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Monthly Archives: December 2018

Jólakötturinn

Jólakötturinn

Other Names: Christmas Cat, Yule Cat

The Jólakötturinn or Yule Cat is a monstrous feline heralding from Icelandic folklore. It is a huge and fear some cat that stalks the countryside of Iceland during the month of December. Those unfortunate enough to cross paths with the Yule Cat and who have not received a new article of clothing by Christmas Eve will find themselves eaten.

Description

The Yule Cat is a black cat who is able to grow in size in order to feed on its victims. When huge, the Yule Cat towers over the tallest homes as it prowls the Icelandic countryside during Christmas night. It will look through windows to see who has gotten new clothes or not.

The Yule Cat is infamously the ogress Grýla’s pet. Grýla herself is known for terrorizing and eating children who misbehave, especially at Christmas time. Her sons, the Yule Lads started off not being much better with their variety of mischief and pranks they cause.

Dark Ages – Autumn Wool

According to one source, a monstrous cat eating people comes from farmers using this threat to give incentive to their workers to get the autumn wool in before Christmas. Those who did so would receive new clothes, while those who didn’t would fall victim to the Yule Cat.

This belief is also likely a way to explain that those who don’t have good warm clothing to protect against the cold of Iceland’s winters weren’t likely to survive.

Jólasveinarnir

 The Yule Cat Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem describes and makes popular the Yule Cat who eats those who don’t receive new clothing before Christmas.

The following is Kötlum’s poem in English:

You all know the Yule Cat

And that Cat was huge indeed.

People didn’t know where he came from

Or where he went.

 

He opened his glaring eyes wide,

The two of them glowing bright.

It took a really brave man

To look straight into them.

 

His whiskers, sharp as bristles,

His back arched up high.

And the claws of his hairy paws

Were a terrible sight.

 

He gave a wave of his strong tail,

He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.

Sometimes up in the valley,

Sometimes down by the shore.

 

He roamed at large, hungry and evil

In the freezing Yule snow.

In every home

People shuddered at his name.

 

If one heard a pitiful “meow”

Something evil would happen soon.

Everybody knew he hunted men

But didn’t care for mice.

 

He picked on the very poor

That no new garments got

For Yule – who toiled

And lived in dire need.

 

From them he took in one fell swoop

Their whole Yule dinner

Always eating it himself

If he possibly could.

 

Hence it was that the women

At their spinning wheels sat

Spinning a colorful thread

For a frock or a little sock.

 

Because you mustn’t let the Cat

Get hold of the little children.

They had to get something new to wear

From the grownups each year.

 

And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve

And the Cat peered in,

The little children stood rosy and proud

All dressed up in their new clothes.

 

Some had gotten an apron

And some had gotten shoes

Or something that was needed

– That was all it took.

 

For all who got something new to wear

Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp

He then gave an awful hiss

But went on his way.

 

Whether he still exists I do not know.

But his visit would be in vain

If next time everybody

Got something new to wear.

 

Now you might be thinking of helping

Where help is needed most.

Perhaps you’ll find some children

That have nothing at all.

 

Perhaps searching for those

That live in a lightless world

Will give you a happy day

And a Merry, Merry Yule.

 

Christmas Tradition

It goes without saying, that in Iceland, families will be sure to give gifts of new and warm clothing for Christmas. If not, the Yule Cat is sure to catch and eat that person.

Further, children are encouraged to finish their chores before Christmas to receive new clothing or else face the Yule Cat’s hunger if they failed to do so. Though sometimes the Yule Cat will just eat a child’s diner, so they go to bed hungry or just take their gifts.

Making sure that no one gets eaten by the Yule Cat, giving clothes to the less fortunate as a means to promote generosity is done in Iceland.

So, the next time you receive socks or a sweater for Christmas from that one relative, just remember, they love you and don’t want the Yule Cat to eat you.

Jólabókaflóð – The Yule Book Flood

Alright, so it’s not related to cats, unless you’re forever dealing with one who wants to sit in your lap while reading…

Starting in WWII, comes the Icelandic tradition of buying books and then exchanging them on Christmas Eve. The night is then spent reading books with people taking their book with them to bed and eating chocolate.

Can’t argue with that tradition, especially if you’re a book lover!

