Legendary Sites (KH)

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katharinahauptmann02_dlMany places in Iceland are famous for having a connection to the old sagas or for being named after one of them.

Berserkjahraun (‘Berserk lava field’) is one of these. Located in the central western peninsula of Snæfellsnes, which is rich in folkloric references, the lava field covers most of the western part of Helgafell County, and stretches between the mountain slopes and the sea. 

It is interspersed with several craters, and there is also a mountain pass called Kerlingarskarð which loosely translates as ‘Ogress Pass’ as it was an ogress who formed this pass according to the legend.

The lava fields is quite beautiful, I have to say, even though it is actually just a vast, rugged area.

And of course the sagas have an explanation for everything. In Eyrbyggja sagan(‘the Saga of the people of Eyri’) and Heiðarvíga saga (‘The Story of the Heath Slayings’) we learn more about this peculiar site: two berserks from Sweden, Halli and Leiknir, were brought to Iceland by a local farmer called Vermundur or ‘Vermóður the Slim’ in 982.

Vermundur had trouble keeping the berserks busy enough to subdue their rage and he saw no other solution than to ask his brother Styr the Slayer (also called Víga-Styrr) to take them off his hands. Styr the Slayer obliged reluctantly and soon found himself in a dilemma as the berserks were out of control. One of them, Halli, fell in love with Styr’s daughter, Ásdís, and asked for her hand in marriage. Styr sought advice from Snorri, who was a chieftain at Helgafell, and then told Halli he would give him his blessing after they had finished the tasks of clearing a bridle path through the rugged lava field, building a boundary fence across it, and a sheep pen. They went berserk and finished the tasks in a remarkably short time. Being a berserk has its advantages, it seems.

When Halli and Leiknir returned tired and sweaty, Styr invited them to relax in the sauna and they accepted. Styr increased the heat inside but locked them inside. When it became unbearably hot in the hole the berserks managed to break out, but were too weak to defend themselves against Styr the Slayer who killed them both. After all, he wasn’t called “the Slayer” for nothing!

Styr buried them in a depression in the lava field close to said bridle path, the burial mounds can still be seen today. Apparently, archaeologists found the remains of two men buried at this very location, but I have no clue about the details of this findings.

Another site, Ásbyrgi canyon, is in North Iceland and features a horseshoe-shaped depression. While scientists explain the shape with something boring like “glacial flooding” I prefer the explanation folklore gives us: When legendary Sleipnir, the eight legged horse of all mighty Norse God Óðinn, touched ground with one of his feet, the canyon was formed. Therefore, Ásbyrgi is also nicknamed ‘Sleipnir's footprint.’

The hillock close to the small town Bakkagerði in East Iceland is called Álfaborg (‘Elf town’) as it is known to not only house elves but the queen of elves herself.

And there are at least four different mountains or mountain peaks named Tröllakirkja (‘Troll Church’), then we have Dverghamrar (‘Dwarf Cliffs’) and Surtsey island  (‘Island of Surt’, Surt being a fire giant in Nordic mythology), just to name a few.

As you can see, folklore is always present in Iceland. There are countless places named after folkloric events or characters or saga heroes, honestly, aren’t those sagas way more fun than scientific explanations?

Katharina Hauptmann - katha.hauptmann@gmail.com

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.