Friday night folklore: Búkolla

The Icelandic word for a fairy tale literally means an adventure, which is of course just what they are. It is from these kinds of stories, along with myths and legends, that the modern fantasy genre has sprung, and they are no less imaginative than their literary offspring, albeit usually shorter.

There are some explanatory notes after the story, but first here is one you need to know before reading it:
The life-egg is a common theme in Iceland fairy tales. The life-power of monsters, especially trolls and giants, is stored in eggs, and if a monster‘s life-egg is broken (often on the monster‘s face or forehead), the monster will die.

Once upon a time there was a farmer and his wife. They lived on a tiny farm with their three daughters, Sigrid, Signy and Helga. They loved Sigrid and Signy, but cared nothing for Helga, who had to make her bed in the ash-pile. They were poor and the only livestock they owned was one cow. It gave a great deal of milk and was their most prized possession.

One day the cow disappeared and no-one knew where it had gone to. The farmer and his wife decided to send their daughter Sigrid to find the cow. The fitted her out with some food and new shoes and sent her off. She walked long and far and finally topped on a hillock, where she ate her breakfast. Then she called out:

"Give a moo, dear Búkolla, so I can find you!" But there was no moo, and so she walked on until she came to a second hillock, where she stopped to eat her lunch. Then she stood and called out loudly:
"Give a moo, dear Búkolla, so I can find you!" But no moo came back. She walked farther on, until she came to a third hillock, where she sat down to eat her supper. Then she got up and called out, as loud as she could:
"GIVE A MOO, DEAR BÚKOLLA, SO I CAN FIND YOU!" And then finally she heard a faint answering moo from far up in the mountains.

She walked towards the sound and climbed the mountain until she came to the mouth of a cave. This she entered and saw an open fire, a cauldron of meat cooking over the fire and bread baking in the embers. Búkolla was tethered with iron chains in a stall nearby. Sigrid took a piece of meat from the cauldron and ate it and then tried to untie the cow, but was unable to, so she sat down by the cow and soothed the animal by stroking its neck.

Shortly thereafter the earth began to tremble and shake and in came a terrible she-troll who said:

"Here you are, Sigrid farmer‘s daughter; you shall not live long, for you have stolen from me." With that she grabbed the girl, broke her neck with one quick twist and threw the body into a deep crack in the cave floor.

Time passed and the farmer and his wife began to worry about Sigrid, and finally they decided she must be dead. So they sent off Signy to search for the cow. The story repeated itself in all details, right down to her murder by the she-troll.

Now Helga asked her parents if she could go and look for Búkolla. They didn‘t think she could do much, since her more favoured sisters were unable to finish the mission and were probably dead. But Helga persisted and was finally allowed to go. She only got shoes of dried fish-skin to wear and her food was leftovers: slimy fish skin, fins and tails and pot-scrapings.

She walked far and long until she came to a hillock. She then said:

"My sisters have eaten here, and here I shall also eat." After she had gnawed some of the leftovers she called out:

"Give a moo, dear Búkolla, so I can find you!" But there was no answer. The same thing happened at the second hillock.

Finally she came to the third hillock and yelled out:


Búkolla gave a moo, and Helga followed the sound, climbed the mountain and found the cave. She spotted the cauldron over the fire and noticed the bread. She turned the bread over and stoked the fire, but took nothing, and sat down by Búkolla. Shortly thereafter she heard a noise outside, the earth trembled and in came the she-troll, huge and threatening. She spoke to Helga:

"Here you are, Helga farmer‘s daughter; you shall live, for you have not stolen from me."

The night passed and in the morning the troll fed Helga, and before going out to the forest to hunt, she told her:
"Today you shall do some work for me: go and fetch me the brooch I had when I was living with my sister, the Queen of the Vales."
"Where shall I find it?" asked Helga.
"That you must discover for yourself," said the troll, "and if you haven‘t brought it to me by tonight, I will kill you."

The troll left and Helga sat down and cried in her helplessness. Then a man came to her, ugly to behold, dressed in a wrinkly skin tunic that reached his ankles in the front but only to the middle of his shoulder-blades in the back. He had a slimy length of snot running from his nose all the way town to his toes. He asked her why she was crying and she answered that it was no use telling him because he would not be able to help her.

"I know what troubles you," he said, "and if you agree to kiss me tonight, I will help you to find the brooch." She agreed, and asked him his name and he said it was Dordingull. He led her away from the cave until they came to a small house. By the door were a spade and a shovel. He turned to them and said:
"Spade cut and shovel scoop." The tools began working all by themselves, and finally they had dug down to the brooch. Dordingull picked it up and handed it to Helga and asked for his kiss, but she said she couldn‘t bring herself to kiss him. Then she went back to the cave and put the brooch in the troll‘s bed.

