Ghosts and ghouls of Iceland

Author: Sóley Jónsdóttir

Iceland is a land of myth and mystery, with elves, trolls, and ghosts roaming the land. But few places are as haunted as the holy grounds of churches and graveyards. Since the first Churches were built here, the ghosts and ghouls have hunted them. These stories have been passed down for generations but never change, that could just be tradition, or maybe it’s because they have some truth to them, and you can’t change the truth.

The skeleton and the man dressed in red

In a cemetery at a small church, a human skeleton was found lying above ground. At the next burial, the priest had it put in the grave with the casket. However, the next day the skeleton was found lying on top of the grave. The priest tried to bury it several times but it always came up again. The priest then decided to lay it underneath a church bench and it stayed there for a long time.

On New Year‘s Eve, the priest remembered he had left his Grallar (hymn book) at the altar and asked if someone who wasn‘t afraid of the dark could go back to the church and fetch it for him.

His maid tells him she‘s unafraid and goes in to grab his book. When she comes back the priest tells her „You‘re not afraid of the dark, but I’ll call you brave if you can go and pick up the skeleton that lays in the church.“

She answers that it’s nothing more than a task and goes to bring him the skeleton.

When she brings him the skeleton, the priest says „You are brave, but now you must return it.“ And she does so.

When she walks through the gates of the graveyard the skeleton starts to speak. „when you enter the church it will be full of people and at the altar will be a man dressed in red with a red hat on his head, if you can reconcile me with him you will be the luckiest woman there is.“

When she entered the church it was full as the skeleton had said. Unfazed she walked up the the altar and said to the man dressed in red „Leave the skeleton in peace in the ground from now on.“

The man answered, „No, I won‘t do that.“

Angry, she says, „If you don´t, the spirits will leave you with neither peace nor tranquility.“

„If it be so, I will leave the skeleton alone.“ But as turns to walk away, he calls after her „Look into my glowing eyes“

Knowing that if she‘d turned to look at him, she would never get out, she lifts the back of her skirt and says „And you look at my ass.“ And she walks out of the church without looking back. 

A little later, a man is buried at the church and the maid asks the priest to bury the skeleton. The priest thought it would be of little use but did so anyway. The skeleton was buried and never came up again.

Years later the maid married a wealthy man and became a woman of great luck and fortune.

The ghost and his hat

At a church among others were a young girl and a teenage boy. The boy had a habit of scaring the girl, so much so that she did not feel fear anymore. Because even if she saw something she would think it was just the boy trying to scare her.

One evening she took down laundry which included little white nightcaps that were customary at that time. When she is almost done she sees a ghost sitting on a grave wearing a white nightcap. Thinking it is the boy trying to scare her she takes his hat and says „You won‘t succeed in scaring me this time.“ And walks away.

When she goes in with the laundry she sees the boy sitting at the table. When it was time to divide the laundry there was one cap left over and it was muddy on the inside which scared the girl.

The next morning the ghost was still sitting on the grave, the people didn‘t know what to do since no one dared to bring him his hat back. They asked an old man on a nearby farm for advice, and he told them the girl couldn‘t avoid the ghost and had to bring him his hat back, but that she should do so in silence and that the men should keep an eye on her.

The girl anxiously takes the hat and brings it the the ghost, as she places it on his grave she asks him „Are you happy now?“ that angers the ghost who snatches the hat and answers „Yes, are you happy?“he hits her. The girl falls to the ground as the ghost disappears, and when the men go to her she lies dead on the grave.

The boy was punished for scaring her so much as the priest believed that all the misfortune had come from him.

The Nykur of Holtsvatn

A long time ago in Barð near Skagafjörð, a group of farmers were asked to build a wall that was supposed to be around the church and cemetery that was being built. The men arrived a day early, all except one. That man was considered anti-social and unpopular. The others waited for him and around noon the next day, they could see a man leading a grey horse. The men scolded him for showing up late to the job. The man asks them what job he should do, and they decide that he and his horse should help carry the stones needed to build the wall.

The man is happy with that but his horse is not, the horse breaks away from the train and bites the other horses. The transporteres then decide to put more weight on the horse to stop it from acting up, the horse however carried the weight with ease and continued to attack the other horses.

The transporters then decide that the man and his grey horses will carry all the stones alone. That did not seem to bother the horse as he carried all the weight the horses had carried on his back. His temperament seemed to ease now that the other horses had gone. The man and the grey horse made their trips to and from the worksite with ease, as the sunset they carried the last of the stones.

When the man finished unloading the horse he decided to let the horse free, he took the bridle and hit the horse on the back. The horse then bucks and breaks part of the wall that had been built behind him before running away. The men tried to fix the wall but it kept collapsing, nothing they could do would make it hold, so they decided that that would be the entrance to the church.

Years later the grey horse can still be seen in Holtsvatn, and most agree it’s not a horse but a Nixie.

The lady of úlfljótsvatn

This last story isn‘t a legend but an encounter my scouts had less than ten years ago.

One morning at breakfast five girls from my troop came up to me to ask who the lady was that had been watching them sleep. At first, I thought they were just trying to scare me by telling me a ghost story but they were completely serious. When I told them I didn‘t know what they were talking about they told me a lady with long brown hair in a white dress had been in the room standing over one of the beds. That she didn‘t move or say anything when they tried to talk to her. I asked why they didn‘t come and get me but they said they didn‘t believe in ghosts and that she didn‘t seem mean or dangerous so they just went back to sleep.

I later told other scouts that story and many said they or someone they know have seen that lady. It is believed that she is buried in the cemetery nearby and that she just enjoys having company.