Iceland’s Culture of Folk Tales
On March 20 Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull erupted several times in a row and caused major disruption to air travel across western and northern Europe. Our writer Meg Pier went there last May and found out firsthand why the Icelandic people have such a healthy respect for the power of Mother Nature, and how the mystery of the country’s landscape has led to a culture steeped in folk tales.
In a 2007 survey conducted by the University of Iceland, 64% of those polled had some belief in huldufolk or hidden people, and alfar, or elves. Almost two-thirds had some belief in guardian angels, or fetches. I found out why during a four-day, 400-mile round-trip jaunt from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, to its southernmost point of Vik.
One of the newest land masses on the planet, the sweeping vistas here are alternately eerie, majestic, playful, and even frightening, giving rise to some of mankind’s oldest emotions. Goosebumps, gasps, giggles and even tears are among the gamut of reactions that Iceland’s landscape elicits. Within an hour’s drive, a visitor can walk on lava fields and glaciers, across black beaches and verdant fields, and under waterfalls and rainbows. In our trek across southern Iceland, my husband Tom and I experienced the magic of an otherworldly geography that has inspired long-held folk traditions.
On a misty spring morning, we left Reykjavik and meandered along the winding Route 1, with long stretches as the lone car on the road. Our heads swiveled continuously, gawking at the scenery–herds of Icelandic horses romping in emerald pastures, plumes of steam rising from a geothermal field, and immense snow-capped mountains standing sentinel.
A couple of hours later, on a flat stretch of road, we saw the Westman Islands off to our right, a family of triangular rocks rising from the shimmering Atlantic. Ahead, something on the face of a steep green hillside glinted in the sun. As we got closer we realized it was an immensely long strand of gushing water spilling over the horizon high above—the 131-foot Seljalandsfoss waterfall.
We swung left, joined the handful of cars in the parking lot, and approached the cascading water. No rangers, no ticket office, no lines, no one else even in sight. We stood together transfixed, our mouths hanging open. Then Tom realized there were a couple of people actually behind the sheet of water and left me to go climb the rocky path to join them. Mere feet from the pool at the waterfall’s bottom, getting damp from its spray, I experienced a glimmer of what it must have been like for early Icelandic settlers when they first approached this roaring wonder. I felt tears well up, of immense awe and gratitude.
Terry Gunnell, professor of Folkloristics at the University later explained “The landscape for Iceland’s people is like a book, full of stories, much like it was to ancient cultures in Norway and Ireland, and to Native Americans. The geology here is full of really important significance. Houses can be destroyed by something you can’t see, such as an earthquake, you turn on your tap and get a smell of sulphur, in the winter you see the dancing Northern Lights spread across the sky. The wind can knock you off your feet, the snow can really seem to take shape in a blizzard, the environment is very much alive here. There are powers out there you can’t really fight and it shapes the way you see the world. Iceland’s people explain their understanding of the world and their beliefs through stories.”
Refreshed by Seljalandsfoss, we motored on to Skogar, a crossroads that sprung up at the site of one of Iceland’s most reknown waterfalls, Skogafoss. With what we had just witnessed, we thought it unlikely we could be any more wowed, and we were hungry. We ate lunch at the Waterfall Inn alongside a dozen French tourists.
As I devoured my simple but hearty sandwich, I noticed Tom staring above my left shoulder, an odd expression on his face. I turned my head and felt my heart skip a beat. Mounted on the wall were a collection of black and white photographs, casual portraits, circa the 1970s. One of the subjects was returning Tom’s gaze. He was a ringer for Tom’s father, who had died only a few months earlier.
We knew Skogar was home to a folk museum, and navigating by instinct, found it a short distance away. In the midst of a group of elderly Icelandic tourists, we steered around room after room of densely-packed displays donated by generations who called these wild shores home. The ingenuity behind their everyday items made clear that life itself here was a precious commodity.
Some of the artefacts on display are connected to folklore and the supernatural. For instance a comb, a pair of scissors and a hairpin are said to have come from the elves or “hidden people”. The Museum collection includes certain rocks and stones believed to have magical properties. Some were reputed to protect the owner from lightning or fire, or to guarantee that he would always have bread to eat. Others were healing stones of various kinds.
