The Creepy Christmas Story

  Rituals and myths have created monsters

  Stefanía Ósk Ómarsdóttir

Every Christmas Grýla comes down from the mountains with her sack in hand searching for naughty children. After all, they are her favorite dish. 

She searches for kids in ragged clothing. The children who didn't get new clothes for Christmas were the most delicious and in danger to end up in her sack. 

To keep the Icelandic children safe and well-behaved, Icelandic children were threatened to be taken by Grýla. 

Grýla was married three times. Her  first husband was Gustur. They hadn't been married long before she grew bored of him and ate him. 

She then married Boli and together they had several children. These children have been mentioned in various verses and called names such as: Leppur, Skreppur, Lápur, Skrápur, Langleggur and Leiðindaskjóða, Völustallur and Bóla. Rumor has it that she ate Boli, too.

Her most known husband is Leppalúði, a lazy no good slouch. Together they had 20 children, of them are the 13 yule lads. Read about the yule lads in my other Christmas blogs

It so happened that Grýla was sick for a whole year. To help take care of her, Leppalúði hired a woman by the name of Lúpa. 

They  had an affair and she became pregnant with their child. During her stay with Grýla and Leppalúði she gave birth to a boy and called him Skröggur. 

When Grýla got better, she found out what had happened and kicked both mother and child out.

In verses and rhymes both Grýla and Leppalúði are said to have died from hunger, because the Icelandic children were so well behaved. But these verses also come with the warning that if the children should become naughty, they will come back to life.

 
 
Grýla has been around for more than 800 years.  You can read about her in Íslendinga saga and Sverris saga 

Her nearly 1000 year old tradition has evolved, but still remains with us today. 

One of the earliest mention of her is in the 12th century  Sverri's saga , which is one of the King's sagas  and  in the 13th century Snorra-Edda   (Snorri Sturluson's Edda) where Grýla is described as an ogress. 

 
Norges kongesagaer

Sverri's saga is the biography of King Sverre Sigurdsson of Norway (c.1145/1151-1202). When he became the king in 1177, he was the leader of the rebel party, Birkebeiner .

The first part of Sverris saga is called Grýla. There have been many explanations of why it was called that. One of the explanations was written in  Flateyjarbók  (Flatey book), which is the largest medieval Icelandic manuscript. It says:

"People called the first part of the book Grýla because many believed that worry or fear to do with great wars or battles might arise, but that it would then quickly fade away and vanish into thin air, as it reasonable could be expected to in view of the strength and superiority of what was facing."   Vox Regis: Royal Communication in High Medieval Norway

King Sverre Sigurdsson of Norway in the Nidaros Cathedral. Dated c.1200/early 1200s. Alexander Bugge  

It is thought that the first part of the book was called Grýla as in The Threat

Before Sverrir became the king, he and his Birkebeiner friends lived as outlaws. They were forced to live in the heaths and the woods. For food, they ate the bark and drank the juice from the trees. In winter, they scraped for the berries which laid frozen underneath the snow.

Life was so rough for them that it was hard to tell whether they were humans or animals. 

King Haakon Haakonsson was Sverri's grandson. When Haakon was two years old, the Birkebeiners saved his life by escaping with him through treacherous territory and into Trondheim. The above image is the city arms of Lillehammer. It depicts a Birkebeiner skiing in honor of the rescue. When The 1994 Winter Olympics were held in Lillehammer, there were two mascots: Håkon and Kristin. They were named after king Sverri's two children.


Their clothing were ragged and made of skin and bark. Sverrir was often compared to the supernatural being Fingálpn or julebukk  who lived up in the mountains and would come down to the settlements. There he would terrorize the settlers and demand offerings.

A julebukk costume.

The  Archbishop, Eysteinn Erlendsson in  Österdalen, warned the farmers about Sverrir and his fellow vagabonds coming to take their food supply.

