Icelandic Folk Legends

Tales of apparitions, outlaws, and things unseen

The Icelandic nation has a long and rich history of storytelling. Throughout centuries characterized by hardship, poverty, and dark winters, the Icelanders kept their spirits high and moral values intact by telling each other stories.

In this collection of fifteen Icelandic folk legends, we get a powerful sense of the Icelanders’ beliefs, values, and fears, as well as their strong need to cling to all that was pure and good.

Hardcover copy of Icelandic Folk Legends on a white table with flowers

Sample story

Gilitrutt

There once was a young farmer who lived beneath Eyjafjöll mountains in south Iceland. He was a diligent and industrious young man. The surrounding regions were considered good sheep-rearing country and the farmer owned many sheep. He was newly married when this story took place, to a young and idle woman. She was indifferent to the farm work and not motivated in the least. This upset the farmer, yet there was very little he could do. One autumn the farmer brought his wife a large sack of wool and asked her to make it into cloth for the winter. Her response was decidedly apathetic. Winter came, and the farmer’s young wife did not touch the wool, despite her husband’s repeated urgings. One day, an old crone of rather coarse build came to see the woman, to ask her for a favor. “Can you do something for me in return?” asked the woman. “Possibly,” said the crone, “what sort of work would you have me do?” “Fashioning wool into cloth,” said the woman. “Give it to me, then,” said the crone. The woman handed her the large sack of wool. The old crone took the sack, slung it across her back, and said: “I will bring you the cloth on the First Day of Summer.” “What will you take as your reward?” asked the woman. “It will not be much,” said the crone, “you must simply tell me my name on the third try, and we shall be even.” The woman agreed to this, and the crone left. Winter wore on, and the farmer repeatedly asked his wife how the wool cloth was coming along. She replied that it was none of his concern, but that he should have it on the First Day of Summer. The farmer accepted this, and the end of winter approached. The woman then turned her thoughts to what the old crone’s name might be, but saw no way of discovering it. She grew anxious and distressed. The farmer noticed the change in her and asked her what the matter was. At this, she confessed the whole story. The farmer became frightened and told her she had done a terrible deed, for the old crone was surely an ogress who planned to abduct her. Some time later, the farmer was headed up the side of a nearby mountain when he arrived at a large, rocky knoll. He was deeply absorbed by his concerns and hardly knew where he was. Suddenly he heard a knocking coming from inside the knoll. He followed the sound, and came to a crevice. Inside he saw an old woman of coarse build sitting at a loom, weaving excitedly. She repeated, over and over: “Ha ha, hee hee. Mistress does not know my name, ha ha, hee hee. Gilitrutt is my name, ha ha. Gilitrutt is my name, ha ha, hee hee.” This she muttered again and again, working the loom with great speed. Seeing this, the farmer brightened, as he was quite sure that this was the old crone who had come to see his wife the previous autumn. He went home and wrote down the name Gilitrutt on a snippet of paper. Now the last day of winter approached. The farmer’s wife became deeply despondent and spent whole days in bed. The farmer went to her and asked if she knew the name of the crone who had done the wool work for her. She said that she did not and that she would now die of despair. The farmer replied that that would not be necessary, handed her the paper with the name on it, and told her the whole story. She took it, trembling with fear, for she was afraid that the name might be wrong. She asked the farmer to be by her side when the old crone came. He refused, saying: “You did not consult me when you gave her the wool, so it is best that you see her by yourself.” The First Day of Summer arrived and the woman lay alone in bed. No one else was at the farm. Suddenly she heard a great rumbling and the hideous old crone entered. She tossed a large roll of wool cloth onto the floor and demanded: “What is my name, then, what is my name?” The young woman, nearly frightened out of her wits, replied: “Signý?” “What is my name, what is my name: guess again, mistress!” said the crone. “Ása?” the young woman stuttered. The old crone replied: “What is my name, what is my name, guess yet again, mistress!” “Your name wouldn’t be … Gilitrutt?” ventured the young woman. At this, the old crone received such a jolt that she fell headlong on the floor with a loud thud. She then got to her feet, left the place, and was never seen again. The young woman was so relieved to have made this happy escape from the ogress that she became completely transformed. She turned industrious and organized, and always worked her own wool from then on.

Note: The First Day of Summer according to the Old Icelandic Calendar is observed on a Thursday from April 19-25 in any given year. The old calendar had only two seasons, winter and summer. The First Day of Summer is still observed as a public holiday – a testament to the importance of summer for the Icelanders.

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The kvöldvaka

Iceland’s national institution, responsible for the literacy of an impoverished nation
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Icelandic folk stories and the world

How various well-known folk tales became “Icelandicized”
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The one folk motif unique to Iceland

Exemplified in “The Story of Himinbjörg”
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Extraordinarily weird stories

“Þorgeir’s Bull”, ’nuff said
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Iceland's best-known ghost story

The Deacon of Myrká, very spooky!

