Dragons in Iceland
This is Iceland’s Coat of arms. In it, you can see the four guardian spirits that protect Iceland: a dragon, a vulture, a bull and a giant. Each of them protects a specific part of Iceland and you can go looking for them on your self-guided tour around Iceland in one of our car rentals. Maybe you, too, will spot a dragon or a giant.
The Icelandic Sagas contains the first description of the four guardian spirits. They were first described by Snorri Sturluson in his work, Heimskringla [History of the Kings of Norway]:
“King Harald [Gormsson of Denmark] told a man versed in magic to travel to Iceland in a different shape and find out what he could learn there to tell him. The man set out in the shape of a whale. And when he approached land he headed west along the north coast. He saw that all the mountains and hills were full of land spirits, some large and some small. Off Vopnafjörður he entered the fjord, intending to go ashore.
Then a huge dragon came down along the valley with a train of serpents, insects, and toads breathing poison over him. He fled and went westward off the coast as far as Eyjafjörður and went into the fjord there. Then a bird that was so great that its wings spread over the mountains flew on either side of the fjord, and many other birds with it, large and small. He left there and continued westwards, then turned south into Breiðafjörður, and headed for the fjord.
A large bull came towards him there, waded into the sea and began to bellow menacingly. A band of land spirits followed it. He headed south from there around Reykjanes and tried to go ashore at Vikarsskeið.
A mountain giant came towards him there with an iron staff in its hands and its head higher than the mountains, and many other giants were with it. From there he went eastwards the length of the land, but “there was nothing but sand and deserts, and surf off the shore, with such a vast sea between the parts of land,” he said, “that a longship could not cross it.”
These guardian spirits are the concept behind the shield bearers in the coat of arms from 1919 and the current one from 1944 when the Republic of Iceland was established.
The foundation on which the shield rests was modelled on the natural stone slabs of the "church floor“ ruins found at Kirkjubæjarklaustur. You can stop there on your self-drive tour around Iceland and pretend to be a giant, or maybe try channeling the dragon.
Photo by Francisco Moralejo
Spot the dragon
Photo by Juanjo Marin
You can find dragons in surprising places. Here is one over the windows of Alþingi, the parliament building in Reykjavík (along with the other 3 protectors of the island).
A Dragon vs. Casanova, the Icelandic Goat
The Icelandic landscapes have played a large part in the American television show Game of Thrones.
One scene shows a young boy watching over a herd of goats in the Icelandic landscape when a dragon suddenly appears and attacks the goats. The dragon catches a cute little goat named Casanova and flies off with it.
The goats in the scene are from Háafell farm in the Borgarfjörður region, West Iceland. Háafell is the only goat farm in the country and the people there are dedicated to preserving the Icelandic breed of goat, a stock descending from animals that the Vikings brought with them more than 1100 years ago. It’s open to tourists.
According to Jóhanna Bergmann, the goat farmer, no goats were harmed during the filming. “I enjoyed how much time they got on screen. The one who got the most screen time is named Gná.” But the goat that was attacked by a dragon was called Casanova.
Check out this obvious star quality:
“This is Casanova, the star of the Game of Thrones episode who was carried away by Khaleesi's dragon. It wasn't planned that he would steal the show, but he was so charismatic during filming that the director couldn't resist.” Photo: indegogo.com
This clip is from season 4 episode 6 was filmed near Þórufoss waterfall in Mosfellsdalur valley, just a 30-minute drive from Reykjavík.
Land of Giants
Could the Giant protector have influenced Iceland’s lineage of strongmen dating back to the Vikings? Despite its tiny population, Iceland has a reputation in the World's Strongest Man competition.
Check out this episode of VICE where they came to Iceland to investigate why this tiny island produces such strong people. Hanging out at Jakabol, one of the most well-known gyms in Iceland, which is run by ex-champion Magnus Ver Magnusson, they met a whole host of Icelandic strongmen, which includes Hafthor "Thor" Bjornsson, the 6'9" star of Game of Thrones.
Dragon or Serpent?
Some historians have a theory that the original Icelandic phrase used to describe the protector of Iceland would today imply a giant serpentine type of creature than something perhaps more fierce. And that in fact that it is the giant worm known as The Lagarfljót Worm. The legend of the worm is first mentioned in the Icelandic Annals of 1345. Sightings were considered to portend a great event such as a natural disaster.
According to the folk tradition recorded by Jón Árnason, the great serpent in Lagarfljót grew out of a small "lingworm" or heath-dragon; a girl was given a gold ring by her mother, and asked how she might best derive profit from the gold, was told to place it under a lingworm. She did so, and put it on the top of her linen chest for a few days, but then found that the little dragon had grown so large, it had broken open the chest.
Frightened, she threw both it and the gold into the lake, where the serpent continued to grow and terrorized the countryside, spitting poison and killing people and animals. Two Finns called in to destroy it and retrieve the gold and said that they had managed to tie its head and tail to the bottom of the lake but it was impossible to kill it because there was a still larger dragon underneath.
It has also been reported outside the water, lying coiled up or slithering into the trees. It is described as having "many humps," rather than the simple serpentine body type of, for example, the Loch Ness Monster.
The Lagarfljót Worm has been sighted several times in modern times, including in 1963 by the head of the Icelandic National Forest Service, Sigurður Blöndal, and in 1998 by a teacher and students at Hallormsstaðir School. In 1983, contractors laying a telephone cable measured a large shifting mass near the eastern shore when performing preliminary depth measurements, and when they later retrieved the non-functional cable, they found that it was broken where it had lain over the anomaly:
"This cable that was specially engineered so it wouldn’t kink was wound in several places and badly torn and damaged in 22 different places . . . . I believe we dragged the cable directly over the belly of the beast. Unless it was pulled through its mouth."
On this map, we have collected most of the locations mentioned here. Will you dare to go looking for the Lagarfljót Worm yourself?