August 12, 2018

On The Road: Troll Legends in Iceland

Last week I went beyond my usual New England focus to write about elf-lore in Iceland, which I had recently visited. Please indulge me one more time, as I discuss Icelandic trolls. Next week I'm back to my usual Yankee stomping grounds. 

As we drove around Iceland our tour guides mentioned trolls several times. Although they never really described what a troll looked like, they did tell us that they are quite large and like to eat human flesh. How large? Well, a hundred feet tall in some cases. For example, this rock formation on the Snaefellsnes peninsula was said to be formed when two trolls were fishing in their boat late at night. 

Icelandic trolls come in two varieties: day trolls (who are active when the sun is up), and night trolls, who are active only after sunset. The winter nights are very, very long in Iceland so I am sure the night trolls appreciate all that darkness. According to legend, two night trolls set out in their ship to go fishing off the Snaefellsnes peninsula. They were so engrossed in their work that they didn't realize how long they had been out to sea. As the sun started to rise they raced back to shore, hoping to reach the shelter of their cave before the sun's rays hit them. Unfortunately they were not fast enough. When the sun rose the two trolls (and their boat) were turned into stone. 

This rock formation does look like two people in a boat so I can understand how the legend arose. But what is also interesting is that these rocks are really, really big. That means that trolls are really, really big. Scarily big. 

Elsewhere in Iceland I also heard the legend about the fishing trolls used to explain a different coastal rock formation near Vik. Perhaps being caught by the sun was a common problem for trolls who went out fishing. I have also read that the Snaefellsnes rock formation was not fishermen, but were actually two troll lovers who stayed out too late canoodling and were petrified at sunrise. 

Three trolls from The Hobbit (1977)
J.R.R Tolkien was fascinated by Icelandic folklore and he used quite a bit of it in his novels. When I heard these troll stories I was of course reminded of the three trolls that Bilbo and the dwarves encounter in The Hobbit. Although not as large as the trolls of Iceland, they are indeed turned to stone when they are caught outside at sunrise. 

Gryla (2009) by Icelandic painter Thrandur Thoraarinnson
Many troll stories are closely tied to rock formations in the Icelandic landscape. But not all the trolls have been turned to stone. Some are still active, including a particularly dangerous troll named Gryla. Gryla has a fondness for the flesh of human children, particularly those who disobey their parents. Perhaps disobedient flesh tastes sweeter than obedient flesh? Gryla is particularly active around Christmas, when she roams Iceland with a sack to put all the naughty children in. Gryla does not seem to be as large as some trolls and can easily sneak into the average home to grab a child. 

Yule Lad figurines I saw in a gift shop.
Gryla has thirteen sons, who are known as the Yule Lads. They are active during the thirteen days leading up to Christmas, when they take turns visiting homes by night to cause trouble. Each Yule Lad takes one night, and their names indicate the mischief that can be anticipated on particular nights. Door-Slammer slams doors to wake people up, Sausage-Swiper steals sausages, Window-Peeper looks in windows, and Meat-Hook steals meat using a hook (and also has the most terrifying name). The Yule Lads have been somewhat rehabilitated these days, and are said to bring gifts to good children. They leave rotten potatoes for those who are bad. In essence, Gryla and her sons fill the same role that Santa Claus fills here in the United States: rewarding good children and punishing those who are naughty (although Santa doesn't eat anyone).

The path into Dimmuborgir.
The Yule Lads' cave.
Although the Yule Lads are not petrified in stone, they are still associated with a specific rock formation in Iceland. The Yule Lads make their home at Dimmuborgir, an ancient collapsed lava tube in northern Iceland near Lake Myvatn. The name Dimmuborgir means "dark castles," which I think does an accurate job describing these weird black lava formations. It is a labyrinthine place and would be easy to get lost in were it not for the helpful trails that have been laid down. It is a very popular tourist attraction, but apparently the Yule Lads don't mind the company. One particular cave is even identified as the Yule Lads' home, but when I visited they were not in. Perhaps this was for the best. I wouldn't want to be punished with a rotten potato!

Next week I'm back to writing about New England, but it was interesting to visit another country and compare folklore. Although elves and trolls don't figure prominently in New England folklore, I could see similarities. Geologically New England is much older than Iceland, but we still have lots of legends explaining our strange random rock formations. Our legends usually feature the Devil, or witches, but that's to be expected given this region's history. It's good to go away, but it's also good to come back to weird creepy stuff I know and love. 


Sue Bursztynski said...

This is delightful! I can see I’ll have to visit Iceland. I think I’ve heard of the Yule Lads, not recently.

Peter Muise said...

Thanks Sue! A few years ago I read a crime thriller (AVAILABLE DARK by Elizabeth Hand) that features a series of murders modeled on the Yule Boys. That may have been one of the first times I heard of them.