In early September 2019, I visited Iceland as part of my writing research into Norse mythology, Viking Age history. The role of the landscape has been important in shaping the Icelandic legends and I was fortunate enough to see some of the archaeological and cultural history as well as those in the natural landscape. On a tour of the unique southern Icelandic landscape, I visited iconic waterfalls, glaciers, black sand beaches, glacial lagoons and rode Icelandic horses.
Reynisfjara beach is located southwest of Vik on the southern Icelandic coast. The popular site was busy when I visited despite the incoming autumn storm. Reynisfjara beach has the iconic black volcanic sand of Icelandic beaches and the larger stones frequently washed ashore from volcanic eruptions and subsequent floodwaters carrying debris from the coastline into the ocean. Reynisfjara is also known for the large basalt stone pillars off the coast, remnants of ancient cliffs before sea level changes over millenia have eroded them into current form. These pillars and the nearby cliffs are associated with many Viking Age legends and myths.
The unusual basalt pillar-like formations of the cliffs on Reynisfjara beach are a popular attraction. These distinctive columns have such a uniform appearance that it is hard to remember they are created by natural geological processes and not by human hand.
In many Icelandic legends and folklore, the caves at Reynisfjara beach were thought to be the work of the dark elves (dwarves), and mark the entrance to undergournd passages where the Hidden dwell. Seeing the distinctive cliffs and caverns for myself, I can readily imagine how such caves would be an entrance to Svartalfheim itself.
The Reynisdrangar sea stacks are large basalt pillars located off the shore of Reynisfjara beach. One of the legends surrounding these twin pillars is that they are actually trolls who were wading out into the ocean and caught by the sun’s rays. In Icelandic folklore, trolls are unable to tolerate sunlight and are immediately transformed into stone. These twin stone pillars represent two trolls who failed to return to the sea cave before first sunlight.
On the opposite end of the Reynisfjara beach is another of the unusual sea stacks, this one is furthest from the coastline at the southernmost tip of the Arch of Dyrhólaey. This stone formation has another legend, also about an unlucky troll transformed to stone. In this folktale, the troll was late returning from a sea voyage and has been caught by the sunlight while still hauling his boat onto the shore. Both the boat and the troll have been turned to stone, forever petrified in place.
One of the most striking things about Reynisfjara beach was the unpredictable ocean. For visitors, there are warning signs about the dangers of wave surges onto the shore which are unpredictable and have been known to drag groups of unwary tourists out into the freezing waters which are dangerous with rips and strong currents. On the day I visited, a storm was blowing off the coast and the surge of the waves was unpredictable which only increased the unusual sense of wildness about the place. A magical part of Iceland but one requiring great respect and vigilance.
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