Superstition and Folk Beliefs

Icelanders have always believed in supernatural creatures along with superstitious behaviours. Iceland is a small island in the Atlantic, and didn’t get electricity until 1904. So to kill time Icelanders made up stories about things hiding in the dark. Nowadays, there is plenty of light but some people still believe in the supernatural beings.

Icelandic superstition is a part of the term Folklore, as those terms are sometimes used in the same meaning.
There is no particular definition of the term whatsoever, since the term is different from culture to culture and has roots that lay in many directions.

Superstition is somewhat a term used to hold the rules of life. To help us live life without problems.

Icelanders believed in the old days that after midnight, the evil would awake. And as the superstition said so, Icelanders avoided staying up after midnight along with walking under stairs in fear of bad things happening. Some superstitions are learnt but others are made up from people’s own minds Superstition has played a major role in the Icelandic community. Especially in the past. Nowadays superstition is not that common. People tend to hide the fact they are superstitious, but in the daily routine there can be hints of superstitious remains.

Older habits and superstitions tend to get forgotten, some change while others evolve with time.

Icelandic Folklore is not very different from other countries but Icelanders have some specific folklores that differ from other countries. Folklores like the Huldufólk and The Yule Lads.


Aurora Borealis. Photo by Berlind Óttarsdóttir.

The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). If the northern lights move very much and have major colours the percentage of wind is very high. Also if a pregnant woman looks at the northern lights, her unborn child will be cross-eyed.

Before sailing, The Bible should always be on the ship. People believed that if something happened, the bible would help them survive even the worst scenarios.

Superstition about the “Three piece”. If something happens three times, then it won’t happen again. “All is when it happens three times”  That superstition can be found in many stories, when a certain event happens 3 times in a row.

Folk Belief

Huldufólk is basically the Icelandic term of elves (the English translation would be hidden people). Icelanders have believed in them for hundreds of years and some still do today. They are believed to live in rocks and hills. Building projects in Iceland have sometimes been shifted because people want to make sure Huldufólk’s homes aren’t destroyed. They supposedly don’t like electricity and have sometimes ruined diggers when they were invading their privacy.

Some people don’t think Huldufólks and elves are the same thing, and say that Huldufólk look more like people. Elves are small and have pointy ears. Like other Icelandic legends Huldufólk are most likely to be nice to you if you are nice to them.

One folklore says that Adam and Eve once showed all of their children to God, but Eve didn’t want to show Him the dirty and unwashed ones so she hid them from Him. God knew what she had done and told her that because she had hidden her children He would make them invisible forever. That is said to be the origin of elves and Huldufólk.

Former president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, once explained the existence of Huldufólk. He said that because of our poor population we made up stories of invisible people to double our population.



The Icelandic Trolls are human-like in form, they are still inhumanly strong, huge and ugly. Many fear the Trolls, but if you treat them nicely they should leave you alone, and return favours for favours. If you’re not nice to them they are likely to make your live miserable and even eat you.

The Icelandic Trolls live in the mountains, cliffs and caves. They live in communities like humans and are very social. They hunt, fish and keep animals. The Trolls are very good at throwing feasts. They have to be careful not to stay up for too long, because they can only travel at night. If the sunlight touches them they turn into stone.

Many folktales are about Icelandic Trolls and their relationship with humans. Not far away from Höfn, near the Glacier Lagoon, is a Troll-shaped rock at the top of the mountain. The story says that two Trolls were in love but their fathers forbid it. Once they were secretly meeting they forgot about the sunrise because they were kissing and turned into stone.


Gríla – the mother of the Yule Lads.

The Yule Lads are kind of the Icelandic version of Santa Claus. Originally they were Trolls (sons of Grýla and Leppalúði) that used to played tricks on humans. Grýla supposedly cooked bad children but their cat, Jólakötturinn, or the Christmas cat, would eat children that didn’t get any new clothes for Christmas. Later on they stopped tricking people and became nicer. Today they are known as Santa Clauses that give children gifts thirteen days before Christmas. In order to receive gifts from them, the kids have to put one of their shoe in their windowsill. If the children have been naughty they put rotten potatoes in their shoe instead of gifts. Their appearance has changed through the years. First they looked like boys and wore woolen sweaters and typical Icelandic clothes but today they wear the same clothes as the American Santa Claus, red suit and long grey beard.


The Yule Lads.

The first Yule Lad comes on the 12th of December (they are thirteen in total) and the last one comes on the 24th of December. Their names are Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod), Giljagaur (Gully Gawk), Stúfur (Stubby), Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker), Pottaskefill (Pot-Scraper), Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker), Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer), Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler), Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper), Gluggagægir (Window-Peeker), Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer), Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) and Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer).

nykurNykur is an Icelandic creature that looks like a horse, but has backwards hooves. They are always grey and live underwater. Occasionally they come out of the water and try to lure wandering Icelanders or visitors. If you get on the back of the Nykur you can’t get off because of its sticky skin. When you’re stuck on its back it will ride towards its underwater home, and therefore drown you. In order to get off you have to say its name; Nykur, Nennir, Nóni or Vatnaskratti.

The Lagarfljótsormur, or the worm of Lagarfljót, is an Icelandic lake monster which is supposed to live in the lake Lagarfljót. The myth can be trailed back to 1345 and to the 21. century when a local farmer supposedly videotaped the creature swimming in 2012. Jón Árnason wrote a collection of Icelandic folktales in 1862 that talks about the Lagarfljótsormur. Some even say that the Lagarfljótsormur and the famous Loch Ness monster are the same creature. It travels allegedly through a tunnel that connects the two lakes together.

Icelandic folktales keep stories about sea cows, which supposedly used to live in the sea but sometimes got lost and wandered on land. These “sea cows” look like regular cows but are grey and have a blister around their noses so they would be able to breathe underwater. If someone popped their blister they became regular cows but they always milked better than other cows and tried to return back to sea whenever they had the chance. The lake Lagarfljót has also been connected to sea cows.

Written by Berglind and Hafdís Lára

Presentation about Superstition and Folk Beliefs