Tag Archives: Iceland

Icelandic Nykur

Background Information:

My informant is a 23-year-old student originally from Iceland, but studying in Dublin. She was born and raised in Reykjavik and moved to Ireland in her 20’s to come to University there. She told me about the nykur, a legendary water horse specific to the Nordic countries. She does not personally believe in this legend, but apparently opinion is fairly mixed on whether or not it is real, and belief is higher with children. She believed it as a child, and was told it by her mother possibly in an effort to stop her from wandering near large bodies of water. She agrees that it was a useful way of making her cautious without ruining her innocence about the true dangers of icy cold water.

Main Piece:

A.J.: Have you heard of the Nykur?

A: No, what is it?

A.J.: It’s a mythical creature in Icelandic – well, I think they have it in some places in Sweden and Norway and stuff – but it’s mostly Icelandic. It’s the shape of a horse, and grey, but it’s not a physical thing, more like a kind of ghost horse. They live by lakes, or by waterfalls usually. But they’re pretty scary looking – kind of like if you had a Patronus of a horse, a weird version. They have some scary things about them, like I’ve heard that they have backwards hooves, and sharp teeth and that kind of thing.

A: And do people interact with them at all?

A.J: I don’t think you would want to. They’re not peaceful, they’re a bit like sirens in that they lure people to their deaths in the water. They seem really nice and beautiful, and then you go to pet them and if you ride on them they’ll take you into the water and drown you. They seem to take children in particular.

A: Is there any way to prevent them from taking you underwater if you do come across them?

A.J: Yeah, there is. My mom told me about them and that if you recognize that the horse is a Nykur, you can make them go away by saying their name.

A: And do you believe in them?

A.J.: I did when I was a kid, but not anymore. I think it’s a bit like the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy, you grow out of it when you’ve been to enough waterfalls to know that you’re not going to see any magic horses. But when I was younger I wouldn’t go near the water without someone else with me.

Perfomance Context:

In a phone conversation in which she recounted to me what she knew about the huldufólk, she also told me about this Icelandic mythical creature which I had not heard of before.

My thoughts:

This reminds me a lot of the La Llorona myth. Considering she was told about them by her mother, in a landscape with many lakes and waterfalls, this myth seems to serve the same function as warning children about La Llorona, insofar as it discourages them from wandering by themselves near bodies of water where they could potentially drown. By making the horse scary-looking, they emphasize this warning. By connecting this warning story to the landscape, it makes for a more believable tale. Much of Icelandic folklore is connected to the natural landscape as it is so unusual and striking, which also plays into the fact that much of Icelandic folklore is very different from that which we find in the other Nordic countries. Their landscapes are much more snowy and similar to each other, whereas Iceland is a volcanic outlier.

For the La Llorona myth, see here: http://www.legendsofamerica.com/gh-lallorona.html

Building Houses for the Huldufólk

Background Information:

My informant is a 23-year-old student originally from Iceland, but studying in Dublin. She was born and raised in Reykjavik and moved to Ireland in her 20’s to come to University there. She informed me that not only was belief in the huldufólk common, she herself believed in them and that many Icelandics go out of their way to please them, and that to apply for planning permission in Iceland you need to have someone look at the site to check that you would not upset the huldufólk by building there. She related this particular facet of belief to me when I told her about fairy forts. She was an active bearer of this tradition and was taught it by her parents, and their parents before them. It is one of her favorite pieces of Icelandic heritage and plans to carry it on whether or not she decides to stay in Iceland, as it is a family tradition. She is signified in this conversation by the initials A.J.

Main Piece:

A.J.: The huldufólk are kind of mystical creatures. They are generally depicted as all grey, and they live in rocks and under the ground. They are not malicious, they usually help humans and are not so much tricksters as they are simply respected in Iceland. Nobody really says bad things about them. People give them offerings at the summer solstice and at Christmas. This is usually to thank them for a good harvest last year, and to look after the next one. Actually, when people are building new houses in Iceland, or in the Faroe islands as they also believe in the huldufólk, you have to get a person to check that you do not disturb them by building there. When you have built the house, you have to get a stone and put it in front of the porch of the house. You have to find the stone usually from specific places where you’re not disturbing the folk already living there, and it’s a big day out to go and get a stone. They’re pretty big, maybe a meter cubed in size. And you take it back to the house and paint on a little door and some windows. In this way, you’re offering the huldufólk a home and they in turn look after you and your home. At the summer and winter solstice you can then place your offerings to them at the stones. We have one at our house and it’s a really common thing to have, as they offer the house protection. They’re also a nice Icelandic tradition that I’d like to carry on, as I have really fond memories of getting the stone and painting it with my family.

