Not horsing around: the Nuckelavee

It’s interesting to see how similar monsters crop up again and again across different cultures. Everyone seems to have their version of a bigfoot, of a loch ness monster, of a boogeyman, etc.  It’s touching that we all have so much to share. This month’s monster has a familiar function, but overachieves in appearance and personality and pretty much everything else.

Orkney Islands
One of the islands, courtesy of Colin Park at Wikimedia Commons.

Remember my post on the Finfolk a year and a half ago? If you’ll recall, they hailed from the Orkney Islands, an archipelago situated up in the Northern Isles of Scotland. The islands have few trees, powerful winds, and a lot of prehistoric monuments. They are far enough north to experience those near-endless summer days and crushingly long, dark winter nights. The climate is temperate, the land fertile, and occasionally you can see the Aurora Borealis. It’s the type of place where some truly magical monsters can be born. Such were the Finfolk. And such is the Nuckelavee.

At first blush, the Nuckelavee looks like a just another demi-god scapegoat for bad weather or ill fortune. He was a evil, hate-filled fairy from the Atlantic that would breathe pestilence into crops and epidemics into livestock. Also familiar is his seasonality: the Nuckelavee terrorized humans primarily during winter, when the only entity that could control him–the powerful Mither o’ the Sea–tired from her long summer of keeping things in check. In short, he was the type of thing that folklorists like Walter Traill Dennison (19th century) might have appreciated, but not been terribly surprised by. But the more Dennison dug, the more he realized that there was something more to the story.

Few dared mention the Nuckelavee by name. When they did, no one wanted to talk about it in detail. Dennison got bits and pieces of description–the Nuckelavee had a protruding mouth like a pig; it had one red, glowing eye–but could not pull together the full picture. He needed a first-hand encounter. What he found was Tammas.

Tammas was considered foolhardy, but was not so foolhardy as go blabbing about his experience willy nilly. It took much “higgling and persuasion” to get him to tell his story, but when he did, the Nuckelavee solidified in the nightmares of generations to come. Tammas described his experience thus:

 

***

Night beach
A little mood-setting image that sort of directly contradicts the first line of description of the story but that’s okay–AMBIANCE.

One moonless, starry night, Tammas was walking home along the beach when a hulking figure came out of the darkness ahead. Frightened but determined, Tammas said a prayer and vowed that he would not show the figure his back.

As the they drew closer to one another, it became harder and harder to stick to that vow. At first Tammas thought the figure might be a rider on a horse, but it very soon became apparent that the horse and rider were fused together in one terrible, fleshy mass. It was a giant thing, entirely skinless, with red glistening muscles and veins that shuddered with black blood. Its mouth was mad and wide, its single eye glowing red. The “rider”’s arms were long enough to drag almost down to the ground, and his enormous, bulging head lolled heavily backwards as his horse parts trotted forward.

Tammas knew immediately that it was the Nuckelavee, and that he would probably not make it back alive. But, foolhardy as he was, he kept walking forward, hoping perhaps the thing wouldn’t notice him. He kept on the left side of the road, close to the fresh water of an adjacent loch. He knew the Nuckelavee hated fresh water. One step closer, and then another, and then the Nuckelavee noticed him.

The Nuckelavee roared with hate. Tammas shrieked and splashed into the water of the loch –afraid to wade too deep (for fear of yet more monsters), but trying to stay out of the Nuckelavee’s reach. His frantic movements splashed water up on the Nuckelavee’s forelegs. The monster bellowed in pain, and Tammas abandoned his wading and made a run for it.

There was a rivulet of water crossing the road up ahead, where the loch emptied out toward the sea. If Tammas could cross it, he knew he would be safe. But though he ran with every ounce of his strength–lungs raw, muscles screaming, chest about to burst–the Nuckelavee caught up fast. Tammas could feel its breath sear the back of his neck, and then felt its long, unnatural fingers brush the top of his hat. With one last effort, he threw himself across the tiny stream of freshwater, just as the Nuckelavee made its snatch.

