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Thorgeir's Bull

A gruesome autumn folktale from the island of Hrísey not for the faint of heart. It's full of wizards, spells, spirits, charms, and a shapeshifting bull. It is Hallowe'en after all... read on if you dare!


It was autumn when a man named Thorgeir the Wizard travelled on a fishing boat with his brother Stefan and their uncle Andres. As the men fished off the coast of the island of Hrísey, they decided to have some fun and create a supernatural bull.


Thorgeir purchased a newborn calf from a woman on the island. He killed it and carefully skinned the animal, from head to hoof, so that the hide came off in one big piece. Then the three men cast a spell on the carcass and brought it back to life.


Conjuring up spirit forces for the bull.
Conjuring up spirit forces for the bull.

Not satisfied with an ordinary living carcass, they decided to gather together eight different personalities or spirit forces from the natural world and put them into their bull. These spirit forces came from a bird, a dog, a cat, a mouse, a man, two sea animals, and the air. When they were finished, the bull had nine different spirit forces living inside him, the ninth being his own cattle spirit. Having these different spirit forces allowed the bull to travel easily through the air, cross the land, and deep under the sea. They also allowed him to change his appearance into any one of the nine.


Still not completely satisfied with the bull and determined to make him impervious to any magical force, Thorgeir took the afterbirth of a newborn child and threw it over the bull.


Finally, the men were satisfied with their creation. In acknowledgment of all Thorgeir’s hard work, they named the frightening animal Thorgeir’s Bull.


Thorgeir's Bull
Thorgeir's Bull

Thorgeir became the first of the three men to use the bull. He proposed to a girl named Guðrún Bessadóttir, and when she refused his offer, he sent the bull to attack her. Although the animal didn’t kill Guðrún, he tormented her and forced her to live in constant fear.


Eventually, six to eight strong men had to accompany her whenever she travelled from farm to farm. No one felt safe when they were alone with Guðrún because she never knew when the bull would attack. Sometimes her journeys were peaceful, but at other times, the bull snatched her from the back of her horse and flung her fifteen or twenty feet away.


One time, while attending a church service, the bull began to torment and beat Guðrún. When he left the building, she was lying helpless on the ground, with pain shooting through her entire body. A man from the church decided to follow the bull. He found the animal lying on the sloping roof of a nearby farmhouse with his head hanging over the peak. The man could clearly see up the bull’s nostrils and to his surprise, saw a gray string stretching from the bull to the church. But before he could investigate further, the bull disappeared.


Not long after this event, Guðrún died.


Guðrún’s death did not satisfy the bull, so he turned his attention toward a close relative of hers named Helga. The bull found Helga living on the Sund farm in Höfðahverfi with her husband Magnús. He began to unceasingly torment her.


Now, living near Helga’s farm was a magician named Torfi. The people of the neighborhood begged him to destroy the bull and free the tormented Helga. When Torfi arrived at the Sund farm, he found the bull in the middle of their living room, happily sitting on top of Helga.


While Helga complained about the weight that was pressing down on her bare feet, Torfi tried to destroy the bull. Unfortunately, he soon discovered that the bull was protected by the afterbirth, a powerful symbol of good fortune. He told the unhappy couple that since he could not tell whether the afterbirth was taken off the child from head to toe or from toe to head, no spell would work. As long as the bull had the afterbirth, it could not be defeated.


Before long, Helga also died and for a while, the bull continued to torture her family.


Thorgeir’s plan to use the bull to destroy Guðrún succeeded, and soon he was commanding the animal to torture any person who angered him. Sometimes, just for fun, he would send the bull into a herd of cows, causing them to stampede and scatter across the countryside. The bull so frightened Thorgeir’s neighbors that before long, they thought they heard the animal’s bellow whenever they ventured out at night or into a dense fog.


On one occasion, Thorgeir walked to Hallgilsstaðir for an evening prayer meeting. While waiting for it to start, he stood outside, staring into a clear bright sky. When the master of the house came to tell him that the meeting was about to begin, a huge bank of fog started to roll over the northern mountains.


“To the Devil with him,” Thorgeir said. “He’ll travel no further today!”


Thorgeir's bull
Thorgeir's bull

A short time later, a violent snowstorm descended on the farm. The people at the meeting thought that Thorgeir had been talking about the bull since one of its spirits was air and the storm had obeyed his command.


Although the bull was devoted to Thorgeir, he could also cause trouble for him. Whenever Thorgeir’s Bull was unable to carry out a command, he would return to his master and try to kill him. Thorgeir was a talented wizard, but as time wore on, it became more and more difficult to defend himself against his own creation. He used every spell he knew to escape the determined bull.


On one occasion, the bull made an all-out effort to kill his master. Thorgeir tried everything he could think of, but was soon forced to seek refuge in the house with his wife and child. In the midst of this crisis, Thorgeir wanted to offer his child to the bull. His wife clutched the baby to her chest and begged him not to make such a horrid sacrifice. She suggested that he offer a heifer instead. Thorgeir went to the barn, released the heifer, and an hour later found it torn into little pieces not far from their farmhouse.


Eventually the bull stopped trying to kill his master, but continued to torment other members of his family. Thorgeir became so frightened of his creation that he never allowed his daughters to go anywhere without a runic charm in their apron pocket to protect them from the beast.


Thorgeir died in 1803 at the age of 83. He never destroyed his bull and some say that while lying on his deathbed, at the moment he breathed his last, a gray cat crouched on his chest - a cat, one of the spirit forms of the bull.


The bull took on many different shapes. Sometimes he looked like a man or dog, but most often, he stayed in the form of a horned bull, dragging his bloody hide behind him. Whatever shape he embodied, he was ugly enough to terrify anyone who saw him.


The story is based on Jón Árnason's Icelandic Folktales and taken from the book Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends retold by J. M. Bedell.

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