If you thought the Yule Trolls of Iceland were terrifying, meet Krampus. He is pretty much the exact opposite of Santa Claus. Krampus is a twisted half-demon/half-goat creature with sharp horns and hooves who enjoys terrorizing children in the central and eastern European Alps.
Every year, on Krampusnacht (December 5th) he punishes the unfortunate misbehaving children that St Nicholas refuses to give candy to. He will hit the poor bad children with branches. Sometimes if they are really naughty, he stuffs them into his bag so he can take them back to his lair for dinner.
Krampus most certainly originated from pre-Christian, Germanic paganism. His name derived from the German word “Krampen” which means claw. According to folklore, Krampus is the son of the Norse God Hel, who is the daughter of Loki and overseer of the underworld.
The Catholic Church and the Austrian government have attempted to abolish the tradition multiple times throughout history. However towards the end of the 20th century, the fierce Krampus tradition was revived.
Today people celebrate by participating in annual parades such as Krampuslauf (translated to Krampus Run in english). Young people dress up in terrifying costumes resembling Krampus and march around nearby Alpine towns and cities. Below is a video of the celebration.
Krampus and other exciting pre-Christian celebrations are gaining popularity in North America thanks to the Internet. Americans even made a movie about him which earned 61 million at the box office.
Here in North America, children are visited by jolly ole’ Santa Claus, who rewards them for their good behavior by giving them free gifts on Christmas Eve. However Iceland celebrates the winter holidays a little differently. Thirteen nights before Yule (Christmas Eve), the Yule Trolls take turns visiting Icelandic children. They leave behind sweets or rotten vegetables in the child’s shoes, depending on the child’s behavior.
These trolls are the sons of the foul child-eating mountain trolls, Grýla and Leppalúði. Unlike Santa Claus, these trolls are not so Jolly and good-spirited. They hide sleeping in their cave for most of the year, but during December they awaken to strike fear into the hearts of misbehaving children. Alongside the trolls is the black tyrannical Yule Cat named Jólakötturinn, who will devour children who are not wearing at least one new piece of clothing on Yule (Christmas Eve). He may also eat the food of those who are lazy and do not work hard enough. My favorite Icelandic star, Björk even wrote a song about this malevolent kitty.
Each mischievous troll has his own distinct personality and habits. The famous poem Jólasveinarnir by Jóhannes úr Kötlum written in 1932, describes the individual trolls very well. Below I will quote from that poem.
The first troll is named Stekkjarstaur or “Sheep-Cote Clod.” This little troll is known for his desire to harass sheep and for his stiff wooden peg legs.
He came stiff as wood,
To pray upon the farmer’s
Sheep as far as he could.
He wished to suck the ewes,
But it was no accident
He couldn’t; he had stiff knees –
Not too convenient.
The second troll is named Giljagaur or “Gully Gawk.” He likes to hide in the gullies waiting until he has the opportunity to steal some cow milk!
Gray his head and mien.
He snuck into the cow barn
From his craggy ravine.
Hiding in the stalls,
He would steal the milk,
While the milkmaid gave the cowherd
A meaningful smile.
The third little troll is named Stúfur or “Stubby.” He is known for being very short and loving to lick the leftovers out of your pans!
A stunted little man,
Who watched for every chance
To whisk off a pan.
And scurrying away with it,
He scraped off the bits
That stuck to the bottom
And brims – his favorites.
The fourth troll is named Þvörusleikir or “Spoon-Licker”
Like spindle he was thin.
He felt himself in clover
When the cook wasn’t in.
Then stepping up, he grappled
The stirring spoon with glee,
Holding it with both hands
For it was slippery.
The fifth troll is named Pottaskefill or “Pot Scraper.” Similar to Stubby, he will eat the leftovers out of pots instead.
Was a funny sort of chap.
When kids were given scrapings,
He’d come to the door and tap.
And they would rush to see
If there really was a guest.
Then he hurried to the pot
And had a scrapingfest.
The sixth troll is named Askasleikir or “Bowl-Licker.” He enjoys hiding under your bed until you put your bowl down. Then he will steal it and lick it!
