Iceland: land of beauty, quirk and trolls

northern lights reykjavik

Iceland… magical, memorable… creepy.

Iceland was stopover #2 on my journey home to the states. Traveling to different countries at this time of year has really been a treat. I’m learning about how different countries do Christmas. For instance, the infamous Caga Tio in Barcelona, the present-pooping log. I thought Catalonia had it’s own interesting yet strange Christmas traditions, but Iceland takes the cake with their 13 mischievous trolls who descend from their cave the days leading up to Christmas, wreaking havoc on the town.

In general, the Icelanders have interesting folklore year-round. It is said that over 50% of Icelanders believe that there may be “hidden people” or “elves” and trolls. More and more people say they don’t believe in these myths, but they also don’t deny it… just in case 🙂

For instance, here are some common (and not-so common) Icelandic myths.

  • The elves, or “hidden people” live in the countryside and mountains. If you disturb their homes, it’s supposedly bad luck. They aren’t like Santa’s helpers – they look just like people. Supposedly, they can make themselves appear whenever they want. So, you don’t know if you’re talking to a hidden person or not… Typically, they live just like people – raising cattle, creating their own businesses, etc. They are generally considered harmless, unless you disturb their habitat. Then, they can become territorial and someone might end up with a broken ankle or stolen baby.
  • Also, you have the trolls, who only come out at night. Typically, they live in the mountains as well as the lava rock. If they’re out when the sun comes out, they turn to stone. In fact, there’s a field of many stones (I can’t recall the name) which supposedly was a troll party gone awry. The trolls had too much alcohol, didn’t realize the sun was coming up, then turned to stone mid-fest. Unfortunate. Makes for an interesting landscape though.
  • Supposedly, back in the day, if children walked backwards, they would take time from their mother’s life.
  • Last, but not least… If a pregnant woman looks at aurora borealis, her child will be born cross-eyed. Who comes up with this stuff?!

Think that Icelandic folklore is bizarre?

Just wait. They pick it up a notch during Christmas-time. Instead of Santa, they have the 13 “Yule Lads” of Christmas. They come out one day at a time, every day leading up to Christmas. Get ready, cuz we’re about to get real weird. By the way, all of this information comes directly from Icelandtravel.is.

1. Sheep-Cote Clod

Coming to down on December 12th, he suckles the yews in the farmers’ sheep sheds, which was hard for him since his legs are stiff as wood. I know, don’t ask…

Sheep cote clod iceland

2. Gully Gawk

This guy waits in gullies for a chance to sneak into the cowshed to slurp the foam off the fresh milk when the milkmaid looks away. Huh?

gully gawk iceland

3. Stubby

Stubby (aka Pan Scraper) is a short little guy. He uses this to his advantage by hiding and snatching bits of food from the frying pan.

stubby icelandic trolls

4. Spoon Licker

On December 15th it is Spoon Licker’s turn. He likes to sneak into houses and lick the wooden spoon used to scrape the pots. Since this is all he eats, he’s a lanky one.

5. Pot Scraper

This one snatches away the pots that have not been washed and licks the food remains from the insides.

pot scraper icelandic troll

6. Bowl Licker

Up next is Bowl Licker. In the past, Icelanders ate from lidded wooden bowls that they sometimes kept under the bed or on the floor. Bowl Licker would hide under the bed, and if someone put their bowl on the floor he grabbed it and licked it clean.

icelandic troll bowl licker

7. Door Slammer

Pretty straightforward what this guy does… He likes to make a lot of noise by slamming doors, making sure no one gets rest.

iceland door slammer troll

8. Skyr Gobbler

First of all, what the heck is skyr? It’s an Icelandic dairy drink, similar to yogurt. This lad likes it so much that he’ll sneak into the pantry and eat all the skyr until he howls with indigestion.

9. Sausage Swiper

Yes, his name is really Sausage Swiper. He loves to eat sausages and will sit up in your rafters waiting for an opportunity to steal them. #hideyoursausage

10. Window Peeper

December 21st is when Window Peepervisits. While not as greedy as some of his brothers, Window Peeper can still give you a fright. Supposedly he’s just peeping in order to find something to steal, but I have a feeling he’s just being a creeper.

