Uncovering Iceland’s Magical Folklore: The Land of Sorcerers, Giants, and Mythical Fish
Uncovering Iceland's Magical Folklore: The Land of Sorcerers, Giants, and Mythical Fish - Witches and Warlocks - The Magic Users of Old Iceland
Iceland's magical folklore is steeped in tales of witches, warlocks, and other practitioners of seidr, a form of sorcery that allowed users to see into the future, curse enemies, and shapeshift. While seidr was practiced by both men and women, it was particularly associated with female magic users. These powerful women, referred to as völvas, served as spiritual leaders in pagan Iceland before the island's conversion to Christianity.
The most famous völva was Heidr, a shadowy figure who appears in several medieval Icelandic sagas. She was said to be an expert in the magical arts, with the power to predict fate and bestow good or ill fortune upon others. According to the sagas, she trained the young Snorri Godi in sorcery, gifting him with a magical cloak that allowed him to shapeshift into animal form. Her prophecy and curses play a pivotal role in Egil's Saga, Norway's best known medieval work after the Poetic Edda.
While individual witches like Heidr achieved fame (or infamy) in the sagas, the everyday practice of seidr seems to have been quite common in pagan Iceland. The Book of Settlements, a medieval account of Viking-era immigration to Iceland, casually mentions several women who traveled to the island with knowledge of "witchcraft and sorcery."
Christian missionaries took a dim view of these magic practices. The First Grammatical Treatise, an early 13th century text, condemns seidr as ergi or "unmanly," suggesting it was seen as a perversion of gender roles. However, the continued references to seidr in the sagas and other documents indicate it persisted well into the Christian era.
According to the Eyrbyggja Saga, even as late as the year 1000 AD the entire district of Snæfellsness was said to be inhabited by sorcerers. One passage describes a sacrifice conducted by a Christian family that accidentally called up a pagan sorceress named Thorgunna: "Soon such extraordinary whirlwinds arose that everything round about which was loose was blown away, and even some things not loose were blown away too."
While the moralizing passages in the sagas portray witchcraft and sorcery as wicked, the detailed descriptions of seidr's effects suggest the authors were more than a little in awe of its power. These rituals ranged from simple spells to complicated ceremonies involving animal sacrifice and sexual union. Through seidr, the völvas could reportedly control weather, curse crops, shapeshift into animal form, and even raise the dead.
In Landnámabók's account of Thurid the Wise, she uses sorcery to confirm whether illness has natural or supernatural causes, demonstrating seidr's role in divination and healing. She determines her enemy Thorodd's sickness is "no human illness" but the result of her curse. After his death, she steals his corpse and reanimates it nightly, using it for transport like a macabre horse.
While such stories strike modern readers as occult fiction, they had weighty significance for early Icelanders. Belief in magic was likely widespread, dovetailing with a worldview that did not rigidly separate the mundane and mystical. The sagas warn seidr could be used for positive or destructive ends, acting as a spiritual force that permeates daily life.
As Iceland transitioned from paganism to organized Christianity, witchcraft dwindled but did not wholly disappear. Later folktales tell of cunning women called skrattas who lived in the wilds, assisting and protecting travelers. While the völvas faded into myth, elements of seidr may have survived in folk medicine and rural spellcraft.
What else is in this post?
- Uncovering Iceland's Magical Folklore: The Land of Sorcerers, Giants, and Mythical Fish - Witches and Warlocks - The Magic Users of Old Iceland
- Uncovering Iceland's Magical Folklore: The Land of Sorcerers, Giants, and Mythical Fish - Tales of the Hidden Folk - Elves, Dwarves, and Other Mythical Beings
- Uncovering Iceland's Magical Folklore: The Land of Sorcerers, Giants, and Mythical Fish - Stories of the Jötnar - Iceland's Legendary Giants
- Uncovering Iceland's Magical Folklore: The Land of Sorcerers, Giants, and Mythical Fish - When Humans and Monsters Clash - Epic Sagas of Heroes and Villains
Uncovering Iceland's Magical Folklore: The Land of Sorcerers, Giants, and Mythical Fish - Tales of the Hidden Folk - Elves, Dwarves, and Other Mythical Beings
While sorcerers and witches take center stage in many of Iceland's legends, a host of other supernatural beings are said to inhabit the island as well. Collectively known as the huldufólk, or "hidden people," these creatures range from elves and dwarves to more enigmatic spirits. Though rarely seen, Icelanders' belief in their existence has endured for centuries.