Was shockingly ill bred.
From underneath the bedsteads
He stuck his ugly head.
And when the bowls were left
To be licked by dog or cat,
He snatched them for himself –
He was sure good at that!
The seventh troll is named Hurðaskellir or “Door Slammer.” He slams your doors throughout the night. What a noisy, annoying fellow.
A sorry, vulgar chap:
When people in the twilight
Would take a little nap,
He was happy as a lark
With the havoc he could wreak,
Slamming doors and hearing
The hinges on them squeak.
The eigth troll is named Skyrgámur or “Skyr -Gobbler.” This little buddy’s favorite food is skyr which is a traditional Icelandic dairy dish, similar to yogurt.
Was an awful stupid bloke.
He lambasted the skyr tub
Till the lid on it broke.
Then he stood there gobbling
– his greed was well known –
Until, about to burst,
He would bleat, howl and groan.
The ninth troll is named Bjúgnakrækir or “Sausage Swiper.” This mischievous little guy hides in the rafters and pilfers pork links while they’re smoking.
He climbed up to the rafters
And raided food from there.
Sitting on a crossbeam
In soot and in smoke,
He fed himself
On sausage fit for gentlefolk.
The tenth troll is named Gluggagægir or “Window Peeper.” This nosy little creature looks through your windows at night with hopes that he will find something worth stealing.
A weird little twit,
Who stepped up to the window
And stole a peek through it.
And whatever was inside
To which his eye was drawn,
He most likely attempted
To take later on.
The eleventh troll is named Gáttaþefur or “Doorway Sniffer.” He has a long nose. He uses his fantastic sense of smell to sniff around, searching for a traditional Icelandic bread called Laufabrauno.
A doltish lad and gross.
He never got a cold,
Yet had a huge, sensitive nose.
He caught the scent of lace
Bread while leagues away still
And ran toward it weightless
As wind over dale and hill.
The twelth troll is named Ketkrókur or “Meat-Hook.” This little thief uses his famous hook to steal your meat!
His talent would display
As soon as he arrived
On Saint Thorlak´s Day.
He snagged himself a morsel
Of meat of any sort,
Although his hook at times
Was a tiny bit short.
Lastly, the thirteenth troll is named Kertasníkir or “Candle Stealer.” He will stalk children so he can steal their candles and then eat them!
´Twas cold, I believe,
If he was not the last
Of the lot on Christmas Eve.
He trailed after the little ones
Who, like happy sprites,
Ran about the farm with
Their fine tallow lights.
Then one by one they trotted off
Into the frost and snow.
On Twelfth Night the last
Of the lads used to go.
Their footprints in the highlands
Are effaced now for long,
The memories have all turned
To image and song.
Stay safe from the Yule Trolls this year, and Gledileg jol, Bestu jolakvedjur med osk um gledi og frid a komandi ari! (It’s an Icelandic holiday greeting which translates to, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!)
Externsteine is a mysterious rock formation near Ostwestfalen-Lippe in northwest Germany. In an area that is largely void of massive stone structures, the uniqueness of these soaring columnar rocks is what makes them especially interesting. Many theories abound about this very interesting site located on the northeastern slope of the Teutoburger Wald, the place that the Romans were defeated by the Germans in 9 CE.
The formation of multiple free-standing stone pillars stretches for several hundred meters. In total, there are 13 stone structures. The etymology of the name Extern- is unclear (-steine meaning “stones” or “rocks”). The Latinized spelling with x is first recorded in the 16th century, but became common only in the late 19th century.
The oldest recorded forms of the name read Agistersten and Eggesterenstein, both dated 1093. Other forms of the name include Egesterenstein (12th century), Egestersteyn(1366), Egersteyne (1369), Egestersten (1385), Egesternsteyn (15th century), Eygesternsteyn (151), Externsteine (1533), Egesterennstein (1583), Agisterstein (1592).