Tammas landed roughly on the opposite side, knees giving out beneath him, consciousness not far behind. The Nuckelavee drew up before the water, his hat clutched in its terrible, glistening fingers, and roared as Tammas blacked out.

The Nuckelavee
A lovely illustration of the Nuckelavee, courtesy of contemporary James Torrance at Wikimedia Commons.

***

 

Yes, Dennison found that the Nuckelavee was a special kind of terror, and not only in appearance. It was an unusual creature in that it had no use for humans whatsoever–not as food, not as playthings, not even as macabre decoration. It operated out of pure hatred, and wanted everyone dead. As Dennison wrote: “Nuckelavee was a monster of unmixed malignity, never willingly resting from doing evil to mankind.”

But perhaps the Nuckelavee can’t be blamed for his animosity. Some said his ire stemmed from the 18th and 18th century Orcadian habit of burning seaweed. The resulting kelp could be used for a variety of commercial purposes, but the process stank so bad that some said it drove away even the fish. If that was indeed the Nuckevalee’s complaint, I say: fair enough.  Indeed, once the burning fell out of practice in the early 1900’s, Nuckelavee visits subsided.

Nowadays, people aren’t afraid to speak his name like they used to be. Why should we be? With all our modern lights and cellphones and near-ubiquitous wifi connectivity, who needs to be worried about a skinless horse-man hybrid with long arms and longer grudges?

Amirite?

 

Happy holidays to all! Did not do a themed post this year, unless you want me to relate skinless monsters to your skinless holiday turkey breast. Share your thoughts on parallels between the Nuckelavee and this festive time of year in the comments below.

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Part of your world: terror in the depths of Lake Baikal

I’ve always loved marine biology. Aquatic creatures and plants are so distinct from what we experience normally that they often border on the fantastic. Deep water life is a special treat: it remains a poorly-known frontier, and so excites wonderful, terrible possibilities. We humans have felt the weight of those possibilities for some time, which is why I think there are so many monster stories that come from the water. This month, let’s visit a few in a Siberia.

olkhon_island_and_lake_baikal
Lake Baikal, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

To call Lake Baikal a mere “lake” might be doing it a disservice. Formed by the slowly yawning gap between two tectonic plates, it is the largest, deepest, and most ancient freshwater body on Earth. To be specific, Lake Baikal has more water than all of the U.S. Great Lakes combined, and reaches a depth of 1,642 meters (or, for us Americans, a little over a mile). At 25 million years old, it has been around more than 4 times longer than the human race.

That’s not the only way Baikal is impressive. The lake is also considered one of the world’s clearest–one source says that you can see as far into it as 130 feet. Surrounded by Siberian mountains, it is teeming with rich biodiversity: over 80% of the life in and around Baikal is made up of creatures that can be found nowhere else on earth.  In short, the lake is an extraordinary place. It’s no wonder people have attributed magic to it.

Let’s start with the happier stuff. If you take a dip in Baikal’s waters, rumor has it that you’ll live a longer, healthier life–provided you don’t suffer hypothermia (in the winter, the ice can get to be over 6 feet thick). The lake is also associated with a couple of historical celebrities: Genghis Kahn was born on one of its islands, and Jesus himself supposedly once visited, as well. Looking out over the waters, he raised his hand, and proclaimed with satisfaction that “beyond this, there is nothing.” (This was said to account for the problems 19th-century Duaria (the land beyond the lake) had with growing corn.)

Frozen Lake Baikal
A frozen Lake Baikal, © Sergey Pesterev via Wikimedia Commons

Beyond that, Lake Baikal has proved to be a bit of a deathtrap. Earthquakes strike every few years. You can walk over the lake when it freezes, but woe to the man who goes unprepared. In 1920, the retreating White Russian Army attempted the cross, only to find themselves buffeted by freezing winds over the open expanse of ice. Many died of frostbite and hypothermia. Their corpses had to be left behind, frozen to the surface until they sunk with the spring thaw.