Kikjubøur in Faroe Islands. Sverri's father, Unå, was a comb maker from the Faroe Islands. Sverre grew up there from the age of five and received quality education. He believed in dream interpretations and was certain his dreams were a sign of great things in his future. It wasn't until 1175 that his mother, Gunnhild, told him his real father was King Sigurd Munn, aka Sigurðr Haraldsson. Nobody seems to know for certain whether it was true or not. Felipe Tofani

For the common people, especially the children, of the Norwegian settlements, Sverrir was considered an otherworldly monster which could transform into a human at will. 

The legends of Grýla extended to the Faroe Islands and Shetland Islands. 

In Faroe Islands, Grýla comes down from the mountains carrying a large knife and visits the settlements. She is looking for children who whine and cry because they didn't get meat during Lent. 

Whatever happened after Grýla caught the children, was up to each child's own imagination. 

Village of Saksun located on the island of Streymoy, Faroe Islands.   Ævar Guðmundsson

A known Grýla verse from Faroe Islands:

Down comes Grýla from the outer fields

with forty tails.

A bag on her back, a knife in her hand,

coming to carve out the stomachs of the children

who cry for meat during Lent.

     
Faroe Islands. Marius Kluzniak

In Shetland, more specifically the island of Foula, Grýla is called Skekla (an ogress). 

Skekla was a name used for a bogey, troll-like figure in places such as the northern island of Unst , the Faroe Islands and northern Norway. The terms skekel or jólaskekil/joleskjekel were used to describe similar otherworldly beings.



"Foula lies to the west of the Shetland Islands. Note the peat banks and hay stacks behind. These buildings are now sadly derelict."  neil roger

A known Grýla/Skekla verse from Shetland Islands

Skekla (an ogress) rides into the homefield

on a black horse with a white patch on its brow

with fifteen tails

and fifteen children on each tail.

An account from the Shetland Islands written in 1860, gives the following account of New Year's guisers:

"In the olden time, on the last night of the old year, five young lads, consisting of a "gentleman", a "carrying horse" and three others, all disguised, went from house to house, singing what they called a "New'r Even's Song" and collecting provisions for a banquet on New Year's Night. The "gentlemen" wore a cap made of straw with his name lettered on the front, a collar of straw around his neck, a belt of straw around his waist, and a band of straw around his right arm. It was his duty to sing, which he did standing outside the door, and when the song was finished, if invited, he would enter the house, and introduce himself as Vanderdigan come from Drontheim, pronounced Dronton Art Rambles in Shetland by John T. Reid .

Skekler costumes

A very fascinating account was written by Robert Menzies Fergusson. While visiting Orkney and Zetland he met a fellow tourist who shared with him an experience he had on Halloween a few years earlier:


"...I saw the kitchen literally full of beings, whose appearance, being so unearthly, shook the gravity of my muscles, and forced the cold sweat to ooze out of every pore in my body. There they stood like as many statues, one of whom was far above the rest, and of gigantic dimensions. Eyes, mouths, or noses had they none; nor the least trace of countenance. They kept up an incessant grunt, grunt, grunt or a noise partly resembling swine or turkey cocks. Their outer garments were as white as snow, and consisted of petticoats below and shirts on the outside, with sleeves and collars. They were all veiled and their head dresses or caps were about eighteen inches in heights, and made of straw twisted and plaited. Each cap terminated in three or four cones of a crescent shape, all pointing backwards and downwards, with bunches or ribbons of every colour raying from the points of the cones. The spirits for such they appeared to be, had long staves, with which they kept rapping on the floor. Between them and the door stood one as black as ´Horni ;´but more resembling a human being than any of the others. His head dress was a South-wester, and he had a keshie [a bag made of straw] on his back. My landlady by this time had considerably recovered and the sight of the keshie tended greatly to allay our doubts, and we all ventured into her kitchen.

