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  • Writer's pictureMacabre Emporium Pod

Episode 47 - Grýla and Jólakötturinn (The Christmas Witch and Yule Cat)


Grýla: The Christmas Witch

Gryla, Christmas Witch
Grýla: The Christmas Witch

This month we are hopping on a Christmas train and setting off on a creepy ride through the legends and folklore of the not-so-nice side of Christmas. We won’t be talking about Santa and Mrs. Clause, and the excited looks on children's faces when they wake up Christmas morning to see the plethora of presents under their trees. These will be faces of shock and terror. So let’s get started.

Our first stop on the Christmas lore train takes us to the land of fire and ice, otherwise known as Iceland. With its starkly different landscapes, from volcanos to glaciers, waterfalls, black sand beaches and blue lagoons all set under the northern lights -  this is the perfect place in terms of the creatures that could roam, and the legends that could form.

One such legend is that of a Christmas witch named Gryla (gree-la). The name doesn’t sound as ominous as Krampus, but when her name is translated, it means growler…which puts her up there with the big K. 

Gryla showed up in the 13th century but wasn’t associated with Christmas until the 17th century. She started out as being a personification of the dark and cold, the gloom that comes from winter. She WAS the threat of winter. But she turned into something else entirely. 

She is described as a giant hideous ogress (female ogre) that had 15 tails, eyes in the back of her head, blackened teeth, a matted beard, ears that hung down to her nose and large hooves. Gryla resides in the mountains with her third husband Leppaludi, who was considered to be a lazy homebody. Together they had 13 sons, which are known as the Yule Lads, and they all had a pet named Jolakotturin (yola-ka-turin), or as we know it, the Yule Cat, but truth be told, this kitty was Grylas. One big happy dysfunctional family. Legend also states that her first two husbands were eaten by Gryla herself once she became bored of them. Some say that Gryla was the first true feminist in Iceland. 

It is said that she has a massive hunger for children. Not just any children, but in particular, naughty children. She possesses the ability to detect the naughty ones all year round - so you could say she only cares about the naughty list that Santa may have. So when she actually travels away from home, and down the side of the mountain, and to the towns below, she knows exactly who she is after…the bad seeds. 

She would show up with her giant sacks, snatch the naughty child up, toss them in and then return home to prepare a feast of naughty children stew in her cauldron for her family, which just so happens to be her absolute favorite meal. The naughtier they were, the better they tasted. Even if you’re a good child, and have done no wrong, Gryla will set her kids or her kitty on you. So no one is really safe. In fact, Gryla is a ballsy one, she will show up at your doorstep and ask, and even beg, the parents in the home if she could have their naughty child. 

The tale of Gryla was used to keep kids on the straight and narrow, parents hoping the threat of her would set their kids on the right path. Needless to say, all children, good and bad, were terrified of Gryla. And still are as she remains a living legend, and probably will for many years to come.



Jólakötturinn: The Yule Cat

The Yule Cat
Jólakötturinn: The Yule Cat

For years our parents would try and scare us with coal from Santa Claus if we weren’t good all year. I’m sure they are thankful that they didn’t have to deal with Elf on the Shelf like some of our friends have to. But with the internet at our fingertips, we all have come to learn that in other parts of the world other countries have more terrifying ways to keep their children in line for Christmas. 

So what exactly is Yule? I’m sure you have heard the term before like for example, Troll the ancient Yuletide carol in the song “Deck the Halls” we all have sung in Christmas concerts in Elementary school or will hear from your kids if you have them in the coming weeks. Even though modern lyric sheets I had seen changed it to Christmas instead of Yule. 

But, Yule is a winter festival historically observed by the Germanic peoples that were incorporated into Christmas during the Christianisation of the Germanic peoples (Central Europe, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark for example). The Christmas tree and Yule logs, Yule Goat, and so on would be incorporated into modern Christmas traditions. So it is almost as if anything labeled Christmas could be switched to Yule back into its original origins. 

The Jólakötturinn (pronounced 'yola-ka-turin'), or Yule Cat, originates from Icelandic legend. For the rest of this episode, I am going to refer to it as the Yule cat just so I don’t accidentally summon an elder God here into the emporium, even though I’m sure Salem would either keep us safe from it or make it his new playmates. 

The origins of the Yule cat were first mentioned coming from a collection of legends and folklore in 1862 by Jon Arnason in a single paragraph about an evil beast that would either eat those who did not get new clothes for Christmas or eat their “Christmas Bit” which is an extra portion of food given to those taking residents on a farm. Wool in these times was Iceland’s biggest export. 

