“It is good for children to be afraid of things that have a solution and can be avoided” says Gunnar Karlsson, Iceland’s top historian, who has written a children’s book about Grýla called Grýlusaga. “I think it is better that they are afraid of something unreal that increases the imagination, like Grýla, rather than the eternal war news on TV. I grew up with a Grýla which was quite frightening and evil.”
For years Grýla terrorized Icelandic culture, along with Leppalúði, her husband, the Yule Lads, her sons, and Jólakötturinn, the fearsome Yule Cat.
Grýla can be traced back to the 13th century, where she appears in the Prose Edda. In the Sturlunga she is described as having 15 tails. By the 17th and 18th centuries she becomes associated with Christmas, and in the Faroes, with scaring people into fasting during Lent. But by the 19th century her role has become softened, and she is no longer used to scare children.
Grýla’s sons, the thirteen Yule Lads, or Jólasveinarnir, have names like “Bowl-licker” and “Door-slammer”. In the thirteen days before Christmas, one by one they come down to the village, and after Christmas return to the mountains in the same order they arrived. They no longer eat children, but will leave candy in the the shoes of good children, or rotten potatoes for bad children.
Children can avoid being eaten by the Yule Cat if they receive a piece of clothing for Christmas, an incentive for the Icelanders to finish processing the autumn wool before Yule.