From the book, Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends
Printed with permission from J. M. Bedell.
Long ago, in the land where elves dwell, there lived a girl of common birth. Now it happened that the King of the elves fell in love with her. His mother was outraged, but the king married her anyway. After the marriage ceremony, the king’s mother placed a curse on their union. She said to her son, “This is my curse and it shall be carried out. This fair queen you love shall become a servant in the upper world. You’ll see her but once a year on Christmas Eve. Each time she visits, there will be a great price to pay.”
Far from the land of the elves, in a mountainous region, there lived a farmer whose name we do not know. He was not married but had a clean and thrifty housekeeper named Hildur. Although she offered no information about her previous life or her family, the farmer trusted her and placed her in charge of his household. The woman was kind and gentle. The farmhands, as well as the farmer himself, were very fond of her.
Unfortunately, this farmer had a problem keeping the shepherds he hired. It was not that he treated the shepherds unkindly, or that housekeeper failed to provide for their every comfort. The problem was that every Christmas Day morning, one of the newly hired shepherds would be found dead in his bed. Neither the farmer nor any member of his household was ever suspected of causing these deaths because no wounds were found on the bodies.
Eventually, the farmer decided that he could no longer hire shepherds since he knew they were destined for certain death. He would let luck take care of the sheep or the sheep take care of themselves.
One day a determined, strong, and healthy young man offered to shepherd his sheep.
“I will not hire you,” the farmer said to the stranger. “I can get along without your help.”
The stranger asked, “Have you already hired a shepherd for this winter?”
“No,” the farmer replied, “and I will not. Every shepherd I hire ends up dead.”
“I heard about that,” said the stranger. “But I have no fear of death, and I will take good care of your sheep. Please change your mind.”
The farmer shook his head in wonder. “It is a pity that so fine a young man is willing to lose his life. Go away. Find work on some other farm.”
The stranger repeated over and over that he did not fear the Christmas Eve horror. Eventually, the farmer gave in and hired him.
Now in those days, it was the custom to spend Christmas Eve in church. Since the farmer's cottage was a great distance away from the fields, the herdsmen did not return with the flocks until very late in the evening. So when the family left for church, Hildur always stayed behind to take care of the house and finish preparing the Christmas Day feast. When the family returned from the church and the herdsman returned from the fields, they always found Hildur busy with her tasks.
On this Christmas Eve, the farmer and his family left for church. Later in the evening the shepherd returned from the flock, ate his supper, and retired for the night. As he snuggled down between the sheets, he remembered what night it was. He recalled the fate of the other shepherds and knew it was important that he stay awake.
As he lay there, he heard the family return from church, enter the house, eat their supper and go to bed. Knowing that he could be in great danger, he struggled to keep his eyes open. Whenever they closed for even a moment, a strange and deadly faintness overcame him. The sensation only increased his determination to stay awake.
Late into the night, the shepherd heard someone quietly approach his bed. He thought it was the housekeeper so he pretended to be asleep. Hildur placed the bit of a magic bridle into the shepherd's mouth. Using the power of the bridle, she dragged the shepherd from his bed and out the cottage door. The shepherd could not resist when Hildur climbed onto his back and made him rise into the air as though he had wings. She rode as fast as she could until they came upon a great cliff that opened up into the very depths of the earth.
Hildur dismounted, fastened the reins to a stone, and disappeared over the cliff. The shepherd knew he was powerless to follow her as long as the bit remained in his mouth. So he hit his head against the stone and struggled until the bridle fell off.
Even knowing that he might pay for his curiosity with his life, the shepherd leaped over the cliff and sank deep into the darkness. When he reached the bottom, he spotted the housekeeper and followed her to the edge of a beautiful green meadow. Since he could not pursue her across the field without being seen, he took a magic stone, which he happened to carry with him wherever he went, from his pocket. He placed the stone in his left hand and ran after the housekeeper.
In the distance stood a magnificent palace. As Hildur approached the gate, she was greeted by a great crowd. A man, dressed like a king, led them. When the king reached Hildur, he embraced her as a wife and the crowd bowed to her as their queen. Beside the king stood two grown children who, with tears of joy, embraced their mother.
The invisible shepherd followed the crowd into the palace. They gathered in a room that had magnificent hangings on the walls and rows of tables loaded with golden dishes and delicious foods and wines. He found a safe spot to hide where he was out of the way yet could see all the activities.
A short time later, Hildur entered the Great Hall. She was dressed in royal garments and her hands were adorned with golden rings and bracelets. The assembled guests took their seats around the tables and a great feast began. The lords and ladies danced and entertained themselves while the royal couple spoke quietly together. The herdsmen saw that they were very much in love and very sad.
While he stood watching, three small children ran into the room and embraced their mother. Hildur returned their embraces with all the love in a mother's heart. She set the youngest of the three on her lap and hugged him close. When he became restless, as most young ones do, she set him on the floor and handed him one of her rings. The boy played with the ring for a short time but soon lost interest. The shepherd quickly snatched it up and placed it in his pocket. Later on, the guests searched for the ring, but it was nowhere to be found.
As the evening progressed, the shepherd noticed an ugly old woman sitting in the corner. She did not greet the queen with joy nor when Hildur prepared for her departure, did she raise her voice in protest as the others did.
He watched as the king approached the woman and said, “Take away your curse, Mother. Allow my queen to remain in her home and not be apart from me. These visits are too short. They bring me joy when she arrives and great pain when she departs.”
“Never!” the old woman replied. “My curse stays. I will not change my mind.”
When the king saw the hopelessness of his plea, he turned to Hildur, embraced her, and begged her to remain with him.
“Your mother's curse forces me to go,” she said. “I am afraid that this may be my final visit. Soon it will be impossible to keep the murders a secret.” Smiling through her tears she said, “Once I am discovered, I will face the full penalty for the crimes I have committed against my will.”
While the housekeeper was speaking these words, the shepherd ran from the palace, back to where he had entered the darkness. Placing the magic stone into his pocket, he slipped the bridle onto his head and waited for Hildur’s return.
When she arrived, she grabbed the bridle and rode the shepherd back to the cottage. Once there, she removed the bridle and gently laid him on his bed. The shepherd knew that it was safe for him to sleep and he did not wake up until late Christmas morning.
The farmer woke up early, his heart filled with fear for the shepherd. He quickly dressed, woke the others in the house, and sneaked up to the shepherd's bed. Gently placing a hand on his chest, the farmer realized that the man was alive. Everyone rejoiced.
When the shepherd finally rose from his slumber, the farmer asked him if anything strange had happened in the night. “No,” he said. “But I had a very strange dream.” and he related to his master all the events of the previous night.
When he was finished, Hildur said, “Everything he says is a lie. Before you believe him, make him prove by some token that he speaks the truth.”
The shepherd reached into his pocket and presented the golden ring. “Here is proof that I was among the elves last night. Is this not your ring, Queen Hildur?”
“The ring is mine,” she said. “You are a lucky man. You will prosper in all you do. That is my gift to you.”
She recounted her story for all to hear and when she was finished said, “it took a courageous man willing to follow me into the land of the elves and somehow prove that he was there, to free me from my mother-in-law's curse. I long for my home and my family.” And she vanished from their sight never to be seen again.
As for the shepherd, he married, built a house, and became the most prosperous farmer in the district. People often turned to him for advice and for the rest of his life he gave thanks to Hildur, Queen of the Elves.
Based on Jón Árnason I, 105-109