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Friday night folklore: Queen Bothilda

It is an old tradition in Iceland to attend a midnight mass on Christmas Eve, and many folktales tell of what would happen to those who stayed home to guard the farm while the others were gone. There are many variations both of the following tale and also of another that tells of the person left behind disappearing altogether and someone breaking that pattern with bravery or cunning. Next Friday’s story will be one of those.

One Christmas Eve on a farm in south-western Iceland there was a knock on the door and outside there was a beautifully dressed woman who asked if she could stay the night there. The farmer welcomed her in and asked her name, but she said she was called Bothilda but was unwilling to say where she came from or who her people were. She stayed the night and was alone in the house while the people from the farm attended the midnight mass. When they came back in the morning, they saw that the house was cleaner and tidier than it had ever been before and everything was ready for the Christmas celebrations.

The farmer saw that here was a good housekeeper and invited her to stay, to which she agreed, and accepted a position as his housekeeper and carried out her duties in a perfect manner. The next Christmas Eve she again stayed home whole the others attended the mass, but when they returned, they saw that she was very downcast and had been crying, which was unusual for her. 

Her third Christmas on the farm she again said she would stay at home, but this time the farm shepherd, whose name was Gudmund, swore that he would find out what she was doing while she was home alone. The people all sett off to church, but after a while he pretended to fall ill and turned back. He had an invisibility stone which he took in his hand before he entered the house and walked into the common room. Bothilda was decking herself out in fine clothes and jewelry and he had never seen such a splendid outfit. When she was fully dressed she took a green cloth out of her clothes chest and left the house.

Gudmund followed her down to a nearby lake, where she laid the cloth on the water and stepped aboard as if it were a boat. Gudmund got onto a corner of the cloth as well, and the cloth then sank with them into the lake and he felt as if they were passing through thick smoke down through the water and the ground below, until they landed in a wide, beautiful field. There he saw a grand city nearby with high towers and a big church.
Bothilda walked into the city and the boy followed. A man, to whom everyone else showed great respect, came to meet her and greeted her as his wife and kissed her, and so did three children who called her ‘mother’. Everyone rejoiced when they saw her and welcomed her gladly.

Everyone then entered the church and a mass was sung, just like in the world above. Bothilda’s children wandered around the church and each played with a golden ring, but the youngest dropped his ring and could not find it, but Gudmund had picked it up and put it in his pocket. 

After the mass Bothilda sat at table in a throne beside her husband and enjoyed a feast with the others. The food was abundant and drink too, but as dawn neared Bothilda stood up and said it was time to part. This saddeded everyone, and especially her husband. She said her goodbyes to everyone and her husband escorted her back to the field, and was very sad and despaired, saying this might be the last time they ever saw each other. They were both crying when they parted.

She stepped on the cloth and Gudmund too and it rose with them up into the earth and through the water. They then returned back to the farm, where she took off her finery and put on her everyday clothes and did the housework, and had everything ready as usual when the others returned. 

The farmer asked Gudmund where he had been, and he said he had been exploring life in the lower regions and the farmer asked him how that was. Gudmund then said he had been following his housekeeper. He then told the whole story, in the presence of Bothilda, who then asked him if he had any proof. Gudmund then pulled out the ring and showed it to her.

Bothilda was very pleased to see the ring and said: “You have told the truth and I owe you much. I was once a queen in Elfland until an evil witch cast a spell on me that I should spend my time in the human world and only visit Elfland on Christmas Night and only be released from the curse until a human was brave enough to go there with me. You have freed me from this spell and shall be richly rewarded.”

She took her leave of the farmer and the other people and left them that same day. The next day she appeared to Gudmund in a dream and gave him a large sum of money and and many fine things besides, which he found on his pillow when he awoke in the morning. He used the money to buy his own farm, found himself a good wife and had a long and prosperous life.

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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