Foremost among the hidden folk are the álfar, light elves comparable to the fair folk of Celtic lore. According to folktales, they live in enchanted rocks and hills, appearing as beautiful men and women when they occasionally reveal themselves to mortals. Álfar are associated with nature and said to be guardians of the wilderness. While generally benign, they may turn mischievous if their homes are disturbed.
Jón Árnason’s 19th century folktale compilation describes one such elf encounter. A woman traversing a mountain in poor weather seeks shelter in a cave, only to find it occupied by álfar feasting by firelight. Their leader angrily inquires who gave her permission to enter, but consents to let her stay when she explains her dire predicament.
The assistance comes with a warning. The elf chieftain shows the woman a great treasure trove within the cave, filled with gold, jewels and fine fabrics. However he tells her not to take anything, or disaster will follow. In the morning the elves are gone and she faces the same perilous journey home. Unable to resist, the woman pockets a few gold coins on her way out, sealing her fate.
On her return, the woman's pocket treasure turns to worthless bits of moss and stone. Her defiance angers the elves, who afflict her cattle with sickness. From then on, she is haunted by visions of the treasures she left behind, receiving just punishment for her greedy trespass.
Such stories warn against violating territory belonging to these hidden people, portraying the fair folk as powerful beings not to be crossed. While they may occasionally assist lost travelers, their wrath once provoked can bring ruin. The lesson is clear - show respect when traversing Iceland's wilderness lest you offend its secret guardians.
Related to the álfar are the huldufólk, invisible elves who are said to live in rocks. These nature spirits are more mischievous than their light elf kin, playing pranks on people who are disrespectful or harm the environment. Tales tell of wayward travelers led astray by huldufólk, or farm tools mysteriously going missing only to reappear days later. They avoid being seen, but make their presence known.
Small dwarves known as dvergar also lurk out of sight, living in boulders and caves. Dvergar mine the mountains for precious metals, working hidden smithies deep underground. Riches dug up by dwarves are thought to bring bad fortune, their treasure rightfully belonging to its supernatural owners.
The 13th century Saga of Erik the Red describes a man named Thorvard who defies this taboo, pilfering a stockpile of gold and silver the dwarves had amassed inside a cliff. He loads precious items into sacks, fleeing the enraged dwarves. Though he makes it home with the treasure, Thorvard's theft leaves the dvergar determined to take revenge against the thieves.
Other sagas blame calamities like landslides or falling rocks on angry dwarves, suggesting belief that their wrath could manifest through disturbances in nature. While dvergar mostly kept out of sight, Icelanders perceived their presence through such phenomena. Upsetting subterranean custodians of the island's mineral wealth was unwise.
Beyond elf-kind and dwarves, a third category of huldufólk falls under the term vættir. These nature spirits represent the land itself, manifesting as animate forces tied to features like waterfalls, valleys, and boulders. Vættir are shapeless and unseen, but perceptible in the uncanny sensations that permeate certain landscapes. Places reputedly inhabited by vættir carry a heavy atmosphere reminding visitors they are not alone.
Uncovering Iceland's Magical Folklore: The Land of Sorcerers, Giants, and Mythical Fish - Stories of the Jötnar - Iceland's Legendary Giants
In the beginning, there was nothing but the yawning void of Ginnungagap separating the realms of icy Niflheim and fiery Muspelheim. It was from this primordial chaos that the first giant, Ymir, emerged. Ymir sustains himself drinking the milk of the cow Audhumla, also formed from the melting ice of Ginnungagap. Audhumla reveals Buri, forefather of the gods, by licking him free from the ice. Later Odin and his brothers slay Ymir, using his remains to fashion Midgard - the realm of humans.
