From Iceland — Ask An Expert: What Makes An Icelandic Ghost?

Ask An Expert: What Makes An Icelandic Ghost?

Published November 15, 2023

Ask An Expert: What Makes An Icelandic Ghost?
Catherine Magnúsdóttir
Photo by
Art Bicnick

We asked a folklorist for all the spooky details

The autumn air is crisp and the darkness is creeping back in. What better way to embrace the coming long night than to delve into Icelandic ghost stories? We have a bunch of those! But what makes an Icelandic ghost stand out? Why are they giving less “Victorian girl at the end of the hallway” and more “brutal revenant that will drag you into their grave with them?” We went to Björk Bjarnadóttir, environmental-folklorist and storyteller, to learn more about our paranormal pals.

“We have two categories of main ghosts in Iceland,” Björk explains. “Afturgöngur, the ones that don’t want to leave as they loved or hated something – which could be people or money – so much in life that they can’t let go of it. Then there are uppvakningar, or the woken up ones, which are raised by a cunning man or woman. He or she picks a newly dead – usually a young boy or girl – and changes them into ghosts to do bad things for them.” Even in death, there’s no escaping unpaid internships.

“To wake up somebody and change them into an uppvakningur you would have to do certain complicated magic and then wrestle the ghost when it crawls out of the grave,” Björk continues. “You also have to lick all of the stuff out of its face. Once you win the ghost will ask you ‘what do you want me to do?’ and then you can send it to kill someone, for example.”

Photo by Art Bicnick

What stands out about the ghosts in Icelandic folklore is just how physical they are. No transparent specters here, but something closer to revenants or zombies. Björk links this to old Norse concepts of burials and the afterlife.

“It has to do with an ancient belief that the ones that are ghosts are strong and physical in life and also with the belief of the old vikings, that when they die they still live on and travel to Valhalla,” Björk explains. “Often Vikings were buried in a hill, with their sword, horse and other objects that belonged to them so they could take that with them to Valhalla. Nobody was allowed to touch or dig into that hill or the ‘Haugbúi,’ the one that dwells there, would become very angry. These are pagan mounds, as no Christian would be buried with his sword or other belongings. Sometimes these ‘Haugbúar’ would become ghosts and were then difficult to deal with as they were strong and knew how to fight.”

Interestingly enough, Icelandic ghosts can also age and get worn out, walking until their feet deteriorate, for example, and they have to move on their knees. Some also haunt a specific family for a certain number of generations. Gotta hate that intergenerational trauma.

Luckily, Björk knows how to fight off ghosts.

“How do you kill a ghost? Well, it’s already dead. But you can do something we call ‘Kveða niður’ or ‘singing down a ghost’. So, a very cunning person or a magician would come and sing down the ghost with a certain kind of poem, but you can also take the body, cut the head off and walk through the opening between the body and the head. Then you put the head by the bum and burn the body. That’s it, the ghost is gone. Icelanders used to do this so often that the king of Denmark had to write a law in 1609 banning Icelanders from digging up bodies to cut off their heads and burn them.”

Icelandic ghosts are strong, but they are also strongly bound to their promises. Björk explains how you can trap a ghost in its grave: “They only travel during the night and if you see a ghost coming out of their grave, you throw a ball of yarn down into the grave and hold the thread. This prevents it from returning and they very badly want to get back into their grave before the sun comes up. Then you tell it: I will allow you to go down there if you promise to never come again.” Tadaa!

Other means of ghost protection include: carrying plants like sortulyng or fjandafæla (“demon chaser”), spitting over your shoulder, farting at them or emptying your chamberpot at them to tell the ghost to piss off.

Follow our Ask An Expert series to learn more about all things Iceland.

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