Icelandic Language Blog

Don’t let them see you. Posted by on Oct 18, 2012 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history

By now you may have noticed that the October posts follow a certain… theme. Let’s now continue with more scary creatures fit for the season – Icelandic cat-fox monsters skuggabaldur (= shadowbaldur: the origin of the name seems to be a mystery) and skoffín.

Of these the skoffín had a fox as its father and a cat as its mother, and therefore they were easily noticed and killed at birth. Some also say that the skoffíns were born out of a very old hen’s egg, one that’s smaller than the others; however, the end result was the same. A strange looking animal that was thought to be unfit to live.*

Skuggabaldur was fathered by a cat with a fox as mother, and since they were born in the wild there was no way of keeping them under control. Their appearance was apparently just as unsettling as a skoffín’s and they were strong and powerful enough to kill sheep and men, which they often did do in stories about them.

In fact both monsters were deadly to approach. As one story put it:

“Engin skepna, hvorki menn né málleysingjar**, mega standast augnaráð neinna þessara meinvætta og liggja þegar dauðir er þeir verða fyrir tilliti þeirra.”

“No creature, not a man nor an animal, is able to resist the gaze of any of these harmful supernatural beings*** and will instantly fall dead if their eyes meet.”

Even worse, some stories insist that it did not matter whether you saw them or not, if they saw you you were dead, the end. Both creatures were capable of moving in both daylight and dark and at least one skoffín was clever enough to hide on a church roof once upon a time, killing people one by one as they were leaving. The priest eventually managed to correctly guess the nature of the menace, tied a mirror onto a long stick and killed it by reflecting its own gaze back at it.

Skuggabaldur was still a touch more dangerous. It could outsmart a human if it so wanted to and could speak. One such skuggabaldur had been causing sheep much damage and it was tracked down to a cave in Blöndugil. The men attacked it and as it was dying it said: “Tell the kitty at Bollastaður that skuggabaldur was killed today”. The man who had killed the beast told this story at Bollastaður as the skuggabaldur had asked him to, but when he got to the part where they had killed it an old tomcat that had been quietly sitting in the kitchen jumped up, leaped at the man and tore at his throat until he died.

Misty autumn morning.  The pictures are taken from in front of the main building of the University of Iceland: arranged side by side these photos would give you a roughly 180° view.

Skugga-Baldur is also the name of a book by Sjón (called The Blue Fox in English) that uses the legend of the monster in a unique way. It’s a short, beautiful and melancholy story, easily enjoyable even if you didn’t know what a skuggabaldur is. Yet knowledge on the creature that’s not quite a cat nor a fox, not quite wild but not tame either, somewhat human yet an animal and very, extremely dangerous, gives you an advantage in understanding the slowly unfolding mystery told in the book. I would heartily recommend it to anyone wanting to read a very Icelandic tale in both style, storytelling and background. It will also give you a quick look at how Iceland used to be back in the days when people still believed there might be something unnatural and evil hiding outside, waiting to lay its eyes on you…


*Sadly human babies were no exception to this. A baby born with a condition that was obvious was often quickly taken away and the mother was only told that it had been stillborn. This is another important theme in the book by Sjón by the way.

**Mállaus (= without a tongue/language) means an animal.

***It’s lucky that in Icelandic it’s a bit faster and easier to say “harmful supernatural beings” than in English: vættur is a supernatural creature, mein means harm, damage or disease. F.ex. meindýr = vermin, pest; meinyrði = sarcasm. However, meinhægur means good-natured or gentle – hægur = slow!

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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!


  1. Urshka:

    thank you so much for your posts!!! i enjoy them a lot and they are very helpful!
    Iceland is definitively my next destination! i can’t wait to ride on Icelandic horses over the country and watch whales and see all that beautiful Icelandic nature!
    Because i also enjoy very much to learn languages i would love to start with Icelandic.How do you find it learning it? I learned languages with lots of different language-family groups, so i would love to take that challenge!
    Do you have any suggestion like which book might help or which internet side?
    thanx in advance!

    • hulda:

      @Urshka Thank you for the nice comment, I’m glad to hear that!
      You’re very welcome to visit. At the moment the season may not be at its best for whale watching, so may I recommend spring or summer instead? The beautiful nature will be here all around the year though.

      Icelandic is a difficult language to learn, or should I say it takes some hard work to master. I’ve found that the best way to learn it is by immersing one’s self in a “language bath” one way or another; even if you cannot actually be in Iceland there are still ways to do this. I know of several blogs over on tumblr, for example, that blog about the language and network with the Icelanders’ blogs, so that would be one fun way of creating a small scale language immersion.

      If you’re looking for the basics of grammar etc. Icelandic online can help you to a good start!

      If you’re more interested in language learning tools, there’s also some great vocabulary learning software available at Transparent Languages. Some of them are totally free so you could have a try at them and see how they work for you.

      There are also fun ways of learning Icelandic on the Facebook – how about the group called Learn Useless Icelandic? Don’t let the name scare you away though, it may not be a 100% serious group but you may still learn quite a lot without even noticing it – I know many of my classmates have clicked “like” here. 😀