Saturday, January 21, 2017

Discovering Iceland through Folklores and Sagas

As I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac at Keflavik Airport I was met with cold wind and rain, and right there was my first introduction to Iceland's formidable climate. Over the course of next few days I happened to see the most beautiful and awe-inspiring dawns, and also stood cold and shivering on stormy nights, all in the name of an Icelandic experience.

Barren and remote, this island on the edge of the Arctic circle was discovered by Norwegian exiles as they set sail in their viking ships possibly fleeing conflict in their own lands. It is said that the first permanent settlers in Iceland were a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfr Arnarson and his wife. They made home in a place he named Reykjarvík "Smoky Bay", probably due to the steam rising from the several hot springs around. Today we know it as Reykjavik - the capital and the largest city of Iceland.

On reaching Reykjavik I was amazed how it still felt like Christmas although we were into the first week of numbing January. On asking, I was told the first of the many Icelandic sagas, tales of trolls and hidden beings.

In Iceland there are 13 Santa Clauses or Yule Lads, who are part human and part trolls that live in the mountains with their mother Grýla and father Leppalúði. Grýla has a big appetite for children and wanders around collecting mischievous, rude and lazy children in her giant sack which she then brings back home to cook in her big pot. Taking from their Mother, the yule lads (called Door-Slammer, Pot-Licker, Spoon-Licker amongst other strange names) traditionally left their homes to cause havoc to human life. But over the years, in true Christmas spirit, they have given up their wicked ways and now come down from the mountains one by one to put treats into the shoes of Icelandic children who are well behaved.

Thus, Icelanders celebrate 13 days of Christmas, starting on December 24 and ending on January 6.

The sagas behind each of Icelandic treasures is truly interesting. Like when we visited the Barnafoss "Children's waterfall", a beautiful series of rapids on the Hvítá river, we came to know of the tragic end of two children who were left at home while their parents went to Church for Christmas Mass. Left alone, the children decided to head to the falls to play but on the bridge over the Barnafoss they fell into the water and drowned. When the parents heard the news, the mother put a spell on the bridge that everyone who crossed the bridge would drown. The bridge is no longer there and believers say that the spell had indeed induced the bridge's collapse by an earthquake.

As we headed to the west to Borgarfjörður (known as the Saga Valley) to climb up the Grábrók volcano crater we were introduced to the Hidden Beings.

Elves are often called the hidden people because one can't see them until they choose to show themselves up. One story dates back the genesis of elves to Adam and Eve. One day, God came to visit Adam and Eve. They greeted Him and welcomed Him to their humble abode. Having met Adam and Eve's little ones, God asked whether they did not have any more children, to which Eve replied 'no'. In fact, she had not finished bathing all of her children and was ashamed to introduce God to the ones who were still unwashed. God knew this and replied: 'That which shall be hidden from me shall also be hidden from men'.

Elves often live in rocks and if one really believes in them and respects their residence they come out to help humans in times of need.

We were told to keep our faith in the hidden beings as one never knew when we might need to call out to them as we braved the intimidating landscapes of Iceland. Case in point, the Grábrók volcano crater, where hiking up to the rim through steep slippery path in the rough winds can be quite a scare.

Another tragic story is that of the beautiful Guðrún Ósvífrsdóttir. As we crossed the mountain of Helgafell, which is her burial place, we were told of her four marriages, her fight for honor, revenge, and her deceptive ways which incited many a fights.

We reached the basalt island of Súgandisey featuring a scenic lighthouse and grand views of Breiðafjörður bay and as I sat there soaking in the views, the story of Guðrún kept playing in my mind. “I was worst to the one that I loved the most.” She had said, probably referring to Kjartan, her husband's best friend - the man she could not marry and the man whose murder she helped plan. This saga reminds me of the many strong female characters in literature, like Lady Macbeth, and how cleverly they manipulate the pride and fragile egos of men, provoking them to actions they might not otherwise take.

Speaking of strong women, a respectful mention to Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas Tómasson who owned the Gulfoss waterfall (Golden waterfall) in the first half of the 20th century. Having learnt that there were attempts by foreign investors to utilize Gullfoss to create electricity, Sigríður set to save the waterfall all by herself and even threatened to kill herself by jumping into the falls. She later went barefoot on a protest march from Gullfoss to Reykjavik, getting people's attention to the importance of preserving nature. She is the only reason today that one can admire the spectacular views and beauty of untouched nature at Gulfoss.

