Meet Grýla, the Christmas Troll Who Eats Iceland's Naughtiest Children

Grýla and Leppalúði installations in Akureyri, Iceland
Grýla and Leppalúði installations in Akureyri, Iceland
David Stanley, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In Iceland, naughty children don't just get lumps of coal during the Christmas season. Sometimes, they get eaten. Meet Grýla, the fearsome fairy tale ogre that keeps Icelandic kids toeing the line during the holidays.

The Christmas Witch, as some English-language sources call her (like Smithsonian magazine, which took a fun dive into the myth in 2017) is actually more like the Christmas Troll, one of many scary, man-eating trolls featured in Icelandic folk tales. During jól, Iceland's Christmas season, she supposedly comes down from her cave in the mountains to gather up ill-behaved kids for her and her lazy and browbeaten husband Leppalúði to make into stew.

Folk tales and poems about Grýla have been around since at least the Middle Ages, according to British folklore researcher Jacqueline Simpson's 1972 book Icelandic Folktales and Legends. In Icelandic folklore, trolls are stupid giants, most of whom are very dangerous and actively hate Christianity. They're usually used to explain rock formations, which many legends claim are either trolls turned to stone or stones thrown by a troll at a church. In the 13th century, the word grýla was a general term for a she-troll, but eventually, it came to name a specific, child-eating monster.

The legends don't agree on what, exactly, Grýla might look like, though like all Icelandic trolls, she's a gross, massive giant. One rhyme says she has 15 tails, each of which holds 100 bags with 20 children in each bag, doomed to be a feast for the troll's family. Another says she has 40 tails, and still another says she carries a bag of children on her thigh. Some poems say she has 300 heads, each of which has three eyes. Others describe eyes in the back of her head, ears that hang so long that they hit her in the nose, a matted beard, blackened teeth, and hooves. All these stories agree on one point: She's very, very ugly.

Grýla isn't a standalone figure in Icelandic folklore, though. She is the mother of the Yule Lads, 13 mischief makers that supposedly visit on the 13 days of Christmas. Her companion, the Jólakötturinn—the Yule Cat—is said to have a taste for human flesh himself, lurking in the snowy countryside and gobbling up anyone, adults or children, who didn't get any clothes for Christmas—a sign that they didn't work hard enough.

Grýla functions as a cautionary tale, but most adults don't really believe in her, unlike, say, elves, which a number of modern Icelanders consider an important and very real part of their culture. As Simpson writes in the introduction to her book, even hundreds of years ago, "parents taught their children to fear the bugbear Grýla, but did not believe in her themselves."

Some tales have softened Grýla's image over the years. In an episode of Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, for instance, she's presented as a powerful witch who protects mistreated children, not a monster who's intent on devouring them. She's now depicted in statues and Christmas installations all over Iceland—even at airports—but in many cases, she retains at least a little of her scary vibe.

Love Yuletide monsters? Take our quiz to find out which legendary Christmas figure you're most like.

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

iStock
iStock

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

If March 15 Is the Ides of March, What Does That Make March 16?

iStock.com/bycostello
iStock.com/bycostello

Everyone knows that the soothsayer in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was talking about March 15 when he warned the Roman emperor to "beware the Ides of March." We also all know Caesar's response: "Nah, I gotta head into the office that day." But if March 15 is the Ides of March, what does that make March 16?

At the time of Caesar's assassination, Romans were using the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar himself). This was a modified version of the original Roman calendar, and it is very similar to the one we use today (which is called the Gregorian calendar). A major difference, however, was how Romans talked about the days.

Each month had three important dates: the Kalends (first day of the month), the Ides (the middle of the month), and the Nones (ninth day before the Ides, which corresponded with the first phase of the Moon). Instead of counting up (i.e., March 10, March 11, March 12), Romans kept track by counting backwards and inclusively from the Kalends, Ides, or Nones. March 10 was the sixth day before the Ides of March, March 11 was the fifth day before the Ides of March, and so on.

Because it came after the Ides, March 16 would’ve been referred to in the context of April: "The 17th day before the Kalends of April." The abbreviated form of this was a.d. XVII Kal. Apr., with "a.d." standing for ante diem, meaning roughly "the day before."

So, had Julius Caesar been murdered on March 16, the soothsayer's ominous warning would have been, "Beware the 17th day before the Kalends of April." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

This story first ran in 2016.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER