Icelandic Mythology

Flag of Iceland.svg
Flag of Iceland.svg

Pat Boland
Nate Selestok
Christina Fei
Julia Phipps

History Of Iceland

The first people known to have inhabited Iceland were Irish monks or hermits who came in the eighth century, but left with the arrival of the pagan Norsemen, who systematically settled Iceland in the period 870 - 930 A.D. Iceland was thus the last European country to be settled. The main source of information about the settlement period in Iceland is the Landnámabók (Book of Settlements), written in the 12th century, which gives a detailed account of the first settlers. According to this book Ingólfur Arnarson was the first settler. He was a chieftain from Norway, arriving in Iceland with his family and dependents in 874. He built his farm in Reykjavík, the site of the present capital. During the next 60 years or so, viking settlers from Scandinavia, bringing some Celtic people with them, spread their homesteads over the habitable areas.

The original settlers brought Norse and Celtic mythology with them when they traveled to Iceland. The original Eddas and sagas are still read by schoolchildren in Iceland. After generations of living surrounded by the spectacular landscape and oceans, other tales have been added that have a uniquely Icelandic flavor.

When tourists visiting Gullfoss can agree that an ice troll and his white veiled bride are enjoying the scenery along with them, it is easy to understand the way legends of strange, otherworldly creatures have sprung up through centuries of Icelandic winters with tales shared in the long twilights. Ghosts, elves and other huldufolk dwell in the "hidden land" of Icelandic folklore.
Guardian spirits in the form of birds and bulls protect the land from foreign invaders and mermen and mermaids are often seen in the waters. Farmers moving stones in their rocky fields are careful not to disturb stones that are home to trolls. Road crews have been known to change the course of a road when the constuction disturbed the fairy folk enough to cause trouble.

Some of the creatures of myth bring good fortune while others bring sorrow, but all of the strange tales instill a deep respect for nature and the creatures that call Iceland home. They also provide amusing stories to pass on to children to teach them to be careful and kind.

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There are many more Santas in Iceland than the single one that is known around the world. The Yuletide Lads are a whole army of 13. They live in the mountains and each day starting December 11, one comes to town until December 23.

However, these Santas bring more turmoil than merriment. Each one of them is named after the certain trick he likes to play when visiting the homes of people, such as Door Slammer, Sausage Snatcher, Candle Swiper, etc. Traditionally, children put a shoe in the window before they go to bed hoping that the Yuletide Lad of the day will leave a small present for them.

The Yuletide Lads’ mom is Gryla, a monster that eats boiled disobedient children. Their dad is the lazy Leppaluði. Legend has it that if you don’t get any new clothes as a Christmas present, you won’t be seen in public ever again, but eaten by a giant cat.

Iceland Culture: Icelandic Folklore Includes Elves, Trolls and Ghosts

Icelandic Folklore Video

Icelandic Folklore from Panman Productions on Vimeo.

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Icelandic (Norse) Creation

The primary source for the creation myths of the Germanic peoples of Scandinavia and Iceland (the Norse people, sometimes called Vikings) is contained in the Icelandic text called the Younger Edda or the Prose Edda, compiled by the Icelandic historian Snorri Sturluson (1173–1241) in about 1220 c.e. Snorri's work is based on much older works from the oral tradition and from the Elder Edda or Poetic Edda. The creation myth of the first part of the Prose Edda concerns the Ice Giant, Ymir or Imir, from whose body the world was made. Note the connection with the Celtic creation myth.
Long ago King Gylfi ruled what is now Sweden. He learned from a wise old woman about the Aesir, the gods who live in Asgard, or Valhalla. Gylfi disguised himself as an old man, decided to call himself Gangleri, and made his way to Valhalla. There he met the High One, who answered his various questions about the world and its origins.
The High One told Gangleri that once there were two places, one in the south that was all fire and light and one in the north that was icy and dark. The first was called Muspell and the second Niflheim. The two atmospheres met in an emptiness between them called Ginnungagap. There the hot and the cold mixed and caused moisture to form and life to begin, first as the evil frost giant Ymir.


Edda, body of ancient Icelandic literature contained in two 13th-century books commonly distinguished as the Prose, or Younger, Edda and the Poetic, or Elder, Edda. It is the fullest and most detailed source for modern knowledge of Germanic mythology.

The Prose Edda.

The Prose Edda was written by the Icelandic chieftain, poet, and historian Snorri Sturluson, probably in 1222–23. It is a textbook on poetics intended to instruct young poets in the difficult metres of the early Icelandic skalds (court poets) and to provide for a Christian age an understanding of the mythological subjects treated or alluded to in early poetry. It consists of a prologue and three parts. Two of the sections—Skáldskaparmál (“The Language of Poetry”), dealing with the elaborate, riddle-like kennings and circumlocutions of the skalds, and Háttatal (“A Catalog of Metres”), giving examples of 102 metres known to Snorri—are of interest chiefly to specialists in ancient Norse and Germanic literature. The remaining section, Gylfaginning (“The Beguiling of Gylfi”), is of interest to the general reader. Cast in the form of a dialogue, it describes the visit of Gylfi, a king of the Swedes, to Asgard, the citadel of the gods. In answer to his questions, the gods tell Gylfi the Norse myths about the beginning of the world, the adventures of the gods, and the fate in store for all in the Ragnarǫk (Doom [or Twilight] of the Gods). The tales are told with dramatic artistry, humour, and charm.

