Icelandic Folklore | Myths & Creatures

Dimmuborgir lava field by Mývatn.

What are some of the most widely-shared myths from Icelandic folklore, and what fantastical creatures are said to inhabit the island? Do the Icelanders really believe in elves and trolls, and where can you learn more about these ancient stories? 

Walking down the busiest shopping street in Reykjavík, Laugavegur, you’re bound to see souvenir shops selling runic keychains, trollish figurines, and books dedicated to the secretive and spiritual subject of Icelandic folklore. 

Whereas today, these stories – and the strange creatures who populate them – are considered something of a novelty, they were once an essential part of the cultural tapestry that makes up this frostbitten island. 

In some circles, they very much remain so today. 

The auroras over Öxarárfoss Waterfall
Photo: Golli. Northern lights over Öxarárfoss Waterfall

Icelandic folklore is as mixed as the Icelanders’ origins. Overtime, the nature myths of the Norsemen and the Irish became blended together to form new, unique stories and creatures. Following the Christianisation of Iceland that took place around 1000 AD, these myths took on new interpretations, and thus biblical tales were intertwined within them. For example, the famed Icelandic elves, or hidden people, were said to be the descendants of Adam and Eve. 

Regardless of where these myths originated, it is generally agreed that Icelanders personified features of the landscape to serve as warnings to those who might stray too far from civilised society. As almost everyone knows, Iceland’s wilderness is big, untamed, and dangerous; hardly a fitting place to find yourself lost and unprepared. 

In other cases, the presence of fantastical creatures were employed to help convey life-lessons to children. For example, throwing stones was considered off-limits for fear that they might strike the hidden people. 

Who are the Huldufólk, Iceland’s ‘hidden people?’

Turf mounds in Iceland
Photo: Golli. The remains of turf houses in Iceland.

The Huldufólk – hidden people or Álfar in Icelandic – are generally known as elves to Iceland’s foreign guests. Of the many unearthly creatures that are claimed to inhabit this isolated Nordic isle, it is the Huldufólk who have laid the biggest stake in culture. In other words, they are synonymous with Icelandic folklore.

The Huldufólk are humanoids, inhabiting a parallel dimension to our own. Notoriously shy, these creatures have the ability to become visible at will, but it is a gift rarely practised. 

This may have been because of how the early Icelanders viewed this secretive race. In stark contrast to themselves, who were often starved of food and ran ragged by the hardships of daily life, the hidden people were described as beautiful, plump, and of fair-skin, embodying how Icelanders desired themselves to be. 

 

You can learn more about the Huldufólk at the Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavík. This peculiar, thirty-five year old institution offers courses in English that attempt to impart all there is to know about the thirteen known varieties of elves, plus creatures like dwarves, gnomes, trolls, wights, and fairies. 

Lessons are taught by the informed – and some might say eccentric headmaster – Magnus Skarphedinsson, who studied Folklore and Anthropology at the University of Iceland. Attuned to the spirit world, Skarphedinsson is also a founding member of the Paranormal Association of Iceland. 

Do Icelanders believe in trolls? 

Reynisfjara black sand beach on the South Coast in Iceland
Photo: Golli. Reynisfjara black sand beach. The Reynisdrangar columns are said to be trolls frozen in sunlight.

In our modern-age, even people as mystically-inclined as the Icelanders cannot be expected to hold a deep belief in those gigantic monstrosities we know in pop culture as trolls. With that said, trolls do hold a special place in Icelandic folklore, as well as possess various roles throughout the Icelandic sagas. 

In Icelandic, a male troll is actually called a tröll; a female, tröllkana. As a species, their most distinctive feature is their gargantuan size, followed closely by their sometimes malevolent nature. Generally, they are considered of low-intelligence, oafish, and with a penchant for cruelty and greed. Saying that, there are some folk tales that demonstrate their capability for kindness and trustworthiness.

Even today, Icelandic guides are quick to point out unique rock formations that were once trolls that roamed freely across the landscape. One excellent example is the basalt sea stacks, Reynisdrangar, that loom over the coastal village of Vík í Mýrdal. According to the legends, two trolls stole a young woman from her farmstead; when they were chased down by her husband, they attempted to escape out to the sea, where the rising sun froze them in place. 

