The Yule Cat: A Yuletide Terror
A festive column on using folklore in tabletop RPGs
Once, the Norse celebrated Midwinter with the festival of Jól. Now, over a thousand years later, this term has become one that is used in many places to refer to Christmas—Yule.
Yuletide is a liminal time, the end of one year and the beginning of another. And where there’s liminality, the supernatural always finds excuses to creep into our world. And while many are filled with winter cheer, others remember that this is a time when monsters walk amongst us.
Monsters like… the Yule Cat.
I. The Yule Cat
The Yule Cat (Jólakötturinn in Icelandic) is, to put it bluntly, a very bad cat. Huge, vicious, and with an appetite for human flesh, the Yule Cat haunts the snowy countryside of Iceland during Yuletide (starting December 21st)1.
This black cat has a particularly unusual feeding pattern—if you haven’t received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve, that’s when he’ll get you2. So if you see two very large kitty eyes peeking into your house this Christmas, you better hope someone was nice enough to put socks under your tree. Historically, however, getting new clothes was tied to working hard at one’s job or at weaving, knitting, and sewing, so there’s a rather simple moral here:
Work hard right up until Christmas, otherwise a giant cat will eat you.
Some say the Yule Cat only eats children, while others have it go after adults too. Maybe the former is just a preference. Fairy tales do seem to teach us that children are tastier, after all.
There are versions of the legend that are a little kinder too, having the Yule Cat merely steal the food and treats of its victims instead3. Given it’s now the dead of winter, however, I’m not sure that’s necessarily much better.
II. Grýla the Giantess
The Yule Cat himself only appears in written accounts as of the 19th century, but the stories of his owner begin at least two centuries earlier. And who exactly would want to own this monstrous cat?
Grýla is a giantess, enormous and repulsive. When she was first mentioned in 13th-century sagas, she was a monstrous beggar, approaching parents to ask if she can eat their disobedient children. Later poems tie her to Christmas, the time of year when she leaves her cave to hunt for tasty child-sized snacks. Throughout the year Grýla collects whispers of disobedient children, meaning she knows exactly who to look for. If she manages to kidnap a child, she carries them home in a sack and cooks them into a stew4.
Grýla lives with her third husband, the troll Leppalúði, who is quick to appease his wife so as to not end up like husband one and two (eaten). Accompanying the happy couple are Grýla’s thirteen prankster children, the Yule Lads, and, of course, her cat.
Using the Yule Cat in Your Game
So, now you know the story, how can you use it in your game?
I. Grýla’s Hex
I’d hoped to write up Grýla’s Cave as a mini-adventure this month, a location you can drop into your game or hexcrawl wherever's most convenient. I was too busy to get the chance (though I did write something, see below!) but that doesn’t mean you can’t take my ball and run with it!
Grýla’s cave is potentially crawling with nasties—her trickster spirit children, two giants/trolls, and a gargantuan cat—meaning PCs will need to think on their feet to navigate it. Why risk it? Perhaps Grýla has kidnapped one or more local children and is keeping them prisoner with the intent of eating them. The townsfolk are willing to pay the PCs to get their kids back, but the party better act fast if they want them to still all be in one piece. Just watch out for the cave’s guard cat—I hear he’s particularly nasty!
II. Kitty Kaiju
The tales of the Yule Cat mention that it peers through windows with its enormous golden eyes, which means it has to be pretty big! Why not scale that up even further, make the Yule Cat even bigger? At a certain point, a monster stops being a fight and becomes more like a puzzle. If you can’t merely stick the Yule Cat to death, how are you going to get it out of town with the least amount of collateral damage?
III. The Off-Season
Not that one should be worried about the logistics of fairy tales, but what does the Yule Cat get up to for the other 51 weeks he isn’t eating people? Maybe he transforms back into a regular cat, resigned to lounging around Grýla’s cave. I can’t imagine he’s too happy about that—perhaps he’s even looking for a way to say monstrously large permanently? That seems like something a party of adventurers should think about preventing.
Of course, if the Yule Cat is currently the size of a regular cat, that means we’d need some even smaller adventurers for him to still be a threat. Mouse-sized adventurers, perhaps?
The Yule Cat (Mausritter)
Once a year, in the middle of winter, Jólakötturinn grows to an enormous size and goes out to consume children who weren’t given clothes as a Yule present. This is his true form.
For the rest of the year, however, his curse causes him to shrink back to the size of a regular cat. This is a fact that makes him extremely bitter.
Recently, Jólakötturinn has been kidnapping mice, seeking magical knowledge on how to break his curse. If not stopped, there's no telling what damage will be wrought as he tries to succeed.
The Yule Cat is an NPC write-up for Mausritter, a sword-and-whiskers role-playing game where you play as mouse adventurers.
And that’s it for the Yule Cat and Mythoi in 2022!
Last week marked six months since I started Mythoi back in June, so a big thank you to everyone who has been reading along, whether you’ve joined me today or have been here from the beginning! We’ll be returning in the new year with a hard-hitting investigation—kobolds: fairy, lizard, or dog?
And, just so you know, all my games are 20% off until the beginning of January as part of itch.io’s Winter Sale! If you’re interested, you can check out the sale by clicking on the link below:
Penny for your thoughts: If you have a favourite Mythoi column from this year, or any requests for subjects next year, leave a comment below!
~ A.C. Luke
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Banner Photo by Ralfs Blumbergs on Unsplash
Chapman, Richard. "The Icelandic Yule Lads and Gryla | Iceland's Christmas Trolls". Guide to Iceland. Retrieved 20 December 2022.