Even though sources are scarce where the Yule Cat comes from traditionally the Yule cat was used as a means to threaten or entice farm workers to finish processing wool they had collected in the fall before Christmas. 

Those who did participate would be rewarded with new clothes, whereas those who didn't would get nothing and be left as prey for the Yule Cat. 

It wouldn’t be until the 17th century that  Jólakötturinn ( 'yola-ka-Turin') would become associated with Gryla that Sarah just told us about until the 17th Century with her connections to Christmas. The yule cat has also been found in folklore as a companion to Saint Nicholas himself as well. In 1764 tellings of the Yule Cat and other legends alike would be banned as people would find them too terrifying, but the ban was lifted shortly after but I couldn’t find a date when that was. 

The Yule cat has always been described as being huge and viscous and usually a black cat. I couldn’t any real descriptions of how big but from all the drawings and such I had seen,  The Yule Cat would have to be big enough to feast on humans but some sources did say it was as big as a house.  Along with glowing eyes and sharp whiskers and claws. Some depictions of the Yule cat take after the Norwegian forest cats. Which look similar to the popular huge chonks known as Maine coons.

So why a Yule Cat and not a Yule Dog?

It could be that just a cat was selected as they aren’t as clumsy as dogs or are easily distracted by snausages. Or that cats are very stealthy and light steppers when stalking their prey. 

Cats have always been more common than dogs in Iceland, both as pets and wild animals. Dogs were banned from the country in 1924. Today, dog owners must obtain a special permit to keep their heckin’ good boys. 

The Yule Cat we know today wouldn't come until 1932 in a collection of poems by Johannes ur Kotlum in his published collection, Jolin Koma “Christmas is Coming” which I will read at the end of this closing out this week’s episode. 

As the times changed so did the cat. Instead of being used to scare workers into not being lazy to receive new clothes in the winter, whereas now parents would use the cat as a way to prompt good behavior where the tradition of receiving new warm Christmas clothes still carries on today, and to keep the cat away. 

The legend of the Yule cat is also to promote being generous to those in need of warm clothes so they aren’t eaten by the cat. So parents maybe instead of the Elf you could use the story of the giant murder Floof to be thankful for new clothes on Christmas Eve.  

 In a less terrifying telling of the yule cat, he would only eat the Christmas dinner of those who didn’t receive new clothes. 

In 2018 the town of Reykjavík, the capital of Iceland you can find a 19-foot-tall yule cat scultpure that is covered in 6,500 LED lights. With a black frame and white LEDs for its body with red eyes

In 1980 sing Bjork covered the Yule cat in one of her songs and is a popular Christmas song in Iceland. 

Jólakötturinn by Johannes ur Kotlum:

You all know the Yule Cat

And that Cat was huge indeed.

People didn’t know where he came from

Or where he went.

He opened his glaring eyes wide,

The two of them glowing bright.

It took a really brave man

To look straight into them.

His whiskers, sharp as bristles,

His back arched up high.

And the claws of his hairy paws

Were a terrible sight.

He gave a wave of his strong tail,

He jumped and he clawed and he hissed.

Sometimes up in the valley,

Sometimes down by the shore.

He roamed at large, hungry and evil

In the freezing Yule snow.

In every home

People shuddered at his name.

If one heard a pitiful “meow”

Something evil would happen soon

Everybody knew he hunted men

But didn’t care for mice.

He picked on the very poor

That no new garments got

For Yule – who toiled

And lived in dire need.

From them he took in one fell swoop

Their whole Yule dinner

Always eating it himself

If he possibly could.

Hence it was that the women

At their spinning wheels sat

Spinning a colorful thread

For a frock or a little sock.

Because you mustn’t let the Cat

Get hold of the little children.

They had to get something new to wear

From the grownups each year.

And when the lights came on, on Yule Eve

And the Cat peered in,

The little children stood rosy and proud

All dressed up in their new clothes.

Some had gotten an apron

And some had gotten shoes

Or something that was needed

– That was all it took.

For all who got something new to wear

Stayed out of that pussy-cat’s grasp

He then gave an awful hiss

But went on his way.

Whether he still exists I do not know.

But his visit would be in vain

If next time everybody

Got something new to wear.

Now you might be thinking of helping

Where help is needed most.

Perhaps you’ll find some children

That have nothing at all.

Perhaps searching for those

That live in a lightless world

Will give you a happy day

And a Merry, Merry Yule.

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