11. Door Sniffer

Door Sniffer? Why, Iceland, why? This guy has a huge nose. The smell of Christmas cookies and leaf bread is what attracts him to your doorway and if you look away he will attempt to steal some.

door sniffer iceland troll

12. Meat Hook

Second to last, Meat Hook arrives on December 23rd, or St. Thorlaks Mass. Meat Hook is crazy about meat. He’ll climb up to your roof and lower a long hook through the chimney to try and snag a smoked leg of lamb hanging from the rafters, or a piece of smoked lamb from the pot.

13. Candle Begger

The last of the brothers is Candle Beggar who arrives on Christmas Eve, 24 December. In the old days, candles were the brightest lights available to people in Iceland and were made of tallow. All children longed to have their very own candle for Christmas. Candle Beggar just wants a candle of his own to take a bite out of.

After Christmas…

One by one, each trolls heads back to their cave, where their ogress Mother lives. She owns a gigantic black cat that eats your children if you didn’t buy them new clothes for Christmas.

What the…

Other Icelandic facts:

  • You can’t buy alcohol anywhere other than the government-run liquor stores, called Vidbudin.
  • Alcohol was illegal until 1989 (starting in 1915)
  • Distributing and selling pornography has been illegal since 1869, and strip clubs were banned in 2010. This is thanks to their intensely strong feminist movement. I mean, they were the first country in the world to elect a female president.
  • They also elected Icelandic comedian, Jon Gnarr, as their mayor in 2010 (fun fact: he frequently dressed in drag.)
  • Iceland has the 5th highest GDP per capita in Europe, at $75,000 per year. Not bad, iceland.
  • They technically don’t have last names. They take your dad’s first name and add “son” or “dotter” to it. That becomes your last name. So everyone calls you by your first name. Even the phone book lists people by their first name.
  • They speak on the in-breath. So try to say “Reykjavik” as you inhale. And try not to choke.
  • There are only 320K people on Iceland. Most of them are related in one way or another. There’s even an app to help avoid accidental incest!
  • They are on many “top” lists. But note that most will have a caveat… which is “per capita” (for instance, they won Mrs. Universe 4 times, so they say they have the most beautiful women in the world – per capita.)

Other than those strange things…

Iceland is a land of beauty, mystique, and extremes. From the black sand beach with lava rock formations, gigantic stretches of slow-moving glaciers, the 8 months of pure darkness and 3 months of pure light, and interesting tales of terror and trolls… Iceland was truly an experience I’ll never forget.

BUT: one caveat. It was EXPENSIVE! Even people from New York thought so. To put it into perspective:

  • A crappy burger: $20
  • Typical Icelandic food: at least $30
  • One guy told me he paid $46 for a sushi roll. No sushi is worth that much, unless it has a Michelin star. Which it didn’t.
  • But the prices make sense; it is an island after all.

One thing that surprised me was how similar Iceland is to Idaho from a landscape perspective. In Idaho, we have lava rocks, ice caves, mountains, lakes, nature, beauty. And it is all very visually similar. Iceland of course has the beach and the ocean, but when driving through the vast country side in Iceland, I felt like I was right at home. So if you want a less-expensive alternative to Iceland, go to Idaho. But of course, you can’t see the Northern Lights in Idaho…

Here are some pictures of the journey along the “gold circle” – one of the most visited areas of Iceland, known for it’s waterfalls, glaciers and geysers.

I think we even spotted a troll along the way…

icelandic troll

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Cheers, Roumena Kratchunova

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1 comment

  1. Oh Rumi….you save me Soooo much mo way in travel expenses😎….I can “go” thru your experiences….and not have
    to pack my clothes, stand in lines or buy a ticket…

    Spain and Europe absolutely yes….Iceland….nahhh….I’ll pass on that one!

    Thanks so much for your columns
    Cheers Linda

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