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Myths and Legends of Iceland

Iceland is a country of striking and sometimes supernatural beauty - which is matched by its rich and extensive folklore. Here's what you need to know about the Icelandic superstitions.

4 mins read

Reuters reported 10 percent of Icelanders believe in supernatural beings, while 10 percent do not - the remaining 80 percent either have no strong feelings either way or refuse to deny their existence entirely.

Belief in huldufólk - hidden people or elves - is fairly common, to such an extent that roadwork projects that run into trouble are sometimes said to be angering local elves and a medium must be consulted before work can continue.  

If you are travelling to Iceland, you have a unique opportunity to visit the sites of thousands of years of mythology and folklore - and perhaps even to see elves and trolls yourself, if some locals are to be believed. Learning about the country's folklore is a unique way to experience Icelandic culture, and certainly not a common experience.

For the discriminating and perhaps the quirky traveler, making a trip around Iceland based on myth and legend may be the best way to explore the country.

Here are a few otherworldly sights and sites to look for while you're in Iceland:


Wherever you are in Iceland - whether in a populated city or the middle of supernatural-seeming wilderness - you're likely to come across álfhól. These are small wooden houses people construct for the benefit of elves, who are said to live in them. You may even see very small churches, which are created for the purpose of converting the elves to Christianity. These elf homes range from simple to quite elaborate, and seeing how many you can spot while you're in Iceland can be an amusing pastime. Remember to take plenty of pictures for your friends back home - it's unlikely they've ever seen somewhere elves live.

Special Times for the Huldufólk

Certain holidays seem to bring the huldufólk out of hiding in Iceland. If you are in the country during New Year's Eve, Twelfth Night, Midsummer or Christmas night, expect to hear folktales of elves holding parties or humans hosting bonfires for them. It is also an Icelandic custom to clean the house and leave food for the huldufólk on Christmas - a tradition you may wish to participate in from on board your cruise if you're there at the right time. Midsummer night brings the chance to sit at a crossroads and have the huldufólk offer you great gifts - but the real rewards come from refusing them, or so the stories say.

The Trolls of Vík

If you decide to visit the beautiful black sand beach in Vík, you will encounter trolls, according to local legend. This site is worth a visit all on its own, as it is one of the world's most enchanting beaches tucked away near a very small city. If you look off the shore, however, you will notice basalt rock formations known as Reynisdrangar. The legend says these rocks are really trolls, who were caught in the sunlight as they tried to drag ships ashore and were turned forever to stone.

Sea Monsters

Monsters, known in Icelandic as skrimsli, may live in the sea, according to many. Reuters spoke to Thorvaldur Fridriksson, a scholar of sea monsters, who keeps an open mind about this possibility.

"Some of these monsters are dangerous," he said. "People are reluctant to tell about them because others will laugh. But about 70 percent of Earth is sea and who knows what the sea hides?"

While skrimsli are unlikely to be a threat to your cruise travel in Iceland, you may wonder at night in particularly eerie waters.

A few tips for the Iceland bound traveller:

The Elf School

If you're very interested in Icelandic folklore, the Elf School in Reykjavik may be a vital stop for you while you're in the area. The school offers very brief courses on folklore, elves, fairies, trolls, dwarves and more that will get you up to speed on Icelandic folk belief in no time.

The school identifies 13 types of elves, and has a full curriculum of study devoted to them complete with textbooks. The school offers a tour of the habitats of the hidden folk as well, which ends as pleasantly as possible with coffee and pancakes - and you'll even get a diploma. 

Bring a Book

If you find yourself intrigued by the idea of seeing sites of folkloric importance while you're in Iceland, you might consider picking up a copy of "The Traveller's Guide to Icelandic Folktales" by Jón R. Hjálmarsson.

The book functions as a guided tour, inviting you to explore certain areas of the country associated with myths as old as the Eddas and as new as the 19th century. Whether you choose to use it in that way or simply to luxuriate in your cabin and read about the wonderful world of Icelandic folklore, the book may well be an essential item to pack on your next cruise to Iceland.

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Penguins perched on the ice of Cuverville Island, Antarctica. Credit: Espen Mills / HX Hurtigruten Expeditions

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