Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Thirteen Days of Trolls

While researching for my Christmas storytelling program, I came upon the Yuletide Lads of Ireland. Years ago I remember reading about the trolls of Iceland who would come to play tricks, create havoc and leave gifts for little children in the 13 days preceding Christmas. These "lads" are certainly not your average Santa Claus! Born of a troll mother, they were raised, according to the tale, in predictable troll-like fashion, with few manners or redeeming qualities. (The trolls also kept a cat, called the Yule Cat, which would eat you if you did not have new clothes to wear for Christmas! One could theorize that perhaps this was a way to get people to clean up at the holidays?)

I am fascinated by these wild and unruly "boys" who have over time come to take on more of the Santa role, even dressing in traditional Santa outfits--but still playing tricks and leaving gifts over 13 nights. The boys each have a name and a particular peculiarity:

1.       Stiff Legs—likes to drink milk while you are milking the cow.
2.       Gully Gawk—likes the foam on top of milk and stays close when milk is around.
3.       Shorty—likes to lick cooking pans; he smacks his lips!
4.       Ladle Licker or Spoon Licker—likes to lick the ladle in the soup pot.
5.       Pot Scraper—likes to take his fingers and use them to clean out cooking pots.
6.       Bowl Licker—if you leave your bowl on the table, look out!
7.       Door Slammer—likes to make a lot of noise and wake people up.
8.       Skyr Gobbler—loves skyr, a dairy product like yogurt, and steals it whenever he can.
9.       Sausage Snatcher—will climb right up to wherever sausages might be and eat them!
10.   Window Peeper—likes to flatten his big nose against your windows and look in .
11.   Sniffer—he can sniff out his favorite foods and creeps in to take them and gobble them up.
12.   Meat Hook—steals your meat with his big claw-like hands.
13.   Candle Beggar—likes candles and can’t decide whether to eat them or just look at them.

If you’re good—you get toys and treats in your shoes each night. If you’re bad, according to one souce, you get a potato!

In 1932 the poem "Jólasveinarnir" was published in a book of Icelandic poetry called Jólin Koma ("Christmas Arrives") by the Icelandic poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum. It was translated by Hallberg Hallmundsson into English. This is his translated version of the poem:

The Yuletide Lads
c Hallberg Hallmundsson

Let me tell the story
of the lads of few charms,
who once upon a time
used to visit our farms.

They came from the mountains,
as many of you know,
in a long single file
to the farmsteads below.

Grýla was their mother
- she gave them ogre milk -
and the father Leppalúdi;
a loathsome ilk.

They were called the Yuletide lads
- at Yuletide they were due -
and always came one by one,
not ever two by two.
Thirteen altogether,
 these gents in their prime
 didn´t want to irk people
 all at one time.
Creeping up, all stealth,
they unlocked the door.
The kitchen and the pantry
they came looking for.
They hid where they could,
with a cunning look or sneer,
ready with their pranks
when people weren´t near.

 And even when they were seen,
 they weren´t loath to roam
 and play their tricks – disturbing
the peace of the home.
 The first of them was Sheep-Cote  Clod.
 He came stiff as wood,
 to pray upon the farmer´s sheep
 as far as he could.

 He wished to suck the ewes,
 but it was no accident
 he couldn´t; he had stiff knees
  - not too convenient.
  The second was Gully Gawk,
  gray his head and mien.
  He snuck into the cow barn
  from his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
he would steal the milk, while
the milkmaid gave the cowherd
a meaningful smile.
Stubby was the third called,
a stunted little man,
who watched for every chance
to whisk off a pan.

And scurrying away with it,
he scraped off the bits
that stuck to the bottom
and brims – his favorites.
The fourth was Spoon Licker;
like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
when the cook wasn´t in.

Then stepping up, he grappled
the stirring spoon with glee,
holding it with both hands
for it was slippery.
Pot Scraper, the fifth one,
was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
he´d come to the door and tap.

And they would rush to see
if there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
and had a scraping fest.

