Portal page
On Icelandic Folktales
Section › 7   Set    Search   Previous Next

Reservations    Contents     

Tales and legends have been passed down from generation to generation on Iceland too. They reflect that life on Iceland was harsh and many Icelanders unfriendly. This sort of winter-night entertainment from times before electric light had made its way into the homes of folks, served as educational means to pass on survivor lore between the lines in a tough environment where sagacity was much needed.

The Cottager and His Cat

ATU 1651, Dick Whittington and His Cat.

Documented in the late 13th century in the Orient (Persia), and in Europe Albert von Stade's Annales). Popular as a play and ballad, The famous and remarkable History of Sir Richard Whittington (from 1605); as a chapbook beginning in 1656. (Uther 2004)

A man lived with his wife and son in a wretched hovel. He was secretly rich, but so great a miser that he could not spend the money. One day, however, he spent too little on food and died.

The man appeared to his son in a dream and said that his mother would die soon. Half the wealth was ill-gotten, and was to be given to the poor. The other half he should throw into the sea and catch whatever floated.

The son had thought he could live comfortably after his father had died, but in the end he obeyed. A tiny scrap of paper floated by when he had sunk the money; it contained six shillings.

He worked in the garden for a few weeks, supporting himself and his mother on the vegetables; then his mother died.

He wandered off into the woods. There he found a hut, where he stayed the night. He saw a strange creature there; they told him it was a cat; he bought it for the six shillings, so that it would be company for him.

He travelled and found another hut, where he stayed the night. Everyone was much taken with the cat. The old man there directed him to the castle, where there were rats. The cat caught them. The king offered to make him Prime Minister or to marry him to his daughter and give him his kingdom when he died. The man chose the princess and the kingdom.

Andrew Lang included this tale in The Crimson Fairy Book from Islandische Märchen.

[The Icelandic tale]


ATU 313, The Magic Flight. (Uther 2004).

The folk-lore theme about a chase and magic objects thrown on the ground to hinder a pursuer is widespread. Variants are known in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The Icelandic Bukolla variant of the type is a wonder-tale belonging to 'cottage-stories', stories with very little romantic glow over them. Everything but the trolls in them seems realistic, and much is coarse and earthy. Here the trolls do not prosper by deceiving people or by calculated cunning. They are ugly and grotesque, stupid and credulous, and often tricked by would-be victims. They live barely a stone's throw from the cottage, as in many other ordinary folk-stories about trolls, and tend to look like the trolls of Norwegian folk-belief.

Many of these stories are rather short, and the story of Búkolla and the boy in Arnason's second volume (p. 467–71) is one of them.

"The lowliness of the settings is naturally no guide as to their age, nor is the common motif of 'the neglected child usually turns out the best', but to me much of the primary material of these stories appears to be ancient . . . and I believe that the earliest Icelandic wonder-tales are to be found in this group," writes Einar Sveinsson. (2003, 238, adding that the tale of Búkolla and the boy is a well-constructed unity. (Ib. 242).

[The Icelandic tale]

Thordur's Bargain

"Thórdur of Thrastastadir". In Arnason I: 24-27. Also in Booss 1984, 600-01.

[The Icelandic tale]

The Third Sister Fetched Fire

A retelling of "The Tale of How Three Damsels Went to Fetch Fire", in Arnason II: 490-98.

[The Icelandic tale]

The Merman Laughed

AT 670*, ML 4016, The Animal Languages (subtype). It can also be considered a variant of a type of migratory legend (ML), ML 4060

The story of the Laughing Merman (Arnason I: 126-27) appears already in Hálfs saga ok Hálfsrekka (ch.3); a work probably from the second half of the thirteenth century, and then in Jón lærði's Tíðfordríf [John the Learned's Pastime], and is later common in Iceland, writes Einar Sveinsson. The story is widely found in numerous variant forms: the unexpected laughter (usually threefold) is a principal theme, but who the laughing creature is varies, and also what he laughs at. (2003, 156-57, 106).

[The Icelandic tale]

The Nick as a Working Horse

The oldest Scandinavian variant of this legend is found in Landnamabok from the twelfth century, which describes the settlement of Iceland (Sveinsson 2003, 157n).

The Icelandic nykur creature is never in human shape, tells Einar Sveinsson further, (2003, 160), yet "In . . . an Icelandic ballad surviving in a seventeenth-century manuscript, a nykur in the guise of a young man is said to have caught little Elen . . . and was going to take her down into the lake with him. (Sveinsson 2003, 58). There appears to be a little inconsistency there.