You will also find ogres in Icelandic folklore, considered the ugly cousin of trolls (if, indeed, such a thing is possible.) While both are large and brutish in appearance, the one major difference is that trolls will freeze in the sunlight, while ogres do not. 

Who are the Christmas Yule Lads? 

 

 

Father Christmas, or Santa Claus, is something of an abstract notion to Icelanders. Well, abstract might be a tad over zealous – they certainly know of the jolly bearded fellow, but he does not happen to fit into their own Christmas traditions

In his place would be the thirteen Yule Lads; ugly, mischievous, but ultimately lovable characters who are the descendants of the ogres, Grýla and Leppalúði. 

One by one, the Yules Lads visit Icelandic homes every night preceding Christmas day. Naturally, each Yule Lad has been donned their own memorable name, taken from the strange behaviour which they cannot seem to help but fall into when left to their own devices. We have listed them in the order of appearance: 

  • December 12 – Sheep-Cote-Clod (Stekkjastaur)     
  • December 13 – Gully Gawk (Giljagaur)
  • December 14 – Stubby (Stúfur)   
  • December 15 – Spoon-Licker (Þvörusleikir) 
  • December 16 – Pot-Scraper (Pottaskefill)   
  • December 17 – Bowl-Licker (Askasleikir) 
  • December 18 – Door-Slammer (Hurðaskellir)   
  • December 19 – Skyr-Gobbler (Skyrgámur)
  • December 20 – Sausage-Swiper (Bjúgnakrækir)     
  • December 21 – Window-Peeper (Gluggagægir) 
  • December 22 – Doorway-Sniffer (Gáttaþefur)     
  • December 23 – Meat-Hook (Ketkrókur)
  • December 24 – Candle-Stealer (Kertasníkir) 
christmas cat
Photo: Golli. The Christmas Cat in downtown Reykjavík

Who are the Yule Lads’ family?

 

Speaking of Christmas traditions, this article would be remiss not to delve a little deeper into Grýla and her third-husband, Leppalúði. Grýla is a particularly nasty ogress obsessed with cooking badly-behaved children in her cooking pot, all while her lazy husband, Leppalúði, remains at home, grumpily keeping himself occupied with less physical pursuits. 

This rather unromantic pair are said to live in a lava field called Dimmuborgir, which is found closeby to Lake Mývatn in North Iceland. They share their home with a huge and vicious feline called the Yule Cat, known for prowling the snowy countryside on its hunt for any children who have not received an item of clothing by the time Xmas Eve rolls around. Anyone travelling in Reykjavík during the festive period will see a lit up replica of the Yule Cat at Lækjartorg, the main intersection downtown.

Are there any famous Icelandic ghost stories?

Photo: Golli. Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck

As with anywhere that boasts a turbulent ancient history, the Icelanders possess their share of ghost stories. They make up a crucial part of Icelandic folklore in general. 

The fact such spooky tales have proliferated so widely should be obvious given the darkness of the winter landscape, the omnipresent howling of the wind, the wide, desolate landscapes and supernaturally-suspicious character of its people. 

So, with that being said, what are the most famous ghost stories to have originated from Iceland?

Dear Mother, in a pen, a pen

Icelandic sheep
Photo: Golli. Sheep in Iceland.

One of their most terrifying ghost stories is called Dear mother, in a pen, a pen and deals with what’s known as útburður, or a child ghost

The tale begins when a maid at a local farmstead gives birth to an unwanted baby. As was commonly practised during Iceland’s pagan era, the child was abandoned to the outside wilderness; a harsh, unusual, but seemingly logical choice for young mothers hoping to avoid judgement, and even punishment, from the local community. 

Not long after this heinous act had been committed, the nearby village planned to hold a celebration filled with round-dancing and singing, known as Vikivaki. While the maid was invited to attend, she realised she had no clothes befitting of the occasion, and so turned down the offer. 