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Jólasveinar

Yule Lads

Other Names: Jólasveinar, Yule Lads, Yuletide-Lads, Yulemen

These mischievous pranksters are the present bringers in Iceland, not Santa Claus. Not one Santa Claus, it’s thirteen! How exciting is that!

Though, the Yule Lads didn’t always start off so friendly. These lads used to work for their mother, Grýla to help her hunt down naughty children as well as wreak all sorts of havoc and mischief during the long, dark winter days. The oldest versions and stories of the Yule Lads come from East Iceland.

Dimmuborgir

This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.

Reykjavik – This is another place that the Yule Lads can be spotted around in December. This place serves more a tourist destination where there’s a game to find all the Yule Lads and visit the local Troll Garden to sit in Grýla’s cauldron.

Descriptions

The descriptions of the Yule Lads have varied over time. In their pre-Christmas descriptions, they are troll-like beings who have no torsos.

Later, when they became more associated with Christmas, the Yule Lads would dress much like the American and European Santa in all red garments. Another push was made to have the Yule Lads dress in a more traditional medieval Icelandic garments in an effort to push away from the often overly commercialized versions of Santa and Christmas that are seen.

Family

Grýla – The infamous Icelandic Christmas Ogress or Trolless is the mother of the Yule Lads, it would explain so much of their behavior. Grýla is known for eating misbehaving children and goes out in search of them at Christmas time.

Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.

Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder then, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.

The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young, still needing a crib.

Dark Winter Spirits

This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. As it concerns the Yule Lads, in the beginning their number varied wildly. The Yule Lads and their mother, Grýla in their pre-Christmas traditions, represented the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.

Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.

The Yule Lads at this time were portrayed as being trolls with no torso who would come down to the various villages and towns to cause havoc and chaos with their pranks or to outright carry off naughty children to their mother to feast on. The Yule Lads were just some of the many dangerous, unpredictable spirits and supernatural entities that wandered the countryside during winter.

Christianity – This religion was introduced to Iceland around 1000 C.E. after the King of Norway made a decree that everyone should convert to Christianity and sent out missionaries to the island nation. As with many ancient customs and traditions, the people weren’t that ready and willing to give up all their beliefs. As the Icelandic traditions and those of the introduced Christianity began to merge, one of the many points of note was a change to the calendar that shifted from the old Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar.

Sometime during the 1500’s and up to the 1700’s, the Julian Calendar was beginning to fall out of step and the celebration of the Winter Solstice was occurring on December 13th. As more European countries made the shift to the Gregorian Calendar, it placed the Winter Solstice back to the 21st. The change of calendars also so some 13 to 14 days getting removed.

For Iceland, many people didn’t like this and still wanted to celebrate December 13th as the Winter Solstice or Jól. To have the two traditions Iceland and Christianity merge more easily, the thirteen days of Christmas with the Yule Lads coming to visit began to form, starting from the eve of December 12th and stretching out all the way to the 25th and beyond to January 6th with Epiphany as the Yule Lads come visiting and then depart, back up to the mountains.

In the 16th century, a law was put into place that: “All disorderly and scandalous entertainment at Christmas and other times and Shrovetide revels are strongly forbidden on pain of serious punishment.” Parents still used the stories of Grýla and the Yule Lads coming to carry away naughty children during Wintertime and at Christmas. Things got so bad that in 1746, parents were forbidden and banned from using these stories to scare their children. It’s shortly after this, that the imagery of the Yule Lads would begin to further change.

Huldufólk – According to folklorist, Skarphéðinsson, the Yule Lads are the Huldufólk or the hidden people who live in Iceland right along humans, just another dimension that can’t be seen.

If you go for the Christian connection to religion and folktales, the Huldufólk were the dirty, strange and unusual children of Eve that she hid from God. When they were discovered, these children were sent to another world or dimension. Other ideas are that the Huldufólk are actually Fallen Angels.

Christmas Associations

Once the Yule Lads began to be associated with the celebration of Christmas, their image softened so that instead of being more malicious troll spirits that cause havoc and chaos, they became more benevolent. They’re still pranksters and the imagery saw them become more humanized to be half-troll figures.

The Thirteen Days Of Christmas – Yes, instead of one day of presents, children in Iceland get eight thirteen crazy nights!

The Yule Lads arrive during the thirteen days of Christmas, coming one at a time. Once December 25th comes, the Yule Lads depart back to their mountain home in the order that they arrived until the last day of January 6th, Epiphany.