Performance Context:

I interviewed my informant over the phone, as she is in Ireland and I in California. After discussing the huldufólk in class, I asked her whether she knew anything about them and she related this to me, as it is the most common household tradition to do with the huldufólk.

My Thoughts:

This custom reminded me a lot of the fairy forts in Ireland, and the idea of putting little bits of food out for the fairies. It was interesting to see a similar custom in Iceland, and suggests a strong Celtic influence on Icelandic culture. What was astonishing to me was the level of belief in the huldufólk, which was absolutely different to belief in the fairy folk in Ireland. The one thing that struck me was the level of community in going out and finding the appropriate rock, and this connection to the landscape. Iceland, being a volcanic creation, relies heavily on the landscape for tourism and also for the production of geothermal electricity. Therefore, connecting their huldufólk to the land seems like a natural progression, for a country so intrinsically tied to the landscape.

The Jólakötturinn

Background Information:

My informant is a 23-year-old student originally from Iceland, but studying in Dublin. She was born and raised in Reykjavik and moved to Ireland in her 20’s to come to University there. The Jólakötturinn, literally translating to ‘Christmas Cat’, is also known in English as the Yule Cat, a tradition similar to that of Krampus, where a giant cat would come around to check if children had gotten all their chores done before Christmas. If they had, he would not eat them. Interestingly, he seems to be confined to Icelandic folklore, and does not crop up in larger Scandinavian Yuletide traditions. She is signified by the initials A.J.

Main Piece:

A.J.: In Iceland, it is traditional for children to be given the last of their household chores to finish up before Christmas, like decorating the tree, sweeping the floor, helping out with the cooking – that kind of thing. If the children did that, they’d be given new clothes to wear for Christmas Day among their presents. The Jólakötturinn is a huge – and I mean huge, as in, bigger and taller than a house – sized cat that lives in the woods and wanders around from house to house looking in the windows to see what presents the children got for Christmas, so you have to leave all your curtains open on Christmas Eve night to let him see in. If he sees that the children have been given clothes as presents, he assumes they have been good and moves on. Even poor people do this, something as small as socks or a hat will do. But, if you haven’t gotten clothes, the Jólakötturinn will firstly eat your dinner that you would have had on Christmas Day, and then he will eat you. I think the purpose of it is similar to that of Santa Claus, in checking whether or not you have been good during the year. But I think this tradition is meant to make people also generous, because sometimes on the last day of school before winter break the teacher will give the children chores to do in the classroom, like tidying up the presses and cleaning the tables, and then the teacher hands out socks usually to the children, and you can give them to someone who did a really good job. In the end, everyone ends up with a pair of socks. It’s good for people who don’t have as much money, to keep the tradition alive without the parents having to spend a lot of money. I also think it’s nice thing to do with your friends, and makes everyone work a bit harder.

A: And do you know where the tradition came from?

A.J.: It’s been around for a long time, as my great grandmother tells me that she was told it by her grandmother, and that was a very long time ago. It’s a bit of fun to believe in, I don’t seriously believe in it but again, I got clothes every year so I didn’t have to experience whether it was truly real or not. Also it’s a good way of making kids behave, and so this seems to me to be why it has survived for so long. I was told the story by my parents when I was about five or so, and I think I will pass on the tradition in my family in the future.

My Thoughts:

The concept of someone or something checking whether or not a child has been well-behaved around Christmastime is not one unique to Icelandic tradition. The popular character of Santa Claus serves the same purpose, if not with such grave consequences should the child have been bad, rather giving them coal. It speaks to the heavy emphasis on generosity and community within the culture. The use of the cat is Iceland-specific, and this seems to me to reference the fat that cats were the companions of Vikings, and so there is a large population of cats in Nordic countries, and so it is natural to choose something so prevalent in a culture when personifying a tradition.

For another oikotype of this, see the Krampus tradition in Germany and surrounding areas: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131217-krampus-christmas-santa-devil/

The Gray Man

This is an Icelandic folktale. There was a farmer and his wife who lived out in the countryside. They never locked their door at night. One night an extremely large, gray man appeared. Without saying a word he went to their pantry, sat down and drank their milk. He then left.
The second night he came back, drank the milk and left again without a word.
The third night he came again, drank the milk but as he was about to leave he turned around and addressed the farmer and his wife: You would do well to lock your door, there are a lot worse things out there than me.

This a myth about Iceland’s hidden people. It illustrates the relationship between the people of Iceland and these fairy-like creatures. The farmer and his wife know the spirit keeps returning to their house, but they allow it and see the visits as benign. However the story is also a cautionary tale, and could be a bogeyman-type story to caution or encourage children, or even adults, to keep the doors of the house locked. The myth observes the rule of 3, which is predominant in the West.