Since the beginning of time, human beings have tried to find a reason to explain the wonders that surround us. In a nation like Iceland where solitude, scenic beauty, and a somewhat extreme climate collide, thousands of stories were born. Icelandic Folklore continues to captivate us up to this day. There are dozens of stories behind the Icelandic nature, deeds that seemed to have happened in areas where currently millions of tourists head every year. However, they ignore the deep cultural narrative these placed hold. Today, we will discover a few.
Norse mythology in Iceland
Iceland was colonized between the 874 and 930 AD by Nordic tribes in search of new farmland. Back then, the climate in Iceland was milder than it is today. That meant a new home for Viking settlers, their possessions, families, and animals.
The Vikings came from the cold region of Scandinavia in northern Europe. Although today we think of them as one single community, Viking tribes came from three different territories. These were Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Being the Danish group the most numerous.
The Vikings practiced a pagan religion with a vast pantheon where the main deity is the well-known god Odin. Norse mythology divides its pantheon into two broad groups: The Vanir and the Aesir. Odin, Thor, and Freyja belong to the Aesir, and they dwell in Asgard, a place connected to the earth.
As the Vikings expanded their borders and colonized new lands, they brought their culture and religion with them as well. Most mythological stories about gods, trolls, elves, and other magical creatures are holdovers from the Viking culture. A culture that is still alive today in countries like Iceland.
The Icelandic climate and the features of the landscape produced the most epic stories. Once the Vikings settled in this soil, thousands of stories began to spread, being the Viking Sagas of Snorri Sturluson, the most important one.
Most of the stories told in the Icelandic Sagas are thought to actually have their origin in oral tradition that had already been ingrained in the local culture for centuries. The sagas usually focus on the daily life of the Norse and Celtic inhabitants of the island during the 10th and 11th centuries AD.
And although, as in most European countries, Christianity also reached the island, both the written and oral tradition of ancient and pagan times are quite alive today.
The stories behind the Icelandic nature
Funnily enough, Iceland is not exactly a very religious committed country. However, its inhabitants fervently cling to their ancient chronicles and legends. These stories that offer an imaginative but delightful explanation of the whimsical nature that surrounds them. Let’s dig into some of them!
I am sure you will recognize this scene as it appeared in HBO’s series “Game of Thrones.” Reynisdrangar are stone mounds or columns just off the southern coast of Iceland. If you visit the stunning black sand beach of Reynisfjara, you will see them right in front of you, towering over the waters. Its highest point is about 66 m (216 ft.), so they are quite striking.
Reynisdrangar also has a story behind it (or two), as some say, it has a mythical origin. According to the first version of the legend, these pillars were actually trolls. They were trying to drag a ship towards the shore. The ship was sailing along the Icelandic shores in deep waters. Unfortunately for the trolls, they were not fast enough. As soon as the sun rose and the rays of light touched their skin, they turned into stone.
The second legend has it that these pillars were actually two trolls that murdered a woman. Her husband then took revenge and forced them to stay out all night long. He made sure they would stay out until the dawn would turn them into stone as well.
Dimmuborgir, North Iceland
This is a place that I particularly love. They are lava fields full of volcanic pillars and strange rock formations. The color of the stone, the location, and the climate make it a perfect scenario for a Tim Burton movie. Or a NASA one! Because it really looks like an otherworldly place.
Of course, as this post is all about The stories behind the Icelandic nature, you are about to discover a history essential for the Icelandic Folklore. Dimmuborgir translates to “dark castles,” and according to local stories, it is the home of Grýla, a half-ogre, half-troll with a murderous and violent past. I guess the Burtonesque aesthetic goes hand in hand with that eerie tough of the Icelandic myths.
Grýla has thirteen children who are known as the “Jólasveinar” or “Yule men”. On the thirteen days before Christmas Day, Icelandic children leave a pair of shoes by the window. If they behaved nicely, the Jólasveinar would bring them presents. Those who were not as good as they should get a rotten potato. And what is worse! Maybe these Icelandic Christmas men will kidnap them and take them to Grýla for dinner. So kids, be good if you don’t want to end up being Grýla’s main course.
And here goes another dark story of the Icelandic Folklore. Drangey is a small island located off the coast of Skagafjörður, in the north of Iceland. In the past, it was the refuge of one of the most famous Vikings: Grettir Asmundarson “the strong”. Currently, it is an ideal place for bird watching.
According to legend, a man wanted to go to the island to hunt a few birds and collect eggs. As he stepped onto the island, he collapsed and died suddenly. Some say that a demon that inhabits the island was the one to blame. After several attempts to sanctify the islet, Iceland’s patron saint Gudmunder “The Good One” met with the devil, who told him that “even the evil needs a place to dwell.”
After that meeting, the saint assigned him a small piece of the island, close to a cliff. This cliff is called “the pagan cliff.” Currently, it is not used to hunt birds or collect eggs because, well, it is better to respect the boundaries of such a peculiar neighbor.
Rauðfeldar Canyon, Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Let’s go back to the sagas mentioned above! They are related to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Its name comes from Bárður Snæfellsás, a half-human, half-troll being who inhabited Iceland in the 9th century. And although we can find many sites related to the stories of the sagas all over Iceland, this Peninsula has a few cliffs, ravines, and canyons that are named after various characters from the chronicles.
In the particular case of the Rauðfeldar Canyon, it derives from the tragedy that occurred between Bárður, his eldest daughter Helga and the children of his stepbrother Þorkell. Apparently, Þorkell’s son, Rauðfeldur, pushed her onto an iceberg from which she was unable to escape. The iceberg, carried by the current, reached Greenland. When Bárður found out, he was so furious that he threw Rauðfeldur down the slope. Since then, Rauðfeldar Canyon is basically this troll’s eternal resting place.
Godafoss is considered the place where Iceland converted from its pagan roots to Christianity. Around 1000 AD the foremost leaders of the region met to decide whether or not they should continue their old tradition or embrace the “new religion” known as Christianity. A pagan priest named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði stepped in and made an offer that satisfied both sides.
According to legend, after the new status was accepted, Þorgeir collected all the statues of the Norse gods he had and threw them into the waters. This gesture marked the end of their pagan customs. For this reason, Godafoss literally means “The waterfall of the gods.”
Icelandic Folklore – Other Stories
In a country as peculiar as Iceland, you can get used to the idea that there are thousands and thousands of stories that we cannot share in a single article. So we selected those that take place in quite touristy areas and that you will surely remember when you visit them.
If you like this topic, do not forget to check other great stories such as Fjalla-Eyvindur and Halla, the Nordic legend behind the northern lights, the tiny houses of Álfhól, related the Icelandic tradition of elves or hidden people “Huldufólk.”
Let us know which story was your favorite!