Field Guide to Iceland’s Mystical Beings — Elves & Trolls – oh my!

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Iceland is beautiful even in winter, with plenty of fun winter activities and the breathtaking Northern Lights to look forward to! Ask us about hotel packages and fantastic airfare to and from the Land of Ice and Fire. 503-224-0180 or email info@wittravel.com. 

Halloween is just around the corner! Let’s take a moment to look at Iceland’s traditional take on ghouls and ghosts. 

Iceland’s belief in elves is well-documented among travelers and news sites. The Atlantic, BBC, and the Guardian all published stories on Iceland’s unique band of elves in the last couple years. But the magical beings in Iceland don’t stop there. There’s a whole host of supernatural creatures in Icelandic mythic repertoire. The cold winters and black nights were perfect breeding grounds for all sorts of fantastical fables. Some scholars believe they began as warnings or scary stories for children…

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Huldufólk

Huldufólk or “Hidden People” are humanoid beings who live in large boulders. Some Icelanders agree that they are synonymous with elves; others, a completely different species. Certain magical areas, called Álagablettur, are said to be enchanted dwelling places for the Huldufólk. They are invisible and rarely show themselves to humans; when they do appear, they have brown hair, nondescript green clothes, and are about the same size as humans. Apparently they are adverse to Christian symbols and electricity. They’ve been known to halt construction projects in protest.
TrollsLegends of trolls, gigantic monsters of nature, are plentiful in Iceland. Trolls represent nature at its most powerful and raw; they are huge, like mountains themselves, with fierce faces. They are greedy, terrifying, if a bit unintelligent. They are creatures of darkness, and a touch of sunlight will transform them into stone instantly. Sea stacks off of Iceland’s coast are often linked to the bodies of trolls, caught in sunlight adn frozen in time. The Vik basalt rock formations are such frozen trolls. Another legend surrounds Dimmuborgir, the lava field with towers of black lava near Lake Myvatn. Local legends speak of a major troll revelry, and the trolls partied so much they fell into a drunken stupor and were caught with the sun came out.

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Gryla and Gróf

Some trolls are so famous they are named. Gróf is a friendly female troll (or ogress), who once befriended a young girl Siggi. Many Icelandic children are told tales of Grýla in childhood. Grýla, a fearsome and ancient ogress, has hooves for feet and thirteen tails. She gave birth to the thirteen Yule Lads who cause mischief around Christmastime every year. She has married three times, dispatching of two of her husbands because they bored her. She has an insatiable hunger for naughty children.

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Water-Dwellers

Several cryptids haunt the waters around Iceland. The Lagarfljót monster lives in the lake Lagarfljót beside the town of Egilsstaðir. In the West Fjords, an evil troll lives on the banks of a small lake. The tale goes that the troll appears as a white horse; but if you dare to ride the horse, you’ll be stuck to it and dragged underneath to a watery grave. The only way to tell it apart from a real horse is by its hooves, which are backwards. There have been claims of sea monsters all around Iceland: the Shore Lad, Sea Man, Shell Monster. The Lyngbakur is a whale giant that devours fishermen. There’s even a museum in the West Fjords, the Skrímslasetrið, that delves into the cultural history and eyewitness accounts of Iceland’s sea monsters.  GhostsLocal folklore is packed with tales of ghosts, undead beings that haunt stables, rivers, houses, graveyards, hillsides–basically anywhere. They appear widespread in sagas (notably Glámr in Gretti’s Saga), as well as modern lore. Ghost tales are stories of unrequited love affairs, children who died too young, heroes cloven in two. Ghosts of drowned men wear damp seawear, young boys wear scarlet-red sweaters. Toddlers who were left out to die appear crying, singing to their alive mothers, wrapped in swaddled blankets. Stop by the Ghost Center, a museum in Stokkseyri devoted to hauntings all over the island, to learn more.

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Sæmundr fróði

There are many renowned warlocks in Icelandic folklore, but none so famous as Sæmundur Sigfússon fróði. “Saemund the Learned” was a semi-legendary scholar, who lived in the 11th and 12th centuries. He studied the Dark Arts, and spent his days tricking the Devil. One story relates how, when he graduated from the Black School, Saemund sewed a leg of lamb into his cloak. As he was about to leave, the Devil reached to grab him but snatched the leg instead. Saemund slipped away to safety.

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Tilberi or Snakkur

Tilberi, or Snakkur as they are also known, are worm-like creatures, born of witchcraft in order to steal milk. The recipe to creature a Tilberi is complex and precise: a wtch must steal a rib from a recently buried body early on Whitsunday. Pluck gray wool from the shoulders of a widow’s sheep, and then twist the gray wool around the bone. For the next three Sundays, the witch will spit sanctified wine on the bundle during communion. After each spit, the tilberi will shudder, until at last springing into life at the end of the third Sunday. The tilberi then is sent to suck milk from cows and ewes in secret. The tilberi jumps on the udder and once full with milk, will cry out “Full belly, Mommy” or “Churn lid off, Mommy.” The witch will then collect the Tilberi and it will vomit the milk into her butter churn. The only way to kill a tilberi is to send it to the mountain to collect lambs’ droppings in three pastures. The tilberi will die because evil creatures cannot tolerate the number three (naturally).

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Yule Lads & Yule Cat

The Yule Lads are thirteen mischievous trolls who cause trouble around Christmas. We’ve covered them extensively in a previous post, which you can read here. The Yule Cat is a humongous cat that lurks around the countryside wth the Yule Lads. It will devour anyone who hasn’t received any new clothes of Cristmas eve. Popularized by the poet Johannes ur Kotlum in his poem Jolaktturrinn.

Have you heard more about spooky tales and mystic beings from folklore around the world? Share with us in the comments!

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