So the Prose Edda recounts the genesis of Norse cosmology, with giants serving as the original inhabitants of the world. In Old Norse these primal beings are the jötnar (singular jötunn), a race of colossal nature spirits embodying the destructive and creative forces of the elements.
To the Vikings, giants were very real - capricious powers to be feared and appeased through ritual and sacrifice. Grotesque idols of the jötnar have been unearthed in Scandinavia, and accounts from Iceland's Settlement Era (874 - 930 CE) describe sacrificial offerings made to giants.
The turbulent landscape of Iceland seemed to ancient Norse the very embodiment of the giants' realm. Its volcanos and glaciers evoked a sense of nature's unfathomable scale and chaos. Even after conversion to Christianity, primal awe at the land's wild majesty kept legends of the jötnar alive in Iceland's imagination.
Jötnar frequently appear in the sagas, their conflict with the Æsir tribe of gods echoing the clash between untamed wilderness and human civilization. But unlike Greek and Roman myths where mortal heroes battle monsters and titans, the jötnar treat gods and men alike as little more than a nuisance.
In the epics, Thor's fabled strength proves useless against giants like Skrymir, who simply tucks the thunder god's blows into his glove as if swatting a fly. Odin himself bargains an eye for wisdom with Mimir, a primordial jötunn whose decapitated head becomes an oracle. And in a humorous inversion of David and Goliath, a human thief called Tjasse successfully shakes down Thor simply by being too large for the god to fight.
The giants even intermarry freely with the Æsir, their bloodlines mingling. Loki is the result of one such union, which explains his moral ambiguity and shapeshifting abilities. And Thor's renowned hammer Mjölnir originates with the giant brothers Sindri and Brokk, unparalleled craftsmen who fashion it as part of a rigged wager.
Mjölnir's inscription - "for it is those whom Mjölnir will strike down that hallow it" - conveys the uneasy relationship between giants and gods. For while fearsome, Ymir's progeny are as essential to the fabric of creation as the Æsir themselves. The two are bound in the cycle of chaos and order that constitutes the cosmos.
Nowhere is this interdependence clearer than in Ragnarök, the apocalyptic last battle prophesied in Viking myth. When Loki and the fire giants break free to burn the world, it culminates in mutual destruction. The old pantheon perishes alongside their ancient foes, leading to renewal.
"The doom of the giants cometh sudden... Brother bereaveth brother, they perish,
The giants moan, wise men mourn
Ragnarök, the axe-age, the sword-age, shields are cleft asunder."
Generations of storytellers built layer upon layer of myth around these eldritch forces. By the medieval period, Iceland's folklore boasted an extensive pantheon of giants embodying everything from winter storms to earthquakes.
Some jötnar even became local guardian spirits tied to a particular fjord or valley. At Helgafell - the "Holy Mountain" on Snæfellsnes peninsula - residents left gifts to appease a giantess named Thorgerd. Folk tales described her wrathful shaking of the mountain, attributing quakes to her displeasure when not properly propitiated.
Modern excavations show that a pre-Christian cultic site once existed on Helgafell, with sacrificial deposits dating back to the Settlement Era. Archaeological evidence demonstrates that for early Icelanders, the notion of giants was intertwined with a living spiritual practice tied to nature.
This age-old wellspring of folk belief cannot be detached from Iceland's cultural DNA. The names of landmarks like Dimmuborgir ("Dark Fortress") or Kirkjufell ("Church Mountain") emerge from tales of giants now worn down to tantalizing fragments. Andisasaga details a tragic battle between human settlers and bergrisar, rock-hurling giants who resent the intrusion.
Though transformed across centuries of retelling, the jötnar still haunt the imagination through Iceland's geography. Their primordial forms loom just below the surface in place names evoking the giants' lost world. The landscape itself stands as their monument.
Even as organized worship of the Æsir faded, the giants endured in folk traditions, ghost stories and rural superstitions chronicled by folklorists like Jón Árnason. Accounts collected in the 19th century tell of trolls - descendants of the jötnar - capable of smelling a Christian from miles off. Other tales describe giants disguised as islands or drifting icebergs, patiently lying in wait to trap sailors.
