Despite all its flaws and increasing subscription prices, there’s one great thing which sets apart Netflix from the rest of its streaming competitors, and that is the ability to enjoy foreign content produced all around the world –a feature many Americans would enjoy more if they finally embraced subtitles.
A few years ago Greg wrote some excellent articles involving one of such foreign jewels from Netflix, Dark, and its connections with Western esotericism that might have eluded the average viewer’s attention. But now comes a new original series produced and filmed entirely in Iceland which should appeal Grail readers even more; for the plot, despite taking place in modern times, is deeply steeped in the ancient Scandinavian traditions of the Huldufólk or ‘hidden people’ –popularly known as faeries.
This is a story of isolation, loss, melancholy, death, powerlessness over the forces beyond our control –both natural as well as human-based– and a stark reminder that there will always be things in this world which escape our comprehension. Welcome to the desolate world of Katla.
[Mild-ish Spoilers Ahead]
Katla is the name of one of Iceland’s most active and dangerous subglacial volcanoes, and in an island forged by fire and ice that’s saying something (remember the collective tongue twisting suffered by news anchors all around the world when mount Eyjafjallajökull shut down all air traffic in Europe?).
At the foot of this fierce mountain sits the small town of Vik (Vik i Myrdal), and in the first episode we learn that most of the town’s inhabitants have been evacuated to the capital due to Katla’s alarming activity, which has kept spewing ash and vapor all over the region for an entire year without any signs of slowing down; leading worried scientists to suspect the volcano could fully erupt at any moment, turning Vik and the few obstinate residents who refuse to abandon their homes into a modern version of Pompeii.
It is into this apocalyptic wasteland that feels as if taken out of Dante’s Divine Comedy, that the group of geologists stationed at the skirts of the volcano to track its activity spot a mysterious woman, wandering aimlessly through the grayish landscape. She is found completely naked despite the frozen temperatures, and the totality of her skin is caked with a gray clay-like substance that gives her a golem-like appearance. The stranger –thought to be a lost tourist– is rushed into the local clinic, and after she recovers from the shock of hypothermia she reveals her name is Gunhilde, that she is Swedish and works at the local hotel.
But when Gisli (the local police officer) calls the hotel to check out her story, Bergrun the owner denies knowing this person. However, she vaguely remembers a girl with that same name who worked for her mother for a short time, back when she wasn’t still in charge of the hotel; but that was twenty years ago, and this Gunhilde is far too young to be the same woman.
It doesn’t take long for a second mysterious appearance to disrupt the tense routine of the semi-abandoned town. This time it is Ása, a local girl who disappeared and was presumed dead a year ago when Katla’s activity escalated and the glacier above it melted. Her sister and father are elated to find her alive, but at the same time they can’t explain how she managed to survive and where she has been all this time.
Bergrun, who is something of the resident witch and keeper of lore, takes note of all these strange happenings in the town and finds an explanation under the light of the ancient folktales. She knows that back in the old days there was a special term for whenever a villager got lost or died, and suddenly reappeared years later as if nothing had happened to them: their ancestors called them changelings.
(Human): “Why do you exist? What is your purpose?”
(Changeling): “What’s yours?”
After reading that word on my TV screen, I knew I had to DM my dear friend Joshua Cutchin and advised him to check out this Netflix series ASAP! Josh is a paranormal scholar and author of the book Thieves in the Night, which takes a deep exploration on the myths surrounding faeries; particularly their penchant for stealing human beings and replacing them with a changeling for reasons inscrutable to mere mortals.
This fear of having a loved one kidnapped and even supplanted with a supernatural impostor was so engrained in ancient times –not just in the Celtic lands, but all across Europe and other parts of the world– that a whole plethora of superstitious practices was created in order to protect those considered to be more at risk from fairy snatching; particularly newborn babies and unbaptized infants (even stillbirths and false pregnancies were blamed on the Fey folk).