" Immediately upon entering the kitchen they formed themselves in pairs and commenced hobbling and dancing. When asked what they wanted the keshie was presented; and in it was a piece of mutton and other eatables. Their chieftain, or leader, muttered in a disguised and guttural tone of voice, that they would take anything we chose to give them. My landlady gave them some mutton and oatcakes, with which they appeared highly elated and returned thanks with bows and curtseys: but still kept up the incessant grunting. Before leaving the house, however, they inquired of me, in the same guttural tone of voice, if they should go to the Minister´s. "Certainy," said IÞ "be sure you go there, and give him a specimen of your dancing: for the minister is a very liberal gentleman and will, I doubt not, fill your keshi.

" Such is a description of what was common enough some thirty years ago in the Far North. When a band of guizards have had a fair night's work they generally assemble at some rendezvous, where all the good things are disposed of in a festive manner. The leader of the gang is known by the name of "Scuddler" while the one with satanic appearance is called Judas."  Rambles in the far north by R. Menzies Fergusson

The ritualistic history of Grýla's origin can also be traced to dance rituals like vikivaki and julebukk.  Julebukk is a Scandinavian tradition.

Originally, julebukk was a game played in the living space (julestuen) in the period between Christmas and New Year (romjulen). 

Everyone, regardless of social standing, was invited. All day and all night, the people gathered, drank and played games. A young man would be dressed as a goat. He would enter the living space with a goat's head on a stick and clad in its coat. He would often have a wooden hammer to resemble Thor's Hammer, which depicts where the heathen tradition originated.

Vikivaki is a traditional dance (a story dance) which existed as far back as the 11th century.  Jón Gunnar Þorsteinsson

The julebukk was used to scare both children and adults. The julebukk beast wanted to know who had been good and who had been naughty the past year.

The beast would jump and dance while the rest of the guests sang and joined in. Then it dropped down dead, just like Thor's ram. As the song continued, the ram came back to life.

  N. Keyland

In some of the julebukk traditions, the person wearing the goat costume disguises his voice and goes door to door. 

The goal is for people to figure out who is wearing the costume. The person in the costume won't leave until it's figured out. 

Usually they wear the disguise to get treats. In some traditions they sing songs.

   
Wolfgang Sauber




Costume traditions in Faroe Islands and the Shetland Islands are female monsters clad in tattered animal skins, straw or seaweed. They visit farms and villages and demand offerings. In Faroe Islands, these offerings were referred to as grýlubita.

The Faroese grýlur usually appear on grýlu eve  (grýlukvöld), which happens to be the first Tuesday in Lent.

 
Skibenes in Faroe Islands .

In the Svabo's Dictionarium færoense, the word grujla is described as being a person in a costume or a bogeyman used to frighten children at Lent: a costumed figure. 

Another word similar to grujla is grȗiliur and means abominable. The description of such beast is as having a large coat of seaweed that she drags behind her like a tail, a rusty black hook in each hand and a big skin bag on her back.

I was unable to find a photo of their seaweed costume. This is a photo from 1898 of a family at "Cilles hus" in Midvåg, Faroe Islands. The entire house consists of one room with two beds. One can only imagine how scary these costumes must have been for the children. The homes were cold and dark. Johannes Klein

In Shetland, long before there ever was an Up-Helly Aa festival in Lerwick, Shetland Islands, there was an older ritualistic tradition where people dressed up in decorative straw suits and hats. 

Disguised in these costumes, they would go from door to door. On the island of Unst, they were known as gröleks. The word  grölek is just another way to say grýla. This becomes more apparent when you look at the various spellings that exists of the word: gröli, grölik, grulek, gruli, grulick, grulja, grulik and grillock



Skekling is an old Shetland folk tradition. A Skekler is the name for a type of disguised person dressed in a distinctive straw costume; it is a variant of the term ‘guiser’. Skeklers would go round the houses at Halloween, New Year, and turn up at weddings in small groups performing fiddle music in return for food and drink. It is believed that this fascinating custom had all but died out by 1900 and the children in the old photograph were actually part of a ‘squad’ dressed as Skeklers as part of the Up Helly ‘A festival. New York Public Library

