There are two very famous Icelandic ghost stories that probably every Icelander knows. One is The Deacon of Myrká – which we have already shown you. The other is the Icelandic child ghost story Dear Mother in a Pen, Pen. A much shorter story but, in many ways, much scarier.
It deals with “útburður,” a child ghost is created when a (usually) newly born baby is left outside to die. In the past, it was sometimes the fate of unwanted babies to be left outside, especially if they were born out of wedlock. Other reasons were due to incest or rape. One way of avoiding scandal and a possible prison sentence was to leave the baby out to die.
However, looking at the numbers, 1 out of 10 children born in Iceland in the late 18th century was born out of wedlock. In the mid-19th century, that number had grown to 1 in 7 born children or about 300 per year. Obviously, they were not all left out to die.
Leaving children out to die was practised in paganism. When Icelanders became Christian, it was one of the special provisions that should be continued to be permitted (the law was eventually changed in the 11th century).
The children left outside to die were said to come back as ghosts, sometimes to annoy their mothers. The cries of the child ghosts were sometimes heard and were believed to be bad omens.
The most famous child ghost story is Dear Mother, in a pen, pen (Móðir mín í kví, kví). Like the Deacon of Myrká, this short but scary Icelandic child ghost story has been the inspiration for many artists. One of the more haunting folksongs Iceland has to offer uses the verse the ghost child sings to its mother in the folktale.
Read other legends and fairytales:
- Sæmundir the Learned and the Devil
- The Shepherd of Silfrúnarstaðir
- The Genesis of the Hidden People
- The Deacon of Myrká
- The Tales of Búkolla
- White Cap
- The Story of Mjaðveig Mánadóttir
- The Bishop and The Elves
Dear Mother, in a pen, pen
Once upon a time, there was a maid on a farm. She had become pregnant, given birth to it, and carried out, which was not very uncommon in this country when harsh fines or death were imposed for such offences.
Sometime later, a celebration called vikivaki (dancing and singing) was supposed to be held, and the girl was invited. It was custom to wear your best and fanciest clothes for the celebration, but despite the girl being fond of ornamentation, she had nothing befitting the occasion. So she could not go and was very sorry she would have to sit at home and miss the dance.
Once, shortly before the vikivaki was held, the girl was milking ewes in the pen with another woman. She complained to the other milkmaid that she had nothing to wear. But just as she drops the word, they hear this verse recited under the wall of the pen:
“Dear mother, in a pen, a pen,
do not worry about it because, because
I’ll lend you my rag
to dance in
and dance in. “
The maid, who had left her child out to die, seemed to know the message was for her. She was so struck by the verse that she became insane for the rest of her life.