From the midnight sun where the hot springs blow…

Abigail Walker, Department of Classics, King’s College London, writes about her mythological experience of Iceland.

As a Classicist, most of the mythological landscapes I encounter are remote in both time and place, they are lands to which I can never venture and which barely even exist within mortal life experience.

But then, I went to Iceland.

Although I don’t claim to be particularly adventurously-travelled, never have I been anywhere that felt quite so unreal and fantastical.

The whole landscape feels like it is dripping with mystery. Quite apart from the fact that there is so little habitation outside of the capital (with 122,000 of Iceland’s 350,000 residents living in Reykjavik[1]), the volcanic landscape offers black and red earth interspersed with steaming jets scattered liberally across the panorama.

Of course, these have perfectly rational, scientific explanations (and since my Dad is a geologist, this information was provided in great detail). The mysticism of this landscape, however, before a time when stone cold facts could rationalize it, is still eminently potent in its every feature.

Even every individual rock in the Icelandic landscape has a mythological aetiology, supposedly entrapping the forms of trolls that had been caught in the first light and turned to stone. Trolls are not the only mythical beings in Iceland, though, as elves are also thought to populate the landscape. The elvin mythology in Iceland is, in fact, so prominent that building work can be blocked if the area is thought to be inhabited by elves and a 1998 survey found that 54.4% Icelanders believed in the existence of elves.[2] There are even small houses dotting the countryside to provide accommodation for these fantastical residents.

This mysterious potency was apparently a massive draw to Iceland’s first settlers in the 9th century A.D. The story goes that the first Vikings to experience the wilderness of Iceland considered the land to be so imbued with sacred mysticism that they were determined to keep it for themselves. Naming this new place ‘Iceland,’ and the nearby (far icier) island ‘Greenland,’ they hoped to detract attention away from this new-found mythological landscape.

They would perhaps not have been pleased with the waves of tourists that now flock to Iceland to experience its wonder, but I am sure that they would have been pleased to hear that this mythological realm, in spite of modern technologies and knowledge, still retains its original mystical appeal.

Title: lyrics from Immigrant Song, Led Zeppelin

[1] Approximate numbers.

[2] Jacobs, R. ‘Why So Many Icelanders Still Believe in Invisible Elves’, The Atlantic, 29 October 2013: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/10/why-so-many-icelanders-still-believe-in-invisible-elves/280783/ (accessed 11/06/2018).

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