According to the legends, as explained by Thieves in the Night, if a careless mother left a babe unattended for too long without proper protection –a crucifix above and below its cradle, for example– she could find out that her rosy-cheeked child had been switched for a grotesque creature of unnatural paleness and senile complexion; indeed, the most common belief about changelings was that they were old faeries abandoned by their comrades so that they would be taken care of by a human foster family, while the human child was destined to live in Fairyland and bring vigor to their dwindling bloodline –the parallels between the ancient fairy folklore and modern mythologies surrounding alien abductions have been extensively explored by Josh as well as other authors, including Jacques Vallee with his seminal Passport to Magonia.
But getting back to Netflix’s Katla, after Josh had the time to watch all the episodes he was gracious enough to help me compile a list of many of the elements for which the series was undoubtedly influenced by fairy folklore:
Gunhilde appearing as if she had not aged in two decades is an obvious reference on the age-old belief that time in the realm of the faeries moved differently than in our world. Walter Evans-Wentz’s classic The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries gives example after example of careless individuals who suddenly found themselves stepping into a fairy ring during one of their nightly revelries, only to discover that what to them were just a few minutes of merry cajoling were actually whole days or even longer back in the real world. There were also accounts of those fool enough to accept food from the faeries, who after being trapped in Fairyland managed to escape and return many decades later to their village; sometimes these individuals would step into their home and the whole weight of those lost years would suddenly catch up with them, turning them into dust.
The series is named after the Katla volcano and with good reason, for the story ends up treating it as a major character and not just part of the landscape. “I’m not aware of especially strong connections between volcanoes and faeries,” Josh wrote to me; “but the volcano is nonetheless a mountain variant—which speaks to the Fae connection—to say nothing of the fact that other supernatural beasts, like giants, find some volcanic associations.” Indeed, many peaks and mountains in Europe were regarded as sacred places in ancient times, and over the years the pagan gods were rebranded as evil spirits and faeries as Christianity drove away the other competing religions. The concept of gnomes and dwarves being subterranean dwellers has also managed to survive in our modern pop culture, thanks to Tolkien and Walt Disney.
In the first episode of the series the viewer might initially suspect this is a story of ‘doppelgangers’ –the German term for ‘double’ which were often thought of as bad omens, and a warning of sudden death to those unfortunate enough to be face-to-face with their own duplicate. “There is extensive overlap between faeries and doubles like doppelgangers,” Josh told me, and not just in Germany. As examples of this he brought up the ‘co-walkers’ in Scottish tradition (a term coined by the reverend Robert Kirk) or the ‘fetches’ in Irish lore –something he expects to expand upon in the next book he’s preparing.
The Dead Residing Amongst Faeries
Some of Katla’s changelings are characters who were thought to have died by their relatives, while in other cases the viewer has no doubt they are back from the dead as in the biblical End Times. And in ancient traditions the division between the realm of the dead and Fairyland was so blurry, that in many cases they became completely indistinguishable – “gone with the faeries” was an expression sometimes used to subtly hint at someone’s sudden death. As pointed out previously, deaths of the mother and/or the child during labor were often blamed on fairy intervention; people who drowned on rivers or lakes were also suspected of having been taken by the Fey.
In one of the episodes Bergrun tells the tale of the maid of Hjörleifshöfði (Hjorleifshofdi), an old farm not far from Katla which is actually one the most ancient Viking settlements in Iceland. In Bergrun’s story the maid gets pregnant out of wedlock and abandons her child in the wilderness. She is consumed by remorse and eventually she finds a baby exactly like the one she left, whom she takes home despite the warnings from her neighbors that the child is a faerie changeling. While I couldn’t find any actual references to this legend online, as luck would have it Josh had recently completed a new chapter for his upcoming book, In which he wrote: “Local folklorist Regína Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir translated at least two huldufólk sightings from Hjörleifshöfði, one involving a woman who emerged from the crags to empty a trough before “disappearing into what seemed like a door in the rock,” another where the witness, blinded by a blizzard, was guided home by a light from the promontory attributed to elvish intervention.”
