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Christmas Demons I - Icelandic Folklore(13 Dec 2014)
By Miss Stephanie Gallon
Christmas is a time of light. The winter months may be long and dark, but we fill the darkness with twinkling lights and candles in celebration of Christmas. But there are darker histories to the Yule Tide season, many of which have been forgotten in our contemporary commercialised society. These histories exist as folklore and legends, remnants of Pagan times that have been purified and censored by Christian sensibilities. These are a few of the Christmas demons which we no longer celebrate, or else are relics from cultures which we may not be familiar with. The next two posts aim to explore a few examples, and to explain why they remain such constant presences in culture.
This first post will present three figures from Icelandic lore. Iceland has a unique take on Christmas which blends folklore and Christianity; ancient and new. It is important to remember that Iceland has a culture rich in folklore and song, as well as its own canon of poetry and fairy tales. These creatures are referenced in these works in some ways and their celebrations are things of great controversy. Some of these celebrations are celebrated even today. If you do visit Iceland during the holiday season, these are some of the demons you may come across.
Grýla is a giantess in Icelandic folklore. The earliest record of her is from the 13th century, though she was not linked to Christmas until the 17th century. She is depicted as a devil-like creature, with horns and goats legs, though some interpretations show her as witch-like or an ogre. Regardless of this, Grýla has always lived in the Icelandic mountains and feasted on children and new-borns. It is also said she ate her first two husbands because she grew bored of them. Her hunger is insatiable, and she likes to boil naughty children in a stew. She acts as a warning to the Icelandic children: behave, or Grýla will eat you. She is not dissimilar to Krampus is this manner, and some artistic depictions show them both as a cloven-hooved demon with horns. Grýla has only been depicted as a witch, as shown in the image to the left by Þrándur Þórarinsson. Jón Árnason in Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur og Æfintýri (Icelandic Folktales and Legends) provides the following description of her:
“Grýla has three heads and three eyes in each head ... Horribly long, curved fingernails, icy blue eyes at the back of the head and horns like a goat, her ears dangle down to her shoulders and are attached to the nose in front. She has a beard on her chin that is like knotted yarn on a weave with tangles hanging from it, while her teeth are like burnt rocks in a grate.”
Everything from her appetites to appearance is Gothic and transgressive. She is horrifying, nightmarish, and a threat to the children of Iceland. Worse than that she is a mother to over twenty children. She is the archetypical monstrous mother, acting without any sense of maternal care when she steals the human children. Some folk songs claim she is dead, but there is a proviso to this claim: she may return if the number of naughty children increases. Even in death, she is used as a means to convince children to behave well.
Grýla had many children with her three husbands. The most famous of her brood are the Yule Lads, or Jólasveinar. A contemporary belief in Iceland is that the Yule Lads are a group of benevolent and kind creatures, who leave presents in the shoes of good children and rotting potatoes in the shoes of the wicked, something which the Icelandic people celebrate every year. However in the 17th century and prior, the Yule Lads were a host of criminals and pranksters who descended upon Icelandic villages and towns in the days leading up to Christmas. They would steal food, scare children and ravage the towns for their goods. Their names were prophetic of their preferred modus operandi of mischief, such as Hurðaskellir (door-slammer) and Gluggagægir (window-peeper).
The exact number of Yule Lads has altered over the years, though the currently accepted number is thirteen. In 1746, the Danes who were in control of Iceland found the stories of the Yule Lads so bloody that they banned the stories, prompting their evolution in to a more traditional Santa figure. Instead of mischief, they dole out rewards or punishment where they are deserved, much like Santa Claus with his gifts or coal. They are even popular costumes for the holiday seasons.
The Yule Cat, or Jólakötturinn, is the pet of Grýla, who shares her lust for blood and flesh. Legends of the Yule Cat are more recent, with the earliest recording dating to the 19th century, but the legend is still well-known. The Yule Cat would devour those who did not receive new clothes for the Yule. Clothes were given to those who helped with the wool work in autumn. Those who did not assist were considered lazy, and their penance was the threat of the Yule Cat coming and eating them whole. Some alternatives of the tale are less brutal, with the cat only stealing the food from those who were too lazy to help. The image of the predatory Yule Cat was popularised by the popular poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum:
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.
All these beings are still well-known and even celebrated in Iceland. Their origins are Gothic and gory, but they have been censored over time in to something more marketable and palatable for a modern audience.
In the next post, I will discuss two more figures which are more prevalent in western European and American cultures and come to a conclusion about why we have censored these demons.