Icelandic Language Blog

The moon is shining, the dead man’s riding. Posted by on Oct 7, 2012 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

Djákninn á Myrká (= The deacon of the Darkriver) is one of the most famous ghost stories of Iceland. Versions of it are known throughout Europe where the story’s often told with almost an identical plot. The main figure’s occupation and the way his love interest manages to save herself in the end vary – often she gets out by sheer luck alone – but in the original story she manages to pull a feat very much like the legendary one that Sæmundur fróði Sigfusson came up with on his way out of the Black Arts University. Myrká exists, as does the church and its lychgate bell. A longer version of the story in Icelandic can be found here.

Djákninn á Myrká: Wikimedia Commons

There once was a deacon who lived by Myrká in Eyjafjörður. He was engaged to a woman whose name was Guðrún and who some say lived near Bægisá.

One year right before Christmas the deacon rode to meet Guðrún and to bring her to spend the Christmas at Myrká with him. He went to Saurbæ and tried to cross a bridge there but it broke in the middle and both man and horse fell in the river. The next day when they found the deacon he was dead and had a large wound in the back of his head. He was taken home to Myrká and buried.

All this time Guðrún’s home farm had been cut off the rest of the village by snow and no one could tell her of the fate of the deacon. On the Christmas Eve there was a knock on the door. Another woman answered but saw no one outside. Guðrún thought she needed to hurry and quickly put her arm in one sleeve of her coat, but threw the rest over her shoulder without putting her other arm in and rushed outside. There stood a horse, the deacon on his back, and the deacon helped Guðrún sit behind him. Then he took off so fast that it felt like flying.

The deacon was very quiet the whole journey. Once his hat shifted and the moon shone on his head, and Guðrún saw the white bone of his skull. Then the deacon said:

“Máninn líður,
Dauðinn ríður.
Sérðu ekki hvítan blett
í hnakka mínum,
Gárun Gárun?”*

(= “The moon shines, the dead rides. Don’t you see the white patch in my neck, Gárun Gárun?”)

They came to the church and the deacon asked Guðrún to wait while he tended to the horse. She looked at the graveyard and saw to her great shock that there was an open grave. She ran to the lychgate bell but the deacon caught her coat. Guðrún slipped out of it easily because only one of her arms was in it, and caught the bell ropes pulling them with all her might. Looking back she saw her coat disappear into the grave with the deacon and his arms sweep the dirt back to cover it.
The villagers that had been alarmed by the sound of the church bells found Guðrún still ringing them; she was so afraid that she dared not stop in fear of the afturgangur** of the deacon getting up again.

The same night the deacon came for Guðrún for the second time and was so insistent that no one in the village got any sleep. Half a month went by and Guðrún could not be left alone for a moment, and even at night there had to be someone watching over her. From Skagafjöður came a man who knew magic, and he let dig up a large stone. He managed to make the ghost of the deacon lie underneath it, but some say he was tied to the rock with chains; there he sleeps to this very day. Of Guðrún it is said that she never became quite the same afterwards.


*According to an Icelandic belief the dead cannot say the word Guð (= God) and therefore the deacon could only say Gárun instead of Guðrún.

**This is a type of a ghost that follows someone until they die. Some of the afturgangur are so fierce that they follow entire families, bringing about the end of them. This is in particular true about the ghosts of the útburður, “carried outside”, newborn children that have been left outside to die. Most often the afturgangur type of a ghost bears a strong grudge against the person they’re following, but they’ve been said to follow people for other reasons as well, like the deacon in this story. More info about the different types of Icelandic ghosts can be found here.

Gæðingur beer with two pictures of the deacon by Hugleikur Dagsson, the man also behind Should You be Laughing at This?

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!