day, an old crone of rather coarse build came to see the woman, to ask her for a favor.
“Can you do something for me in return?” asked the woman.
“Possibly,” said the crone, “what sort of work would you have me do?”
“Fashioning wool into cloth,” said the woman.
“Give it to me, then,” said the crone.
The woman handed her the large sack of wool. The old crone took the sack, slung it across her back, and said: “I will bring you the cloth on the First Day of Summer.”
“What will you take as your reward?” asked the woman.
“It will not be much,” said the crone, “you must simply tell me my name on the third try, and we shall be even.”
The woman agreed to this, and the crone left.
Winter wore on, and the farmer repeatedly asked his wife how the wool cloth was coming along. She replied that it was none of his concern, but that he should have it on the First Day of Summer. The farmer accepted this, and the end of winter approached. The woman then turned her thoughts to what the old crone’s name might be, but saw no way of discovering it. She grew anxious and distressed. The farmer noticed the change in her and asked her what the matter was. At this, she confessed
Some time later, the farmer was headed up the side of a nearby mountain when he arrived at a large, rocky knoll. He was deeply absorbed by his concerns and hardly knew where he was. Suddenly he heard a knocking coming from inside the knoll. He followed the sound, and came to a crevice. Inside he saw an old woman of coarse build sitting at a loom, weaving excitedly. She repeated, over and over: “Ha ha, hee hee. Mistress does not know my name, ha ha, hee hee. Gilitrutt is my name, ha ha. Gilitrutt is my name, ha ha, hee hee.” This she muttered again and again, working the loom with great speed. Seeing this, the farmer brightened, as he was quite sure that this was the old crone who had come to see his wife the previous autumn. He went home and wrote down the name Gilitrutt on a snippet of paper.
Now the last day of winter approached. The farmer’s wife became deeply despondent and spent whole days in bed. The farmer went to her and asked if she knew the name of the crone who had done the wool work for her. She said that she did not and that she would now die of despair. The farmer replied that that would not be necessary, handed her the paper with the name on it, and told her the whole story. She took it, trembling with fear, for she was afraid that the name might be wrong. She asked the farmer to be by her side when the old crone came. He refused, saying: “You did not consult me when you gave her the wool, so it is best that you see her by yourself.”
The First Day of Summer arrived and the woman lay alone in bed. No one else was at the farm. Suddenly she heard a great rumbling and the hideous old crone entered. She tossed a large roll of wool cloth onto the floor and demanded: “What is my name, then, what is my name?”
The young woman, nearly frightened out of her wits, replied: “Signý?”
“What is my name, what is my name: guess again, mistress!” said the crone.
“Ása?” the young woman stuttered.
The old crone replied: “What is my name, what is my name, guess yet again, mistress!”
“Your name wouldn’t be ... Gilitrutt?” ventured the young woman.
At this the old crone received such a jolt that she fell headlong on the floor with a loud thud. She then got to her feet, left the place, and was never seen again.
The young woman was so relieved to have made this happy escape from the ogress that she became completely transformed. She turned industrious and organized, and always worked her own wool from then on.
Note: The First Day of Summer according to the Old Icelandic Calendar is observed on a Thursday from April 19-25 in any given year. The old calendar had only two seasons, winter and summer. The First Day of Summer is still observed as a public holiday – a testament to the importance of summer for the Icelanders.
The Deacon of Myrká Church
In former times there was a deacon who lived at the farm Myrká in Eyjafjörður, north Iceland, which was also the site of the parish church. His name is not known, but he is said to have been involved with a woman named Guðrún. She was employed as a maid by the parson at Bægisá, on the opposite side of the Hörgá river. The deacon had a grey-maned horse named Faxi, which he always rode.
One winter, just before Christmas, the deacon rode to Bægisá to invite Guðrún to Christmas festivities at Myrká. A great deal of snow had fallen in the days preceding his journey and patches of ice lay on the ground. That particular day, however, there was a sudden thaw; the snow melted and conditions turned slushy and wet. As the day wore on, the river swelled and became impassable, with rushing ice floes and heavy rapids. The deacon, meanwhile, was unaware of the changing conditions during his visit to Bægisá. When he left for home he promised to fetch Guðrún at a pre-arranged time on Christmas Eve and escort her to the festivities.
