NIGHT OF THE GYROS
text from ORKNEYJAR - The Heritage of
Gyro night traditions would appear to owe something to the creature
of Scandinavian folklore known as Grýla. A variant of the many-tailed
Gryla was recorded in Shetland, where she was latterly known as Skekla
and rode a black horse “with 15 tails, and 15 children on each
tail”.In Shetland and Faroe, Gryla, or her derivatives, were
associated with costumed traditions involving female "monsters"
which, disguised in tattered animal skins, straw or seaweed, visited
farms on varying dates during the winter period to demand offerings.
The Faroese grýlur, for example, appeared on the first Tuesday
One interesting old tradition, once celebrated every February, was
found in the island of Papay. The last occurrence of "Gyro Night",
however, was in 1914 and it is now but a memory.
The actual date of "Gyro Night" is not found in any surviving
account, but one reference indicates that the ceremony took place
after the first full moon in February.
This date connects the tradition with the Christian festival of Candlemas,
as well as the Celtic celebration of Imbolc - an event marking the
end of winter and the beginning of spring.
But although we are not certain of the date, we do know that on Gyro
Night the young boys of the island made torches, which they set alight
before venturing out into the night.
The object of their foray was to entice the "gyros" out
These gyros were usually the older lads, wearing masks and dressed
as repulsive old women. If the torchbearers met a gyro, "she"
would pursue the youngsters, striking at them with a piece of rope,
or tangle, until they were able to outrun "her".
The origin of the tradition is unclear, however it is likely that
gyro derives from the Norse, gygr, meaning a giant, troll-woman.
But what was the significance of this monstrous woman?
The key appears to lie in an account that refers to the burning of
a female effigy on Gyro Night. This seems to confirm that Gyro Night
was connected to Imbolc, the Celtic celebration of winter's end.
The fact that the tradition took place on Papay is particularly interesting,
given the island's association with early Christianity.
Imbolc was particularly associated with the pagan Celtic goddess Brigid
and, in keeping with the policy of the early church to absorb pagan
festivals into Christian feast-days, Brigid, became St Bride.
St Bride's Day became equated with Candlemas on February 2 - the feast
of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So, the fires that
were an integral part of the pagan festival - in particular the torchlight
processions leading to a bonfire - were tamed down, with candles replacing
the burning brands.
Looking to Celtic tradition, we can begin to see information that
appears to shed light on Papay's Gyro Night.
For example, in the Scottish Highlands, and Ireland, an effigy of
the spirit of winter - the Cailleach, or Old Wife, was burned on a
bonfire. This wizened crone was thought to be reborn at Imbolc in
the form of the goddess Brigid.
Did the later Norse inhabitants of Papay incorporate these existing
traditions, interpreting the old woman of winter as the ogress-like
Gygr? The presence of traditions surrounding Brigid/Bride would seem
to be borne out by the occurrence of 'Bride' placenames in Papay.
But what of the connection to the Norse orgress? For that we need
to look at the Celtic idea that the reborn goddess emerged from a
A Scottish rhyme about the Feast Day of Bride begins:
This is the day of Bride,The queen will come from the mound…
To the Norse Orcadians, the usual inhabitant of burial mounds was
the monstrous creature known as the draugr.
Over the centuries, the draugr beliefs degenerated into those of the
trows and hogboon, but original fragments of lore hint that the mound's
original inhabitant could often be found with his mother - a beast
said to be even more terrible than her son.
So do we have a situation where the islanders equated the Celtic hag
in the mound with their ideas of a monstrous ogress dwelling in the
howe? And was this the reason the Celtic night of the Goddess became
equated with the Scandinavian gygr?
Given the lack of other information about this lost tradition, speculation
is all we have left.
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