Sveinsson, further: "The Rev. Jón of Svalbarð (and the Rev. Hálfdán) rode a water-horse across a fjord carrying a boy behind him; the Rev. Hálfdán also transported turf on a water-horse, just as Auðun stoti got a water-horse to carry hay for him in the Settlement period (Landnámabók 120–21)."

"In the seventh decade of the [seventeenth] century . . . the Rev. Ðorsteinn Björnsson of Setberg (died 1675) composed his Latin poem Noctes Setbergenses . . . The second section of the poem deals with elves . . . together with other matter from folk-belief and folk-legend. . . . The following is based on [a] copy in [Lehrbuchsammling] Lbs 1652 4to]:

The whinny of the water-horse (nykur) is heard in lakes and rivers, especially when they are covered with ice, while it is sometimes seen on dry land. A story is told of its use as a hay-carrier from 'our annals' (probably Landnámabók). Sometimes it is in the shape of a bull and its bellowing is heard in lakes. . . .

There are monsters in lakes, and when they stick up their heads or some other part of them is visible it forebodes plagues and other disasters, while rivers are inhabited by strange fish (skate) and monsters. (Sveinsson 2003, 93)

In Scandinavian folklore - including Icelandic folklore - one could bind the water sprite in horse shape by placing a bit on him, the same way a witch could be forced to stay in animal shape as long as the bit was on her. (Sveinsson 2003, 160; Kvideland and Sehmsdorf 1982, No. 51.10)

[The Icelandic tale]

Troll's Stone

From Arnason I: 122-24.

[The Icelandic tale]

The Seal Woman

Kvideland and Sehmsdorf (1982, No. 52.8 The Seal Woman) tell that the motif of a woman in the shape of a seal is known in much of northern Europe, and that the Christmas day that seals could become humans, is the Twelfth Night (the evening of January 6) - which is the concluding day of medieval Christmas, and nowadays the Christmas Night for many orthodox Christians - who adhere to the so-called Julian calendar, which in the Western church was replaced by the more accurate Gregorian calendar in 1582.

A number of stories in Jon Arnason's two volumes (1864, 1866) are derived from "John the Learned's Pastimes," the earliest writer used in that collection. The parson that is referred to, may be Jón Sigurðsson of Laufás. He was in office at Laufás 1559–1615. (Sveinsson 2003, 103-04)

In a manuscript reckoned to be from about 1600 AD, there is a note that "Luther states that a sea-monster in a woman's shape was once caught from a ship; one of the fishermen took her for his wife and had a child by her, but before three years were over, she went with him to the same fishing grounds and jumped overboard into the sea."

Such a story, told with the authority of Luther, might well have been considered "written authority and true" for the view that the seal-maiden was a true phenomenon, and a fit subject for an academic dissertation, writes Sveinsson further, and that the seal-maiden is an ancient thread in the weave of Celtic folklore. (Ib. 194)

[The Icelandic tale]

The Soul of John

Sálin hans Jóns míns is a folklore legend written by the Icelandic poet Davíð Stefánsson. In Arnason 1966, (Vol. 2), 45-48.

[The Icelandic tale]


ATU 500, The Name of the Supernatural Helper.

The basic design of this type of tale is as follows:

A woman is to spin so much that supernatural help is needed for it. She weeps and wails until a supernatural being appears, and the other will help her out if she can guess her name. Then no harm will come to the woman. A deal is made.

The woman also happens to hear the name of the other in the forest. When she says it to the other, the other leaves for good.

The type of tale is documented by Madame L'Heritier de Villandon, L'Histoire de RicdinRicdon (1705), writes Uther (2004)

Gilitrutt is an Icelandic variant of this type of tale. It is about a farmer's wife who is supposed to weave wool and spin wadmal of the wool. Wadmal is a dense, woven wool fabric that was woven on a warp-weighted loom in areas of Norwegian influence.

The Icelandic folk tale is about the wife who gets an ogress to do the work for her. The husbands happens to hear the name of the ogress from the bottom of a lofty cliff. She sang, "Ha ha and ho ho! The good wife does not know my name is Gilitrutt. And ho ho ho."

You might think any long, tongue-twisting Norse and Icelandic word might do, but no.

"Rumpelstiltskin" is a Grimm tale to compare with.

