Mischief, mayhem, and one scary cat
With the surge in tourism following the financial collapse of 2008–2009, may visitors have become acquainted with Iceland and one of its peculiar Christmas traditions: the Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads. Though the term Jólasveinn can be/is translated to Santa Claus in English, the mischievous Yule Lads don’t resemble their Euro-American cousin in the slightest.
The Yule Lads have their roots in the mystical realm of Icelandic history and folklore. A crash course in Icelandic natural history and history might help to explain the uniqueness and the persistence of these folktales.
Icelandic Folklore and Natural History
Iceland is a relatively new landmass, geologically speaking. The island itself only began to form about twenty million years ago as the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates continued to split apart, forming the mid-Atlantic Ridge. As such, Iceland’s geology is primarily volcanic. The island is marked by rugged mountains, glaciers, lava fields, basalt columns, streams and rivers that cut through soft, igneous rock, and long, winding fjords the connect those streams with the ocean.
Human settlement only began in the eighth century CE, when Viking explorers, settlers and refugees flex the increasingly crowded Norwegian and Swedish plains in search of new homes. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream ensured a relatively mild climate, allowing for herding and agriculture in addition to fishing. But the geology, the terrain, and the climate conspired to keep Icelanders near the coast; most of the interior of Iceland is unfriendly to human settlement, and as such, remained largely unpopulated right down to the present.
The result is that the interior of Iceland remained a kind of frontier. Unlike the frontier in the American sense, however, there was no indigenous population in Iceland. One theory is that in the absence of a human society to “other,” Icelanders created folk tales about mystical, human-like beings that inhabited and continue to inhabit the island like elves, ogres, trolls, giants, and more. Speaking to the still-common Icelandic belief in the existence of elves, Alaric Hall, lecturer in medieval literature at the University of Leeds, argues that Icelanders:
“are actually indigenous people. But they don’t want to be. Like everyone else in Western Europe in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period, they really wanted to be invaders. So, what elves did is they provide…this kind of earlier indigenous population that can allow you to feel like a conqueror.”
The same Atlantic article from October of 2013 notes that a 1998 survey of Icelanders showed that 54.4% believed in the existence of elves, which squares both with informal observation as well as the academic fieldwork. In fact, during my most recent trip to Iceland, my Icelandic cousin insisted on the matter, to the point of some awkwardness between us.
Iceland is not the only place where such folktales continued to hold sway. In the Icelandic tradition, the parents of the thirteen Yule Lads were Grýla and Leppalúði (more on them later). Though Grýla takes on a particular identity in the Icelandic tradition, the story of a Grýla is not unique to Iceland. Though she shows up in Snorri Sturluson’s Edda, she is also, as Terry Gunnell of the University of Iceland notes, a figure of interest in other North Atlantic settlements including the Faroe Islands and the Shetland Islands.
However fixed in Iceland, the mythical creatures of Icelandic folklore persist in the rocky, craggy terrain of Iceland’s interior. They serve as these guardians of some sort of pristine Iceland, untouched by the advance of human settlement. The hardship of life in Iceland only served to “enrich(ed) the detail of the initial stories.” Modern Icelanders consider elves to be, in a way, environmentalists, committed to preventing humans from messing with their ancestral lands. Don’t move or destroy the stones to build highways and tunnels, or misfortune will fall on your heads. The first mentions of these creatures date back to the early middle ages, during the period of settlement.
The aforementioned Edda, a literary compilation of older Norse and Germanic works, mentions Grýla, a “giantess” or disfigured monster-figure who lives in the mountains of Iceland. Grýla is most often referred to as a sort of cautionary tale, a figure designed to scare children into being good. The myth was pervasive enough that the king of Denmark forbade the use of Gryla for such disciplinary purposes in 1746. By the 17th century, Grýla had assumed some relationship with Christmas where she would, as Gunnell argues, “annually terrorizes the under-six year-olds when she descends from the mountains at Christmas in search of badly-behaved children to bundle into her sack.”
The modern incarnation of Grýla operates year-round, but she does her most important work in the weeks before Christmas where she will invade Iceland’s villages in search of a meal; in this case, primarily children, who are her favorite snack. Her domestic arrangement includes her third husband Leppalúði and their cat, the equally terrifying Jólakötturinn.
The Yule Lads
Significantly, Grýla and Leppalúði are also the parents of the Yule Lads. There are thirteen Yule Lads recognized by modern Icelanders, though their numbers and their names varied over time. They first appeared in written form in the seventeenth century, and at that time, were described as mischief-makers with the same kind of regulatory intent as their parents. After Icelandic independence in the early twentieth century, scholars began to describe the Yule Lads in the emerging national context, as distinctly Icelandic.
In today’s context, the Yule Lads are still playful (or naughty) mischief-makers who come daily in the thirteen days before Christmas, one at a time, to cause trouble and deliver gifts. Kids will leave a shoe, a stocking, or a sock near their windowsills and awake to small gifts having been delivered. Unique to the outsiders is the particular form of mischief that the Yule Lads create. They each have a distinguishing behavior. For example, Þvörusleikir, who’s name means “spoon-licker” arrives to lick your still-dirty spoons, Bjúgnakrækir is the sausage-swiper, etc.
In 1988, the Icelandic Yule Lads began making regular “visits” to the National Museum, one each day for thirteen days before Christmas. Their appearance in “traditional Icelandic garb” marks the tension that Icelandic, as well as other traditional folk-based customs across the world, must navigate in response to the influence of the commercialized American Christmas practices. The National Museum, in other words, prefers the Yule Lads to look Icelandic and not like the American Santa Claus.
Over the next three weeks, I will introduce you to the thirteen Jólasveinar and end with an introduction to Jólakötturinn, the Yule Cat. I am indebted to Hallberg Hallmundsson’s translation of the Yuletide Lads for the naming and the excerpts that will be used to illustrate each of the lads’ character. Check back over the next few days for a guide to each!
The Icelandic Yule Lads
(naming from the poem of Hallberg Hallmundsson)
- Stekkjarstaur — Sheep-Cote Clod
- Giljagaur — Gully Gawk
- Stúfur — Stubby
- Þvörusleikir — Spoon Licker
- Pottaskefill — Pot-Scraper
- Askasleikir — Bowl-Licker
- Hurðaskellir — Door-Slammer
- Skyrgámur — Skyr-Gobbler
- Bjúgnakrækir — Sausage-Swiper
- Gluggagægir — Window-Peeper
- Gáttaþefur — Doorway-Sniffer
- Ketkrókur — Meat-Hook
- Kertasníkir — Candle-Stealer
- Jólakötturinn — Yule Cat