Borrowing from Dutch tradition, children place a shoe out on their window sills during the thirteen nights of Christmas leading up to Christmas Day. In the hopes of receiving a gift or treat, children leave out small snacks for the Yule Lads such as laufabrauð (“leaf bread”), this is a thin, crisp flatbread. If a child has been good, they will receive a present or treat in their shoe. If a child has been particularly naughty, they will receive a rotten potato in their shoe.

If you ask me, that’s much better than getting carted away to their mother, Grýla to be eaten.

The Thirteen Yule Lads

The number of Yule Lads has varied over the years with as many as 82 and in more recent times with the 20th century, that number settled on there being thirteen. As the stories go, the Yule Lads live up in the mountains and come down in December during the Thirteen Days of Christmas. As there are thirteen of these lads, the various names they possess also speak of their particular quirk, feature or talent they have.

Jólasveinarnir – The Yule Lads Poem was written by the poet, Jóhannes úr Kötlum in 1932, this poem is still a popular piece recited each year in many homes and schools during December. This poem is where the Thirteen Yule Lads were made cannon for Iceland’s Christmas Tradition. The English translation of the poem is done by Hallberg Hallmundsson.

The sections below in italics are Kötlum’s poem in English.

Stekkjastaur – Sheep-Cote Clod (Or Stiff Legs)

Arrives: 12 December

Leaves: 25 December

The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.

He came stiff as wood,

to prey upon the farmer’s sheep

as far as he could.

He wished to suck the ewes,

but it was no accident

he couldn’t; he had stiff knees

– not too convenient.

 

Giljagaur – Gully Gawk

Arrives: 13 December

Leaves: 26 December

The second was Gully Gawk,

gray his head and mien.

He snuck into the cow barn

from his craggy ravine.

Hiding in the stalls,

he would steal the milk, while

the milkmaid gave the cowherd

a meaningful smile.

 

Stúfur – Stubby

Arrives: 14 December

Leaves: 27 December

Stubby was the third called,

a stunted little man,

who watched for every chance

to whisk off a pan.

And scurrying away with it,

he scraped off the bits

that stuck to the bottom

and brims – his favorites.

 

Þvörusleikir – Spoon-Licker

Arrives: 15 December

Leaves: 28 December

The fourth was Spoon Licker;

like spindle he was thin.

He felt himself in clover

when the cook wasn’t in.

Then stepping up, he grappled

the stirring spoon with glee,

holding it with both hands

for it was slippery.

 

Pottaskefill – Pot-Scraper

Arrives: 16 December

Leaves: 29 December

Pot Scraper, the fifth one,

was a funny sort of chap.

When kids were given scrapings,

he’d come to the door and tap.

And they would rush to see

if there really was a guest.

Then he hurried to the pot

and had a scraping fest.

 

Askasleikir – Bowl-Licker

Arrives: 17 December

Leaves: 30 December

Bowl Licker, the sixth one,

was shockingly ill bred.

From underneath the bedsteads

he stuck his ugly head.

And when the bowls were left

to be licked by dog or cat,

he snatched them for himself

– he was sure good at that!

As a side note, askur is a type of dish that Icelanders would eat from and keep under the bed as a means of storing it.

 

Hurðaskellir – Door-Slammer

Arrives: 18 December

Leaves: 31 December

The seventh was Door Slammer,

a sorry, vulgar chap:

When people in the twilight

would take a little nap,

he was happy as a lark

with the havoc he could wreak,

slamming doors and hearing

the hinges on them squeak.

 

Skyrgámur – Skyr-Gobbler

Arrives: 19 December

Leaves: 1 January

Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,

was an awful stupid bloke.

He lambasted the skyr tub

till the lid on it broke.

Then he stood there gobbling

– his greed was well known –

until, about to burst,

he would bleat, howl and groan.

Skyr is a type of yogurt found in Iceland.

 

Bjúgnakrækir – Sausage Swiper

Arrives: 20 December

Leaves: 2 January

The ninth was Sausage Swiper,

a shifty pilferer.

He climbed up to the rafters

and raided food from there.

Sitting on a crossbeam

in soot and in smoke,

he fed himself on sausage

fit for gentlefolk.