Locals living around the lake have reported ghosts boats that appear and disappear without warning, as well as boats (and crew) of their own that disappear. As recently as 2011, 4 experienced men piloting the Yamaha vanished near an area of the lake known as the Devil’s Crater. There, whirlpools are said to suck ships down like toys in a bathtub train. At the bottom of the pools, some whisper, lies Hell.

But out of all the delights that Lake Baikal has to offer, my favorites are the extraterrestrial ones. According to UFO enthusiasts, those deep waters are not going unused.

I’m not well-versed in UFO lore, and so was surprised to learn that it’s common to see crafts around–or in–bodies of water (though “in” would make them Unidentified Submerged or Unidentified Underwater Objects). Lake Baikal is no exception: not only mysterious in its own right, it is one of the biggest UFO hotspots in Russia. The surrounding villages have witnessed hovering lights in various colors and formations, as well as silent discs that have floated low in the sky for so long people threw rocks at them from sheer boredom.

On more than one occasion, these UFOs have dove into the lake to escape human pursuit. For a long time, Baikal was too deep and dangerous for anyone to go after them, or indeed to explore very deep under the surface at all. Thanks to modern technology, that is no longer the not the case.

Underwater cave with diver
Some say that the many tight, poorly explored caves under Lake Baikal might be a good extraterrestrial hiding place.

The first reported underwater anomaly came in 1977. A pair of scientists took a submersible some 3900 feet below the surface and turned off their lights to study how far sunlight could penetrate. After a few seconds of darkness, they were blinded by two spotlights shining at them above and at their side. Before the men could figure out where they had come from, the lights went out, leaving them alone in the dark once more.

The second incident happened in 1982, this time with military divers using Lake Baikal as a training ground. In the middle of their drill, a few strange underwater vehicles zipped past them, going much faster than anything the Soviet navy was capable of at the time. The ships were gone long before the soldiers could follow.

Then there was the third–and probably most famous–incident. Just a few days after seeing the strange vehicles, the same navy divers swam right into a group of 3 other, unexpected divers. These were almost 10 feet tall, decked out in silver suits and helmets, but with no other signs of scuba gear.

The men were ordered to capture the swimmers (referred to by the commander as Ihtiander, a shark-boy from modern Russian mythology) . The soldiers tried, but the silver suits evaded them. Each human found himself blasted to the surface of the late, riddled with decompression sickness. 4 of them managed to get in a decompression chamber in time to save themselves. The other 3 died shortly thereafter.

All this came out a few years ago, when (allegedly) military documents describing the event were declassified. The Russian government, of course, claims that nothing of the sort ever happened.

Lake Baikal circles in ice
One of the circles in question. Image courtesy of Wikimedia commons and the ISS Crew Earth Observations Experiment

Regardless, interest in the lake and its possible extraterrestrial inhabits persists. In 2009, strange circles in Lake Baikal’s ice led to arguments over what might have created them: global warming or underwater spacecrafts. There’s a lot of stuff to explore, and a lot of people passionate about it. Ex-navy officer and UFO researcher Vladimir Azhazha says it best:

“I think about underwater bases and say: Why not? Nothing should be discarded, skepticism is the easiest way: believe nothing, do nothing. People rarely visit great depths. So it’s very important to analyze what they encountered there.”

 

What horrors have you found at the bottom of the pool? Share your story in the comments below.

Thrill of the chase: The Wild Hunt

Ah, winter. Darkness. Wind that cuts through to your bones. Creaking houses and falling shards of ice. There’s no better time of the year. My boyfriend has been attempting to get me into The Witcher franchise recently, and his demonstrations of their latest PC game reminded me that I’ve wanted to talk about the Wild Hunt. This month seemed as good of a time as any.

