Halloween or Hrekkjavaka?

Posted on 29. Oct, 2015 by in Icelandic culture


The end of October is almost at hand now so what better time to learn some spooky vocabulary!

Hrekkjavaka = Halloween
Grasker = pumpkin
Kónguló = spider. Spiderman is naturally Kóngulóarmaðurinn.
Kölski = the devil. He can also be called f.ex. andskoti, ári, fjandinn, flugnahöfðingi (= lord of flies), myrkrahöfðingi (= lord of darakness), óvinur (= enemy), sá í neðra (= the one below) and so forth. There are at least 61 names for the devil in Icelandic (link).
Leðurblaka = bat. Batman is Leðurblökumaðurinn. 😀
Vampíra = vampire, also known as blóðsuga (= blood sucker). Another translation for blóðsuga is a leech.

Norn = a witch.
Galdramaður = magician/wizard.
Seiðkona = also a witch.
Kveldriður (= night rider), a witch with the ability of flying and turning people into his steeds, forcing them to carry him long distances. There are worse suggestions to what this might mean but a typical scene includes the witch putting a bridle and a saddle on you and then forcing you to perform things a human body cannot manage, damaging you so badly in process that you might die.

In Iceland witches are generally always male, and of all the 21 people burned alive for witchcraft only one was a woman. Did you know that one of the executed witched confessed to having drawn fart runes against a woman who had turned him down?


Draugur = ghost. This is only the start though, since Icelandic ghosts come in many sub-groups.

afturgöngur (= walks after), either a vengeful ghost hellbent on destroying its killer and occasionally a whole familyline, or an unfortunate victim of a witch. The latter type often means that a witch finds a washed-up corpse or at worst kills his victim himself and then wakes up the corpse that will then have to do the witch’s bidding. Once the witch runs out of work to give to the ghost it will however kill him.

útburður (= carried outside), a ghost of a baby left outside to die, a sad part of Iceland’s history where this was used as the only form of birth control there was if there was not enough food. Later on when pregnancy out of wedlock was punished by death for the mother the motive changed but custom stayed the same. It’s said that an útburður ghost crawls only using one leg and one arm.

móri, a male ghost that often wears a large hat and a rust-red shirt.

skotta, a female version, if she wear traditional clothing her hat hook is bent backwards. Often wears rust red socks.

uppvakningur (= woken up), just what it sounds like, a dead person walking iow a zombie. Most Icelandic ghosts are of this type, the spirit-ghosts have never really caught on here… the traditional idea is so much scarier after all.

tilberiTilberi, a magical creature made out of a dead person’s rib and wool. Unlike most Icelandic magic this creature can only be created by a woman. A tilberi will steal milk from other people’s sheep and bring it to its owner, making her wealthy in process. It’s said that tilberi-given milk makes weird-tasting butter and that if you draw a certain magical stave on butter it will disappear if it has tilberi-ish origins.
Snakkur is similar to tilberi but you need a thigh bone to make one, and instead of milk it will steal wool.

The downsides to making a tilberi or a snakkur are that a) being caught having one or attempting to create one used to be an act punishable by death and b) you had to feed it your own blood via a cut to your thigh; in time the creature would drain you of your blood unless you managed to destroy it somehow first. More about tilberi can be found here.

7 Icelandic monsters: survival guide.

Posted on 22. Oct, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


Tröllið við Skógarfoss (The troll at Skógarfoss) by Sigurdur Jonsson at Flickr.

Halloween is almost here so let’s continue with the spooky theme! Today’s post will teach you something about the most famous Icelandic monsters and how to survive them, should you come across one.


Description: size ranges from large human to very, very big but nowhere near as big as the Norwegian ones can get – we’re not talking about actual mountains here when we talk about mountain trolls in Iceland. Trolls look human-ish but they’re often somewhat ugly.

How to survive: try to escape as fast as possible. An Icelandic troll’s first plan is to eat a human they come across, a trait almost all of them seem to share. Some of them such as the famous Christmas troll Grýla have preferences (she seeks to eat children), other female trolls are known for occasionally capturing human males and sexually abusing them.

Some trolls are nátttröll/náttröll (= night trolls, both spellings exist) and will turn into stone if exposed to daylight. You may try to use this against them if you can. Trolls aren’t generally very smart so using your wits against them rather than strength is a safer bet.


Description: unearthly beautiful, well-dressed, probably everything they own is better than whatever you have. Other than that there are no actual differences between humans and elves so they can be hard to recognize.

