Icelandic Folk Legends: Tales of apparitions, outlaws and things unseen, page 7
Sigurður left, found Blákápa, and told her what had transpired.
On hearing this, Blákápa became deeply distressed, saying: “You will now almost certainly die. This ox of which the ogre speaks is a terrible beast, and it will most likely swallow you whole. It grieves me that I cannot save you. I shall help you create a strategy, but I must not go with you. Look for the ox, and when you find it, lay down the tablecloth.” She handed him a small sack containing a powder-like substance. “Spread this on the cloth, and if the ox sniffs at it you must immedi- ately jump onto its back and stab it with a knife to the heart, near the shoulder blade. Hold on no matter where it runs, until it falls down dead. You will have to hold on tight, and even if you manage it there is great risk involved. Now go, and may good fortune be with you.”
Sigurður thanked her, and went on his way. He carried out everything according to her instructions, and with great difficulty managed to slay the ox. He skinned it and removed the horns, then sat down to rest, as he was very weary.
At that point he began to think about how he might perform the other tasks that the ogre had ordered. He saw no way of doing so, and was certain of his own imminent death.
He then thought out loud, speaking these words: “If ever there was a time that I needed my ravens, my seagulls and my doves, this is it.”
In that instant he observed a vast number of birds approaching. They were his birds, in three separate flocks. One flock took the tablecloth, the other the hide, and the third the horns. Then they flew away. Sigurður went home to Blákápa and told her of all that had taken place. She rejoiced at his news, and they slept soundly through the night.
The next morning, they found all the objects that the birds had taken in front of Blákápa’s door, delivered exactly in the condition that the ogre had ordered they should be.
Blákápa handed the objects to Sigurður. “Take these to the ogre today. She will no doubt be startled when she sees them.” She handed him a horn with liquid inside. “If you see her appearance changing, pour some of this on her. Do the same with the others. After that, you can leave with the one you choose.”
Sigurður went to the palace and, as before, waited for the ogre to arrive. When she entered she looked so grotesque that Sigurður could hardly bear to lay eyes on her. She demanded to know what had transpired. He replied that the task she had assigned him had been impossible to carry out, as it would have been for anyone. On hearing this, she flew into a rage and shouted for the other ogresses to chop him into pieces. They rushed outside and swiftly returned with their axes.
At this, Sigurður brought out the objects and showed them to the ogress. All at once a great calm came over her, and she lost consciousness, as did the others. The ogre guises fell away, revealing them all to be lovely maidens.
Sigurður acted quickly. Outside the palace door he lit a large fire, then gathered up the ogre guises and threw them into the flames where they quickly turned to ashes. Next he took out the horn and dripped its contents on each of the maidens. Slowly they awakened, and began to take nourishment.
Then Ingigerður spoke. “Who is this man that has so greatly assisted us?”
Sigurður told her his name and who his people were.
She said: “You have done us an enormous service, one from which I benefit the most. I shall never be able to fully repay it. Choose your reward; I shall not refuse you.”
He praised her for the gesture, and said that he wished to take her for his wife. She said she would make good on her promise, “But first I think you should go and find your father to let him know what has become of you. Surely he and your friends will be sick with concern.”
Sigurður agreed, and began arranging his trip home. It was decided that Ingigerður would wait for his return.
Let us now return to the point in the story when Sigurður vanished. All went as Himinbjörg had foreseen. She was held responsible for his disappearance, and was sentenced to death. Yet the king gave her a three-year period of grace, should there be any news of him. If there was not, she was to be burned to death.
And now, as it happened, everything came together at once: the fire was lit, Himinbjörg was led to it, and Sigurður arrived home.
Everyone was stunned and amazed to see him return, and a momentous feast ensued. Sigurður told of his travels, and Himinbjörg announced that she had, in fact, arranged all so that he would free Ingigerður from the spell, for Ingigerður was her sister. The birds that Sigurður had saved were their relatives, and they had also been under a spell. Much jubilation ensued, ale was drunk in celebration, and Sigurður and the king set off with a vast entourage to fetch Ingigerður.Himinbjörg joined them, and Sigurður wed Ingigerður in the presence of all his kin. They settled down in the kingdom and loved one another very much, enjoying much prosperity and good fortune. Among their descendants are numerous chieftains and dignitaries, which shall not be listed here. And thus ends this story.
Note: The name Himinbjörg, literally translated, means “saviour from the sky,” or “heavenly saviour.”
I hope you have enjoyed this collection of folk stories from Iceland. If you have, please consider giving it a review or rating on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever you share your love of books. All and any help getting the word out is hugely appreciated.
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If you liked these stories, I think you may also enjoy my book The Little Book of the Hidden People - twenty stories of elves from Icelandic folklore, plus notes on their meaning. Read on for a sample.
