It was a long road through Iceland. The things I saw here have stayed at the front of my mind since my departure. From the craggily, black mountains, to the mossy green volcano-scapes, to the endless stretches of artic desert, to some of the world’s last glaciers, Iceland really is the stuff of legends. And, as it turns out, Iceland has quite enough legends to go around!
Before leaving for this trip, a friend of mine, who had recently returned from her own journey to Iceland, loaned me a book called A Traveller’s Guide To Icelandic Folk Tales by Jón R. Hjálmarsson (thanks Lauren!). This book served as my only entertainment on the long flight to Reykjavík, so I got pretty well acquainted with the stories it contained. Now that I’ve lived to tell the tale, I want to share with you some of the more compelling tales that (supposedly) occurred in the places that I visited on my trip.
5 Ridiculous Icelandic Folktales
From Locations Covered In Our Trip To Iceland
1. Fishermen Murder Old Woman—Use Her For Fish Bait—Are Then Killed By Her Ghost
A long time ago, around the very tip of West Iceland’s beautiful Snæfellsnes peninsula, there was a group of brave sailors who were very strong. They were so strong that they had contests picking up the giant boulders that dot the volcanic landscape around this area. Some of the rocks in particular that they used to pick up were given names and can still be found there today.
The story goes that, one day, these strong, brave fishermen either killed an old woman or perhaps just dug up her corpse. The sources vary, but the punchline is the same: they made fish bait out of her flesh. This bait apparently worked like a charm, because these fishermen caught a lot of crazy big fish! Everybody used the bait except for one of the fishermen, who had a weird dream…
In the dream, the woman (who was now being used as fish bait) told this fisherman not to go out on the boats that day. She apparently told him this in the form of an ominous poem. When the fisherman woke up, he pretended to be sick so that he wouldn’t have to go to work. The rest of his co-fishermen went out to sea without him, and they ALL drowned that day. So I bet that guy felt pretty bad.
There’s supposedly a sea cave in this area, near to where all the men drowned. Many sailors who passed this cave would later claim to have heard the echoes of men chanting from inside.
Here's some pictures from West Iceland, where this all went down...
2. Local Monster Accused Of Murder, Put On Trial
This story takes place in the very tip of the Westfjords, in an area called Látrabjarg. Látrabjarg is famous for it’s massive cliffs, and the puffins that roost on them. In the olden days, people used to trap these birds and harvest their eggs. It worked like this: one man would tie a rope around his waist and repel downwards across the cliff’s face towards the birds, while another man would hold onto that rope from the top of the cliffs. My palms are getting sweaty just thinking about it.
It was apparently becoming a common occurrence that the men at the bottom of these ropes would just disappear without the men holding the top of the ropes noticing. They would just look down, and their cohorts would be gone. Later, the bodies of these men would be found far below, mangled and mutilated. There were, of course, investigations, and many of them found that the ropes looked as if they had been cut on purpose. This was very suspicious.
There was supposedly a monster who was living in the area. So, naturally, this monster was blamed for the deaths of these men. A wizard who lived in a nearby village attempted to bring this monster to justice, but failed. At this point, the townspeople turned to the presiding Bishop of the area for help.
The Bishop came, and the monster came to meet him. The monster (who could talk, I guess), begged for mercy. The Bishop took pity on him and banished him to a particular area of the cliffs where very few birds lived.
And that’s the tale of the monster of Látrabjarg. I wish I had some sort of description of this monster for you, but this story was pretty vague. However, I do have a few pictures of these cliffs for your reference! This is where it all went down...
3. Badass Reverend Fights Off Demon, Cloud Monster, Evil Triangle, Goes Back To Sleep
There was a chaplain named Jón who worked in the Westfjords, and he is the protagonist of this story. In the olden days, Icelanders were a superstitious bunch (if you can’t tell), but Jón didn’t believe in any of that mumbojumbo. I guess he was just ahead of his time. He was social, well liked, and loved ridiculing people for their ridiculous delusions.