(The source of the retold tale: Symington 1862, 241-43)

[The Icelandic tale]

Naddi, The Sea-Monster

Based on Arnason I: 109-10.

[The Icelandic tale]

The Day-Labourer

This shortened tale is from Arnason II: 207-16.

[The Icelandic tale]


ATU 1525A, Tasks for a Thief. From Arnason II: 609-22, abridged.

[The Icelandic tale]

Kort and the Sea Monster

From Avenstrup und Treitel 1919, 60-61, "Kort aus Mödruvold und das Meerungeheuer," Seiten 60-61. A little abridged.

The Meal-Tub

ATU 563, The Table, the Donkey and the Stick.

Variants of the Types 563, 564 and 565 are often mixed with each other or they are not clearly differentiated.

The Icelandic variant: A lad receives a tablecloth for a meal-tub. On his way home he barters away his gift, and returns to the giver and laments. The giver of the cloth gives him an additional gold-dropping animal, and the same thing happens again: the lad barters it away. The third time the lad gets a magic club that beats people until it is called off by its owner. In the end he gets a king's daughter for his wife, and thereby what he had bartered away too.

This abridged and retold tale is based on Arnason II: 256-58)

[The Icelandic tale]

The Cowherd and the Goblin

From Symington 1862, 222-24. "The Goblin and the Cowherd".

In Icelandic folklore, Sæmund is a larger-than-life character who repeatedly tricks the devil into doing his bidding.

Sæmundur the Learned, also called Saemund the Wise (1056–1133) is also a famous person in Iceland's history. He was an Icelandic priest and scholar who is known to have studied abroad.

In earlier times, Oddi was one of the most important seats of chieftains and education. Oddi was a cultural and learning center in South Iceland during the Middle Ages. There has been a church at Oddi since the introduction of Christianity. Snorri Sturluson was one notable figure who grew up there. Oddi also was a major farm for many centuries and had rich pastures. The farm controlled numerous smallholdings and had enormous influence.

[The Icelandic tale]

Kort and the Sea Monster

From Avenstrup und Treitel 1919, 60-61, "Sigurd und das Gespenst," Seiten 126-29. Translated from the German.

[The Icelandic tale]

Sigurd and the Ghost

From Avenstrup und Treitel 1919, 126-29, "Sigurd und das Gespenst." Translated from the German.

Enhanced vision (or second sight) is a form of extrasensory perception. There are many forms. An early example is found in the Odyssey (Theoclymenus). Examples are also found in the Icelandic sagas.

[The Icelandic tale]

The Creature

In Icelandic folk belief, a carrier (tilberi in Icelandic) is a creature created by witches to steal milk. Only women can create and own a carrier. To create it, a woman is said to steals a rib from a recently buried body early on Whitsunday, twists around it grey wool which she must steal for the purpose, and give it communion wine.

It is also said that when the carrier had become alive enough in such ways, the mother sent it to suck milk from others' cows and ewes. As late as the 19th century, animals were protected by making the sign of the cross under the udder and over the rump and laying a Psalter on the spine.

The grey carrier would return to the window of her mother's dairy and call out "Full belly, Mummy!" or "Churn lid off, Mummy!" and vomit the milk to her. If the woman has a child and the carrier managed to reach her milk-filled breast, she was at risk of being sucked to death. The way to rid oneself of a carrier was to send it up the mountain to work itself to death.

It is told that a carrier was very fast, but when chased it ran home to its mother and hid under her skirts. Her petticoat could then be tied or sewn closed under it and mother and creature were either burnt or drowned together.

Butter churned from milk stolen by a carrier would clump together as if curdled, or even melt away into foam, by the sign of the cross made over it. (WP, "Tilberi"; See J. Simpson, Icelandic Folktales and Legends (1972), 170-74; Arnason 1862, 433.

Folk belief may surpass much fiction.

[The Icelandic tale]

"I Should Laugh Now If I Weren't Dead"

Slightly reworked. From Carter 1990, 101-2, whose source is Icelandic Legends, collected by Jon Amason, translated by George Powell and Eirikr Magnusson (London, 1866), vol. 2, pp. 627-30.