“The folk tales are still a living factor in the life and literature of the Icelandic people, and very popular among the young and old,” Jon R. Hjalmarsson, who compiled the book “A Traveller’s Guide to Icelandic Folk Tales”, commented later. “These old tales continue to reflect in many ways people’s thinking, dreams and imagination. People will always tell stories.”
An elderly museum volunteer gave a performance on a dulcimer-like instrument, which sounded melancholic and medieval. He then moved toward an old upright piano and fingered the chords of “Amazing Grace”. His countrymen encircled him, and lifted their voices in a variety of keys. The resulting cacophony was somehow sweet and beautiful.
Outside, we ambled over to a very authentic-looking recreation of a tiny village, with small houses, outbuildings and a church. Several of the buildings appeared to be built into the hillside, their roofs and walls made of turf.
We had driven by numerous tiny communities nestled at the foothills of glaciers, no more than homesteads, each with a cluster of buildings painted in cheerful shades of reds. I felt real respect for the people who had the spirit and fortitude to carve out a life in a corner of this vast open space. Iceland, with a population of 300,000, is the size of Kentucky, which has population more than twelve times larger.
Allowing for the possibility that just maybe there could be a display by Mother Nature that could top Seljalandsfoss, we headed down a gravel road to Skogafoss. As we pulled in, crowds were re-boarding their tour buses. Once again, we were practically by ourselves, being humbled by hydrology. Seen in reverse order, Seljalandsfoss perhaps would not have been as moving for me. Skogafoss is more than 35 feet higher, and seemed to be ten times as wide, its rumbling seemed louder and the spray more ferocious and reaching a greater distance.
I stood back farther than Tom and watched him watching the water. Legs apart, head tilted back, hands shoved in his jeans pockets, I could almost feel the wheels turning, and visualized a big question mark over his head.
We were now just a short distance from Vik and the car was quiet as we drove through a pass carved in massive mountains. This is Iceland’s rainiest area and it was a typical day. Pulling over to better read a sign, the view below us recalled Brigadoon, glimpsed through patches of dewy fog drifting by. In a steep valley below, a river flowed toward an elegant white church with a graceful steeple, perched on a ridge. Fanning out below was a small village. It was a peaceful scene.
“A common device in the stories is weather, such as fog, marking the border between the civilized world and the wild, showing how you could lose direction in all sorts of ways, going into other territory where there are other rules, such as the Outlaw stories,” said Gunnell. “The stories also speak to people’s hopes and dreams, finding themselves in a pleasant valley with a better life, after coming through a fog, or waking up in a different world when sleeping.”
Once down in the pleasant valley, we stopped for coffee at a casual restaurant in Reynishverfi, on the shoreline. The clouds parted, and we decided to take a stroll on what was once named one of the world’s ten most beautiful beaches by Islands magazine. In the late afternoon sun, we crossed a field of waving purple lupines to the black sand beach. The waters were turbulent and foaming aquamarine waves surged and crashed. Beyond the surf, at the far end of the beach, strangely shaped black columns reached into the sky.
“Strange and uncommon features of rocks, cliffs and hilltops often have stimulated the imagination of the people and seem to have been the background for creation of some of the folk tales,” Hjalmarsson said. ”The rock pillars at Reynisdrangar standing in the sea south of Vik are not ordinary rocks, but said to be trolls trying to drag a three-masted ship to land; when daylight broke, they turned to stone. “
A couple of miles down the road, we found our accommodations, a rustic but comfortable lodge tucked back against soft green hillocks. While Tom took a pre-dinner nap, I took a walk around the grounds, accompanied by a friendly black Labrador who appeared out of nowhere to join me. We crossed a footbridge over a pond and came to a wide, shallow river, beyond which was a farm, its three buildings dwarfed by the massive mountain rising behind them. The scene appeared both solitary and cozy. I wondered what it was like for Vik’s 600 residents living here in the Icelandic winter. It occurred to me it was no surprise Iceland has one of the world’s highest literacy rates at 99.9 percent.
“Stories were told on farms in the winter evening, as families were carding wool, spinning, knitting or repairing farming equipment,” said Gunnell. “These tales warned kids not to go into that lake because there is a water horse there, not to go too far away from the farm because of the danger of outlaws or trolls or hidden people who might take you.”
