Spooky Icelandic Christmas Stories

The New England Folklorist is on to something:

I wanted to read something wintry to put me in the holiday spirit, so I picked up a collection of Icelandic folklore: J.M. Bedell’s Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends (2016). I thought, “Iceland is cold and snowy, so I’m sure these legends will put me in a Christmas mood.”

Although it doesn’t always work out that way, this time I was right. Not only are these legends set someplace icy and dark, many of them are explicitly about Christmas. However, unlike the stories we tell about Santa, Rudolph, and Mrs. Claus, these Icelandic stories are quite spooky. Apparently really terrible things happen in Iceland during Christmas. Malicious supernatural beings are very active there in late December.

For example, in “The Magicians of the Westmann Islands,” a group of magicians who have fled to an offshore island to escape the plague threaten to kill one of their fellow sorcerers by Christmas Eve if he doesn’t return to them. The lone sorcerer has fallen in love with the last woman in Iceland (everyone else has died from the plague) and refuses to return to the magicians. They send an assortment of demons to kill him on, but happily his beloved defeats them with help from her dead grandfather. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the type of story I usually hear at Christmas here in the United States.

There’s more, of course, so do read it all.

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You Just Don’t Mess with Elves

Via Atlas Obscura:

The “elfin lady stone” was actually covered up back in 2015 after road work was conducted to clear a landslide near the town of Siglufjordur. The rock, which according to local folklore, was sacred to the elves, was buried without the workers even taking much notice. Until the calamities started.

Tolkien notwithstanding, the elves of northern Europe have kind of a shady reputation in folklore. Just saying.

The Yule Lads

Iceland’s Yule Lads get the VIP treatment in an excellent article over at Atlas Obscura introducing a new book on the subject:

Not every beloved holiday tradition escapes its native land. “Unless you are lucky enough to have been born an Icelander, or have lived in Iceland through a Christmas season, you probably won’t have heard of the Yule Lads,” reads The 13 Yule Lads of Iceland, a children’s book by Brian Plinkington, presumably for non-Icelandic kids to learn about the holiday myth.

Here’s something I wrote about the Yule Lads, complete with a video.

Environmental and Historical Preservation of Faery “Homes”

Whether out of respect for faeries, the environment, or history, a number of archeological sites and stunning natural vistas have been preserved in northern Europe, as Melissa Marshall describes in an article at Atlas Obscura titled “Fairy Forts, Dens, & Glens: When Places Are Preserved by Mythical Belief.”

In an effort to avoid the wrath of the fairies, communities of the British Isles and Ireland have protected the fairy “homes,” and as a result have preserved sites of great beauty from development and destruction, which is a kind of magic in itself. Conversely, more than a few lovely spots have become damaged and even threatened with destruction by enthusiastic fairy hunters.

Ireland’s Fairy Forts — more properly known as ring forts — are the remains of strongholds and other dwellings dating back as far as the Iron Age. However, local tradition holds that fairies make their home in these ring forts and terrible luck will come to anyone who participates in their destruction. These folk beliefs seem to only date back to the 12th century, but they were strong enough to allow thousands of ring forts to grow wild as the rest of the land was being cultivated for human use.

In modern times, folk beliefs alone have often not been enough to preserve these archaeological sites. In Iceland, protection of elf homes (elves being supernatural cousins of faeries) is codified into building codes and even made a semi-official vocation at Elf School,  and yet some cynics avow that non-believing environmentalists might be exploiting folk beliefs to protect the island’s pristine eco system.

It’s a very interesting article that addresses the many conflicting motivations—and results—of setting aside certain places “for the faeries.”

Huldras: Scandinavian Wood Nymphs

huldre-bookThe word huldra comes a Scandinavian word “hidden” or “secret.” This word also lies behind the Icelandic term huldufólk, a euphemism used to avoid speaking directly about elves. Huldras are not the same as the bright and benevolent elves of Norse mythology, however. They are, in fact dangerous and seductive woodland sprites.

Huldras appear as stunningly beautiful women who are sometimes dressed in simple peasant garb. They are usually depicted with uncanny or animalistic features when viewed from behind, however. They might have a cow’s tail, for example, and in some stories, they have a hollow or bark-covered back.

In some legends, huldras lure men into the woods for romantic encounters. If a child results, they might reappear to the father to present him with their unearthly child. In other stories, they steal human infants and replace them with their own babies

Sometimes, it seems, a huldra finds true love with a mortal, but the glamour or illusion that conceals her inhuman aspects is broken at her wedding, either when she enters the church or when the priest places his hand on her. At the same time, other stories state that, once married to a Christian man, the huldra will loose her tail but retain her beauty.

Huldras can be fiercly vindictive if they are mistreated or betrayed. They are sometimes depicted with superhuman strength.

Huldras are known by other terms as well. In Norway, she might be called a skogsfru or skovfrue, “lady (or mistress) of the forest.” She might also be called a skogsrå (“forest-guardian”) or Tallemaja (“pine-tree Mary”) in Sweden or, among the Sámi, Ulda. She is likely related to the Germanic myth of Holda, a protectress of agriculture and women’s crafts.

The male counterpart of a huldra is called a huldu or (in Norway) a huldrekarl. By all accounts, the males are often just as seductive—and dangerous—as the females.