Stories of a culture: the folklore of the Westfjords

Among the very first parts of Iceland colonised by the early Norse settlers, the Westfjords’ folklore is echoes wise old people in a new land. It marks the close relationship between nature’s bounties and man’s destiny, the legacy of the sea and a rugged, remote terrain set in extreme climes. Stories of sea monsters and sorcerers are rife-and they tell as much of the locals’ aspirations as they do of their fears and superstitions.

Even today, despite the advent of modern-day facilities, the people of the Westfjords share an unshakable bond with the landscape as well as a suitable acknowledgement of the dangers that are never far away.

These early explorers who brought with them the old Norse Pagan religion (upon which the large modern and officially-recognised Ásatrú religion is based). Among a myriad of Gods such as Thor, Odin, and Freyr, Icelanders also revered “Landvættir”, the spirits of the land, linked to the natural places they dwell in and protect.

Christianity became the official religion of Iceland in 1000 AD, an event described in Icelandic by the word “kristnitaka”: the taking up of Christianity. This happened under increasing pressure from the kings of Norway. In the summer of 1000 AD, at the meeting of Althingi, the national parliament of Iceland, Christianity was recognised as the official religion of the land—under one condition: that people still remain free to practice the old ways behind closed doors.

As a result, the pagan tales endure to this day and the folklore of the Westfjords is a fine mix of both Christian and Pagan lore. Many Christian traditions and festivals have uniquely Icelandic elements today that can be traced back to Pagan roots.

The trolls that tried to separate the Westfjords

As everyone knows, this is a region with impregnable mountains, deep fjords, and raging rivers that continue to defy technology and transport. Roads occasionally close during storms and flight connections to the capital can be cancelled as well – especially in winter. There are at least a few days each year when the Westfjords region is completely cut off from the rest of the country.

The Westfjords is connected to the rest of the country only by a 7 km-wide strip between Gilsfjörður and Bitrufjörður fjords. Folklore naturally has a fine explanation for this geographical arrangement.

As you probably know, trolls are ugly cave-dwelling creatures with mischievous and outlandish tendencies; not to mention a flagrant disregard for manners.

The folklore goes that centuries ago three trolls tried to separate the Westfjords from the rest of the island, by digging a channel from Húnaflói Bay to Breiðafjörður Bay in the west. To make the challenge even more interesting, they decided to compete in making islands from the earth they dug up from the rocky terrain.

They were so busy accomplishing this evil deed that they failed to notice the approaching dawn—a major no-no for many mean creatures of yore.
In the west, where two of the trolls were busy, hundreds of small islands had been created, littering the large but shallow bay of Breiðafjörður. In the east, where a single troll was struggling against the elements in the deeper bay of Húnaflói, only a handful of mounts came out of the sea. Desperate to save themselves from the rays of the sun, the two trolls in the west ran northeast over the mountains but were caught by the rising sun in Kollafjörður and its rays quickly turned them to stone.

The result of their digging was the Gilsfjörður and Bitrufjörður fjords that, with a little more time, could have left the Westfjords as an island.
The Kerling (literally meaning old woman) rock formation in the village of Drangsnes is part of this same activity: the third troll, working in the east, wished to survey the progress she had made. As she looked out, she was furious to see that not a single island had been created from her efforts. Angrily, she hit the ground with the shovel and a piece of earth cracked-that’s how Grimsey island was formed. At the same moment, the sun rose over the horizon and turned her into a rock as well.

Sorcery, witchcraft and sea monsters

The advent of Christianity and the medieval paucity of understanding of the forces of nature resulted in folklore featuring the bug bears of Europe: sorcerers and witchcraft. Prominent amongst these is Holmavik, the largest town in the area of Strandir, best known for its history of witchcraft, witch-hunting and sorcery.

A must visit, therefore, is the Museum of Sorcery & Witchcraft that takes you through a colourful tour of the supernatural. The grim saga of witch-hunting- common in those medieval times across Europe-is suitably chronicled along with various examples of magic from assorted sources. An interesting exhibit would be that of a pair of “Necropants” that, legend says, brings great wealth to anyone who wears them. How you make them, though, is the trickiest part: you have to skin a dead man below the waist and then sew the hide together.

In a nation of sea farers, can stories of sea monsters be far behind? Do be sure to check out the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum at Bildudalur that points to some compelling secrets of the sea.

The troll seat

And one final troll for you is the one who, after a hard night’s work, decided to run home to avoid the approaching sunrise. So fast did she run, that she had time to rest her weary feet and did so by sitting on top of a mountain and dipping her feet in the cool sea below. Her ample proportions and great weight created the large indentation just over from the town of Ísafjörður—just above its airport and commonly called ‘the troll seat’. Furthermore, the pressure of her feet in the mud of the fjord, pushed up the land in between, creating the flat spit in the fjord upon which the town is today built. Thanks, troll!

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