Anthropology Folklore History

The Norse Cat Who Eats Poor People at Christmas

Did everyone get socks this Christmas? Or maybe a hairy jumper or an ugly bobble hat? If not, you may be overdue for a visit from the Yule Cat. Like the more famous Krampus, the Yule Cat brings a paradoxical element of terror to the festive season by eating people who didn’t receive a present of new clothes.

A old storybook illustration of a large cat clawing at a child.

The Yule Cat, or Jólakötturinn, is a monster from Iceland. Stories about the Yule Cat may date to the 16th century, but by the 19th century, he’s an established aspect of Icelandic Christmas folklore. Today, the most popular Jólakötturinn lore is a poem by Jóhannes úr Kötlum, from his 1932 book, Christmas is Coming. It describes the cat as an enormous beast with glowing eyes, sharp claws and whiskers, and a pitiful meow – he’s hungry, but not for mice. The poem doesn’t directly mention the Jólakötturinn eating people, instead he eats their Christmas dinner. This slightly more child-friendly interpretation (slightly, it still involves a giant monster cat) ends with the suggestion that real Christmas happiness may come from helping those more unfortunate than us.

Functionalism is an anthropological theory that views parts of a society, like folklore, as performing useful functions to keep everything running smoothly. Other anthropologists have pointed out that people sometimes do weird things because they feel like it, but it’s still an appealing theory because it seems natural to ask “why” when we come across something strange. For the Jólakötturinn story, the “why” could explain why the cat targets people who don’t have new clothes at Christmas. It‘s social control through folklore, similar to Father Christmas’s naughty and nice lists, that encourages people to be on their best behaviour so that they’ll be rewarded and avoid negative consequences. In Iceland, there was a tradition of hardworking farmhands being given clothing or shoes as a Christmas gift from their employers. Another explanation is that the looming threat of becoming cat food spurred people to finish the autumn wool processing, knitting, and weaving before the holidays. Did anyone ever believe in a real Yule Cat? I haven’t been able to find out, but it’s feasible that children at least could have, and it certainly could have been a way of promoting social norms through a fable even if it wasn’t taken literally.

Why a cat, though? Iceland has no indigenous large wildlife except for the Arctic fox, but the first permanent large-scale settlers were Scandinavian and the country has remained in close contact with Northern Europe. Why not a big scary animal like a bear or a wolf? I think that the Yule Cat’s “family” and the role of cats in wider folklore could be a clue. The people linked to the Jólakötturinn are a thoroughly nasty clan, headed by the powerful man-eating ogress Grýla and her lazy husband Leppalúði. The couple’s children are the Yule Lads (Jólasveinarnir), another feature of Icelandic Christmas celebrations. The Yule Lads used to be thought of as dangerous tricksters similar to other European fairy folk (their names, like “Window-Peeper” and “Sausage-Swiper”, describe this), but their behaviour has improved over the years and they now bring gifts. Their medieval Icelandic clothing is even upgraded to a Santa suit sometimes.

Grýla is the one we’re interested in here. She’s an ancient creature, who dates back to the 13th century and “adopted” the rest of her family as her story evolved. Associations between powerful crones and scary cats are everywhere in Western folklore. In medieval Europe, the cat was often linked to witchcraft and evil. In the 12th and 13th centuries, it was believed that Satan visited orgiastic rituals in the form of a black cat and that witches showed their devotion by kissing his (literal) arse. Medievalist Irina Metzler writes, in her article Heretical Cats: Animal Symbolism in Religious Discourse, that the fear of cats was due to the cat’s position as a liminal, untameable animal that “stands at the threshold between the familiar and the wild”.

A late 1800s or early 1900s image of black cats and witches, by T.A. Steinlen.

To medieval Scandinavian Christians, cats would have been uncomfortably related to heathen beliefs too, as they were important animals in pre-Christian Norse culture. They show up here and there in Norse mythology, most prominently as giant cats that pull the goddess Freyja’s chariot, and as a temporary shapeshifted form of the monster serpent Jörmungandr. Female shamans called vǫlur are described as trimming their hoods and gloves with cat fur, and cat remains sometimes turn up in places where rituals took place. After Christianisation, trolls and other huldrefolk (“hidden folk”) often took the form of cats in stories. In Denmark, the Norwegian Forest Cat species is still called huldrekat. With or without Grýla, a supernatural monster cat in the Nordic wilderness isn’t such a strange idea.

It’s a long way and a long time from giant cats that pull a goddess’s chariot to a giant cat that stalks the night with an ogress. However, I think that Metzer’s theory of the liminal cat on the border between human society and the wild is the key to making sense of a Christmas creature that could seem a little silly to modern readers. The Jólakötturinn should remind us that, outside of our warm, bright houses, the middle of winter is cold, dark, and dangerous time.