Friday night folklore: North and down to Hell

There is an idiom in Icelandic that is used as a mild form of swearing: “Farðu norður og niður!”, which literally means “Go north and down!”, meaning simply: “Go to Hell!”. This story is an attempt to explain the genesis of that idiom.

Once upon a time there was a man in the north of Iceland who went fishing alone in an open rowboat whenever the weather allowed. One day when he was finished for the day and began to row home, a strong wind started blowing and pushed him out to sea, farther and farther away from land, so that he feared that he would be blown out to open sea. He was also very worried because the farther away from land he drifted, the darker it became, until finally he could hardly see from one end of the boat to the other for fog and darkness.

Eventually he struck land, jumped ashore, pulled up the boat and made it safe. But when he touched the land with his hands in the darkness, he could feel that instead of sand and gravel the beach was made up of ashes and coal. He didn’t like this at all, but knew he had to find shelter until daylight so he could try to find his way back home, so he began to walk, heading due north. The going was all downhill and very steep and dark. He walked like this in the blinding darkness for a long while until he glimpsed a red glow some way ahead of him. 

He walked towards the glow and finally came to a fire so large that he could see no end to it. He looked at it and noticed that inside the fire there was a mass of something that looked alive. It seemed to him to be a swarm of midges. In front of the fire stood a huge, terrible giant with a fearsome iron gaff in his hand that he used to stoke the fire and to make sure no living thing could get out of the fire.

But one midge was able to escape and flew over to the man. He asked the midge its name and what this place was, and the midge told him that he was looking at the fires of Hell itself and that the giant was the Devil. The midges in the fire were souls condemned to burn there for all eternity. It said it was happy to have escaped, but just then the giant realised that a soul was missing from the flames - because the Devil keeps count of his own – caught it with the gaff and threw it back into the heart of the fire. 

This frightened the visitor, who ran as fast as his legs could carry him up the steep slopes of Hell. As he got further away from the fire the darkness began to recede, until finally he could see where he was going. He followed his track back to the boat and made it home.

This is why, when people wish someone or something ill, that he or she or it should go north and down, because that is where Hell is.

It is fun to speculate about the origin of stories like this one - my guess would be that once upon a time a lone fisherman stumbled upon a small volcanic island and climbed ashore and into the crater to find glowing lava at the bottom. Of course this could simply be a completely made-up tale. Who knows?

Copyright notice: The wording used to tell this folk-tale is under copyright. The story itself is not copyrighted. If you want to re-tell 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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