Bowl Licker, the sixth one,
was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
he stuck his ugly head.

And when the bowls were left
to be licked by dog or cat,
he snatched them for himself
- he was sure good at that!
The seventh was Door Slammer,
a sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
would take a little nap,
he was happy as a lark
with the havoc he could wreak,
slamming doors and hearing
the hinges on them squeak.

 Skyr* Gobbler, the eighth,
was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
till the lid on it broke.

 Then he stood there gobbling
- his greed was well known -
until, about to burst,
he would bleat, howl and groan.
 The ninth was Sausage Swiper,
a shifty pilferer.
He climbed up to the rafters
and raided food from there.
in soot and in smoke,
he fed himself on sausage
fit for gentlefolk.
The tenth was Window Peeper,
a weird little twit,
who stepped up to the window
and stole a peek through it.

And whatever was inside
to which his eye was drawn,
he most likely attempted
to take later on.
 Eleventh was Door Sniffer,
 a doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold, yet had
a huge, sensitive nose.

He caught the scent of lace bread
while leagues away still
and ran toward it weightless
as wind over dale and hill.
Meat Hook, the twelfth one,
his talent would display
as soon as he arrived
on Saint Thorlak´s Day.

He snagged himself a morsel
of meat of any sort,
although his hook at times was
a tiny bit short.
  The thirteenth was Candle  Beggar
  - ´twas cold, I believe,
  if he was not the last
  of the lot on Christmas Eve.

He trailed after the little ones
who, like happy sprites,
ran about the farm with
their fine tallow lights.
On Christmas night itself
- so a wise man writes
- the lads were all restraint
and just stared at the lights.

Then one by one they trotted off
into the frost and snow.
On Twelfth Night the last
off the lads used to go.

Their footprints in the highlands
are effaced now for long,
the memories have all turned
to image and song.

Wouldn't you like to get gifts for 13 nights in a row? Think of how much easier the wrapping job would be, spread out over 2 weeks like that. Of course, I suppose we could do the wrapping in segments like that, but I seem to do it all at one time usually.
Here are some sites I found while researching for this post that tell you a lot more about the Yule Lads, trolls, and Iceland's customs. This will provide some good browsing while we wait out the coming snowstorm.

Trolls: all sorts of information about their history, folklore, artwork and authors who write about them at Trollmoon.
Yule Lads: you can find  a video about them here!
A wonderful and tellable story about the Cat of the Dovrefells is on Pitt e-text site.
From the National Museum of Iceland, an explanation of the evolution of the Yule Lads.

For traditional Icelandic recipes, Jo's website has everything from soups to desserts. And her photo pages provide a glimpse of this beautiful country.

A few folktales from Iceland.

And of course, a book of Icelandic folktales and legends.

So enjoy a virtual trip to a country of trolls and giant cats, hot springs, glaciers, stony mountains, clear  lakes, good food and apparently people with a wonderful sense of humor and great sense of story.


Farmchick said...

Thank you for sharing this tonight. I have learned a lot, as I didn't know about these troll fellows. But, I am liking their spririt!!!

Nance said...

Sue, I swear! I learn something from you each day. What an educator you are and that makes you such a great story teller! Keep it coming, girl!

laoi gaul~williams /I\ said...

how funny reading this~my great granddad was Irish and for our whole childhood my sister and i always had new clothes to wear on christmas day!

Tipper said...

Fascinating!! I never heard of the trolls before-nor of the Christmas Fairy below either. You always discover the most interesting things : )

Granny Sue said...

That's why I love storytelling--it leads me into places I never knew existed. What's even funnier is that I brought home from the library a video we'd watched several years ago--set in Iceland! I truly didn't know I was going to write this post when I checked it out. Then, watching it last night, I could see those troll faces in the rocks, just as some of the websites showed. Fascinating. The video, btw, is called The Seagull's Laughter, and I highly, highly recommend it. It is rare for me to re-watch a movie, so you know it's a good one. Leaves you wondering, was it murder?

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