Sheep at the farm
Photo: Golli. The sheep of Kvíaholt farm

In the hours before the Vikivaki was scheduled to take place, the maid was attending to her owner’s ewes with another woman in the family’s employ. The maid could not help but lament the fact her lack of clothing meant she would miss the dance, so complained openly about it. It was at that moment that, from beneath the wall attached to the ewe’s pen, a soft voice sang out to her from the shadows:

Dear mother, in a pen, a pen,

do not worry about it because, because

I’ll lend you my rag

to dance in

and dance in.

Knowing all too well who it was that sang out to her, the mother was struck with utter terror. Her dead child mocked her from the darkness, and as such, her horror would never be shaken. She was deemed insane for the remainder of her days, haunted by an act that was, unfortunately, not without precedence in heathen Iceland. 

The Deacon of Dark River  

The Icelandic Horse, Iceland
Photo: Golli. Horses in Iceland.

Another terrifying local ghost story originates from Hörgárdalur Valley in North Iceland. The protagonist of this narrative is a young woman named Guðrún. A housemaid at a farmstead called Bægisá. Her lover, a deacon, lived closeby. Across the Hörgá river at another farm called Myrká, translating to “Dark River.”

As was common among romantic partners at the time, the deacon crossed this river to invite Guðrún to a Christmas party at Myrká. She agreed, but as the deacon returned home, he was swallowed by the freezing glacial water of the river. He swiftly drowned. The deacon’s corpse was quickly discovered by a local farmer, who buried the body at Myrká’s graveyard. 

Guðrún, who was unaware that any accident had taken place, waited for the deacon’s return. He had promised to personally escort her to the party. She was so excited to see her lover again that she ran out of the house having only placed one arm into the sleeve of her coat. 

Oddly enough – but apparently, expected for her – the deacon made good on his promise. He arrived on the back of his horse, Faxi. As she climbed atop his steed, the reader cannot help but wonder whether Guðrún felt something was strange about their rendezvous. The deacon’s head was shielded by a dark cloak and wide-brimmed hat.

An icelandic horse at sunset
Photo: Dagmar Trodler. An Icelandic horse at dusk

On the ride to Myrká, the horse approached the Hörgá river, only to stumble and jostle its riders. This disruption caused the deacon’s hat to slip off his head, exposing Guðrún to the bare white skull that lay beneath. It was, at that moment, the deacon whispered:

The Deacon’s poem…   

The moon fades, death rides. 

Don’t you see a white spot 

on the back of my head, 

Garún, Garún? 

This mispronunciation of her name – Garún instead of Guðrún – was enough to tell the young maid all that happened. In Christian Iceland, it was widely known that the undead could not say the word God, or Guð, out loud for fear of bringing about divine wrath upon themselves. Realising his deceit had been rumbled, the deacon rapidly redirected his horse towards the graveyard at Myrká. 

Water filling in a volcanic rift.
Photo: Golli. A volcanic rift filled with water.

Upon arriving, Guðrún saw an open grave. The ghost of the deacon wasted no time trying to drag her into it. Unfortunately for him, he grabbed at the empty sleeve of Guðrún’s coat, thus allowing her to escape. The deacon recognised his error. He flew back into the grave, and the soil laid itself flat atop him. Panicked, Guðrún rang the church bell, calling out for help from the local village. 

The story does not end there. Guðrún was haunted by what she had seen. So, a sorcerer from Skagafjörður was brought in to help exorcise her nightly terrors. Once the exorcism was complete, an enormous rock was placed over the top of the grave. And so, the deacon was forever prevented from escaping. 

Anyone travelling in Hörgárdalur valley can visit these locations today, including Bægisá and Myrká farmsteads, as well as see the rock that, supposedly, covers the deacon’s grave. 

What other mythical creatures exist in Iceland’s folklore? 

An arctic fox on a beach in Hornstrandir, Westfjords.
Photo: Golli. An arctic fox on a beach in Hornstrandir, Westfjords.

Elves, trolls, and their otherworldly off-spring are considered – for lack of better words – the key players when it comes to the central characters of Icelandic folklore. Still, there are various other creatures, monsters, and races you’ll find within these tales.