In the evening the troll came home and asked for the brooch.

"It is in your bed," said Helga.
"You have done a good job," said the troll, "but I believe you had help."

The next morning the troll said to Helga:

"The task I have for you today is to fetch a chess-set I have at the house of my sister, the Queen of the Vales. I have wanted it back for a long time but have been unable to recover it." Helga asked where she could find the Queen, but the troll told her she had to discover that for herself, "and if you don‘t bring back my chess-set by tonight, I will kill you."

The troll then departed and Helga sat down and cried. Then Dordingull came back and asked her what the matter was and told he would help her if she would promise to kiss him that night. She said she would gladly do so, and more if needs be.

They then started walking, until they saw a grand palace some distance away.
"In this palace," said Dordingull, "lives the Queen. Go there, and she will greet you gladly and give you the chess-set. She will serve you food. Do not eat any of it, but take three pieces and put them in your pocket, and thoroughly cross the table-settings in front of you when you sit at the table. When you depart, she will send three monsters after you. Throw one piece of the food you save to each of them."

Helga now went to the palace and was well received by the Queen, who told her she knew what her errand was. When the table was set for the meal, the Queen said:
"Stab her, fork; cut her, knife; and swallow her, tablecloth." But they answered:
"We cannot, for she has crossed us too well."

The Queen the table for a short while and Helga used the opportunity to put three pieces of meat in her pocket, but ate nothing. The Queen then handed her the chess-set, and she set off back to the cave.

She had walked some distance from the palace when three monsters came running after her, and she thought they must be sent to kill her. She remembered Dordingull‘s advice and took the pieces of meat and threw one to each monster. They each ate their piece and all fell down dead. Helga continued on her way and put the chess-set in the troll‘s bed. Again she could not bring herself to kiss Dordingull.

In the evening the troll came back and asked where the chess-set was. Helga pointed to the bed.
"Good work," said she, "but I suspect you did not do it alone."

The following morning the troll told Helga to "cook my meal, make my bed and empty my chamber-pot, and be done by tonight or else I will kill you." Helga replied that this should be easy work, but when the troll had left, it turned out that the bedclothes were stuck to the bed, the cauldron was stuck to the floor, and the chamber pot was stuck under the bed, and none could be moved. So again she sat down in the mouth of the cave and cried.

Then Dordingull came and offered his help in exchange for a kiss. Helga agreed, and Dordingull went inside, made the bed, emptied the chamber pot and set the meal to cook, all with no problem at all. He also put a cauldron full of boiling pitch under the bed and told Helga that the troll would fall into the cauldron when she sat on the bed, because she would be tired and slow after eating a big meal. He also told her that there was a life-egg under the pillow. This he told Helga to break on the troll‘s face when she fell into the cauldron, and to call his name if she needed help.

When the troll came home she told Helga she had done a good job and remarked that she could not have been acting alone. She then sat on the bed and tumbled straight into the cauldron. Helga broke the egg on the troll‘s face and called out to Dordingull, who was there in a flash. The troll died and they set her on the fire to burn her up. The ground shook greatly three times, scaring Helga who then finally gave Dordingull his three kisses. He told her that the Queen was now in her death throes, because the life-egg belonged to both sisters.

They slept together in the troll‘s bed during the night and in the morning Helga noticed that a handsome prince was in the bed with her and the skin of Dordingull was on the floor. She realised that Dordingull had been a prince under a spell, took the skin and threw it on the fire and splashed water on the prince‘s face to wake him up.

They removed everything valuable from the cave, including Búkolla the cow, and they also carried away with them all the great riches from the Queen‘s palace. They travelled to his father‘s kingdom, where they were wedded and became king and queen after the old king‘s death. They lived long and well and happily ever after, and so this story ends.

  • Búkolla is a common cow‘s name. „Bú“ means „farm“, and „kolla“ refers to a hornless cow.
  • Shoes in these days were made of dried skin and didn‘t last very long, so giving someone a new pair before a journey was doing them a great favour. Fish-skin shoes lasted even less time and were used only by the very poor. Travel distances were sometimes counted in the number of pairs of shoes a walker could expect to wear out on the journey.
  • Dordingull is a name for a small spider, and is apt for someone who abandons his old skin for a new one. It is also a play on words: replace the D with an H and you have Hordingull, which means „dangling snot“.

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to use it, for a collection of folk-tales, incorporate it into fiction, use it in a school essay or any kind of publication, please tell it in your own words or give the proper attribution if you choose to use the wording unchanged.


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