Iceland’s many lakes and waterfalls are steeped in myth and legend—ancient tales of fairy folk, hidden treasure and Norse gods surround these watery realms. Iceland’s folklore has been recorded since the 12th century, and these enchanting stories are integrated into the histories of the country’s natural wonders. Many Icelanders today believe in the existence of elves, the result of this rich library of myths. On Iceland: Circling the Land of Fire & Ice, travelers will journey to many natural formations where fantastical spirits and beasts are said to reside.
Travelers will have the opportunity to explore Lake Myvatn and its numerous lava formations in North Iceland. This is where the elf queen Úlfhildur’s story unfolds, recorded in Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar (The Collection of Folklore of Jón Árnason). Úlfhildur quarreled with an old woman who cast a spell on her, making it so she must remain with the human race until a man succeeded in following her to the realm of the elves on Christmas Eve. Crossing a bridge that appeared over Lake Myvatn on Christmas Eve, a farmworker followed the elf queen to her royal palace. He took a golden ring from the enchanted land as proof of his visit. Overjoyed at the spell being broken and to be reunited with her husband the elf king, Úlfhildur rewarded the worker with two purses of gold and silver and bestowed good fortune on him for the rest of his life.
In the Lake Myvatn area, the lava formations of Dimmuborgir, which translates to ‘Dark Castles,’ are thought to be the dwelling of the half-troll, half-ogre Gryla. Her 13 children are the Yule Lads, mischievous brothers who ring in the Christmas season. Naughty Icelandic children who leave their shoes on their windowsill may receive a rotten potato rather than gifts of candy, or worse, be snatched away for Gryla’s dinner!
We come upon powerful Skogafoss as we journey across Iceland’s south coast towards Vik. Skogafoss is a setting for a legend surrounding the first Viking settler at Eystri-Skogar, Prasi Porolfsson. Upon landing in Iceland in the 900s and dragging his boat ashore, the powerful sorcerer was said to have buried a chest of gold in a cave behind the roaring falls.
An old Icelandic rhyme from Íslenzkar Þjóðsögur og Æfintýri (Icelandic Folktales and Legends) by Jón Árnason (1819-1888) foretells:
“The chest of Þrasi is filled with treasures
located beneath Skógafoss waterfall,
the first man who goes there
will find great richness.“
The story goes that in the 1600s, the sons of Ámundi Þormóðsson set out on a quest to find the chest. Find it they did, but as one 0f the men gripped one of its golden handle rings, the chest detached and plunged beneath the falls. The church door of Skogar displayed this very ring, and it has now been moved to Skogar Museum.
Travelers will pay witness to Dettifoss, the second most powerful waterfall in Europe and the most powerful cataract in Iceland. Fed by Vatnajokull Glacier, its proportions are staggering: 330 feet wide and 150 high. As we approach, we’ll feel the rocks tremble at the deafening sounds of this thundering curtain of water. Dettifoss is found in Vatnajokull National Park, which is also home to Ásbyrgi Canyon. The ‘Shelter of the Gods’ is shaped like a horseshoe, which is attributed to Sleipnir, an enormous horse. The great steed of the Norse god Odin is said to have placed his hoof upon Iceland while riding across the sky. This canyon is also the supposed capital of the álfar or huldufolk (hidden people). Here, the homes, churches and concert halls of the elves are said to exist within moss-covered boulders and rock walls. Botnstjörn Pond within the canyon is the setting for the Icelandic fable, “The Hidden People and a Beast.” In the story, a wealthy girl and a poor farmer’s son fall in love, but the boy is transformed into a beast by a creature living in the canyon. A fairy tells the girl the only way her true love will become human again is by throwing her dearest possessions into the jaws of the creature during the midnight sun. She does so, and the fairy sees to it that the young couple are married.
Our journey through Iceland would not be complete without a stop at the horseshoe-shaped Godafoss, which plunges from a sheer volcanic cliff. Meaning the ‘Waterfall of the Gods,’ Godafoss was the site of a religious conflict that occurred 1,000 years ago. The lawmaker Þorgeir Þorkelsson Ljósvetningagoði decided Christianity, not paganism, should be the dominant religion of Iceland (though he made promises that pagans could practice their religion in private). Upon his conversion, Þorgeir threw his statues of the Norse gods into the depths of the waterfall.
Haifoss, or the ‘High Waterfall’, is near the volcano Hekla and is found on the river Fossá (Fossá is a spring water tributary of the Þjórsá, Iceland’s longest river). At 400 feet tall, Haifoss is one of the four tallest waterfalls in Iceland. It was said to be the home of a fierce ogress. As she was fishing for trout, a boy from a band of nearby travelers threw a stone into the river. Offended by the boy’s actions, which she considered an insult to her property, the ogress emerged under cover of night to drag him to his death. The boy’s friends startled awake, and grabbing his arms, attempted to pull him to safety. After the bitter struggle, the boy was left injured, but his life was spared.
Lake Lagarfljot has given rise to local legend. Lagarfljotsormur is Iceland’s very own Loch Ness monster, said to reside in the lake’s murky depths. Legend has it that a young girl locked a small snake into a chest. The snake grew bigger and bigger until the girl threw it into the lake in fright. Since then, there have been rumors of the serpentine lake monster’s existence, though it remains shrouded in a veil of mystery.
Gullfoss is located in the river canyon Hvítá in Southwest Iceland. Named the ‘Golden Waterfall,’ it has a similar fable to that of Skogafoss. Gygur, a wealthy farmer, could not bear the thought of someone taking his wealth after his death. Instead, he threw a treasure chest into the waterfall, where it may still remain. Perhaps that’s where the cascading rainbows that frequent the falls lead?
The natural wonders of this Nordic island nation are interwoven with Icelandic folklore. Stories of magic, myths, elves and beasts have been passed on through the centuries for younger generations, bringing with them a message of the indomitable force of nature and respect for the land.