Planning a trip to peaceful Iceland? Beware… that lake may not be as placid as it first seemed, the waves might wash something horrid ashore and a nasty surprise might lurk in the shadows. Last winter a video allegedly showing an infamous Icelandic monster, the mighty water serpent Lagarfljótsormurinn, went viral, attracting foreign television crews to the banks of Lake Lagarfljót in East Iceland. While a commission appointed by local authorities is trying to determine whether the video is authentic, Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir delves into Iceland’s monstrous fauna.
Published in the 2012 October-December issue of Iceland Review – IR 04.12. By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Illustrations by Jón Baldur Hlíðberg.
A slug turned serpent or a dinosaur that escaped extinction, Lagarfljótsormurinn is the most famous water serpent (vatnaormur) in Iceland but not one of a kind. There have been sightings of similar creatures in other lakes around the country, as well as in other parts of the world—most notably in Scotland’s Loch Ness. Witnesses don’t always agree on the serpents’ appearances but all describe them as massive in size. Sources, dating back centuries and up until modern times, range from annals to travel books, geographical descriptions and folktales.
The earliest account of Lagarfljótsormurinn was written in 1344 or 1345 and sightings of the monster have been reported regularly since. In 1590 it was mentioned in an official geographical map, the making of which Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson (who oversaw the first complete translation of the Bible to Icelandic) is said to have been part of, and in the atlas Theatrum orbis terrarum. Theories on the origins of water serpents include that they are lizard-like prehistoric creatures that scientists have presumed to be extinct, but in Iceland their existence is mostly explained through folklore.
The story of the Skorradalsvatn monster in Borgarfjörður, West Iceland, documented at the turn of the 19th century by Sveinn Dofri, is very similar to that describing the origins of Lagarfljótsormurinn. A young girl placed a slug on a gold ring in the hope that the gold would grow. Instead the slug grew and so she had it tossed in the lake. The beast developed into an aggressive monster as long as the lake itself, shooting up its head, tail or the humps of its long neck, terrorizing locals. Each sighting was thought to foretell a disaster. Eventually Rev. Hallgrímur Pétursson (who wrote the Hymns of Passion) managed with exorcism to bind the monster’s head, tail and middle to the floor of the lake and it has not been a menace since.
From Meeting With Monsters – An Illustrated Guide to the Beasts of Iceland with texts by Sigurður Ægisson and illustrations by Jón Baldur Hlíðberg.
You can read the remainder of this article in the 2012 October to December issue of Iceland Review – IR 04.12
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