Those of you who’ve followed this blog for awhile might remember the Sluagh, a host of flying fairies who like to steal children and drop their lifeless bodies off a few miles from home. The Wild Hunt is related to these, but with a different flavor and broader reach. Known variously as the Wild Hunt, Raging Host, Furious Army, Gabriel’s Hounds and more, it is a phenomenon that started in Northern Europe, then spread to infect the entire continent.

It’s an old story, beginning in early, pre-Christian times. A winter storm would blast through the forested countryside, bringing howling winds and blotting out the sun. In Scandinavia, the fun began with nothing more than a few, faint sounds: two dogs baying after the rest of the world had gone silent, one dog always louder than the other. In other places–Germany and Britain, for example–lone travellers would look up into the trees, or into the thunderclouds overhead, and feel their stomachs plummet.

An eight-legged horse emerged from the cold, driven forward by a shadowy, furious rider. These were shortly followed by a hungry cavalcade of around thirty others, hounds streaking between their horse’s legs. The sound must have been incredible: hooves pounding, dogs barking, riders jeering, the blaring of horns. Sometimes the Hunt would be chasing a boar, wild horse, or some poor woman. Other stories have it searching for the souls of the dead, and later–post Christianity–for sinners and the unbaptized.

oskorei-bild
Turns out there a buttload of classical paintings for the Wild Hunt. This one is by Franz von Stuck, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

If the Hunt rode through a town, it would take food and drink with it. If a house (or any other kind of human structure) was built in its path, it would burn it down. As awe-inspiring as the sight of the riders might be, few actually went out in search of it, for fear of being kidnapped, killed, or accepting the omen of plague or war. If caught outside, people could throw themselves onto the ground with the hope that the Hunt would pass without harming them. Those foolish enough to interact with the riders often got more than they bargained for: death if they attempted to mock them, and if they helped them, an enchanted leg of meat (animal, or, occasionally, human) that they could not be rid of without the help of a seriously skilled priest.

The leader of the Hunt varied with time and culture. Originally it was Odin (or Woden), the ancient one-eyed god associated with creativity, knowledge, and death (among other things). The eight legged steed–Sleipnir–was his, as were the storms brought with the Hunt ( it was said the storm winds wafted away the souls of the dead, so that Odin might collect them). Sometimes Odin’s wife led the hunt, or other gods, goddesses, or great warriors. Other times the Hunt was comprised of fairies (as we saw with the Sluagh): enchanting and magical, but also kidnap- and murder-y. Later, when Christianity came in to condemn the old, “heathen” ways, the hunt became not a party of gods and souls but a procession of the damned and demons, led by Cain or even Lucifer himself.

cordeswildejagd
All images in this post are going to be large and in charge, because the details are awesome (looking at you, lower right corner). Johann Wilhelm Cordes, Wikimedia Commons

The legend spread, and things got crazier. King Arthur, Charlemagne, Frederick Barbarossa and even Sir Francis Drake started to lead the Hunt.  One tale tells of King Herla, who paid a visit to his neighbor Fairy King. The fairy warned Herla as he was leaving not to step down from his horse until his dog did; centuries later, Herla and his men are still riding, waiting for the dog to step down. Another tells of Hans von Hackelnburg, a semi-historical figure who loved the chase, on his deathbed due to a boar tusk injury somewhere between 1521 and 1581. “God,” he said, “Instead of going to heaven, just let me hunt.” Cursed or blessed, his wish was granted, and another Wild Hunt leader was born.

Versions of the Wild Hunt have appeared in Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Slovenia, Wales, Canada, and across Scandinavia and the Netherlands. That’s a conservative list, but a long one. Non-supernaturally-inclined people might ask: why is this so prevalent? Is it a human tendency to see things in the clouds? A leftover memory from when bands of (human) troublemakers really did ride barrel out of the woods and wreak havoc?

Hard to say. But when a legend becomes as popular as this one, you have to wonder if there might be something to it.

