Saturday, 1 November 2014

Legend from the Land of Ice and Fire - Part One - Trolls

Viking age settlers from Scandinavia came to Iceland in 874AD in the hopes of creating a better life.  While there were no large predators inhabiting the land, these new settlers faced a much worse foe - Mother Nature.  After generations of living in such a spectacular landscape, the Icelandic people have developed a unique collection of folklore, myth and legend.  Let's take a closer look at some of the mythical creatures that are said to roam the Land of Ice and Fire.

According to Norse mythology, Iceland was once densely populated by trolls.  Trolls were said to be huge, ugly, unintelligent man-eaters that lived in mountainous caverns and hollow hills.  They were believed to aid the giants in the battle of Ragnarok, the end of the world.  Despite their dim-wittedness, these trolls were good at building and crafting things from stone and metal.  While they were known for their fierce tempers, the nature of these trolls differed, with some being benevolent where others were formidable monsters which killed and ate both livestock and humans.  A common feature among all trolls was that they could only travel at night with exposure to sunlight turning them to stone.  Many of the rock formations in Iceland are believed to be trolls that were caught unaware by the rising of the sun, as demonstrated in the following legend:

There were once a pair of trolls who lived together in Skafafjörður.  These were night trolls, the kind which, when exposed to sunlight, were turned to stone.  They had a huge cow which provided them with milk.  The cow came into season.  Unfortunately, the nearest bull was on the other side of the fjord - an awful long way to take a cow.  When the sun set, they started to wade their way across the fjord, the old man troll pulling along the stubborn cow and his wife pushing from behind it.  It was slow going, much slower than they first expected and, before they knew it, dawn arrived and they were still far from their destination.  Caught unaware, the sun's rays turned all three to stone - the cow becoming the island of Drangey (meaning 'Island of rock pillars') and the two trolls becoming two pillars of rock which stood on either side of the island.  The pillars were given the names Kerlingin (the old woman) and Karlinn (the old man).  Unfortunately, in the 18th century, Karlinn collapsed into the sea.  However, Kerlingin can still be seen today.


Female trolls were commonly more benevolent than their male counterparts.  They craved the love of humans and would lure men into their caves with magic spells, who would, in many cases, fall in love with the troll and eventually transform into a troll themselves.  In some cases, the trolls would have children with men, producing a kind of half-troll, which would generally look like a human that possessed the magical powers of their troll mother.  Female half-trolls were said to be exceedingly beautiful.

The perceived common behaviour of trolls is demonstrated wonderfully in the following piece of Old Icelandic Folklore:

The Story of Thorsteinn, the Carl's Son
    Once there was a king and queen who had twelve sons.  Not far from their home lived an old man and woman who had a son called Thorsteinn. 
    One fine day, the king's sons went into the forest to kill birds and beasts.  They left their horses and walked deep into the forest.  The weather turned foul and they couldn't find their way back to their horses, instead only going deeper and deeper into the trees and further away from their home.  Eventually they found a cave, high in the rocks, and a huge, dark and savage female troll with the eleven younger troll-women and a twelfth maiden who appeared to be human.  The troll welcomed the king's sons, begging them to stay and, finding themselves tired and hungry, the king's sons readily accepted her offer.  The troll brought them food then left them alone with the maiden, who approached them and said, 'As you see, you have fallen into the hands of trolls, nor are you the first whom the old troll has charmed hither and killed, in order to obtain their money.  The troll will make you sleep, one with each of her daughters, and one also with me; and I sleep innermost of them all in the cave.  But when she believes that you are all asleep, the old woman will get down, and fetch a light and a swords, and chop off each one of your heads, on the edge of the bed.''  She went on to tell them that they should trick the troll by cutting off the hair of the troll women as they slept and swapping places with them in the bed, so the trolls were on the edge and the king's sons were next to the wall.  The troll would then cut off her daughter's heads instead of those of her guests.  But the maiden implored them to get up to save the maiden from facing the same fate.  She declared that the troll had stolen her away from her home in the castle of another kingdom to serve her and her children.
    The troll soon came back and asked the king's sons to go to bed and, as she had enough beds, they should sleep with her daughters.  They again accepted her offer and went to bed.  The trolls soon slept and the king's son put the plan into action, cutting off the daughter's hair and changing places with them, before lying in wait for the old troll to come for them.  And she soon did.
     The night advanced, the old troll rose and walked into the front of the cave before returning with the light and sword.  She set the light down of the floor of the cave and strode to the first bed, sword drawn, and seized the head of her troll daughter, thinking it to be that of one of her guests, and promptly cut off the head on the edge of the bed.  She repeated this action at each bed before reaching the innermost bed where the maiden lay.  The king's sons, who were awake and aware of what was going on, jumped out of bed to save the fair maiden. 
    Realising her mistake, the old troll put a curse on the king's sons.  The curse would turn them into oxen, destined to return each day to their palace home in such a form and only to return to their human form in one sun-circle upon an island where they should take their meals.  The curse would only be broken if a man could bring them the same food from the island each day.  She cursed the maiden also - that she would always pour water between two wells, from one into the other, over and over again, never to see or speak to another human.  Her curse would only be broken if someone could sneak up on her and trip her.
    The king's sons killed the troll and burned her remains before turning for home with the maiden.The king had begun to wonder at the absence of his sons, so gathered many people to search for them, but all in vain.  They could not be found.
    As time passed, people began to notice the twelve oxen which came to the palace each day.  The king was concerned by this strange occurrence, and offered all manner of food to the oxen but they would eat none of it and, after a short stay would leave as quietly as they had come, and always at the same time.
    It was not that Thorsteinn, the carl's son, heard of the disappearance of the king's sons and of the twelve oxen.  He was intrigued and went to stay with the king over winter in hopes of finding out the meaning of this mystery.  It happened that Thorsteinn asked the king for his opinion on the twelve oxen.  While the king knew little about them, he offered a reward to anyone who might discover where it was they came from.  Thorsteinn took up the challenge and followed the oxen - over the land and across the lake to an island.  Here he came across a hall.  Outside the door, Thorsteinn noted twelve ox-shapes.  But within, twelve men sat.  The carl's son quickly guessed the men's identities and that they were under some evil enchantment.  The king's sons never spoke, but they shared their bread and wine - although Thorsteinn did not eat or drink.
    Once they had dined, the king's sons resumed their oxen shape and swam across the lake, one carrying Thorsteinn upon his back.  Once back on the mainland, the oxen ran on until they reached the maiden quickly pouring water, from one well into another and back again.  She paid no heed to Thorsteinn, who crept up on her and knocked her to the ground.  The maiden soon recovered from the curse, thanking Thorsteinn and telling him both of her former life and of the curse the troll had placed on the king's sons.
    Thorsteinn took the maiden back to his parent's home, where he begged them to take care of her until he returned, before making his way back to the king's court. 
    The next day, the oxen came and Thorsteinn offered them the bread and wine which they had shared with him during their meal the previous day.  The oxen ate and drunk what was offered before falling to the ground where the ox-shapes slipped off them.  Thorsteinn sent for the king and asked him if he recognised the men lying on the ground.  The king recognised them immediately and a joyful meeting ensued between the king and his sons.  Thorsteinn retrieved the maiden from his parent's him and she, with the king's sons, recounted their tale to the king.  The king held a banquet in celebration of his sons return, where Thorsteinn and the maiden were betrothed.  The banquet became a wedding feast and the princes, in gratitude, declared that they would give up their claim to the kingdom in favour of Thorsteinn and his bride.  The king agreed and, after his death, Thorsteinn ascended the throne and ruled over the kingdom with his queen in peace and prosperity.