In the Art Rambles in Shetland , the wedding ceremony is described as such:
"About nine o'clock, commotion and whispering being observed amongst those nearest the door, the fiddler stops, dancing ceases and the "honest man" informs the company that the "guisers" have arrived. On the best man announcing that there is plenty of both meat and drink for all comers - five gallons of whisky it may be yet untouched - the fiddler is told to "play up the guiser's spring" when in walks a tall slender-looking man, called the "scuddler", his face closely veiled with a white cambic napkin, and on his head a cap made of straw, in shape like a sugar-loaf, with three loops at the upper extremity, filled with ribbons of every conceivable hue, and hanging down so as to cover the cap. He wears a white shirt with a band of ribbons around each arm and a bunch of ribbons on each shoulder, with a petticoat of long cleans straw, called "gloy" which hangs loosely. The moment he neters he gives a snore and having danced for a few minutes, another enters, called the "gentleman", somewhat similarly attired: he too, having danced, a third, called the "fool" appears and so  till all are in. And it is really a strange sight to see six tall young men dressed thus fantastically, and dancing with so much earnestness. They are careful to speak not a word lest they reveal their identity: and not a sound is heard but the music of the fiddle, the rustle of the straw petticoats, the thud of their feet on the earthen floor, the laughter of the "fool" and the whispers of the bride's maidens guessing who the guisers may be."
The skekler carried with him a bag made of sheepskin called "buggi". This bag is normally used to old grain, but during celebrations, the skekler passed his bag around expecting people to put food   in his bag. It was known by all that the skekler was mostly interested in cooked meat.    Pintrest

Just like the other grýla variations, the Shetland gröleks and the skeklers, didn't use their normal voices when they knocked on doors. A part of the custom was to disguise the voice so they wouldn't be recognized. Instead, they made animal-like grunting noises and and spoke while inhaling. 

It is also noteworthy that, like the Faroese grýlur and mainland Scandinavian julebukker, the gröleks and the skeklers used to demand some form of offering when they made their visits, most particularly meat. They gave nothing in return.

Finngálkn (which is what the julebukk was considered to be) is a mythical creature you hear about in many ancient sagas. They move around like a chimera and are usually a mix between human and animal. þingálp(n) is connected to or derived from Finngálkn.  Nationalmuseet  

The word skekler is very similar to the Old Icelandic word skekill, which means the "shanks or legs of an animal's skin when stretched out"

When invited inside, the skekler gathered around the fire and danced.

Grýla was similar to the Svínoy's Grylen, and the supernatural Faroese Grýla which is describes as having a goat's body, but walking upright like a man. She looks like a julebukk and not like a woman. 

The Faroese Coat of Arms is the ram.

Faroe Islands Coat of Arms


The Shetland form of the word grölek stems from grökle, which is used in relation to the julebukk in Kviteseid, Norway. 

The word skekler also has a relation to the Norwegian word kveldsjögl/kveldsgjögla, which was used synonymously with julebukk figures in Nissedal and Vest Agder. They also used the word skulkar for party gate-crasher.

     

People dressed in horns and or animal skins was a central part in Scandinavian pagan rituals. Two full-sized animal masks from the 10th century Denmark were recently found in the Hedeby harbor.

The Hedeby mask is one of the two masks found rolled in a ship discovered in Hedeby / Haithaby (currently Germany) harbor. The masks had been used for caulking a hull. The mask in the photo was made from red felt.  Inga Hägg suggested, that Hedeby mask could be connected with berserkers or ulfhéðnar.   The practical viking 


Sources:

The 'intriguing and unsettling' Scottish island tradition of skekling English

Skeklers. Document Scotland English

Anna McCully Stewart - Knock Knock Who's There.pdf (skemman.is)  English

Saga Conference English 

Julebukken kommer! - Serieliv  Norwegian

Animal figures and Cross Dressing in the Icelandic  Vikivaki Games  English

The Giant Sword and the Candle English

Hedeby masks English

The folk-stories of Iceland English

Grýla and Leppalúði Icelandic

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