 

Who is your favorite Wild Hunt leader? Who might make a good one next? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

You’re as Cold as Ice: The Ijirait

Hello, 2017! It was exceptionally chilly earlier this week, which got me thinking about icicles, snowstorms, hypothermia, and all the other fun winter-themed things that can kill you. Monster Meet has yet to feature an honest-to-goodness snow monster, so I figured now was a great time to visit one. Let’s put bad weather in perspective:

horns
Some ambiance-building bones for your viewing pleasure.

Way up above Canada, in the highest part of the world, where the sun moves strangely and a single mistake might cost you your life, the Inuit test the bounds of human awesomeness. These badass people face things that most of us would find unimaginable, and on a day to day basis. What sort of thing might scare them? Answer: the Ijirait (Ijiraq being the singular form), beings with one foot in this world and the other in the spirit realm. Watching, robbing, and daring any human to cross them, these shape-shifting monsters wander the most desolate parts of the arctic.

Inuit elders in the South Baffin region whisper that long ago, a group of hunters went too far north and got trapped in the expanse between the living and the dead. Thus the Ijirait were born. Now when other hunters enter that region, they see strange, moving mirages; hear eerily human whistling; and catch glimpses of shadows standing the corner of their eye. No matter how fast they turn, or how far they look, they’ll almost never see what haunts them. They usually never see their families again, either…once a human steps into the territory of an Ijiraq, even if said human is an excellent navigator with great survival skills, even if the human’s camp is within sight of where they stand, the spirit (for lack of a better world) will confound and confuse them so that they will wander, terrified, until they collapse and die in the cold.

bird
Any number of arctic animals, including birds like this one!

Shaman visions have indicated that in their natural form, the Ijirait might look almost human, but with mouths and eyes that open sideways. Other stories have them appear–when they do appear–as hideous human-caribou hybrids, or simply as caribou with slightly unusual antlers (note: woe to the hunter who mistakes an Ijiraq for her prey). Most agree, however, that the spirits can shape-shift into any number of arctic animals, possibly with the one unifying feature of red eyes.

The Ijirait might even disguise themselves as humans, hunting caribou and passing through markets terribly, horribly close to people’s homes. This might be because beyond confusing travelers and generally making people feel uneasy, the spirits delight in kidnapping and then abandoning human children. The only youngsters not doomed to die in the snow are the ones with whom the Ijiraq happens to pass by a certain type of cairn–an inuksuqaq. Upon seeing an inuksuqaq, the monster will change its mind and return the child…but if it doesn’t see one, well. That kid’s pretty much screwed.

landscape
Fig 3: territory to bypass.

From what I can tell, the Ijirait can’t be fought, and they can’t be hidden from. The only way to avoid an altercation with them is to a) have a woman giving childbirth near you at all times (it’s said that the Ijirait fear said women intensely, though to be fair anyone should probably be afraid of someone pushing a miniature version of herself out of her body) or b) to simply bypass their territory altogether.*

Ijirait survivors are encouraged to record their stories immediately, because amnesia hits hard not long after an encounter. People who aren’t monster enthusiasts suggest that this might be because the pockets of sour gas present in the arctic ground–which could cause victims to see things and get disoriented in the first place–might have lasting cognitive effect. Who knows. Me, I like to think that the amnesia is just the human brain protecting itself after a harrowing, awe-inspiring encounter.

Some things we just weren’t meant to see.

What sort of bone-chilling things do you see on the winter sidewalk? Do you think you can draw an effective caribou-human minotaur? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

*Some Inuit elders argue that the Ijirait are not so much evil as they are misunderstood, and that much of their animosity comes from resentment of people encroaching on their land. In this version of the legend, the spirits are sometimes even helpful, bringing travelers messages in a way that is sure to get their attention.

ALL PHOTO CREDIT GOES TO: The Bone Collector II via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND. Thank you very kindly.