Melancholy and Suicide
One of the prevalent themes in Katla is that of depression –further highlighted by the grim landscape– and the topic of suicide is brought up more than once in the story. I asked Josh if there was a connection between melancholy and the fairy lore, and also if those who committed suicide –a capital sin in Catholicism– and were buried in unconsecrated ground had a higher chance of being snatched by the faeries. He explained to me that in the Irish tradition there was indeed a link between depressive states caused by sickness –what in olden times was called ‘consumption’– and the belief the person’s soul was “away with the faeries” while the body lingered on and withered away. “There is also the tradition that those “unshriven” (denied their last rites either as punishment or dying due to accidental causes) were more likely to become the faeries.”
In the first episode we see Thor –one of the main protagonists– burying a raven that used to hang around his mechanic shop; but one night he spots another raven exactly like the first one, down to the single white feather in one of its wings (he even digs up the dead one just to make sure). “Ravens are among the many types of faerie birds,” Josh said to me. By this he meant that the Fae, who were universally considered to be shapeshifters, would often appear to mortals disguised as birds –there’s a reason why Shakespeare chose to alternatively name his character Puck in Midsummer’s Night Dream as Robin Goodfellow. “Then again,” warned Josh, “most birds are identified with something supernatural.”
The naked people covered with ash reminded Josh of a story I’d never heard of –the tragic demise of “Fet (fat) Mats” Israelsson, a young man whose body was found in a water-filled tunnel mine in 1719, after he had gone missing in 1677. Despite the four decades lapse between his disappearance and discovery, the corpse and its clothes presented an astonishing state of preservation, as if he had died only recently; yet soon after being taken outside, Israelsson became hard as a rock and was put into exhibition. The naturalist Carl Linnaeus examined the grim attraction and concluded Fet-Mats’s body was covered by a layer of vitriol, and as soon as it wore away it would begin to decompose. Though not exactly connected to the Fey folklore, I agree with Josh that such a discovery is awfully reminiscent of all the legends mentioned previously in this article, which talk about people who returned from Fairyland as if they had not experienced the passage of time; yet once they return home the natural order would mercilessly take hold of them and make their bodies crumble into dust.
This article is not meant to be an extensive review of Netflix’s Katla, so there are a few other plot elements we will not go over which also seem to have a certain connection to the faerie traditions. And to be fair, there are also several elements in the series which are not compatible with the Fey folklore at all –including the ultimate ‘explanation’ for why the changelings are appearing all of the sudden in Vik, which I will not mention in order not to spoil the ending.
For example, in Thieves in the Night Josh extensively discusses the physical characteristics of changelings: we already mentioned their pallor and feeble complexion, which also extended to a sickly constitution contrasted with an almost insatiable appetite –changeling children were useless for basic household chores, and at the same time they could easily deplete the meager resources of a family; hence the need to get rid of them using many peculiar (and often grizzly!) methods enumerated by Josh in his excellent book. In contrast, all the changelings in Katla enjoy excellent health –sometimes even better than that of their human counterparts.
In the case of adults, either they escaped Fairyland after managing to overcome a number of ordeals –sometimes ‘after completing chores imposed by their supernatural masters, other times with the help of sympathetic faeries– or they would only appear to their loved ones in their dreams or as wraith-like apparitions –alluding to the notion that the realm of the Fey is not 100% physical. If the dead came to visit their living relatives, they would only do so for a brief period of time, and they would certainly not return to live among them as if nothing had happened.
Katla may have only used the huldufólk as a starting point for its story, but ultimately it stands on its own merits as an original piece of fiction. I think Josh would agree with me in classifying it as ‘magical realism’, given how it never bothers to fully rationalize the existence of the changelings; they remain, to paraphrase Thor in one of the most important scenes, as awe-inspiring and absurd as the daily orbit of the sun or the cycle of life and death –phenomena for which we may fully comprehend their mechanics, if not their ultimate raison d’etre.
Katla is available on the Netflix platform. Thieves in the Night is available from Anomalist Books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.