The deacon was able to cross the Yxnadalsá river by an ice bridge, but when he arrived at Hörgá river he saw that it had cleared itself of ice. He rode along the riverbank until he was opposite Saurbær, one farm removed from Myrká, where he found an ice bridge still whole. He urged his horse onto it, but when he reached the center the bridge collapsed and man and horse fell into the rapids.
The following morning when the farmer at Þúfnavellir, next to Saurbær, got up, he could see a saddled horse at the far end of his hayfield. This horse, he thought, bore a close resemblance to the deacon’s Faxi and he found this disquieting for the previous day he had seen the deacon ride past, but had not noticed him return. Thus he suspected the worst. He hastened over to the end of his hayfield and saw that it was indeed Faxi, all wet and battered. The farmer then went down to the river where he came upon the deacon’s corpse, lying at the edge of a small peninsula called Þúfnavallanes. The back of the head was badly mutilated, presumably having collided with an ice floe. The farmer immediately went over to Myrká to report the news. The deacon’s body was then taken there and was buried sometime in the week before Christmas.
No news of the incident reached Bægisá while the adverse conditions prevailed. On Christmas Eve day the weather improved considerably and Guðrún was very much looking forward to the Myrká festivities. She began preparing herself later that afternoon and when she was nearly ready there came a knocking at the door. A girl who was with her went to open it but saw no one outside; it was neither dark nor light, for clouds alternately covered and uncovered the moon. The girl returned inside and said that she had seen no one, to which Guðrún replied, “This game is surely meant for me; I’ll go.” By that time she was dressed, save for her overcoat which she had yet to put on. She took it and put her arm through one sleeve, throwing the other over her shoulder and holding on to it with her hand.
When Guðrún stepped out of the house she saw Faxi standing near the door. A man whom she took to be the deacon stood next to him. Whether or not they spoke is not known; in any case he lifted Guðrún onto the horse and then mounted it himself in front of her. They set off and rode for a distance in silence, until they came to Hörgá river. Along it were high banks of ice and snow, and as the horse leapt over the edge the deacon’s hat lifted at the back and Guðrún looked at his bare skull. At that moment the clouds parted and the apparition spoke, saying:
The moon glides
Don’t you see the white spot
At the nape of my neck,
Guðrún was stunned into silence and made no reply. Yet some say that Guðrún lifted the hat and, seeing the white skull, said, “I see what is.” There are no reports of further exchanges between them, nor is anything known about the rest of their journey until they reached Myrká. They dismounted in front of the lichgate and the apparition spoke again, saying:
Wait for me here, Garún, Garún,
While I take Faxi, Faxi,
To the edge of the yard, yard
It then led the horse away. Just then Guðrún looked into the churchyard and her eyes fell on an open grave. Terror gripped her, yet she had the wherewithal to grasp the bell-pull, and she began frantically ringing the church bells. Suddenly she felt someone seize her from behind. It was her good fortune that she had not put her overcoat on properly, for whatever seized her pulled so hard that the overcoat was torn in two along the sleeve that she was wearing. The last Guðrún saw of the apparition was that it fell headlong into the open grave still holding part of her cloak, while the earth swept down into it from both sides. Guðrún rang the bells incessantly until the residents at Myrká were roused and came out to fetch her; she was so rigid with fear that she could neither move from where she was nor stop ringing the bells. She was sure that she had been dealing with the deacon’s ghost, even though she had been sent no word of his death. The Myrká residents confirmed this, telling her about the deacon’s untimely death. She, in return, recounted her journey with his ghost.
That same night when the light had been turned out, the apparition returned to haunt Guðrún with such ferocit
Finally a sorcerer from nearby Skagafjörður fjord was sent for. When he came he ordered that a boulder be unearthed from the ground above the hayfield and rolled over to the house gable. When darkness fell that evening the deacon’s ghost once again appeared and tried to enter. The sorcerer forced it to move along the side of the house to the gable and then drove it into the ground with incantations, rolling the boulder over the top. It is said that the deacon’s ghost remains there to this day.
Following this, all unearthly visitations ceased at Myrká, and Guðrún slowly recovered. She returned to Bægisá a short while later, but is reported to have never recovered fully from her ordeal.