Houseguests from hell: the Kallikantzaroi

Happy holidays, everyone! December’s darkness is upon us: the nights lengthen while the days grow stunted and gray, the air is so cold that it hurts, and the lines at every store are long enough to make you ready to sell your soul just to reach the cashier. Regardless of what traditions you do (or do not) practice, you’ve got to admit that there is something both magical and frightening about this time of year.

As the northern hemisphere prepares to enter into the long winter, all the old traditions of families banding together for survival come blazing back to life. But, as we all know, even the most dire circumstances cannot entire drive away intra-family squabbles. This year, in the spirit of the season, I’d like to put all those annoyances in perspective.

fire-917411_1280
Gather around, everyone.

Let’s talk about the Kallikantzaroi, Greek goblins who will make you yearn for Aunt Purse-Gin and Uncle B.O.. Unlucky witnesses often describe them as short creatures: half-man, half-devil, and mean-looking, with long tails and an abundance of black body hair. They are mostly blind, speak with a lisp, and (outside of what they steal) eat only worms, snails, and frogs. 353 days of the year, the Kallikantzaroi lurk deep underground, sawing away at the World Tree (that plant that holds the whole earth together) with the intent of bringing it down. But when Christmas comes around, they forget their task and scramble into the world of mortals.

kallikatzaroi
Kallikantzaroi going to town on the World Tree, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Slipping between carolers and strings of colorful lights, the Kallikantzaroi dart through the night and try to ferret into your home through whatever opening they can–doors, windows, chimneys, cracks in the walls and floors. Once inside, they drink all your liquor, eat all your food, break everything breakable, piss in your flowerbeds, and generally make your life miserable. Think of your worst possible houseguest, and then times that by a magnitude of 12: the Kallikantzaroi go all in on their destruction, and will keep at it night after night until the 12 days of Christmas (December 25th through the Epiphany on January 6th) are over.

Then, at last, after the the sun starts to shift and the days grow longer and the priest comes by to bless your home, the Kallikantzaroi scurry back under the earth. There, grumbling and bickering, they’ll resume their quest to cut down the World Tree, only to find that in their absence, the trunk has healed. They’ll have to start all over, only to be thwarted again at the last moment next year, when the call of the winter-wrapped mortal world comes anew.

kallikatzaros
Charming portrait of this month’s subject courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

While not actively evil (at least, according to some), the Kallikantzaroi are frightening and irritating enough that it’s worth a little effort to avoid them. The simplest method is to burn a Yule log–traditionally one of prickly pear or wild cherry–heartily in the fireplace for the entire holiday, so that nothing can come down the chimney. You can even throw a little salt on the fire so that the crackling and popping will scare them away. You can also hang up a pig jaw, paint a black cross on your door, or set a colander on your doorstep (this latter item will trip the Kallikantzaroi up, as they cannot count past 2 [since 3 is a holy number] and will stay up until dawn trying and failing to count the holes in the bowl).  None of these are as fun as my favorite method, though, which is to take the oldest, foulest shoe you can find, and burn it in the fireplace. The smell will drive any Kallikantzaroi far away, with the added benefit of driving everyone else–landlords, bill collectors, loud neighbors, irritating family members–far away, as well.

Where did the Kallikantzaroi come from? Greece is not the only place with a legend like this one, and there are a number of tales about how the creatures came to be. One interesting origin story is that children born during the holidays have morphed into the monsters because their birthdays threatened to upstage Christ. (Pro tip: to avoid your December child becoming a Kallikantzaros, bind them in garlic cloves.) More prosaically, the masked revelers in the ancient Roman Bacchanalia festival might have had drunken shenanigans so legendary that they scarred generations. Your grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother might have told stories of the Kallikantzaroi simply as a way to illustrate how annoying drunkards can be and advise on ways to keep them at bay (are you picturing a drunk person trying to count the holes in a colander yet? Now you are.).

Any way you cut it, the prospect of a goblin visitor makes the holiday season a little more colorful. Though the Kallikantzaroi were more of a real concern before the dawn of electric lights, some people in Greece (at least according to the Internet) still carry out the traditions of protecting against them. I might too, this year, just to be safe. I’ve got a few old shoes I need to get rid of, anyway.