One day, some guy told Jón that he had magical powers (you know, as people did back then). Jón made fun of this guy until he got very angry, and began making threats. But Jón wasn’t scared of his threats. He went on with his life and soon forgot about this wanna-be-wizard.
That summer, Jón was sleeping when he woke up to find a demon at the foot of his bed. But Jón was not impressed; he just went back to sleep.
Probably not used to being ignored like this, the demon began tickling Jón. Jón rolled over and said something like, “Go away. I’m not scared of you.” So the demon vanished.
After that, a thick fog appeared outside, and began to enter the house. When all of the fog had entered, it turned into a giant monster. The monster was so big that it filled the entire house. But Jón still wasn’t fazed. He said something to effect of “You’re just a big cloud—you can’t hurt me! Go away.” So the cloud monster blew away.
It was around this time that Jón connected the dots between these apparitions and the wanna-be-wizard that he had ridiculed months earlier. He knew that there was more in store, but he still wasn’t scared.
Next, a flaming triangle appeared, floating in the air. Around Jón, the room was suddenly filled with beds, with a man sleeping in each one. The triangle floated over to the first man and dug its corner into the man’s chest so that he screamed and promptly died. The triangle then proceeded to make the rounds, killing all of these men in their beds. Finally, when all the men we dead, the triangle floated towards Jón.
Jón slept in the nude, but that didn’t stop him. He jumped up out of bed, naked, and said “come now, but come in the name of Jesus!” And at that moment, the visions vanished for a final time.
And Jón went back to sleep.
Here are a few pictures from my time in this part of the Westfjords...
4. Fisherman Catches Prophetic Merman
This story occured just to the south of Reykjavík. Here there was a farmer that lived a peaceful life next to some of the most fruitful waters for fishing that Iceland had to offer. Because of his close proximity to this fertile fishing ground, this farmer would frequently go fishing. And one day, when he was out in his boat, he hooked a Merman.
The Merman told him that he had just been cleaning his mother's chimney (you know, on the sea floor) when he had been hooked and dragged up to the surface. Then he asked the farmer to let him return to his home down below the waves. The farmer refused, telling the Merman that he was going to take him ashore.
When the two of them arrived back at the farmer's house, the first thing that happened was the farmer's dog running up to greet him. The farmer was annoyed by his over-enthusiastic dog, so he struck the dog a scolding blow. The Merman laughed.
From there, they walked up towards the house. To be honest, I'm not sure if the Merman was walking or floundering at this point, the folktale is kind of vague here. At any rate, the farmer walked over an area of grass that was particularly long and thick, and he tripped. Annoyed, the farmer cursed as he regained his balance. Again, the Merman laughed.
When they got the house, the farmer's wife ran outside and greeted him affectionately. The farmer responded to her warmly. Love was in the air, but again, the Merman laughed.
At this point, the farmer was like, "Okay man, you keep laughing at random stuff. What's so funny?" The Merman responded that he wouldn't divulge the reason that he was laughing unless the farmer agreed to return him to the ocean. At this point, curiosity gets the better of our farmer, and he agrees.
The Merman said that he laughed the first time when the the farmer had hit his dog because the dog was affectionate towards the farmer, but the farmer did not appreciate it. He continued that he laughed the second time when the farmer tripped over the tuft of grass because buried under that tuft of grass was lots of gold. And finally, he said that he laughed the third time when his wife came to greet him because she had been cheating on him.
Putting aside this unexpected revelation of his wife's infidelity, the farmer gathered his thoughts. Then he said, "Two of the things have said—the affection of my dog and the faithfulness of my wife—cannot be tested at present, but let's go see about the gold hidden under my lawn. If there really is gold, I'll bring you back to the ocean."
They rushed out to the lawn, and sure enough, they struck gold! So the farmer brought the Merman back out to the sea. But before the Merman lept back out into the ocean, he told the farmer that he was a good man, and said, rather cryptically, "I will repay you, if you know how to make use of what you receive."
