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Iceland Reports: Ghosts!

September 23, 2010

That’s right, ghosts.

Iceland is a dark, cold piece of rock, surrounded by deep, freezing ocean. There is little daylight in the winter. On the darkest days in December, there are max 3 hours of not-so-bright daylight. This is countered in the summer where a month or so is daylight 24 hours. But the summers are short, and the winters are long.

Turf house

It was only last century when the last person stopped living in “turf” houses. Most stopped living in them around 1900, though. As you can see from the picture, there are not many windows. In the darkest, coldest nights, people would get together and tell stories, since there wasn’t much else to do. Many of those stories were ghost stories. People genuinely believed in ghosts, and Icelandic folklore is packed with such stories.

Icelandic Legends : Collected by Jón Arnason

My favourite is “Djákninn á Myrká” or “The Deacon from Dark-River.” The deacon was courting a young woman from another farm. Her name was Gudrun. He had invited her to a Christmas party and was on his way to pick her up when a bridge broke under him and his horse “Faxi”. The night after, a man came riding on his horse to pick Gudrun up. Gudrun couldn’t see his face because the moon was obscured by clouds. They rode silently until they reached a river. The deacon spoke:

“The moon travels, death rides. Don’t you see a white spot on the back of my head, Garun, Garun?” [he couldn’t say her name properly, because “Gud” means “God”, and ghosts couldn’t say “God”]

Gudrun lifted his hat and saw his skull glinting in the brief light from the moon. When they reached Dark-River (Myrka), they dismounted and the deacon said:

“Wait here, Garun, Garun, while I move Faxi, Faxi, into the graveyard, graveyard.”

When the deacon took his horse into the cemetery, Gurdun got scared as she watched him open a grave. She ran to ring the church bells, but at the same time, the deacon grabbed her other hand. Before they had left Gudrun’s home, she’d only had time to put her coat on one arm, and so the last thing Gudrun saw of the deacon was when he fell into the grave with her coat, and dirt poured over him from all sides.

That wasn’t the end, though. The deacon haunted Gudrun for weeks, and she couldn’t be left by herself. Her parents hired a sorcerer (yup! A whole bunch of those magic folks here too!). He hid until the deacon came for Gudrun. When the deacon stood over her, the sorcerer jumped forward and exercised him back into the ground. He rolled a big rock over him and told him to rest there forever. It is said that the deacon still rests under that rock.

I love this story for three reasons: It used to scare the hell out of me as a kid; Margit Sandemo, a Norse author, used it in one of her 43 series Isfolket books (Icepeople), and those are my favourite series of all time; and there’s a very cool Icelandic song, with very cool lyrics about that ghost story.

There are loads of other stories as well. Places were far between, landscape raw, and weather bad. There were very few roads, and those that were were often narrow paths that got lost in the snow. Travelers would get lost on their way and die. They’d haunt the living that crossed their path. Sorcerers (wizards? It’s hard to call them wizards, because I keep picturing guys with pointy hats in starry robes – Discworld, anyone?) conjured them up in cemeteries to do their bidding and such.

The fun thing is that Icelanders generally still believe in ghosts. The tales are so imprinted in our society, that I’ve only met one Icelander in my entire lifetime who truly doesn’t believe in ghosts (he’s very scientific-minded). You’ll hear some people say that they don’t believe, but then they dive into discussions about that one time they thought they heard something, or how their brother went berserk once because he thought he saw a ghost, or how their grandmother can see ghosts all the time. Those people are also likely to have gone to a psychic medium.

I believe in ghosts. If I didn’t, I’d be calling my grandmother a liar. She’s been able to see ghosts ever since she was a child. She used to play with one on the farm she grew up in. I’ve probably said this before in my blog, but it’s amazing when she tells me about these sightings. She walks into a church with only a few people inside. She sits down and looks back to see that the church is packed with people. She also wants her body to be cremated after she dies, because she sees so many ghosts lingering by their graves after they’ve been buried, but when she goes to the “cremated sites” she doesn’t see any ghosts or feel any sort of presence. Oh, and she doesn’t really call them “ghosts”, more like “dead people.” She only talks about this to her family, she’s not one of those people who go out and make money out of it.

Do you believe in ghosts?

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