A rich heritage of oral narrative kept embodied Icelandic nature in giant form. Ethnographer Árni Óla's work unearthing folk legends reveals how thoroughly entwined culture and environment remain. The hidden inhabitants of Iceland's wilds cannot be disentangled from experiencing this sublime terrain.
Local accounts of Árna Saga Guðmundsdóttir's supposed encounter with a giantess highlight the blurry line between reality and belief. While Árna's story became codified as fiction, it originated in shared eyewitness accounts, speaking to an Icelandic worldview where the boundaries between worlds can momentarily vanish, revealing the magic within our own.
Uncovering Iceland's Magical Folklore: The Land of Sorcerers, Giants, and Mythical Fish - When Humans and Monsters Clash - Epic Sagas of Heroes and Villains
The fantastical creatures of Iceland's folklore do not just exist in isolation - often, they interact and clash with human characters in the sagas and eddas that form the core of Norse literary tradition. These tales of heroes and monsters do more than just spin adventurous yarns; they carry encoded lessons that warned Vikings against hubris, reflected the uncertainties of pagan spirituality, and helped make sense of a harsh, untamed landscape.
A major theme in Norse sagas is the tendency for human ambition to trigger catastrophic retribution from the hidden forces governing the world. The eddas teach that peace between the Æsir and the chaotic giants is tentative, easily disrupted by the arrogance of gods or men. In the myth of Otter's Ransom, Loki thoughtlessly kills the son of a powerful jötunn family while traveling in Midgard. His rash act sets off a cycle of violence that ends in tragedy.
Similarly, Ragnarök culminates when the gods' injustice in binding Loki and killing his son prompts the "old trickster" to unleash his full wrath upon them. Loki's giants lay waste to their sanctuaries and slay the divine rulers they once called kin. Disorder reigns until the world is submerged and remade.
These myths warned Vikings not to take stability for granted, using otherworldly beings to personify the fine line between order and chaos. The sagas adapted this message to critique shortsighted human leaders whose foolish decisions endangered their people. In Egil's Saga, Thorolf's recklessness turns the land spirits against his colony, resulting in failed crops and his own death after he refuses to make amends.
However, the legends also celebrate moments when humanity triumphs over the metaphysical forces that constrain it. This theme resonated with pagan listeners who felt the caprice of nature governed their lives. By outwitting or physically opposing spirits and monsters, saga heroes modeled courage and perseverance.
In the fornaldarsögur epic Hrólfs saga kraka, the half-elven protagonist Helgi slays dangerous draugar and vicious dragons before defeating an army of trolls in battle. Though fixated on gory violence, these fantasies portrayed humans defiantly mastering their domain. The sagas taps into a gratifying undercurrent of martial pride and freethinking paganism.
With conversion to Christianity, monster-slaying took on moral overtones as pagan creatures became associated with sin and evil. In legends like Grettir's Saga, heroes do battle with demonic ghosts, articulating a clash between Christian and heathen worldviews. However, a touch of ambivalence remains.
Grettir reluctantly slays his undead opponent Glámr, who prophesies his victory will be cursed. The cattle Grettir was paid to protect are found dead, and misfortune plagues him thereafter. While seen as a monster, Glámr earns some sympathy as a restless spirit whose violation causes further violence. Christian scribes recast pagan tales as biblical allegories, but their power partly arises from retained ambiguity.
Sagas of heroes and monsters also offered down-to-earth explanations for the hidden dangers that lurked in Iceland's rugged terrain. Natural hazards like avalanches, riptides and explosive geothermal areas could be literally embodied as trolls, dragons and sea serpents. By tracing peril to malevolent beings, the sagas imposed meaning on capricious misfortune.
Bolungarvík legend tells of a giantess named Fróða whose magically induced tremor caused a tragic rockslide. By blaming Fróða's spell, the story makes sense of a random act of nature that took lives. While fictional, imagining spirits behind earthquakes and landslides let Icelanders interpret their hazardous environment.
These narratives stimulated listeners' innate capacity for wonder while building communal ties. Shared lore rooted communities to the land, marking features like waterfalls or lava fields as settings for fantastic events. Generations returning to those landmarks visually reconnect to enduring local tradition.