That's the last that we know of this Merman, but soon afterwards the farmer got word that there was a herd of cows grazing precariously near a cliff, presumably a gift from the Merman. He ran out to find them and discovered that each of them had a bladder tied over their mouths. They were restless and oxygen deprived. The farmer didn't have much time to save them. He ran to the nearest cow and managed to burst the bladder covering its mouth, but the rest of the cows ran towards the cliff and fell to their deaths. However, the one cow that the farmer did manage to save turned out to be the best cow in Iceland. (I'm not sure how that was determined, but hey, I didn't write this story.) From this cow an entirely new breed of cows was born, now know as the "sea-cow breed." These sea cows made the farmer into one of the richest men in all of Iceland, and he used his baller-status to find himself a wife who wouldn't cheat on him.
The End. Here are some pictures I snapped in that area of Iceland, just to give you an idea of what the scenery was like...
5. When Ur Crush Comes To Picks U Up For A Date, But Ur Crush Is Dead
So there was a deacon that lived in a little town called Myrká in the North of Iceland. He had developed feelings for a maid that worked in the house of a pastor a few towns over. Her name was Guðrún. Christmas was just around the corner, so he decided that he was going to invite this maid to celebrate advent with him. But back in those days, he couldn't just slide into her DMs, he had to ride a horse through the snowy mountains to invite her in person, which is exactly what he did.
On his was to meet Guðrún, he had to cross a wide river, which had frozen over with ice. You'd think this would have inspired some caution on his part, but he had his horse gallup right over the ice, and they got to the far side of the river unscathed. He invited Guðrún to spend advent with him, and she excitedly accepted his inbvitation. For a minute there, it seemed like this could have been the start of something beautiful. But then, on his way home when he and his horse tried to cross the river again, they fell through the ice...
The next day, a woman who lived near this river saw the deacons horse wandering around with a saddle but no rider. It didn't take long for her to come upon the deacon's dead body. He had fallen into the frigid water and hit his head on a jagged piece of ice. She took his body back to Myrká and they had a beautiful funeral for him. However, news of the deacon's death never reached poor Guðrún. She was stilled expecting the deacon to pick her up for their Christmas date.
Fast forward a couple of weeks, and it was the night before advent. Guðrún was excitedly getting ready for the deacon to pick her up for their big date.
Night came, and there was a knock at the door. Another maid in the house answered the door, but there was nobody there. Guðrún figured that this was just the deacon being playful, so she ran outside to see his horse standing there, mounted by a shadowy figure who she assumed with the deacon. She grabbed her coat and hopped on the back of the horse.
The first half of their trip back to Myrká passed in silence. Guðrún's date was off to an awkward start. Then, the clouds overhead parted and the moonlight washed over them, revealing that the deacon was actually just a skeleton. At this point, perhaps in response to Guðrún's shock, the deacon recited to her a quick poem to acknowledge the fact that he was dead and be romantic at the same time. Guðrún was speechless.
Finally, the pair reached Myrká. They pulled up to the church (slash graveyard) and the deacon walked into the graveyard to tie up his horse. Guðrún was already freaking out, but then she looked over and noticed that the deacon's skeleton/zombie was standing over an open grave (presumably his own). That was the final straw for Guðrún. She ran over to the church and rang the bell loudly, yelling for help! Just then, she was grabbed by the arm, hard. It was the deacon's boney hand!
She wriggled free of her coat and ran. As she ran, she turned around just in time to see the deacon tumble back into his grave, still holding her coat. As he fell in, soil swept in from both sides to re-bury him.
She continued ringing the bell until the towns people woke up and brought her to saftey. But the story isn't quite over. Apparently the deacon's zombie dug itself up each night to haunt her for weeks afterwards. Somebody had to remain with her at all times to keep her safe. Finally, they called in a powerful wizard from the Westfjords to put the deacon to rest once and for all by casting a spell over him.
We've all had bad first dates, but can anybody possibly top this?
Anyway, here's some of the scenery for this story...