Christmas is a time for celebration and family gatherings, right? Strictly speaking, yes. But there are darker lores beneath the celebration many of us enjoy each year. The folklore surrounding the Krampus and even Saint Nicholas and the Butcher are grisly territory.
When I travelled to Iceland in 2019 for research, I found a very different set of folklores related to Christmas and the span of Yuletide. The folklore of thirteen Yule trolls who terrorise and disrupt Icelandic life for thirteen days is eclipsed by the arrival of their mother, the cannibalistic troll-witch Gryla who steals away children to cook into stew for her large family in their mountain cave.
Fascinated by this dark and fable-like warning of the dangers around Yuletide in Iceland, I was inspired to write a short story featuring Gryla and the Yule trolls, focusing on the darker natures the Yule trolls reportedly once possessed before modern sanctification of their images.
I am always fascinated by First Nations legends and lore. One of my current research projects has focused on the Inuit legends of the Qallupilluk, monstrous female beings who lurk in the frozen waterways and beneath the ice sheets, snatching unwary children beneath the icy water.
My latest short story examines this legend from the perspective of an outsider, someone who is not of the Inuit, and to whom the legends are foreign, placing her and her child at risk.
In one of my latest research themes, I explored the Ancient Egyptian mythology surrounding Sekhmet, the lion-headed goddess of war and a daughter of Ra. In one myth, Ra is angered by the Egyptian people’s lack of subservience to him and sends Sekhmet as punishment. She devours the armies sent against her until the deserts run with blood, so strong in her lust for war. Sekhmet is finally subdued by wine poured over the bloody sand until her wrath is calmed.
I was inspired by the war goddess Sekhmet when writing a new microfiction which focuses on Sekhmet as a force, her bloodlust fuelling the rise of war in Ancient Egypt.
I have always been fascinated by the folklore of the headless horseman. I first became aware of this harbinger of death in the famous story by Washington Irving The Legend of Sleepy Hollow set in rural region in the state of New York. But the Irish legend of the Dullahan (“dark man”), the headless horseman is a harbinger of death. In the legend of the Dullahan, he carries a moldy severed head under his arm, taking a blood sacrifice (and the head) of his intended victim. According to folklore of the Dullahan, he only speaks once during his furious ride through village and field, and those words are only for his victim, the sacrifice.
The connection between the headless horseman and sacrifice is related to Celtic mythology and the ancient god, Crom Dubh, a fertility god to whom blood sacrifices were made. In county Cavan, the Killycluggin stone is believed to be an ancient representation of Crom Dubh, and like the Dullahan of legend travelling the roads, the large carved stone was found on a main road close to a nearby Bronze Age stone circle.
I was inspired by the Dullahan, this embodiment of Crom Dubh, and in writing a short story, I’ve incorporated these elements of folklore, legend, archaeology and mythology to weave a new tale of this infamous headless horseman.
In writing a flash fiction story, I explored in the legendary Thunderbird, a powerful elemental being, found in many First Nations religions across North America.
The Thunderbird is a being found in many First Nations legends stretching from the desert plateaus and lands, the prairies and plains to the redwood forests and the Rocky Mountains. The Thunderbird is a powerful being, the beating of its wings makes the thunderclaps and gales, the silver of its eyes is the lightning. The Thunderbird also has an association with battle to many First Nations cultures, the bringer of storms both literal and metaphorical. I have a post here on the Thunderbird, or ‘Wakinyan’ in the Lakota-Sioux dialect.
As with any reimagining of a legendary being, I was conscious of cultural appropriation. My own reimagining of the Thunderbird, I focused on the connection between the prairie and desert landscapes, the reliance on the life-giving thunderstorms, and as a being invoked to protect land but also warriors and their horses.
In a recent story, I explored one of the worst shipwrecks that occurred off south-eastern Australia, a notorious stretch of coast known as the “shipwreck coast”. I have been fascinated by the history behind a treacherous, narrow bay, the Loch Ard Gorge named after the 1878 shipwreck of the Loch Ard merchant ship, one of the Australia’s deadliest shipwrecks, where only two survived from the 54 on board.
Loch Ard Gorge is located near Cape Otway on the south-eastern Australian coastline where the infamous southern Ocean has eroded the sandstone coastline creating many the natural rock formations including the ‘twelve apostles’ along the Great Australian Bight. This region is prone to storms and pounding surf from the Antarctic, and rich marine ecosystems of great white sharks, seals, whales, dolphins and many species of fish and other marine life. This thriving region is also home to more than two hundred shipwrecks during Australia’s colonial history, a short span of time compared to the sixty thousand years of indigenous occupation.
In writing my own fictionalised account of this historic event, I imagined a third survivor, one who fled England for Melbourne undetected, a damned soul for who must eventually pay their due. I was inspired and fascinated by the gothic folklore of the sea, damned sea voyages encapsulated in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Homer’s The Odyssey among others.
In Icelandic tradition, the Yule lads are thirteen trolls who arrive, one one each of the 13 days before Christmas then depart in the order they arrived, on the subsequent days following Christmas Day. On Christmas Eve, the troll witch Gryla, leaves the mountains to enter the city, seeking any children who had been ill-behaved or were without the protection of their parents. These she would take back to her mountain dwelling, cook them into a stew for her lazy troll husband.
The thirteen Icelandic Yule Lads are names for the acts they are most famously known for, often tormenting human communities. More can be found at the Smithsonian Magazine here.
Sheep-Cote Clod: He tries to suckle yews in farmer’s sheep sheds Gully Gawk: He steals foam from buckets of cow milk Stubby: He’s short and steals food from frying pans Spoon Licker: He licks spoons Pot Scraper: He steals unwashed pots and licks them clean Bowl Licker: He steals bowls of food from under the bed (back in the old days, Icelanders used to sometimes store bowls of food there – convenient for midnight snacking?) Door Slammer: He stomps around and slams doors, keeping everyone awake Skyr Gobbler: He eats up all the Icelandic yogurt (skyr) Sausage Swiper: He loves stolen sausages Window Peeper: He likes to creep outside windows and sometimes steal the stuff he sees inside Door Sniffer: He has a huge nose and an insatiable appetite for stolen baked goods Meat Hook: He snatches up any meat left out, especially smoked lamb
Candle Beggar: He steals candles, which used to be sought-after items in Iceland
Since 1746, the Yule lads became less scary, depicted as mischievous, trickster characters illustrated as jolly ‘Santa Claus-like figures’ who left gifts for the well-behaved children in their shoes and potatoes for the ill-behaved ones. In earlier times, the Yule lads were emaciated and clothed in rags. There is a current movement in Iceland to return the Yule lads to their more traditional vagabond nature, the desperate orphans who accompanied Gryla.