[The Icelandic tale]


Icelandic folk tales and legends from Iceland, Icelandic folk stories notes, Literature  

Icelandic Tales from several of Andrew Lang's "Colour Books" (Further book data is further down)

"The Cottager and His Cat" is retold in The Crimson Fairy Book

"Three Robes" is retold in The Crimson Fairy Book

"Rogue and Herdsman" is retold in The Crimson Fairy Book

"Horse Gullfaxi and Sword Gunnfoder" is retold in The Crimson Fairy Book

"Asmund and Signy" is retold in The Brown Fairy Book

"Prince Ring" is retold in The Yellow Fairy Book

"Hermod and Hadvor" is retold in The Yellow Fairy Book

"Witch in Stone Boat" is retold in The Yellow Fairy Book


Árnason, Jón, Icelandic Legends (First Series), trs. George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon. London: Bentley, 1864. ⍽▢⍽ "[A] representative range of material," but "stylistically most unsatisfactory, being full of repetitiveness, circumlocutions, and pomposity," Jacqueline Simpson (2004, 1) sums up.

Árnason, Jón, Icelandic Legends. Second Series, trs. George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1866. ⍽▢⍽ "[A] representative range of material," but "stylistically most unsatisfactory, being full of repetitiveness, circumlocutions, and pomposity," Jacqueline Simpson (2004, 1) considers.

Avenstrup, Åge Eskil und Elisabeth Treitel, Ü,bersetzern. 1919. Isländische Märchen und Volkssagen. Berlin: Axel Juncker Verlag.

Booss, Claire, ed. Scandinavian Folk and Fairy Tales: Tales from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland. New York: Gramercy Books, 1984. ⍽▢⍽ Booss draws on Icelandic Legends by Jon Arnason (1864), translated by George E. J. Powell and Eirikur Magnusson. Her collection contains forty-one Icelandic legends and other tales.

Carter, Angela. The Old Wives' Fairy Tale Book. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990.

Gering, Hugo. Islendzk aeventyri; isländische Legenden, Novellen und Märchen (1882-83). Vol. 1. Halle A. S. Waisenhaus, 1882.

Hall, Mrs. A. W., tr. and ed. Icelandic Fairy Tales. London: Frederick Warne & Co, 1897. ⍽▢⍽ Seventeen fine fairy tales.

Jones, Gwyn. Scandinavian Legends and Folk-Tales. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956. ⍽▢⍽ The book includes nine tales from Iceland.

Kvideland, Reimund, and Henning K. Sehmsdorf, eds. 1988. Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. ⍽▢⍽ Here are brief tales for most part, and some of them are Icelandic.

Laboulaye, Edouard, ed. 18--?. Fairy Tales. Philadelphia: David McKay. ⍽▢⍽ Two of these tales are from Iceland.

Lang, Andrew, ed. The Yellow Fairy Book. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1894.

⸻. The Crimson Fairy Book. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1903.

⸻. The Brown Fairy Book. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1904.

Simpson, Jaqueline. 2004. Icelandic Folktales and Legends. Stroud, UK: The History Press. ⍽▢⍽ Here are 85 tales, mainly or wholly from three of the sections of Arnason's books.

Sveinsson, Einar Ólafur. 1929. Verzeichnis isländischer Märchenvarianten: Mit einer einleitenden Untersuchung. FF Communications No. 83. Helsinki: Suomalinen Tiedeakatemia, Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 1929.

⸻. 2003. The Folk-Stories of Iceland. Revised by Einar G. Pétursson, translated by Benedikt Benedikz, edited by Anthony Faulkes. London: Viking Society for Northern Research. University College London. ⍽▢⍽ Einar Sveinsson (1899–1984) was an Icelandic scholar and Professor of Icelandic Literature at the University of Iceland. The publisher says that in Iceland, people transfer beliefs onto stories so that a glow of the super-human is shed over many of them. That may well be. By Icelanders projecting themselves into folk stories, some peoples' lives and characters seem reflected somehow. This book details some fifty types of Icelandic folk-stories, and deals with their history and sources, the groping folk-beliefs they represent, and meanings as they have been understood later. In short, it is a work about stories, but does not contain many of them, if at all.

Symington, Andrew James. 1862. Pen and Pencil Sketches of Faröe and Iceland. With an Appendix Containing Translations from the Icelandic and 51 Illustrations Engraved on Wood by W. J. Linton. London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.

Icelandic folk tales and legends from Iceland, Icelandic folk stories notes, to top    Section     Set    Next

Icelandic folk tales and legends from Iceland, Icelandic folk stories notes. User's guide  ᴥ  Disclaimer
© 2007–2019, Tormod Kinnes, MPhil [Email]