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  • Writer's pictureDanni Petrilak

Grýla The Icelandic Christmas Witch



Artistic depiction of Gryla holding a candle on a white background
Image by: Sacred Chaotic Geometry

Yule is a popular celebration observed by Germanic people and modern pagans. In the Northern Hemisphere, it’s celebrated from December 21st aligning with the winter solstice, with the festivities lasting up to 12 days. Yule’s customs began in Scandinavia before Christianity absorbed its festivities and many other pagan traditions into the widespread, well-known Christian holiday of Christmas during the 10th century. 


According to an article from Britannica,

"It is generally agreed that Yule celebrations began as a Norse festival called jol…Like most winter solstice festivals, themes of light, fire, and feasting are common threads. Some historians think that sacrifices were an important part of the observance, either to the gods and other supernatural beings (Alison Eldridge).” 

Yule was first referred to in the early 8th century in a written document by a monk known as Bede while discussing the shorter days during the winter solstice as it approached (Eldridge). 


Depending on personal preference, Yule can be celebrated with modern re-creations of ancient traditions, or reimagined beliefs and practices. The most popular tradition is the Yule Log. According to a resource from the St. Tammany Perish, the Yule log was placed in a hearth and burned throughout the festivities, lasting as long as 12 days, to symbolize luck and good fortune. Today, people who don’t have a fireplace can still partake in the tradition by watching a televised broadcast of a log burning or instead, decorating a sponge cake to look like a log in honor of the custom (STPL).


The holidays are celebrated differently all across the globe, and depending on culture, traditions vary as well. It is widely believed that the Norse and Germanic peoples coined many of the Christmas traditions Christians hold near and dear to their hearts today. From Father Christmas taking inspiration from Odin, the all-father, believed to be the original Santa due to his complexion, and his eight-legged horse Sleipnir as they delivered gifts from the night sky, to even the Christmas tree, as the Vikings believed evergreen trees were special plants from the sun god, Balder, which represented new life, and the promise of spring appearing on the horizon (How the Vikings Gave Us Christmas).


My story, Yuletide Carols, takes place in Iceland. It is widely believed based on settlements and writings that the original settlers of Iceland ranged from Irish Monks in 330 B.C. to Norseman and Scandinavian sailors by A.D. 930, when Iceland was officially considered settled. For the holidays, they’d follow much of the traditional Yule celebrations, even as we approached the modern day, they just have a few more iconic characters to represent aside from St. Nick and his reindeer (Shahin).


Even around the festivities, children didn’t get a break from the horror stories told by parents in attempts to get them to behave. The Icelandic equivalent of the Bogeyman, Grýla the Cannibal--later coined Grýla the Christmas Witch--originated in 13th century Iceland. Much like the Bubák from the last episode, the Icelandic witch would knock on doors, beg, trick, or trade parents for their naughty children, and take them to her home in a large sack. Instead of merely punishing those who didn't behave throughout the year, she had one driving force: she’d cook them up and eat them (Iceland). 


She was different from other holiday tales like Krampus or St. Nicholas; the people of Iceland believed she could sense if a child had been bad at any point of the year, and simply wanted to find the tastiest one. An article from Medium states that the more disobedient the child was over the year, the better their flesh tasted to her. If she knocked on a family’s door, parents could chase her away or offer her food to force her to leave their porch, if their children promised to behave (Hrodvitnir).


She has been described using multiple, grotesque depictions ranging from a witch, a troll, an ogre, and a giantess. She’s believed to have two piercing blue eyes on the back of her head, and between 15 and 40 tails, if you’re following the older poetry. In the Faroe Islands, she’s even believed to have carried a knife with her. Her first documented appearance was a brief mention in the Prose Edda, an old Norse text, but she didn’t hold a specific connection to the winter holidays until the 17th century (Grýla Og Leppalúði). 