Over many years, trolls slowly disappeared from the landscape.  Today only a few trolls are said to exist, hiding in the most remote parts of Iceland.  Male trolls, which are said to be more intelligent than their ancestors, are still believed to pose a threat to women and children, whom they like to steal away.  While the trolls are believed to be, at the least, dying out, they live on within Icelandic traditions which are still evident today.

The Thirteen Trolls of Christmas.
In Iceland, the Christmas period is a strange mix of religion and folklore.  The holiday begins on December 23rd and ends on January 6th.  While they celebrate like many countries do - with good food and gifts for their loved ones - there is one big difference.  Most places are content with one Santa.  Icelanders, however, are visited by what are called the thirteen Yule Lads.

From a young age, Icelandic children are told the story of Gryla, the ogress of the mountains.  She is a terrifying creature, described as part troll, part animal, and is the mother of thirteen talented sons.  Gryla lives with her third husband, her thirteen boys and a black cat.  Every Christmas, Gryla and her sons are said to come down from the mountains.  Gryla goes in search of naughty children to boil in her cauldron.  She can only catch children who misbehave and those who see the error of their ways must be release.

Old Icelandic folklore calls the sons of Gryla the jólasveinar, or the Yule Lads.  In recent times they have become a sort of Santa.  However, at their origin the were menacing and malevolent, with their characteristics varying, with some being mere pranksters where others were homicidal monsters who liked to eat children.  However, unlike the modern benevolent and kind-hearted Santa, these creations were meant to strike fear into the hearts of children.  Now they are portrayed as mischievous but benevolent characters, retaining very little of their original natures.

Icelandic children place a shoe in the bedroom window over the thirteen evenings before Christmas.  On each evening one Yule Lad visits and leaves sweets and gifts or rotting potatoes, depending on the behaviour of the child during the preceding day.  Their names as Stekkjastaur (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 (Windown-Peeper)  Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer), Kettkrókur (Meat-Hook) and Kertasníkir (Candle-Sneaker).

Each Yule Lad has his own characteristics and behaviours which are demonstrated in the poem Jólin Koma (Christmas Arrives) by Jóhannes úr Kötlum.

The first of them was Sheep-Cote Clod.
He came stiff as wood,
to prey upon the farmer's sheep
as far as he could.
He wished to such the ewes,
but it was no accident
he couldn't; he had stiff knees
- not to convenient.

The second was Gully Gawk,
gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.

Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims - his favourites.

The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn't in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.

Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he'd come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
The he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.

Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or car,
he snatched them for himself
- he was sure good at that!

The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry and vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.

Skyr Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
- his greed was well known-
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.

The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.

The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.

Eleventh was Door-Sniffer,
a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over-dale and hill.

Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak's Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
of meat of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.

The thirteenth was Candle Beggar
- 'twas cold, I believe,
if he was not the last
of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.

And we mustn't forget Gryla's cat...
According to old Icelandic folklore, an enormous black cat can be seen prowling the land on Christmas Eve, looking for people to devour.  The only way to avoid being eaten by such a monstrosity is to follow one simply rule - each person is required to receive a new item clothing.  To ignore this edict is to invite mortal danger.



That's it for today.  I hope you've enjoyed reading.  Next time we'll take a look at the elves and hidden people within Icelandic folklore.  Until next time.

http://www.icelandtoday.is/DiscoverIceland/Superstition/IcelandicTrolls/More/
http://wsimag.com/culture/2033-the-thirteen-yule-lads-of-iceland
http://www.iceland.is/the-big-picture/news/celebrating-christmas-with-13-trolls/7916/
http://icelandictimes.com/section.php?id=9804&id_art=10124
http://www.ttv.is/en/iceland/folktales/trolls
Icelandic Legends: Volume 2 by Jon Arnason