Friday, January 13, 2012

Icelandic Folklore and Friday the Thirteenth

In my ongoing search for new fairytales, I recently stumbled across a great one in Iceland. Even though it's after Christmas, Friday the Thirteenth seemed like an appropriate day to share this story. 

In the dark, wintry days leading up to Christmas in Iceland, the children of a giant troll named Gryla--famous for her love of stewed children--come down from the mountains to cause trouble in the sleepy villages. Instead of stockings hung over the fireplace, Icelandic children set a single shoe on the windowsill where one of the thirteen Santa's, or Yule Lads, is supposed to leave a small present inside. But it takes a long time to cross over the mountains in all that snow, and the Yule Lads don't exactly share the generous, good-hearted spirit of jolly old Saint Nicholas. They might leave a present in the windowsill, if they feel like it, but only after they've taken a little something in return.

The first of the thirteen Yule Lads to stir up trouble each year is Sheep Worrier. Thirsty from his trip in from the mountains, he sneaks into sheep barns in search of fresh milk. His brother, Gully Gawk, prefers to hide out in the cow barns waiting to walk off with a bucket of fresh cream. Stubby is the smallest of the brothers and the first to set out from the mountains as his stubby legs make it hard to walk in the snow. My personal favorite, and the one in the middle of the picture above, is Spoon Licker. He steals wooden spoons covered in tasty batter. Pot Licker snatches dirty pots and pans to lick the leftovers from the bottom. Bowl Licker hides under the kitchen table until the cooks turn their backs and then he grabs the bowls and licks them clean. Door Slammer likes to slam doors as loud as he can, just because it's fun. Skyr Glutton runs off with armfuls of Skyr (a dairy product like yogurt) and stuffs himself until he's sick. Sausage Stealer sneaks into the house after everyone's fallen asleep and steals sausages from the freezer. Window Peeper lurks outside the house and peeks in when no one's looking. Door Sniffer follows his nose to the houses baking sweet-smelling cakes and snatches them off the counter where they're cooling. Meat Hook uses a long hook to reach down the chimney and grab whatever meat is roasting over the fire. And, lastly, Candle Beggar steals all the candles in the house to light his way for the long journey home.

The story of the Yule Lads is beautifully told and beautifully illustrated in Brian Pilkington's THE YULE LADS: A Celebration of Iceland's Christmas Folklore. Click HERE to find it on

Sometimes the best folktales and fairytales are discovered in different countries and cultures, hidden just off the beaten path. Have you stumbled across any unusual fairytales or folktales in your travels abroad? Or have you ever been to a place that felt so magical, you almost expected an elf to walk out of the woods or a fairy to pop out from behind a moss-covered rock?

1 comment:

  1. love the lads! most magical place?...has to be Ireland.