 

In early poetry, Grýla lived in a small cottage near town, but in later stories, she was forced out of the village to a cave system in the Dimmuborgir lava fields in Northern Iceland where she resides with her current husband and many children (Ragnarsdóttir).


Speaking of husbands, she had three. The first two, Gustur and Boli, according to legend, were boring, so once they weren’t useful (for example, stopped producing children) she ate them. Her third husband, Leppalúði, produced over twenty children, thirteen of whom became known as the Yule Lads, their names and personalities explained in a poem called “Jólasveinarnir” by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, connecting their rag-tag family to holiday traditions (Iceland).


Not only does Grýla have a large family, but she has a pet, too. Jólakötturinn -- The Yule Cat. He’s depicted as a giant black cat who prowls the night on Christmas Eve (December 24th,) searching for children--or even adults--who didn’t receive new clothing for the holidays. Unlike Grýla, Jólakötturinn doesn’t mind if the children are naughty or nice, but something about old and ripped clothing appeals to its tastebuds (Hrodvitnir).


Throughout the story, a recurring lullaby is played in a beautiful arrangement by Bragi Þór Ólafsson, as well as sung by yours truly. Sofðu unga ástin mín, or Sleep My Young Darling, is a traditional Icelandic lullaby about a famous outlaw and his wife while they’re on the run. The woman lulls her young child to sleep, before throwing them into a waterfall to continue hiding with her husband from the law. There are many English translations of this piece, but I chose to include one I felt fit the piece best (Pasick). 


Believe it or not, the fear instilled in Icelandic children grew so prevalent that the parliament of Iceland outlawed her tales from being a scare tactic in the 18th century (Shahin). New rhymes and poetry were written where both Grýla and her husband died from hunger after there were no more disobedient children to eat, but there was always the ominous addition that they could always return from the dead once more…


But it’s not all bad! In downtown Reykjavik, Icelanders display large statues of the Yule Cat, Grýla, and her husband Leppalúði during the holidays…you can even climb into Grýla’s cauldron for a photo! Just…make sure you get out before it gets too hot.


A creepy scarecrow in a field during a foggy night
Photo from Wikimedia, Creative Commons, by Andrii Gladii

Please be sure to check out this creature’s companion piece, Yuletide Carols, if you haven’t already. This story is both available on Spotify, or as a written piece on my website.


 

Sources:



Eldridge, Alison. “Yule.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, inc., 18 Dec. 2023, www.britannica.com/topic/Yule-festival.


Hrodvitnir, Yamuna. “Gryla: The Yuletide Monster of Iceland.” Medium, Medium, 14 Sept. 2020, yamunahrodvitnir.medium.com/gryla-the-yuletide-monster-of-iceland-a0a5d8f0d6ab.


Iceland, Mystic. “Every Child’s Nightmare in One Obscene and Frightening Christmas Story.” Mystic Iceland, 25 Feb. 2022, mysticiceland.com/frightening-christmas-story/.


Pasick, Adam. “These Icelandic Lullabies Are Absolutely Terrifying.” Quartz, Quartz, 5 Aug. 2015, qz.com/470760/these-icelandic-lullabies-are-absolutely-terrifying.


Ragnarsdóttir, Regína Hrönn. “The Icelandic Yule Lads Live at Dimmuborgir in North-Iceland!” Guide to Iceland, guidetoiceland.is/connect-with-locals/regina/the-icelandic-yulelads-at-dimmuborgir. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.


Shahin, Ingólfur. “A Complete History of Iceland.” Guide to Iceland, guidetoiceland.is/history-culture/history-of-iceland. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.


Sturluson, Snorri, and Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. “THE BEGUILING OF GYLFI.” The Prose Edda, The American-Scandinavian Foundation, New York, 1916, pp. 24–24.


Unknown. “Grýla Og Leppalúði.” Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, www.thjodminjasafn.is/jol/jolasveinar-og-adrir-vaettir/gryla-og-leppaludi#. Accessed 3 Jan. 2024.



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