In a popular tradition going back to an idea proposed to Hermann Hamelmann in 1564, the Externsteine are identified as a sacred site of the pagan Saxons, and the location of the Irminsul idol reportedly destroyed by Charlemagne.
One thing is for certain, from the very earliest times this place was a very sacred spot for many tribes. Archaeological excavations have yielded some Upper Paleolithic stone tools dating to about 10,700 BC from 9,600 BC. Beneath a rock overhang on rock VIII, microliths from the Ahrensburg culture such as arrow heads or blades were found. Evidence of fire sites was also found. Further adding to its sacred connection, Externstein is associated with archaeoastronomical speculation; a circular hole above the “altar stone” in the Höhenkammerhas been identified in this context as facing in the direction of sunrise at the time of summer solstice.
It is thought that perhaps the Goddess Ostara/Eostra was worshiped here and it has been suggested that the Bruchterian prophetess/oracle Veleda (from a tribe along the lower Rhine) about whom The Roman historian, Tacitus, wrote, resided, unseen by men, in the upper sanctuary – a space where men were not allowed to enter. This upper temple on the rock pinnacle – the only one of the rocks that has retained its original peak – was probably originally an enclosed cave-chamber within which the prophetess studied the heavens, the movements of the stars, moon and sun, through the circular opening in the rock wall. This space was an observatory and has an almost exact northeasterly alignment.
The roof of this rock-chamber was either deliberately destroyed or it eroded naturally and it is now only semi-enclosed. But considering that (according to the Carolingian annals) the “Irminsul” was destroyed, or broken off by Charlemagne in 772 AD one can be excused for thinking that it was deliberate. This pinnacle was, according to legend, the site of the sacred “Irminsul,” the Saxon spiraling Tree Pillar. The oldest chronicle describing an Irminsul refers to it as a tree trunk erected in the open air.
After the Externsteine was purged of its pagan influence by Charlemagne, hermit monks began to settle into caves at the base of the rocks. Their task was to Christianize the site and to “drive out evil influences.” During this period, the monks, with the help of local bishops, began to render carvings into the rocks to memorialize their Christian influence in the area. There is no doubting the powerful symbolism of represented in the central bas relief, the largest of its kind in Europe. The famous carving depicts the Tree of Life, a pagan representation of Earth power, bowing down beneath the body of Jesus Christ being taken from the cross. Converts would have immediately understood the various symbols represented, especially the weeping sun and moon, both important pagan fertility images of the masculine and feminine. They would have seen the ancient tree of pagan knowledge being changed to represent the Christian Tree of the Cross. This carving is unique because it is the only known German sculpture showing a distinct Byzantine influence.
The hermits eventually abandoned the site in the fifteenth century, the chapel they built left to ruin, and the site was transformed to a small fortress. When this system of fortification was outdated, the counts of the region used the site for court banquets. After the death of Count Adolf in 1666, everything fell into decay.
Over time, the legend of Externsteine inspired a great number of books, essays, paintings, and novels. In 1824, the author Goethe wrote an essay on the descent from the cross carving, even though he never visited Externsteine himself.
The Externsteine is now a recognized pagan center and mystical site. It has been inhabited by pre-Germanic people, the Saxons, Christian monks, and today it is a popular New Age destination. Today, between a half to one million people annually visit the stones, making the Externsteine one of the most frequently visited nature reserves in Westphalia.
Because of its reputation as “pagan sacred site” in popular culture, there have often been private gatherings or celebrations on the day of summer solstice and Walpurgis Night. Despite the varying views on the origins and significance of this site to prehistoric peoples, there is no doubt that the Externsteine is a magical place to behold!
Ireland is a magical place full of megalithic tombs. Some say that these tombs were probably built before the arrival of the Celts, who called them fairy mounds and believed that the spirits of ancient people–bold heroes and brave maidens–lived there. The Celtic creator gods, the Tuatha de Danann, were known to be extraordinarily good at building things, and perhaps it was they who constructed the tombs dotting the countryside.
Eventually, the spirits inhabiting the fairy mounds transformed into the little people of later Irish legends–leprechauns and fairies and brownies, whose spirits are said to haunt the land.
