Sorting out what Icelandic people really believe in is a time consuming business. But, having spent a week in Reykjavik earlier in the year, and four weeks here this summer, I’m starting to sort this out. Having searched for the Lagarfljot worm in the East, looked for hidden people and outlaws in the Highlands, and visited the Sea Monster Museum in Bilduladur, Arnarfjordur in the West, I feel ready to report my preliminary findings.
I believe in the creature from the deep
Elves live in Iceland – Fact or fiction?
FACT! Icelandic people do, absolutely, believe in elves. Some of the more intuitive humans can even see them. And it’s not hard to figure out why. This is a place where a walk in the highlands is like a trip to Mars, and the earth beneath your feet or the water coming from a fall is often either boiling, bubbling, spitting, erupting, cooling, hissing, slipping or throwing a bigger tantrum than a toddler. This is a place where day is sometimes disguised as night and night tricks you into thinking it’s day. This is a place where strange bloodletting family sagas handed down through centuries and written up in damp, turf roofed houses are more appropriate reading material than chicklit. So believing in hidden people isn’t such a leap of the imagination as it might be elsewhere.
But when I say they believe, I reckon there’s a fair amount of bet hedging going on. I suspect for Icelandic people, it’s a bit like not believing in Father Christmas yet sticking a letter up the chimney anyway as an insurance policy for the new year. Because dozens of stories circulate on the wind or the museum information panels, scaremongering about humans who haven’t taken elves into account when delivering progress and change. The main moral of the story seems to be that if you build a motorway through an elf settlement without looking out for the little people, their home or family, then the future isn’t looking good for your bulldozer.
Trolls lived and died in Iceland?
Trolls are another matter. Fact or fiction? Again you can see why people here believed in trolls for so many centuries. Out walking on the lava fields you can easily spook yourself by seeing strange faces in the rock, and some of the bigger rock formations like those at Grimsey even come with their own troll legends attached. In Landmannalaugar campsite, the hot pools look like they’re filled with green trolls’ hair and I found myself wondering if troll breath, or even troll fart, was causing the bubbles and the stench.
But although the gift shops are filled with trolls, you don’t get the sense they’re taken quite so literally. Not quite so revered. Or feared. Perhaps they are too firmly buried in the past.“The trolls are all dead now,” says Elizabet Kristjansdottir, co-owner of Modrudalur Highland Farm, as she shows us the hang outs of elves and outlaws on our tour of the interior.
Sea monsters live in crazy people’s heads
Last but not least in the bevy of legendary lovelies is the sea monster. Fact or fiction?
“If you believe in sea monsters, in Iceland you are considered crazy,” a woman says to me in Bildudalur in the Western Fjords. Blimey, I think. That’s harsh. Particularly as the woman in question runs the Skrimslasetur Sea Monster museum. But perhaps Asa Dora is double bluffing me. Why would she spend her days educating people about the ghostly creatures if she thought they were all urban (or in this case seaside) myths?
Anyway if she’s right, this quirky little museum is so atmospheric that it’s in danger of converting everyone who visits into ‘crazy’ people. I go in thinking that elves rule and come out an hour later ready to go monster hunting.
But if I told you what’s here I’d end up as flotsam
I can’t risk revealing what’s in this museum. Fact, not fiction. Sorry I really can’t. The consequences are too unthinkable. But I can tell you of a room where monsters seduce, legends spook, memorabilia speaks, darkness seeks, secrets leak and timbers creek. A room where story and the truth bubble to the surface, wash around with the tide and sink into the subconscious. A room where a pretty seashell becomes a maritime menace that turns your dreams an ultraviolet pink.
Is that ‘shore laddie’ coming from a dark corner to drag me into the waters of Arnarfjordur? He’s particularly fond of pregnant women and on a fat day I sometimes look like I’m carrying twins. Or could that be Skeljaskrimsli jangling his ugly torso in the distance? Or Faxaskrimsli galloping out of the sea?
I sit next to an old radio in this former canning factory and slaughterhouse, and let the darkness swallow me while the stories churn around. I imagine the monsters rising and sinking through Icelandic history, landscape, folklore. I think of the wild sea I have seen, the rocky seascape and the barren cliffs. I cast my mind back to the deserted Lake Lagerfljot with its very believable mythical worm that could be miles long or the size of a ring in a box, depending on what you choose to see.
I come out of the museum looking greener than I went in, with eyes the size of coffee cups and my belly dragging behind me; strangely similar to a sea monster spotted a few years back round here. Yes, I am crazy, because I’m now sure the sea monster is alive and well and living happily in the Western fjords. Get yourself down to Bildudalur and take a look. Before you venture onto the beach.
This post is part of our 2012 Adventure Islands Season. We’re spending summer 2012 crossing Northern Europe by car and ferry to visit Iceland and The Faroes. We’re exploring the wilder parts of these adventure islands on mini biking expeditions, and researching and reporting on other attractions and activities on offer to adventure seeking families as we tour other parts of the islands by car. We’re grateful to DFDS Seaways and Smyril Line for their support in getting us and our vehicle to Europe and onto Iceland and The Faroes, enabling us to bring you this season of posts. And to Berghaus and Thule who have helped equip us for the journey.
You can follow our progress LIVE on The Family Adventure Project Punkt and get some exclusive behind the scenes photos and video of our journey.