What is your worst holiday guest experience? How do you think “Kallikantzaroi” is pronounced? Share your story in the comments below.

Season for Purresents: Jólakötturinn, The Yule Cat

Happy holidays, everyone! Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or the Winter Solstice, I hope you’re enjoying these long, dark nights. Doubtless you’ve heard of the horror Krampus, who is making a comeback this year in the public imagination.  We’re not going to talk about him this month, but about another Scandinavian beastie, since that cold, dark area of the world is so ripe with holiday horror. It is my pleasure to introduce the Jólakötturinn, an Icelandic feline with a hunger for human flesh who will teach us the true meaning of Christmas.

Though some claim he’s been around for generations, written accounts of the Jólakötturinn (who in English might be called the Yule Cat, or Christmas Cat) date only back to the 19th century. Said sometimes to live with the terrible ogress Grýla, sometimes to exist on his own, the Yule Cat stalks the Icelandic countryside during the holidays, peering into houses and looking for a human snack. Jóhannes úr Kötlum authored a poem (later adapted by Bjork and translated here from Icelandic) that describes the Jólakötturinn more or less like an ordinary cat, only much larger and with a few exaggerated characteristics:

“You all know the Christmas Cat

And that Cat was huge indeed.

People didn’t know where he came from

or where he went.

He opened his glaring eyes wide,

the two of them glowing bright.

It took a really brave man

to look straight into them.

His whiskers, sharp as bristles,

His back arched up high.

And the claws of his hairy paws

were a terrible sight…”

If the idea of an enormous cat doesn’t scare you, you may want to think twice. How many cats do you know? Sure, they might purr and meow and rub your legs, but have you watched how they treat the odd fly? The mouse? A scrap of wrapping paper? It might very well be that your cat defers to you only because you are much bigger than he; imagine those cute little teeth, those sharp claws, only twenty times larger, with you as the fly, or the scrap of paper. This is the Yule Cat, roaming “at large, hungry and evil/In the freezing Christmas snow.”  Mewling. Moaning. Hunting you.

cat-eating-prey
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. In this picture, you would be the bird.

But only if you fit a certain criteria, and this is where the Yule Cat legend gets weird.

While the Yule Cat might have a taste for human flesh generally (with a special emphasis, of course, on children), he can only eat those without a new item of clothing during the holidays. Any article–even as little as a belt or a scarf–could save you from the creature, but if you can’t find one? As the song goes, “you better watch out”–the Yule Cat will come and grab you (or, in milder legends, grab your Christmas dinner, which is not terrifying so much as it is disappointing).

Why the Cat operates with this filter is unknown. Some postulate that he might be acting as sort of macabre fashion police, an incentive for people to keep up with the latest trends. Others wonder if the Cat wasn’t originally an invention of farm heads to encourage hard work before the holidays, promising their employees a fashionable reward in exchange for extra labor. This theme of the Cat inspiring hard work repeats itself: there are accounts of 19th-century women sewing frantically during Advent to make their families new clothes, and the National Museum of Iceland says explicitly that the Cat “helped combat laziness and inertia.” Still today, Icelanders are said to clock in more overtime than most other European nations, and some attribute this to leftover fear of the Cat. But what of those who work very hard, but still cannot make ends meet? Or those unable to work at all?

Because any way you look at it, this monster chiefly tortures the disadvantaged. And that’s where the fuzzy, gooey, Christmas magic comes in: the only way the Jólakötturinn might be  completely defeated is by helping those in need.

Want to avoid seeing your neighbor get disemboweled by foot-long claws? Best wrap them up some socks.

Happy holidays, everyone.

This post is dedicated to Pluto, my beloved droopy-eyed, long-fanged black cat who passed away this December. May he rest in peace, or if he can’t do that, pay us a visit for a true Christmas miracle.