Sample story from The Little Book of the Hidden People:
The elf adornment
Once in bygone days, all the people from a certain farm went to evensong on New Year’s Eve, save for one maidservant who was made to stay at home to watch over the farm.
Soon after everyone had left, the maidservant heard a commotion and then a knocking at the door. She took a light and went to answer it, and found outside a large group of hidden men and women who invited her to dance with them, which she gratefully accepted. After she had danced for a while, the elves murdered her. She lay dead in the doorway when the other farm residents came home from church.
The same incident repeated itself the following New Year’s Eve. All the farm residents went to church, except for one maidservant who remained at home. After a time she heard a great ruckus, as the other maidservant had. There was a pounding at the door, and outside she found the same visitors as had been there the previous New Years’ Eve. The elves were boisterous in the extreme, and with much glee invited the maiden to dance with them. This ended with the hidden people cutting off her head on the farmhouse threshold, and that is how the farm residents found her when they returned from church.
On the third New Year’s Eve, everyone left the farm as before, except for one maidservant. When the people had gone she swept the floor and placed lights throughout the house wherever possible. Then she sat down to read. After a while she began to hear loud noises and a strange commotion. There was a knocking at the door, but she ignored it and continued reading.
Next the elves came into the baðstofa and tried to entice her to dance. She ignored them. They greatly admired how tidy everything was, and also the determination with which she read her book.
The elves passed the night in the baðstofa, engaged in frenzied dancing. When dawn finally came the maidservant said: “Thank God it is daybreak.” This so shocked the elves that they instantly made to leave. Before going, one of the hidden men placed a chest on the floor, which he asked the maiden to accept. He told her that she should use the adornment contained within it on her wedding day. The elves then vanished and the maiden kept the chest, telling no one of its existence.
A short while later the farm residents returned and were greatly r
Much later, when the maidservant was preparing to wed, she opened the chest as the elves had instructed and found a woman’s dress sewn with gold thread, and a gold ring. She is said to have been exceptionally beautiful in her elf adornment.
From approximately 1300 onward, Icelandic authorities - meaning the church and king - took great pains to ban dancing among the Icelanders. Dancing, they believed, lowered people’s inhibitions and led to all sorts of debauchery, which in the eyes of the authorities was synonymous with unwanted pregnancies. Those had to be avoided at all costs, for the simple reason that there was not enough food to feed everyone already in the world.
Before the ban, dances were among the few opportunities people had to get together and have some fun. One of the most infamous was the Jörfagleði, an annual dance held at the farm Jörfi in Haukadalur. One year, nineteen children are said to have been conceived there, while other reports put that number as high as thirty.
After a couple of centuries of feeble prohibitions, dancing was unequivocally outlawed in Iceland from the early 1700s until the late 1800s. My thought is that stories like this one may have been “floated out there” to warn against the evils of dancing. The propaganda of the day, if you will.
Incidentally, the man who finally succeeded in banning the Jörfagleði events, Jón Magnússon, fell on some seriously hard times after that. He was the local district magistrate and was eventually tried for a variety of crimes, evicted from office, and just barely escaped flogging and execution. He died in complete poverty. The word on the street was that his misfortune was a direct result of the Jörfagleði ban, since he had upset the elves who routinely took part in the celebration. In the end, the story went, the elves had taken a stand with the proletariat against the ruling elite. So in other words the elves were not only enchanting, glamorous and powerful, they were also political.
[From The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir]
I am very much indebted to five people who helped me with this project.
First of all, to the four people who volunteered to be beta readers, and as such provided invaluable comments and insights: Bill Crandall, Giacomo Giudici, Paul Hutchinson and Ted Wenskus. Extra special thanks to my husband, Erlingur Páll Ingvarsson, who designed this book, and whose unfailing help and dedication to this project (including working through a particularly nasty bout of flu) was invaluable. Huge thanks also to the many followers of my Facebook page and blog who got in touch and volunteered to read for me – you rock!
About the Translator
Alda Sigmundsdóttir is a writer, journalist and translator. She was born in Iceland, raised in Canada, and has also lived in Germany, Cyprus and the United Kingdom. She has written extensively about Iceland for the international media and regularly gives talks and lectures about various aspects of Icelandic society. Catch up with Alda on her website aldasigmunds.com, or find her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Other books by Alda Sigmundsdóttir, available in print or as eBooks through Amazon, most eBook retailers, or on aldasigmunds.com:
The Little Book of Icelandic
The Little Book of the Icelanders
The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days
The Little Book of the Hidden People
Unraveled - a Novel About a Meltdown
Living Inside the Meltdown
Alda Sigmundsdóttir, Icelandic Folk Legends: Tales of apparitions, outlaws and things unseen