 

Gluggagægir – Window-Peeper

Arrives: 21 December

Leaves: 3 January

The tenth was Window Peeper,

a weird little twit,

who stepped up to the window

and stole a peek through it.

And whatever was inside

to which his eye was drawn,

he most likely attempted

to take later on.

 

Gáttaþefur – Doorway Sniffer

Arrives: 22 December

Leaves: 4 January

Eleventh was Door Sniffer,

a doltish lad and gross.

He never got a cold, yet had

a huge, sensitive nose.

He caught the scent of lace bread

while leagues away still

and ran toward it weightless

as wind over dale and hill.

 

Ketkrókur – Meat-Hook

Arrives: 23 December

Leaves: 5 January

Meat Hook, the twelfth one,

his talent would display

as soon as he arrived

on Saint Thorlak’s Day.

He snagged himself a morsel

of meat of any sort,

although his hook at times was

a tiny bit short.

I’m a told a favorite meat is lamb. The 23rd is also St. Thorlak’s Day, the patron saint of Iceland.

 

Kertasníkir – Candle Beggar (Or Candle Stealer)

Arrives: 24 December

Leaves: 6 January

The thirteenth was Candle Beggar

– ‘twas cold, I believe,

if he was not the last

of the lot on Christmas Eve.

He trailed after the little ones

who, like happy sprites,

ran about the farm with

their fine tallow lights.

Candles at this time, were once made of tallow and thus edible. It is little wonder that Candle Beggar is often the most favorite of the Yule Lads and seen as being the most generous as he comes on the last day just before Christmas. Some children will leave a candle out for Kertasnikir next to their shoe.

Lost Yule Lads & Lasses

More recent times sees the Yule Lads numbering as thirteen in all. This wasn’t always so and there were a few others, that were once part of their number.

Flórsleikir – His name translates as “dung channel licker.” Luckily this has something to do with the channel in the cowshed.

Flotsokka – One of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!

Flotnös – The second of two sisters who would place a piece of fat on a half-knitted sock or stuff a piece of fat up her nose. Eww!?!

Lampshadow – He would go and put out all of the lights.

Litlipungur – His name translates to mean “small balls”. What he did, I’m not sure I want to know.

Lungnaslettir – Or Lung Flapper, he gets his name from his penchant for walking around with a set of still wet sheep lungs and hitting anyone who gets in his way.

Smoke Gulper – He would sit on the roof and swallow the smoke coming from the chimney.

Bunch of weirdos.

Grýla

Grýla

Etymology – “Growler,” “Threat” or “Threatening,” possibly “Bugbear”

Grýla is the name of a popular and famous Christmas Witch, Ogress or Troll found in Icelandic traditions. Stories and imagery for Grýla can also be found in the Faroe Islands. She is used by parents to scare naughty children into behaving.

The earliest translation for Grýla’s name, likely comes from the Sverris saga in the late 1100’s where the author has a section titled Grýla and goes on to explain that it means: “Bugbear.”

Dimmuborgir

This is reportedly the home of the fierce some Grýla, Leppalúði and the Yule Lads. It is a labyrinth field of lava in North Iceland.

Descriptions

This ogress lives up in the mountains of Iceland. She is said to have hooves for feet and thirteen tails. Always in a foul temper with an insatiable hunger, especially for children, Grýla will descend from her mountain in search of bad children. She will put the children into a large sack to carry back up to her mountain cave to boil alive in a stew.

The descriptions for Grýla vary widely as some accounts saying she is half troll, half animal, that she has 300 heads with three eyes on each head. Other accounts will say she has bad nails, fangs, eyes in the back of her head and horns like a goat, that her ears hang down to her shoulders and are tied to her nose. Further accounts will say her chin is bearded and that her teeth are black like charcoal.

Grýla is described as having the ability to detect naughty children all year-round. It is during Christmas time that she will come down from her mountain home to find naughty children in local towns to take back and boil alive in her cauldron. Those children who have behaved or who have repented of their misdeeds, Grýla is unable to take or must release.

Snorri Edda – Written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson, Grýla is among the names of female trolls listed in his saga. Grýla is a cannibalistic mountain ogre or troll. Even in this early writing, Grýla is used to scare bad children into behaving lest she come down from her mountain cave to devour them. Sturluson’s Sage, Grýla has fifteen tails and on each tail, there are a hundred ballons and each balloon holds twenty children.

Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar – “The Folklore of Jón Árnason” gives a description of both Grýla and her husband, Leppalúði. Both of these fiends are cannibalistic trolls who mostly prey on children. Found within the Folklore of Jón Árnason, is a poem that mentions both Grýla  and Leppalúði having nineteen children.

Family

Spouses

Grýla has had three different husbands. Out of boredom or spite, she killed her first two husbands.

 Gustur – This is the name of Grýla’s first husband whom she killed and ate out of boredom.

 Boli – This is the name of Grýla’s second husband with whom she bore many children with. Boli is noted as having been a cannibal and died of old age. Sometimes Grýla kills and eats him too.

Leppalúði – He is Grýla’s current and third husband and the father of the Yule Lads. Leppalúði is known for being very lazy. He lives in their cave found in the Dimmuborgir lava fields. Aside from the Yule Lads, Grýla and Leppalúði also have twenty other children.

Leppalúði had an affair with a girl by the name of Lúpa while Grýla was very ill and bedridden for an entire year. The girl, Lúpa was to play nurse to Grýla while she was sick. It’s no small wonder than, that when Grýla finds out that Leppalúði and Lúpa had an affair, resulting in a son by the name of Skröggur, that the trolless would become enraged and drive the girl and her son off from the cave.

The last children Grýla had with Leppalúði, when she was 50 years old, were twins. The twins died very young and still needing a crib.

Children

Having been married a few times, Grýla has some 72 children who are responsible for a variety of mischief and trouble. All ranging from harmless pranks to outright murder.

JólasveinarnirThe Yule Lads, in the 17th century, when Grýla became associated with Christmas, she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. There are 13 Yule Lads who started off causing all sorts of mischief and trouble. Overtime and influenced by the American Santa Claus tradition, the Yule Lads became associated with gift giving and will leave either a gift of sweets ore a rotten potato in a shoe left on the window sill depending on a child’s behavior.

JólakötturinnThe Yule Cat, as if children aren’t enough, Grýla also has a monstrous giant black cat for a pet. The Yule Cat will prey upon children and adults alike who have not received the gift of a new article of clothing. The Yule Cat will swell to a monstrous size before tearing apart its victim. So make sure your Nana or favorite Aunt has sent you a new article of clothing for Christmas. Even if it’s a pink bunny outfit, it will keep the Yule Cat from eating you!

Dark Winter Spirits

This ties into why Grýla is said to have so many children. With Grýla’s pre-Christmas traditions, she and all her numerous children are the dark, dangerous and capricious spirits of Winter. This time of the year, the weather is colder, the nights longer and it’s just more treacherous to go out into the wilderness if one is not prepared or wary.

Jól – The midwinter holiday that predates the modern Christmas, marks a time of people gathering together to feast and celebrate family both living and deceased. This older holiday is generally darker as elves, trolls and other mystical creatures that inhabit the Icelandic countryside are also out and would sometimes come to visit homes and farms, often as masked figures.

The character of Grýla was certainly one of these dark, spooky spirits who would come down from the mountains as a personification of Winter and the danger that comes with it. Another point of note, given Grýla’s insatiable appetite, is that she is closely related to the fear of hunger that the long, dark winter months can bring.

Christmas Associations

Grýla became associated with the Icelandic celebrations for Christmas in the 17th century. At this time, she was given the role of being the mother of the Yule Lads who bring either a gift or a rotten potato. When children get so frightened of going out for fear of being eaten that the government has to step in and ban parents from using Grýla as a fear tactic, you know you have a really scary badass that you just don’t mess with.

It has been suggested by Terry Gunnell that the tradition of Grýla may come from that of the Julebukk or Yule Goat and that her name may mean “threat” or “threatening.”

In her role as a Christmas Ogre, Grýla still hunts out misbehaving children to kidnap and eat. Later stories will sometimes have Grýla and Leppalúði die from starvation as they’re unable to find any naughty children. Though occasionally the two aren’t averse to eating adults either.

A more modern convention of the twentieth century, Grýla’s sons, the Yule Lads image softened and became more friendlier, adopting some of the Dutch tradition of leaving a shoe out so that the Lads could leave a gift if a child was good and a rotten potato if a child was bad in the thirteen days leading up to Christmas.

The Onion

A satirical news site, The Onion blamed the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Grýla.