Sea Monsters 

The wreck of a longship
Photo. Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, Facebook

As an island nation, the Icelanders are renowned for their prowess when it comes to seafaring and fishing. In ancient times, the world’s populations were often devoid of widely-accepted scientific knowledge. Thus, their relationship with the ocean tended to go hand-in-hand with a very real belief in sea monsters.

In the west, the best known sea-monster tends to be the eponymous kraken. A monolithic squid-like creature, with tentacles so enormous they are capable of wrapping themselves around doomed ships.  Another could be H.P Lovecraft’s demented Old God, Cthulhu. Naturally, Icelanders had their own interpretations of the horrifying beasts that swam beneath the surface. They can be broken down into four species:

What are the most common sea monsters in Icelandic folklore?

 

The best-known are the Fjorulalli, otherwise called shore laddies or beach walkers. Resembling something between a beaver and a wolf, these quadrupeds are said to grow brownish fur. Their bodes have barnacles and mussels spotted atop it. Generally herbivorous, there are some stories that claim Fjorulalli sometimes feed on sheep, and more worryingly, pregnant women. 

Next up are the Hafmaður, or mermen. Unlike the handsome characters we see in films like Aquaman or The Little Mermaid, Hafmaður were considered bulging, fleshy monstrosities, with thin, peering eyes and wide, fish-like mouths. Seeing a Hafmaður was thought to be an ill-omen, signalling the coming of tempests and a great-loss of life. 

 

Another well-known Icelandic sea monster is the Skeljaskrimsli, or shell monster. It is said to be about the size of a hippo and covered in shiny black scales, often draped with seaweed. Among its talents, the Skeljaskrimsli can spit burning poison on any fisherman foolish enough to net one. They also have long claws capable of anchoring themselves on rocks during sea storms.

Finally, there is the Faxaskrimsli, or combed seahorse. This peculiar creature resembles a dragon with its long neck, broad muzzle, and sharp teeth. Seeing one of these terrifying animals galloping along the shoreline was a sure sign to flee the area quickly. For the Faxaskrimsli have never been known for diplomacy, opting instead to drag their prey deep to the ocean bed.

Where can I learn more about sea monsters in Iceland?

 

Aside from these, it’s also good to be aware that Iceland has its own lake monsters as well. These are somewhat akin to the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland. The various creatures include the wyrm that is said to reside in Lake Lagarfljót, close to Egilsstaðir in East Iceland. And the monstrous whale that lives within Kleifarvatn Lake on the Reykjanes Peninsula. 

You can learn far more about these ocean-dwelling cryptids at the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, found in Bildudalur village in the Westfjords, as well as other stories from Iceland folklore. 

In Summary 

People around a campfire.
Photo: Golli. Campfire near Reykjavík

Looking to learn more about Icelandic folklore? There is a huge amount of literature dedicated to local myths and legends. 

One of the best sources is Icelandic Folk Tales and Fairytales, written by the teacher, librarian, and museum director, Jón Árnason (1819 – 1888.) Having been inspired by Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Jón set about compiling his own collection of locally-sourced folk stories, transcribing the many word-of-mouth stories shared with him by students and colleagues.

While it attracted little attention at the time, his survey would go on to inspire J.R.R Tolkien, who used it as a basis for his own elven races in The Lord of the Rings.  

A man reading in a book shop corner.
Photo: Golli. A man reading in a book shop corner.

Another great way to discover the mythologies is to take a fun and informative guided tour. For example, this Private Folklore & Food Walking Tour not only allows you to visit sites related to Icelandic fantasies, but also taste-test traditional culinary treats, fully immersing you in this island’s rich and historic culture.

Another option might be this Reykjavík Folklore Walking Tour, which will take you to the great variety of folk-related sites in Iceland’s capital. 

Of Lamb and Legends

Valdimar Jóhannsson

Valdimar Jóhannsson is not a man of many words, preferring a visual medium to express himself. That’s what shaped his whole approach to his first feature film, Lamb. Years in the making, the film premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section, winning the Originality Prize, going on to garner accolades and become a sleeper hit all over the world. At the time of writing, the film is longlisted for a BAFTA nomination, shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, and has become the highest-grossing Icelandic film ever screened in the US. But it all started with a simple sketch outlining a fantastical figure – a new addition to Iceland’s folklore.

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