How to survive: depends much on the elves themselves. If they’re friendly you’re safe as long as you don’t steal from them or sleep with an elf whose spouse is the jealous type. In fact sleeping with elves is generally a bad idea because they can get VERY angry if something in the relationship goes sour, and even in best possible situation heartbreak can easily kill anyone with elven blood, halfling children included.

If you’re unlucky and meet the outright homicidal type instead, hide. Be prepared that they can smell humans, and elves are said to be especially good at finding Christian ones (although elves themselves can also be Christian and often don’t care which religion humans follow). You can try to scare them by announcing that the dawn is at hand, if taken by surprise they might believe you and run, leaving behind what belongings they had with them.

A good rule for dealing with elves is to do as they ask you to. If an elf needs help, help them. If one asks you to return something you’ve found and taken with you, give it back.


Huldufólk (Hidden people) by msk at Flickr.

Skugga-Baldurs and skoffíns

Description: both are straight out of uncanny-valley, being monstrous mixes of a cat and a fox. A skoffín will look rather poorly though, like a malformed runt, while a Skugga-Baldur is a large, powerful beast that can speak and outwit many humans.

How to survive: both can be killed by force and if hunting a Skugga-Baldur, numbers is the key. The bad thing about these monsters is that they can kill you by looking at you, so prepare something reflective to take with you: with a bit of luck they’ll end up accidentally killing themselves instead. Never, ever do anything a Skugga-Baldur tells you to do, especially don’t follow any requests to take news of its death to a house-cat… most likely that house-cat is its father and will take revenge on you.


Description: can be invisible, can be visible. Often violent and some have a tendency to follow a certain person or a whole familyline until they accomplish their goal, be it to drive the person insane or to end the whole family. Looks more like a zombie than a typical Western spirit-ghost, certain types wear something rust-red about themselves. Female ghosts that wear the traditional dress often have the hook of their hat bent backwards.

How to survive: you won’t. You don’t necessarily have to even do anything wrong, all that’s needed in some cases is that a witch takes to disliking you and sends a ghost after you. The only times when a human has survived a ghost attack they’ve been either so physically strong they’ve been able to kill the ghost again (yes) or have been aided by a helpful elf.


Iceland sorcery 2014-04 by Ben Sisto at Flickr. This is what an Icelandic ghost might look like.


Description: a male version of a mermaid, although can occasionally resemble fish more than human.

How to survive: marbendills aren’t actually known to be dangerous, but you can still end badly if you try to outwit or capture one. Marbendills can see humans’ and animals’ inner emotions and through physical objects, and if one is displeased it might reveal you things you really, really did not want to know.

Not to be confused with elves that live in the sea!

Description: a fish that otherwise looks like a normal fish but has odd fins that bend backwards.

How to survive: don’t eat. It’s deadly poisonous.


Olaus Magnus’ Sea Orm, 1555 at Wikimedia Commons.

Sea monsters

Description: usually snakes and may even have their origin in a dry land snake or a Nordic dragon (Nordic dragons don’t breathe fire, they spew poison).

How to survive: beware anything huge and snakelike in water, they reputedly eat humans if they can. This monster type has many sightings, one famous one from the year 2012 when someone claimed to have video footage of one at Lagarfljót (link), a place well-known in the local lore for having a massive snake beast living somewhere in the bottom of the fjord. It should be attached to the seafloor by its head and tail though; it killed so many people that two Finns/Sami were sought for help, but it was so humongous in size that the best they could do was to tie it down. The snake can still rise its back from the water and this is known as a very bad omen.

Welcome to Iceland… but remember to look over your shoulder every now and then. 😀

Run for your life!

Posted on 15. Oct, 2015 by in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


Herðubreið by Sparkle Motion at Flickr.

The autumn nights are growing colder and we’re heading for the long dark season, so let’s talk about spooky things! Icelanders of old thought that the only safe place in the world was within the walls of a house (and occasionally not even there, but more on that later on) and well, they were right about that. The world outside was rife with danger of all kinds, the weather, other humans, mythological creatures and beasts, magic, ghosts, even the land itself. Considering what life on this barren little island has been like for most of Iceland’s history this is possibly not surprising in the least so let’s just move right to the main topic of today’s post: a song that lists many such dangers.


“Troll Wife’s Leap” on the Sprengisandur route.

Á Sprengisandi (= on Explosion Sands) (You can listen to this song here.)

Sprengisandur is a large desert on the east side of Iceland above Vatnajökull. It used to be a route to the south Iceland that occasionally had to be taken although people did avoid it if they at all could. Sprengisandur really is a dangerous area, and its name comes from the fact that you’ll have to ride your horse without breaks and to cross it in one go, which might mean the horse would “explode”, which originally mean die of exertion.

