Gryla: The Yuletide Monster of Iceland

Yamuna Hrodvitnir
4 min readSep 14, 2020

The Giantess and Her Monstrous Kin

Associated with the winter holiday in Iceland is a lesser known and deeply unsettling giantess named Grýla. Her origins are within Norse mythology and the first written account of her was in the transcription of the previously oral traditions of Scandinavia, the Prose Edda. While she was mentioned in that work during the 13th century as ugly and evil like most other giants in Norse mythology, she wasn’t associated with the winter holidays until the 1800s. The first mention of this association is found in the poem called Poem of Grýla, which describes her 13 horrible children, known as the Yule Lads.

The Yule Lads are the children of Grýla and her third husband Leppaludi. These malicious children play pranks and harass people during the final 13 days leading up to Yule. Children leave their shoes in windowsills and the Yule Lads will leave gifts for them within these shoes. If they have been poorly behaved however, they will find a potato in their shoe instead of a gift. The number of Yule Lads and their mannerisms tend to vary within early depictions based on region and time. Some have described them as mere nuisances, but others have claimed that they are vicious and will kill or devour disobedient children. Like many other figures associated with the winter holidays, they have served as an excuse to frighten children into good behavior. Today, they are depicted as pleasant and jolly men, but earlier tales describe them as monsters. Much like their terrifying mother, they found joy in the suffering of children and hungered for their flesh.

Tale and Motif

Earlier descriptions of Grýla paint her as an ugly, wretched giantess who would beg, trick, or try to trade parents for their children so that she could feed upon them. The more ill-tempered and disobedient the children were, the more she enjoyed their taste. She could be satiated with gifts of other food or would have to be chased away. According to the stories, she lived in a small hut near the edge of town, but when people grew tired of having to chase her away and keep their children safe from her, she was banished to a cave in the mountains or to the Dimmuborgir lava fields in Northern Iceland.

Similar to the tales surrounding St. Nicholas, Krampus, Perchta, and other entities associated with the winter holidays, it is said that she can tell whether or not children have misbehaved throughout the year. Her punishment upon “bad” or “naughty” children is to wander the small villages and cottages around her cave, collect the bad children from their homes by shoving them into her sack, and take them back to her home where she will boil them into a stew in her cauldron. One interesting difference between Grýla and other such bogeymen or judgmental yuletide beings is that she does not punish children or reward them for the sake of keeping them in line; she just wants to eat them — and the bad children taste the best. She is said to snatch up any and all poorly behaved children that she can find and make a stew big enough for her to eat until the next year.

The Yule Cat

Her Feline Friend

Grýla is often said to be accompanied by the Yule Cat, who shares the same taste for the flesh of children. Unlike Grýla however, the Yule Cat is less picky concerning the behavior and temperament of the children he will eat. Modern tales state that he is drawn to devour children who did not receive new clothes for the holidays. Old and tattered clothes are a delicate spice for the terrible Yule Cat. This cat shares a certain similarity with Frau Perchta of old Germanic traditions. They share a threat based upon the need to complete the spinning of thread and wool by the end of the year. While Perchta would come to punish servants and children who hadn’t completed their allotment of spinning duties by Christmas-time, if not enough was spun to make new clothes by then, the Yule Cat would come in Iceland.

It is difficult to locate the older poems and texts which talk of Grýla and her unorthodox family, but her tales and those of her companions have survived and remained part of Icelandic holiday tradition. Few giants from old Norse tales have maintained their cultural relevance into modern times, which makes Grýla as special as she is terrifying. She is still described in holiday-time horror stories in Iceland, and has even appeared in the holiday episode of the popular Netflix series Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.



Yamuna Hrodvitnir

History degree, freelance writer, novice metal worker and mechanic, adventure and horror enthusiast.