Photo-Op with Man-Eater (KH)

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Katharina Hauptmann's picture

In this article there won’t be any mention of the ongoing volcanic eruption for a change. I will mention tourists, though, but in an amusing context.

Every day when I walk around in downtown Reykjavík I pass by the main street Laugavegur. One of the tourist shops there has placed two huge dolls outside the entrance. The oversized represent two popular characters of Icelandic folklore: Grýla and Leppalúði. The ogre couple are the parents of the 13 Icelandic Yule Lads who come to town at Christmas time.  

Now, one might be wondering why I’m writing about Christmas in September? Yes, I know, we’re not quite there yet. The reason why I mention Grýla and Leppalúði is that probably hundreds of tourists stop and take photos with the dolls of the troll couple—they must be about to appear on thousands of holiday snapshots.

Icelandic ogress Grýla on Laugavegur, Reykjavík.
Grýla on Laugavegur. Photo: Páll Stefánsson.

I wonder if the tourists would pose happily with the trolls if they knew who Grýla and Leppalúði actually are. It would probably wipe the smile off their faces.

Grýla and Leppalúði are not nice and Grýla is particularly vicious.

According to the folk tales of Jón Árnason, “Grýla has three heads and three eyes in each head ... Horribly long, curved fingernails, icy blue eyes at the back of the head and horns like a goat, her ears dangle down to her shoulders and are attached to the nose in front. She has a beard on her chin that is like knotted yarn on a weave with tangles hanging from it, while her teeth are like burnt rocks in a grate.” What a lovely lady.

When learning about the 13 Yule Lads and the mischief they do to us people one thought immediately comes to mind: Grýla and Leppalúði—worst parenting ever.

But that’s not all. Grýla’s favorite food is children.

Documentation about the man-eating ogress dates back to the 13th century where she is described as monster with 15 tails. Throughout the centuries she appears in many different poems mostly focusing on her dietary habits, eating naughty children, that is.

According to some sources, our troll lady Grýla has been married three times. Her first husband was named Gustur, but that marriage wasn’t going well and Grýla devoured him. Domestic disputes are bitches, granted, but maybe they should have tried counseling? I mean, eating your spouse is a bit extreme.

With her second husband, Boli, Grýla had a number of children. With her current and third spouse Leppalúði she produced about 20 children, of which 13 are the popular Yule Lads.

As you can see, Grýla was the ideal bugbear to frighten children and is sometimes still used to keep kids in line today. “Behave or Grýla will come for you!”

There is, however, a surprisingly beautiful song about our carnivorous troll hag you should listen to called Grýlukvæði (“Grýla’s Song”) written by Icelandic musical genius Valgeir Sigurðsson. The song is based on an old poem by Stefán í Vallanesi from the 17th century.

I wonder how all those unsuspecting tourists would react if I walked up to them and told them the truth about who they are posing with?

Mayhap I will try it one day.

Katharina Hauptmann – katha.hauptmann(at)gmail.com

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