The Poetic Edda.

The Poetic Edda is a later manuscript dating from the second half of the 13th century, but containing older materials (hence its alternative title, the Elder Edda). It is a collection of mythological and heroic poems of unknown authorship, composed over a long period (ad 800–1100). They are usually dramatic dialogues in a terse, simple, archaic style that is in decided contrast to the artful poetry of the skalds.
The mythological cycle is introduced by luspá (“Sibyl’s Prophecy”), a sweeping cosmogonic myth that reviews in flashing scenes the history of the gods, men, and dwarfs, from the birth of the world to the death of the gods and the world’s destruction.
It is followed by Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”), a group of disconnected, fragmentary, didactic poems that sum up the wisdom of the wizard-warrior god, Odin. The precepts are cynical and generally amoral, evidently dating from an age of lawlessness and treachery. The latter part contains the strange myth of how Odin acquired the magical power of the runes (alphabetical characters) by hanging himself from a tree and suffering hunger and thirst for nine nights. The poem ends with a list of magic charms.
One of the finest mythological poems is the humorous Thrymskvida (“Lay of Thrym”), which tells how the giant Thrym steals the hammer of the thunder god Thor and demands the goddess Freyja in marriage for its return. Thor himself journeys to Thrym, disguised as a bride, and the humour derives from the “bride’s” astonishing manners at the wedding feast, where she eats an ox and eight salmon, and drinks three vessels of mead.
The second half of the Poetic Edda contains lays about the Germanic heroes. Except for the Völundarkvida (“Lay of Völundr”; i.e., Wayland the Smith) these are connected with the hero Sigurd (Siegfried), recounting his youth, his marriage to Gudrun, his death, and the tragic fate of the Burgundians (Nibelungs). These lays are the oldest surviving poetic forms of the Germanic legend of deceit, slaughter, and revenge that forms the core of the great medieval German epic Nibelungenlied. Unlike the Nibelungenlied, which stands on the threshold of romance, the austere Eddic poems dwell on cruel and violent deeds with a grim stoicism that is unrelieved by any civilizing influences.

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The Wyrm of Lagarfljót - Lagarfljótsormurinn

The Lagarfljót or Lögurinn is one of Iceland’s deepest lakes and lies in a narrow trough carved by glaciers. It reaches a depth of 112 m, 90 m below sea level and shows no obvious flow. Its deep mysterious glacial waters are the home of Iceland’s ancient and much older equivalent of the Loch Ness monster, the terrifying sea-worm-like Wyrm or ‘Lagarfljótsormur’. Legend says that once upon a time a young girl living beside the lake acquired a gold broach. She placed the broach in a box, underneath a tiny worm, to increase her gold. Soon the worm had outgrown the box. Panicking, the girl grabbed the box and threw far into the lake. Time passed, and the worm became a monstrous wyrm so powerful that even the greatest magicians declared that they were unable to overpower it completely, but managed to fasten its head and tail to the lake bottom. There the wyrm will most likely stay bound till the end of all days, causing no harm. The worm-like creature is presumed to be longer than a football field and has been seen coiled near the shore by countless eyewitnesses, the oldest written account being ever since the year 1345.

Two Legends from Iceland by Jón Arnason

Once upon a time, God Almighty came to visit Adam and Eve. They received him with joy, and showed him everything they had in the house. They also brought their children to him, to show him, and these He found promising and full of hope.
Then He asked Eve whether she had no other children than these whom she now showed him.
She said "None."
But it so happened that she had not finished washing them all, and, being ashamed to let God see them dirty, had hidden the unwashed ones. This God knew well, and said therefore to her, "What man hides from God, God will hide from man."
These unwashed children became forthwith invisible, and took up their abode in mounds, and hills, and rocks. From these are the elves descended, but we men from those of Eve's children whom she had openly and frankly shown to God. And it is only by the will and desire of the elves themselves that men can ever see them.

A traveler once lost his way, and knew not whither to turn or what to do. At last, after wandering about for some time, he came to a hut, which he had never seen before; and on his knocking at the door, an old woman opened it, and invited him to come in, which he gladly did.
Inside, the house seemed to be a clean and good one. The old woman led him to the warmest room, where were sitting two young and beautiful girls. Besides these, no one else was in the house. He was well received and kindly treated, and having eaten a good supper was shown to bed.
He asked whether one of the girls might stay with him, as his companion for the night, and his request was granted.
And now wishing to kiss her, the traveler turned towards her, and placed his hand upon her; but his hand sank through her, as if she had been of mist, and though he could well see her lying beside him, he could grasp nothing but the air.
So he asked what this all meant, and she said, "Be not astonished, for I am a spirit. When the devil, in times gone by, made war in heaven, he, with all his armies, was driven into outer darkness. Those who turned their eyes to look after him as he fell, were also driven out of heaven; but those who were neither for nor against him, were sent to the earth and commanded to dwell there in the rocks and mountains.
These are called elves and hidden people. They can live in company with none but their own race. They do either good or evil, which they will, but what they do they do thoroughly. They have no bodies as you other mortals, but can take a human form and be seen of men when they wish. I am one of these fallen spirits, and so you can never hope to embrace me."
To this fate the traveler yielded himself, and has handed down to us this story.

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