There had been fierce rain throughout the night and the next morning saw scattered clouds hanging low in the sky and in a hurry to move on. As we headed in the direction from which we had come, I felt sad to be leaving this patch of the universe, but grateful to have experienced it. Once back through the mountain pass, a grassy plain stretched ahead, the Atlantic now on our left—and beginning to solidify before our eyes on the horizon, a huge, shimmering rainbow. We took it as an auspicious sign that a good day lay before us.
We backtracked on Route 1 for about an hour, the landscape still fresh to our eyes, and then took a right on Route 26. We were heading for the gate to hell, according to folk lore, otherwise known as the volcano Hekla. We climbed rolling hills sparsely populated with sleek horses in a palette of earth tones and the occasional red-roofed farm. Then the terrain began to level out, and soon we were traversing a lonely road down the middle of a vast lava field of grey gravel. To our right, in the distance, sculpted dunes bore the scars of a powerful surge of something. Beyond, Hekla presided over it all, a grand dame with a white shawl of snow across her shoulders. Far off to our left was a hulking, flat-topped black slab, looking like a burnt Ayers Rock.
Mile after mile went by, with the only change in the scenery being the appearance of strange groupings of oddly-shaped black rocks. It occurred to me these were the remains of real volcanic activity, and just when that activity might have been, I didn’t know. I began to feel genuinely uneasy, and I could tell Tom was relieved too when we reached an intersection and knew from our map that we had some solid space between us and Hekla.
“Folk tales also spoke to the harsh living conditions of the times, and offered cautionary tales that provided ‘road maps’ for moral behavior. Every hill, every crossroads, every river, every archaeological remnant had a story, and all of these stories formed part of the local belief system,” said Gunnell. “If the map reflected in the legends was followed, you had a good chance of living in safety. If you broke it, you stood an equally good chance of ending up in a folk legend yourself, if not on a list of mortality statistics.”
The word “geyser” is one of Iceland’s contributions to the world’s vocabulary. Later that day, we joined a dozen or so other tourists rimming the perimeter of blow hole Strokkur. Seconds and then minutes ticked by and I began to wonder if we were all waiting for a geological Godot. Then the small crowd collectively drew in its breath as the earth blew a giant translucent bubble. Time seemed to stand still for an instant as we intently watched the embryonic form grow and grow and then explode in a tremendous rush of energy, shooting a powerful surge of water 65 feet high. We all screamed and shouted in great delight, looking at each other in astonishment, grinning madly.
Our last stop before returning to Reykjavik was Thingvellir, a place of astonishing beauty and mind-bending geology. Thingvellir carries profound historic, political, religious and cultural significance for the Icelandic people, and is often referred to as the country’s very soul. Indeed, Thingvellir could be viewed as the equivalent of the U.S.’ Grand Canyon, Plimoth Plantation, and Capitol Hill, and more, all rolled into one. In 930 A.D., Iceland’s settlers established an assembly at Thingvellir, called the Althing. Now recognized as one of the oldest surviving parliaments in the world, it was one of the earliest governments of the people, for the people.
Thingvellir is marked with a line of deep gashes in the earth, filled with crystal clear water. Tom and I watched a young boy and his father race each other back and forth across a small footbridge over such a ravine. They were gleefully shouting “Now I’m in Europe” when reaching one side, and “Now, I’m in America” on the other.
A scene that would have had us scratching our heads anywhere else in the world made perfect sense here in Iceland’s first national park. The world is literally slowly tearing apart here, where the North American Plate and Hreppar Microplate are drifting away from each other at the speed our fingernails grow. The continent-tagging duo suffer from the common misconception that it is the Eurasian plate, rather than the smaller Hreppar, that abuts the North American in Thingvellir.
Ironically, given the world’s–and particularly, Iceland’s–economic woes, the ravine in question was the “Peningagja,” or “money gorge”. Lore says that if you throw a coin into its crystal clear waters and can see it reach bottom, your money worries will be over.
Judging by the size of the crowd tossing silver into the abyss, folk tales are still an antidote to fear and uncertainty.