Grýla and Jólakötturinn – The Christmas Cat

By Heidi Herman-Kerr |

In the far mountains of Iceland, way up in the north, there is a place that no one dares go. There are no roads, just paths worn from the feet of sheep and a few other creatures. There are steep cliffs and rocky parts, all filled with caves and hidden places. This is home to one particular troublesome and terrible troll. Her name is Gryla (gree-la) and she is a hideous creature, half-ogre half-troll. She and her troll-husband Leppalúði (Lep-a-luthi) live in the Dimmuborgir lava fields with their many children.

Like most trolls, she was mean and bad-tempered. She slobbered and snorted, she smelled bad and was generally unpleasant in every way imaginable. But, she was also known in the troll world to be a wonderful cook. Other trolls made any excuse to visit and stay for dinner, often requesting a particular dish, her specialty. She was most famous for her Bad Kids Stew.

She spent most of her time searching for and collecting the main ingredient for her famous stew – bad children. She looked for the laziest ones who didn’t do chores, gave their parents trouble or the children that played mean pranks. Gryla had a special skill in finding these children. She has thirteen ears on each side of her head, which gave her excellent hearing, even across very far distances. She could hear the moaning and groaning, and the complaints of lazy children who didn’t want to do their chores. Sometimes she would go herself, and sometimes she would send one of her troll-children to snatch the human child up. They would be careful not to be seen, stuffing the child into a sack to carry back to the mountains where Gryla would keep them in a cave prison until she made her Bad Kids Stew.

Gryla often could not get to all the bad children because the days in Iceland are so short in the summertime. Any troll caught out in sunlight would turn to rock, so they could only move about the country for the few hours of darkness each night. For all those lazy children they couldn’t get to, Gryla would carefully write their names down so she could find and steal them in the fall and winter. They had the most time to collect the bad children during the long nights of December. Soon, thirteen of Gryla’s troll-boys became known as the Yule Lads because they came to the villages around Christmas.

But, many times Gryla went alone to collect the bad children for her stew pot. She was often seen in the moonlight dragging a sack, closely followed by a monstrous-looking cat. The stories of Gryla’s horrible ugliness were legendary. Everyone seemed to see her just a little differently. Some said she had hooves where her feet should have been and ran hunched over. Others said she had fifteen tails that stuck out in every direction from under her skirts. Still others described a face covered with warts and a crooked smile showing three rotting teeth. But all the stories had one thing in common – she always wore an odd hood that covered her head and hung down around her shoulders, stopping just at the top of her arm. It was much too big to be a scarf and far too short to be a proper cloak.

One cold winter’s night, Gryla was out to fill her bag with a few mean children. She was planning to have company for dinner the next week and wanted to serve her Bad Kids Stew.

Her pet walked by her side. The ugly little animal had his own special way of sniffing out the laziest children. He would lurk around after the sheep roundup each fall, waiting for the shearing.

Gryla always sent him to steal wool so she wouldn’t have to shear her own sheep. Gryla wove many clothes with magic protection spells and needed a lot of wool. The cat would watch for unguarded bags and steal as many as he could. He noticed that everyone that helped with the shearing, or worked the wool into yarn or cloth was rewarded with new clothes just before Christmas. So, Gryla’s cat liked to find those children who didn’t get new clothes at Christmas because those were the laziest. All he had to do around Christmas was to look for those who wore old clothes. Because of this, he soon became known as Jólakötturinn (yola-cut-ter-rin), The Christmas Cat.

On this winter’s night, Gryla and the Christmas Cat had visited the homes of two lazy children, stealing them from their beds and tossing them in bags Gryla carried over her shoulder. She was tired and decided to only collect one more tonight and that would make a good stew for her company dinner. They tromped along, soon arriving at the small house at the foot of the mountain. Jólakötturinn ran up the side of the turf roof and down into the wooden smoke hole. Jumping down onto the table inside, he used his nose to push open the window for Gryla to reach inside.

The cat jumped outside as Gryla reached toward the sleeping child, snatching her up in one long bony hand. The little girl’s eyes flew open and she instantly knew it was the horrible ogre Gryla that had come to steal her away. Before she could shout a warning and wake the household, Gryla had pulled her through the window and run off down the road, the little girl tucked under her arm. Her long troll legs took huge steps and in no time they were several miles away from the farmhouse.