Many of these tombs are called passage tombs because they contain passages leading to burial chambers underneath the mound. The walls of the passage and chamber are made of rock that is elaborately carved.
Court tombs, or cairns, have an open, roofless courtyard in front leading into two, three, or four chambers at back. Archaeologists have found human remains in them but think they might originally have been built as temples. They tend to be evenly distributed about three miles apart instead of clustered like modern graves; generally structures that are spaced
like that are places of worship, but there’s no way to tell for sure how the people of ancient Ireland used them. Court cairns are considered the oldest types of monuments in Ireland. They date from around 4000 BC and the most well-known are found at Creeveykeel and Deerpark in Co Sligo, Rathlackan in Co Mayo.
Wedge tombs also occur primarily in the northern part of Ireland. These tombs have stone walls and roofs; the roof gets lower and the passage narrower as one goes into the tomb, hence the name wedge. Most of them face west or southwest, toward the setting sun.
Wedge tombs are numerous; there are about 500 of them all over the northern part of the country, although some can be found on Ireland’s eastern coastline. Human remains have been found in the tombs that have been excavated, along with some pottery, which suggests they were made toward the end of the Neolithic period.
Labbacalle (“Hag’s Bed”), in County Cork, is an excellent wedge tomb. It got its strange name because it contained the skeleton of a headless woman when it was first opened.
Portal tombs, also called dolmens, consist of several large upright stones topped by a giant capstone. Putting these rocks in place must have been a stupendous effort–some capstones weigh as much as 100 tons. These dolmens were originally surrounded by mounds of earth, and people were buried inside them. A giant dolmen at Poulnabrone, County Clare, had more than 20 people buried in it over a 600-year period; this might mean that only royalty was buried there. There are dolmens all over Ireland, as well as in Wales and Cornwall. The Kilclooney More dolmen in County Donegal is particularly cool–its capstone is almost 14-feet long.
Some of the most spectacular archaeological sites from the Neolithic period are in the Boyne Valley in County Meath. These sites are called Brú na Bóinne which means palace of the Boyne. They consist of large stone tombs built around 3200 BCE, several centuries before the great pyramids of Egypt. The three main components of this site are Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth.
People have known about these tombs for centuries; Vikings plundered them, while Victorians hunted treasures there and carved their initials on the walls. The sites gradually deteriorated and were even quarried at one point.
The tombs at Newgrange are built inside a huge, grassy mound of earth. The stones at the entrance and some of the stones holding the tomb together are elaborately carved with spirals. The stones that were used were not local; some of them came from Wicklow, 50 miles away, and others from northern Ireland. This indicates that whoever built them was very organized.
The Newgrange tomb might have been surrounded by a ring of giant stones, though only 12 of these now remain. Inside the mound is a long passageway leading to a subterranean burial chamber. Inside the chamber are three recesses for holding remains. The front door of Newgrange is a solar observatory.
When Newgrange was first excavated by experts, archaeologists found the remains of at list three cremated bodies and some human bones. Offerings of jewelry were probably once there as well, but these were stolen long ago.
No one knows exactly why these mounds were built. They might have been burial places for kings; ancient legends certainly suggest that as a possibility. Or they might have served as calendars. Many megalithic sites are constructed to catch the sun at particular times of the year, and they are astonishingly accurate!
Newgrange is the best-known example of this. Every year during the winter solstice (December 19-23), the rising sun shines through a slit over the entrance and lights up the burial chamber for 17 minutes. At the time the tomb was built, the sunlight would have shone directly onto a spiral design carved into the wall.
Similar phenomena happen at other megalithic sites. The light of the setting sun at winter solstice illuminates one of the chambers inside Dowth. At Knowth, the eastern passage seems to have been designed to catch the rising sun of the spring and autumn equinoxes, while the western passage might have caught the setting sun on those same days.
The River Boyne, which flows past these mound tombs, has long been very important spiritually to the Irish people. Legend says that the first occupant of Newgrange was named Elcmar. His wife was Boann, the spirit of the river.