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The Serpent of Lagarfljót

In east Iceland the Ring Road leads over Breiðdalsheiði heath and down into Skriðdalur, heading for the Fljótsdalur district. The lowlands are green and flourishing, with woods here and there. The centre of this large region is at Egilsstadir, where a growing town has developed in recent decades. Instead of going straight through the town, however, it is well worth taking a circular detour around the Lagarfljot lake. The road down to the Lagarfljot passes through the Hallormsstaður woods on its way to Fljótsdalur. It is also possible to go around to the other bank of the river, to Valþjófsstaður and Skriðuklaustur, and even to visit the Hengifoss waterfall, before continuing to Fellabœr, then crossing the bridge across the broad river to Egilsstaðir.

The Lagarfljot river broadens here to form Iceland’s third-largest lake, about 52 km2 in area, 35 km long and from 1 to 2.5 km across. The lake’s most notable statistic, however, is its depth, which is up to 112 m. The surface of the lake lies 22 m above sea level, so at its deepest the lake floor is 90 m below sea level. The lake is always coloured a murky brown by glacial sediment, and in several places natural gases bubble up from the bed, so it rarely freezes in winter. The opaque waters, together with the gases and the great depth of the lake, have tended to lend it an air of mystery, and folk tales have been told of it since time immemorial.

Along the Lagarfljot lake shore are the woods of Hallormsstaður, which cover an area of about 800 hectares; this is Iceland’s largest forest. The original woods of Hallormsstaður had sadly declined when the place was first declared a conservation area in 1905, but the trees soon recovered, developing into a fine birch forest. Hallormsstaður has been a centre of afforestation since 1903, and extensive experiments with imported tree species have been conducted there. Today, in addition to native trees, about SO foreign tree species grow at Hallormsstaður, many of which thrive in Icelandic conditions. The oldest larch grove dates from 1938 .A small community has developed in the Hallormsstadur woods in recent decades: in addition to the forestry buildings, there are two schools and several homes. During the summer vacation the schools are converted into a summer hotel, which offers pleasant accommodation for visitors in this wooded spot. Among the places of interest in the woods is the picturesque bay of Atlavik. On the way there, larch woods can be seen growing up outside the traditional bounds of the forest.

According to folklore, a monster lives in the depths of the Lagarfljót. The Lagarfljót Serpent is reputed to have been seen by many people over the centuries. Old annals contain many accounts of this serpent, which was greatly feared. One or more loops of the serpent’s body were said to be glimpsed rising out of the water and this was regarded as an evil omen. The serpent never caused any real harm, however, as he was said to have been fettered to the bottom of the lake long ago. In modem times, belief in the serpent has waned, and some maintain that the “monster” was nothing but flotsam and jetsam on the surface of the lake. Yet there are always those who reject such rationalist explanations, and choose to believe that there really is a serpent; after all, the lake is so large and so deep that it may conceal mysteries of which we know nothing. One folk tale of the serpent says:

Once, long ago, a woman lived on a farm in the Hérað district by the Lagarfljót. She had a grown-up daughter, to whom she gave a gold ring. The daughter asked her how she could derive the greatest benefit from the gold, and her mother told her to place the ring beneath a heather-serpent. The girl took a heather-serpent, placed the gold ring beneath it and put them both in her linen chest. The serpent lay there for several days. But when the girl went to check on the chest, the serpent had grown so big that the chest was bursting apart. The girl was frightened, so she took the chest and threw it into the river, serpent and all.

Some time later, people began to see the serpent in the lake, and it started to kill both men and beasts there. Sometimes it also stretched up on to the banks and spewed a horrible poison. People were very concerned about this, but they did not know how to deal with the problem. Finally, two skilled Finns were brought to Iceland. They were commissioned to kill the serpent and fetch the gold.

The Finns jumped into the river but soon returned to the surface. They said the case was hopeless, for the serpent was unbeatable; it was neither possible to kill the serpent nor to get the gold. They also said that another serpent lay under the gold, far fiercer than the first. But they dived down again and again, and finally managed to fetter the serpent in two places: one fetter was behind the flippers, the other in front of the tail. Since then the serpent has been able to kill neither man nor beast, but sometimes it flexes its back up out of the water. When this is seen, it is generally deemed a bad omen.