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The Deacon of Dark River

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Now that summer with its wonderful bright nights is near, ghost stories should be the last thing on my mind. But for some reason I began humming the song “Garún” by Icelandic band Mannakorn to myself the other day: “Tunglid haegt um himinn lídur; daudur madur hesti rídur; Garún…” which was enough to send shivers down my spine. (You can listen to part of the song here if you click on the blue arrow in front of the title.)

The song’s lyrics are a direct reference to Iceland’s most famous ghost story “Djákninn á Myrká” (“The Deacon of Dark River”), which has this spooky poem:

“Máninn lídur daudinn rídur; sérdu ekki hvítan blett í hnakka mínum, Garún, Garún?”

“The moon is gliding across the sky, Death is riding; can’t you see a white spot in the back of my head, Garún, Garún?”

This is what the deacon from the farm Myrká in Hörgárdalur, northeast Iceland, said to his girlfriend Gudrún when they were riding on his horse Faxi on Christmas Eve a long time ago. When he called her “Garún”—as a ghost he couldn’t say “God,” “Gud” in Icelandic—she noticed that he was dead.

The ghost story is quite tragic to begin with—one feels sorry for the poor deacon who died at Christmas—but then it takes a very twisted turn.

The deacon of Myrká, whose name remains unknown, rode over to his girlfriend Gudrún, who lived on the farm Baegisá on the other side of Hörgá river, a few days before Christmas to invite her to the Christmas celebration at Myrká. They planned that he would pick her up on Faxi on Christmas Eve.

On his way back, when crossing the frozen Hörgá river, the deacon didn’t take the sudden thaw into consideration and the ice cracked below the hooves of his horse. The next morning a farmer from the neighborhood found Faxi, all wet and shivering. He recognized the horse and began searching for the deacon. He finally found him dead in the river; he had suffered an ugly wound after a chunk of ice hit him in the back of the head. The deacon was taken home to Myrká and buried a week before Christmas.

Because of the impassable Hörgá river, no one had been able to bring Gudrún the tragic news of her boyfriend. On Christmas Eve it turned cold again and the river froze, so Gudrún began looking forward to the Christmas celebrations at Myrká and waited impatiently for the deacon to come fetch her on Faxi.

Suddenly she heard a knock on the door and another woman answered it. There was no one outside. It was both dark and bright, because the clouds kept drifting in front of and away from the moon. Gudrún told the woman she was expecting a visitor so the person who knocked on the door was probably waiting for her to answer it.

Gudrún opened the door while putting on her coat. She was in such a hurry that she only managed to put on one sleeve, tossing the other one over her shoulder. Outside she saw Faxi and a man standing beside him who she assumed was the deacon. He helped her mount the horse and then sat down in front of her, taking the reigns.

They did not speak until Faxi jumped down a hillock causing the deacon’s hat to unveil the back of his head and Gudrún looked straight into his skull. The clouds drifted away from the moon and then the deacon spoke the aforementioned words. Gudrún was taken aback but remained silent. When they arrived at Myrká the deacon told her:

“Bíddu hérna, Garún, Garún, medan eg flyt hann Faxa, Faxa, upp fyrir garda, garda.”

“Wait here, Garún, Garún, while I take Faxi, Faxi, out of the graveyard, graveyard.”

Then Gudrún noticed an open grave in the Myrká cemetery. She became very frightened and frantically started ringing the church bells. Then the deacon grabbed her from behind and tried to take her with him to his grave.

But lucky for Gudrún she had only managed to put on one of the sleeves of her coat. The deacon had grabbed hold of the loose one, ripping Gudrún’s coat in two and then falling into the grave. The heaps of dirt from either side of the grave fell into the grave on top of the deacon, burying him anew.

Scared out of her wits, Gudrún kept ringing the church bells until the inhabitants of Myrká came running outside to fetch her. They told her about the deacon’s death and she told them what had happened to her on the way from Baegisá.

Gudrún stayed overnight at Myrká, but during the night the deacon came back to haunt her. No one on Myrká slept that night. For two weeks after Christmas the deacon haunted Gudrún every night and she could never be left alone.

Finally a sorcerer from Skagafjördur, the neighboring county, was hired to help Gudrún. He had a giant rock near Myrká dug up and when the deacon appeared after dark, the sorcerer made the deacon return to his grave and then rolled the rock on top of it.

Since then the deacon has rested in peace—but Gudrún went insane.

Now, one can obviously debate about the truth of this story, but Myrká still exists. I have been there and there is indeed a huge rock in the cemetery by the farm.

“The Deacon of Dark River” has kept many an Icelandic child awake and shivering with fear through decades, even centuries, and the story has been an inspiration to local musicians, artists and film makers.

(When reading about two new Icelandic Christmas movies in the pipeline on Wednesday, one of which will be the first full-length Icelandic horror movie, I thought “The Deacon of Dark River” would make an excellent Christmas horror movie if the director of Unholy Night wants to continue along the same line.)

Visitors to Iceland who are interested in ghost stories should visit the Ghost Center in Stokkseyri where they can put themselves in Gudrún’s shoes and meet the late Deacon of Dark River and other famous Icelandic ghosts.

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Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.