It is likely that Gulfoss was given its name because of the golden hue which often colours its glacial water. Some say that the name is inspired by the rainbow which appears when sunshine hits the waterfall. But doesn't it seem incomplete without a good story, eh? So here goes. Once upon a time a farmer named Gygur lived at Gygjarholl. He had plenty of gold and could not bear the thought of someone else possessing it after his death. To prevent this, he placed the gold in a coffer and threw it into the waterfall- which ever since has been named Gullfoss.

As soon as one is awed by the beauty of landscapes in Iceland, one is reminded of its brutality and harshness too. Just a day before we were to visit the black lava beach and the cliffs at Reynisfjara in South Iceland, we were sombered to hear that a German tourist had lost her life as she was snatched by a sneaker wave at the beach. 'Never turn your back to the sea and the waves', we were told again and again. This country of extremes, perhaps as cautionary tales, has sketched creatures such as the sea-dwelling horse - that leaps from the rough tide to pull in passersby - warning one not to walk too close to the violent surf.

Such warnings extend to one of the most exhilarating and mystical phenomenons of Nature - the Northern Lights. Icelanders for ages believed that if a pregnant woman gazes at the northern lights, her child will be born cross-eyed, and some thought of it as a frightful omen of war and bloodshed to come. But when the Northern lights danced before our eyes on a cold and clear night, we forgot all about the folklore and stood enchanted.


  1. Enchanting!Loved the folklore and the photographs.....Would love to read some more about this trip Aditi!

  2. Beautiful account,so engrossing. Waiting for more on this blog Aditi!!

  3. Love this. I was in Iceland last year and your photos brought back such good memories. Such a fascinating place!

  4. Nice photos.Looks like an interesting place to check out

  5. OMG! What a fabulous post Aditi! Loved reading about the 13 troll Santas and their mom! LoL! The place is absolutely fantastic and looks so pristine! I can see your glee and happiness through all the wonderful frames you've captured! Reykjavik reminded me of 'Journey to the center of the Earth'. The northern lights look ethereal don't they? Folklore, trolls, elves, northern lights, scenic extravaganza.....too good!!

  6. Oh, how awesome my dear friend. So happy to read your post and to see that you got to see the northern light - yes, it is truly magical isnt is:-) This made me so happy to read- and to see that you experienced iceland- so close to me:-) love it:-)

  7. Oh, Iceland! One of the places that has always been on my 'to-visit' list but we weren't able to.
    In fact, that damn volcano 'huffed and puffed' our plans away.
    Lovely photos, Aditi, and I've glad that you're living it up there.

  8. So jealous to you Aditi....You have nice trip to Iceland....i am also a Traveler...always wanted to travel new your posting keep posting...


  9. Isn't Iceland one of the places where GOT's shooting took place?
    Your travel stories make me realise how much I have to travel and how many places I have to cover!

    Loved the pictures, Aditi


  10. Iceland is amazing and your photos are amazing!! You lucky girl, I want to see the northern lights! Thanks for sharing these, too good. I had read about them in Devika Fernando's Fire Trilogy but the pictures are wonderful.

  11. This is the first I've heard of troll Sanatas and more than a dozen of them. It's amazing at how many different stories there are in different parts of the world. Thanks for bringing some of them to us.

  12. Oh the tales make the country even more fascinating. I could hardly pronounce the names but loved reading these folklore... And along with the pictures, they make it sound like a totally different world. It must be fun growing up there, listening to all those stories... You lucky you...

  13. The folklore had me hooked and I was sorry for the post to end. Lovely pics too. Thank you for such a treat Aditi- this place is on my travel list!!

  14. Such a lovely post .. full of folklores and beautiful images. Enjoyed reading this..

  15. So many folklores and fables for a tiny country! It's amazing :). 13 days of Christmas would make Americans go nuts 😀😀
    P.S. I couldn't pronounce a single name in the entire post ! They need more vowels 😉

  16. Such amazing folklores and history. You have captured some breathtakingly beautiful views, Aditi. Thanks for this beautiful virtual tour.

  17. Love this and photographs are so good. It is such a fascinating place! Thanks for sharing these breathtaking views. This is amazing place to see northern lights. So, book trip to see the northern lights.