Meet Grýla, the Christmas Troll Who Eats Iceland's Naughtiest Children

Grýla and Leppalúði installations in Akureyri, Iceland
Grýla and Leppalúði installations in Akureyri, Iceland
David Stanley, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In Iceland, naughty children don't just get lumps of coal during the Christmas season. Sometimes, they get eaten. Meet Grýla, the fearsome fairy tale ogre that keeps Icelandic kids toeing the line during the holidays.

The Christmas Witch, as some English-language sources call her (like Smithsonian magazine, which took a fun dive into the myth in 2017) is actually more like the Christmas Troll, one of many scary, man-eating trolls featured in Icelandic folk tales. During jól, Iceland's Christmas season, she supposedly comes down from her cave in the mountains to gather up ill-behaved kids for her and her lazy and browbeaten husband Leppalúði to make into stew.

Folk tales and poems about Grýla have been around since at least the Middle Ages, according to British folklore researcher Jacqueline Simpson's 1972 book Icelandic Folktales and Legends. In Icelandic folklore, trolls are stupid giants, most of whom are very dangerous and actively hate Christianity. They're usually used to explain rock formations, which many legends claim are either trolls turned to stone or stones thrown by a troll at a church. In the 13th century, the word grýla was a general term for a she-troll, but eventually, it came to name a specific, child-eating monster.

The legends don't agree on what, exactly, Grýla might look like, though like all Icelandic trolls, she's a gross, massive giant. One rhyme says she has 15 tails, each of which holds 100 bags with 20 children in each bag, doomed to be a feast for the troll's family. Another says she has 40 tails, and still another says she carries a bag of children on her thigh. Some poems say she has 300 heads, each of which has three eyes. Others describe eyes in the back of her head, ears that hang so long that they hit her in the nose, a matted beard, blackened teeth, and hooves. All these stories agree on one point: She's very, very ugly.

Grýla isn't a standalone figure in Icelandic folklore, though. She is the mother of the Yule Lads, 13 mischief makers that supposedly visit on the 13 days of Christmas. Her companion, the Jólakötturinn—the Yule Cat—is said to have a taste for human flesh himself, lurking in the snowy countryside and gobbling up anyone, adults or children, who didn't get any clothes for Christmas—a sign that they didn't work hard enough.

Grýla functions as a cautionary tale, but most adults don't really believe in her, unlike, say, elves, which a number of modern Icelanders consider an important and very real part of their culture. As Simpson writes in the introduction to her book, even hundreds of years ago, "parents taught their children to fear the bugbear Grýla, but did not believe in her themselves."

Some tales have softened Grýla's image over the years. In an episode of Netflix's The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, for instance, she's presented as a powerful witch who protects mistreated children, not a monster who's intent on devouring them. She's now depicted in statues and Christmas installations all over Iceland—even at airports—but in many cases, she retains at least a little of her scary vibe.

Love Yuletide monsters? Take our quiz to find out which legendary Christmas figure you're most like.

The New Apple Watch SE Is Now Available on Amazon

Apple/Amazon
Apple/Amazon

Apple products are notorious for their high price tags. From AirPods to iPads to MacBooks, it can be difficult to find the perfect piece of tech on sale when you are ready to buy. Luckily, for those who have had their eye on a new Apple Watch, the Apple Watch SE is designed with all the features users want but at a lower starting price of $279— and they're available on Amazon right now.

The SE exists as a more affordable option when compared to Apple's new Series 6 line of watches. This less expensive version has many of the same functions of its pricier brethren, except for certain features like the blood oxygen sensor and electrical heart sensor. To make up for the truncated bells and whistles, the SE comes in at least $120 cheaper than the Series 6, which starts at $400 and goes up to $800. The SE comes with technical improvements on previous models as well, such as the fall detection, a faster processor, a larger screen, water resistance, and more.

Now available in 40mm ($279) and 44mm ($309), both SE models offer a variety of colors to choose from, such as sliver, space gray, and pink. If you want cellular connection, you’ll have to pay a bit more for the 40mm ($329) and the 44mm ($359).

For more, head to Amazon to see the full list of offerings from Apple.

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Are Halloween Pumpkins Edible?

Diane Helentjaris, Unsplash
Diane Helentjaris, Unsplash

When people visit their local family-owned pumpkin patch around Halloween, they aren’t usually looking for dinner. The majority of the nearly 2 billion pounds of pumpkins cultivated in the U.S. each year are carved up instead of eaten, making the squash a unique part of the agriculture industry. For people who prefer seasonal recipes to decorations, that may raise a few questions: Are the pumpkins sold for jack-o’-lanterns different from pumpkins sold as food? And are Halloween pumpkins any good to eat?

The pumpkins available at farms and outside supermarkets during October are what most people know, but that’s just one type of pumpkin. Howden pumpkins are the most common decorative pumpkin variety. They’ve been bred specifically for carving into jack-o’-lanterns, with a symmetrical round shape, deep orange color, and sturdy stem that acts as a handle. Shoppers looking for the perfect carving pumpkin have other options as well: the Racer, Magic Wand, Zeus, Hobbit, Gold Rush, and Connecticut field pumpkin varieties are all meant to be displayed on porch steps for Halloween.

Because they’re bred to be decoration first, carving pumpkins don’t taste very good. They have walls that are thin enough to poke a cheap knife through and a texture that’s unappealing compared to the squashes consumers are used to eating. “Uncut carving pumpkins are safe to eat; however, it's not the best type to use for cooking,” Daria McKelvey, a supervisor for the Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden, tells Mental Floss. “Carving pumpkins are grown for their large size, not the flavor. Their flesh can be bland and the fibers are very stringy.”

To get the best-tasting pumpkins possible this autumn, you’re better off avoiding the seasonal supermarket displays. Many pumpkin varieties are bred especially for cooking and eating. These include Sugar Pie, Kabocha, Jack-Be-Little, Ghost Rider, Hubbard, Jarrahdale, Baby Pam, and Cinderella pumpkins. You can shop for these varieties by name at local farms or in the produce section of your grocery store. They should be easy to tell apart from the carving pumpkins available for Halloween: Unlike decorative pumpkins, cooking pumpkins are small and dense. This is part of the reason they taste better. McKelvey says. “[Cooking pumpkins] are smaller, sweeter, have a thicker rind (meatier), and have less fibers, making them easier to cook with—but not so good for carving.” These pumpkins can be stuffed, blended into soup, or simply roasted.

If you do want to get some culinary use out of your carving pumpkins this Halloween, set aside the seeds when scooping out the guts. Roasted with seasonings and olive oil, seeds (or pepitas) from different pumpkin varieties become a tasty and nutritious snack. Another option is to turn the flesh of your Halloween pumpkin into purée. Adding sugar and spices and baking it into a dessert can do a lot to mask the fruit’s underwhelming flavor and consistency.

Whatever you do, make sure your pumpkin isn’t carved up already when you decide to cook with it. There are many ways to recycle your jack-o’-lanterns, but turning them into pie isn’t one of them. "If one does plan on cooking with a carving pumpkin, it should be intact,” McKelvey says. “Never use one that's been carved into a jack-o'-lantern, otherwise you could be dealing with bacteria, dirt and dust, and other little critters.”