Hólar, in Hjaltadalur valley in North Iceland, is an episcopal see known to be one of the most haunted locations in Iceland. The now-rebuilt church is considered the seat of many ghosts and spirits—both benevolent and malevolent—that have not yet passed over.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise that one of Iceland’s most famous ghost stories is set here. And while it is true that ghost stories are not hard to come by in Iceland, this one certainly makes visiting the picturesque Hólar church a rather eerie experience.
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As the story goes, the 16th Century Bishop of Hólar, Jón Arason, forgot a book of importance at his altar one dark and windy night. The household staff were not keen on heading out into the darkness—it would mean walking through the churchyard and down the whole aisle—so the Bishop asked a girl who was visiting for the season whether she would be willing to go.
She agreed, seemingly unafraid, but decided she wouldn’t head out into the cold night. She would choose another way… underground.
She took to a tunnel that linked the church and the house. This tunnel had been built for the bishop to run for sanctuary should his enemies come for him. This was because Hólar was a Catholic seat, and Bishop Jón was under threat from the rising Protestant groups around the country.
The girl reached the church without any problems, entering at the chancel. She walked to the altar and picked up the book, but when she turned back to the tunnels, she noticed that her last candle had burned out, making the passageway too dark to enter again and forcing her to walk in the moonlight through the churchyard.
Walking through the nave towards the door, she suddenly spotted a skeletal form with blonde hair, sitting in the women’s pews.
Unafraid, the girl walked to this ghostly entity and addressed it, asking who, or what, it was. The spirit claimed to have once been a woman, cursed by her mother to be stuck between worlds, unable to rot away. It added that, with the help of a mortal, she might be freed.
The girl, still holding the book, asked how she could help. “Ask the ghost of my mother for forgiveness,” the form said, “for a spirit is less likely to refuse a mortal than another ghost.”
But where could this ghostly mother be found? The form understood the girl’s confusion, stating “The ghost of my mother is sitting over there… beside the altar.”
The girl turned to see a ghastly looking old crone sitting at the front pew, glaring angrily at the altar. The girl marched over and addressed the ghost immediately, asking her to forgive her deceased daughter. After some bickering, the crone agreed, stating “it is not often that mortals ask for favours…”
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Satisfied in her achievement, our heroine turned to leave, but was shocked to see that the form was gone, leaving nothing but dust in its seat. The church, however, was far from empty. Sensing a mortal willing to communicate, the space was filled with ghosts looking for an answer to their damned prayers.
Keeping her eyes low, the girl made her way towards the door, ignoring the ghosts as if she could not see them. When she reached it, she was further horrified to find it locked, and to hear a dark voice speak out from behind her. “Behold my red eyes, and see how red they are…”
But our heroine didn’t turn. She knew what happened to those who yielded to such demands. Instead, she swished her black woollen skirt and replied, “Behold my black arse and see how black it is!”
And with that, she yanked open the door and escaped to the graveyard, trying her best to ignore the surrounding ghouls and ghosts as they screamed and cried out for her. She did not look around but kept her eyes on the book, not stopping until she was back at the house, back among the living.
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She returned the book, though her haunted expression did prompt the bishop to ask how she had fared at the church. In true Icelandic fashion, she is said to have replied with this short verse:
“A dark and ghostly voice was heard
In mountains, cold and scary
And five-fold cries of pain it stirred
In Hólar cemetery.”
What caused this dance of spirits at Hólar may never be known, with some claiming it was the cursed book, while others suggest the girl’s tunnel was a gateway to a hellish underworld. Regardless of the truth, know that on your visit to Hólar, you may very well be in the presence of something entirely otherworldly. Happy ghost-hunting.