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Apparitions in Icelandic Folk Stories

Elves, trolls, outlaws and hidden people
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How you knew you were dealing with a ghost

The one word they absolutely could not say
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The wrath of the hidden folk

How to piss off an elf
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And so much more inside!

Two copies of Icelandic Folk Legends lying on a table next to a plant

“Icelandic Folk Legends is a vivid portrait of pre-20th century Iceland – as much in terms of living conditions and landscape as of imagination, values and belief. … Each tale speaks to deep psychological issues – whether it be the lust for power (in Þorgeir’s Bull), loss and humiliation (The Vanished Bride), betrayal (Hagridden), the trickeries of the Devil (Satan Takes a Wife), fear of ghosts (The Deacon of Myrká Church), or the benevolence of the supernatural (The Outlaw on Kiduvallafjall Mountain) – but at the heart of each of these adventures lie the human choices that dictate outcomes.”

Tobias Munthe, The Reykjavík Grapevine

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Reviews

ICELANDIC FOLK LEGENDS

While Iceland has become more known to the rest of the world in the past decade, there is still much to be desired in the realm of folktales, language resources, and culture-related materials. Thankfully, Alda is helping to turn this around. These folktales were completely new to me, and as enjoyable a read as any Grimm tale. I look forward to reading them in their original Icelandic.

KINDLE CUSTOMER VIA AMAZON

ICELANDIC FOLK LEGENDS

[…] Anyone who has read Grimm’s Fairy Tales knows these kinds of stories aren’t just for children, and I really enjoyed the Icelandic twist on this classic form. In her wonderful introduction, Sigmundsdóttir sets up the innate mysteriousness of Iceland’s environment and the historical context during which these stories were first repeated to help pass the harsh dark winters. And then there are the stories themselves, which are, as I’d hoped, pleasingly unusual.

R. SOUTHAN VIA AMAZON

ICELANDIC FOLK LEGENDS

[…] Prefaced by an extremely helpful historical overview of myth in Iceland, these fifteen stories are tersely written, as is the style (and as Alda explains in the preface) but wonderfully expressed and brilliantly evocative. I suggest reading them out loud to yourself by candlelight for the best effect 🙂

A. GARCIA VIA AMAZON

ICELANDIC FOLK LEGENDS

After I read “The Little Book of the Icelanders” & “The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days” I was convinced of the wonderful writing skills of the author, so I also bought this book about the “Icelandic Folk Legends”. In return, I got a wonderful trip through Icelandic culture and I was able to link some myths to places I visited which made the reading even more enjoyable. I highly recommend this book to everyone who is interested in some historical background about Iceland or just wants to be carried away by these well-written folk tales.

ANNELIES B. VIA AMAZON

ICELANDIC FOLK LEGENDS

It is so important for traditional folktales of all cultures to be written down and published. Alda Sigmundsdottir has skillfully translated these Icelandic tales into English for us. She has also added notes and comments to help us understand better just exactly what the tale may or may not be about.

A delightful read. I recommend it to anyone interested in folktales and legends.

KOKKOLE VIA AMAZON

ICELANDIC FOLK LEGENDS

From hidden people to conniving ghosts and nasty ogres to Lucifer himself, Icelandic Folk Legends is a collection of engaging stories of other-worldly beings. The author provides entertaining context as to how Icelanders of old came to believe in these figures as they struggled to survive in a rugged land and a challenging environment. A fun read for anyone interested in Icelandic folklore.

SHARON H VIA AMAZON

ICELANDIC FOLK LEGENDS

I bought this little book prior to my first visit to Iceland this summer, and I’m so pleased I did! Fascinating reading, with an excellent introduction that puts the folk legends into context, this slim volume really enhanced my holiday experience. The tales came alive once I was actually in Iceland, and my imagination ran riot until I was seeing ogres and trolls in every rock and boulder! Well written and clear, this book is a must for anyone planning a trip to beautiful Iceland, and a great read even if you’re not.

KIT BERRY VIA AMAZON

About the author

Alda Sigmundsdóttir the Author of the Little Books about Iceland

Alda Sigmundsdóttir is a writer, and occasional journalist. She runs her own independent press, Little Books Publishing, based in Reykjavík, Iceland.

Alda is the author of ten books, each of which explores an aspect of Icelandic culture or society. Her two latest books, The Little Book of the Icelanders at Christmas and The Little Book of Days in Iceland, are about the Icelanders’ enthusiasm for the Yuletide season, and Iceland’s special seasonal events and holidays, respectively. Alda is active on social media, and may be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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