Ríðum, ríðum og rekum yfir sandinn,
rennur sól á bak við Arnarfell,
hér á reiki er margur óhreinn andinn,
úr því fer að skyggja á jökulsvell;

Let’s ride, ride, fly over the desert,
sun glides behind Arnarfell,
here wander many unclean spirits,
because the shadow on the glacier is growing;

The first two dangers are mentioned! It’s getting dark, which means that if you’re not out of Sprengisandur while you can still see in front of you you’ll soon be in darkness so thorough continuing is useless, but who wants to camp on Sprengisandur? Not the composer, that’s for sure – there are ghosts all around. Possibly there’s a hint that some of them might even come from the glacier itself.

Drottinn leiði drösulinn minn,
drjúgur verður síðasti áfanginn.

God, lead my horse,
harsh will be the last leg of the travel.

Oh yes, so it will be. The song makes no clear definition where the riders are at the moment but certain landmarks that are mentioned tell that they’re riding northwards, and during the song they make their way closer and closer to safety. Still, they’re in a hurry if they want to make it while there’s still light.


Arctic fox by Jean van der Sluijs at Flickr.

Þey þey! þey þey! þaut í holti tófa,
þurran vill hún blóði væta góm,

Þey þey! Þey þey! A fox ran on a hill,
she wants to wet her dry mouth with blood,

Þey þey! is what the fox says! 😀 My apologies for that lame joke. Foxes feature heavily in the creation of some of Iceland’s deadliest monsters, the skoffín and the Skugga-Baldur, both of which were the offspring of a cat and a fox. The first one had cat as mother and fox as father and was therefore somewhat harmless, as weird-looking kittens could easily be gotten rid of.

The Skugga-Baldur was not harmless by any standard. Its father was a cat and mother a fox, so it was born in secret and had a good chance of growing into adulthood. A Skugga-Baldur could speak, was often so clever it could outwit most humans and worst of all could kill you by looking at you. Skoffín could too, but a skoffín had almost no chance of surviving its first days. Unlike the basilisk myth neither of these beasts had to lock eyes with you, if they saw you they could kill you, simple as that – you would never see it coming.

eða líka einhver var að hóa
undarlega digrum karlaróm;
útilegumenn í Ódáðahraun
eru kannske að smala fé á laun.

or maybe someone was shouting
with a strangely dark male voice;
the outlaws on Ódáðahraun
are maybe gathering sheep in secret.

Outlaws stealing sheep would be another, definitely real danger, since these men had nothing to lose. Being an outlaw meant anyone could kill you at sight without getting punished for it, stealing sheep was also punishable by death… and a person crossing over Sprengisandur very likely carried lots of things an outlaw might need, the horses alone would seem very tempting to a band of outlaws. Was the þey þey! sound really the fox or someone giving his friends a signal?

Aussicht von den Dyngjufjöll auf die Königin der Berge Islands

Herðubreið by Ulrich Latzenhofer at Flickr, this time in daylight.

Ríðum, ríðum, rekum yfir sandinn,
rökkrið er að síða á Herðubreið,
álfadrottning er að beisla gandinn,
ekki er gott að verða á hennar leið;
vænsta klárinn vildi ég gefa til
að vera kominn ofan í Kiðagil

Let’s ride, ride, fly over the desert,
darkness is on the side of Herðubreið,
the queen of elves is bridling her horse
nothing good comes from ending up in her way;
my best horse I would give
to arrive to Kiðagil.

Herðubreið is a mountain on Ódáðahraun. Elves in Icelandic lore are never automatically good news, especially if you meet them outside of civilization. So far all the stories of friendly elves happen when humans and elves share very close living quarters, but even then you only need to make one mistake and you’ll have an angry elf coming for revenge. The last lines state his destination is in the north and that he’s so desperate he’d give his best horse to be there already.


Ghosts in a landscape by Axel Kristinsson at Flickr.

Want to read more about the creatures mentioned in this post? Here goes!

Don’t let them see you (about skoffíns and Skugga-Baldurs).
Skugga-Baldur, or Blue Fox; a book by Sjón (an amazing, beautiful and horrifying story that ties into the legend of this beast – recommended for reading!)
Ghosts and hidden people (of the malicious ghost of Gunna, and the hidden people who were friendly to humans).
Beautiful and dangerous (not-so-human friendly elves).
A Yule story (or: how to behave around elves).
Draugasetrið, the haunted ghost museum (more about Icelandic ghosts).
Móðir mín í kví kví (different Icelandic ghost types specified).
The moon is shining, the dead man’s riding (a famous Icelandic ghost story).
The heartbroken girl who became a legend (another popular ghost story).