In Icelandic folklore, the Lagarfljótsormur or Lagarfljót worm is an Icelandic lake monster purported to live in Lagarfljót, a lake by the town of Egilsstaðir. Sightings have been logged since 1345 and continue into the 21st century, including a 2012 video supposedly showing the creature swimming.
An origin of the creature is given in Jón Árnason’s collection of Icelandic folktales and legends published in 1862.
Description and habitat
The serpentine creature is said to live in Lagarfljót, a freshwater, below-sea-level, glacial-fed lake which has very poor visibility as a result of siltation. It is described as longer than a bus, or 40 feet (12 m), and has also been reported outside the water, lying coiled up or slithering into the trees. It is a “many humps” type of lake monster, rather than the simply serpentine 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, 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 through its mouth”.
A sightseeing boat named Lagarfljótsormurinn, beginning operations on the lake in 1999, and the Gunnar Gunnarsson Institution in Skriðuklaustur seek to preserve the traditions of the Lagarfljót Worm for cultural and tourism purposes.
In February 2012, the Icelandic national broadcaster, RÚV, published a video thought to show the Lagarfljót Worm swimming in snow-covered icy water. But according to a frame-by-frame analysis of the footage by Finland-based researcher Miisa McKeown, the filmed object actually made no progress through the water, although optical illusion made it appear to propel forward. The phenomenon could be explained by a flimsy inanimate object (such as a frozen fish net) being moved by rapid current. Despite this, in 2012, an Icelandic panel voted by a 7-to-6 margin to authenticate the video as genuine, awarding money to the filmmaker. This received criticism as an attempt to attract visitors of cryptotourism.
In August 2014, an Icelandic truth commission reported that members were divided about the video but saw no reason to doubt the existence of the creature.
Literary and oral records
“There are many stories of kynjaskepnur, that is, strange animals or unknown phenomena, in Lagarfljót”. These include accounts of the Lagarfljót Worm, as well as other monsters, a strandvorm, or a monstrous seal or poisonous skate.
The legend of the worm is arguably first mentioned in the entry for year 1345 in the Icelandic Annals (specifically the Skálholts Annáll), although the text only refers to the sighting as a “wonderful thing” (undarligr [h]lutr), and not specifically as a worm. The “thing” seen in Lagarfljót looked like either islands or humps out of water, distanced hundreds of fathoms apart, but no one saw that it had either a head or tail. The creatures were documented in annals with some frequency in subsequent times as well.
16th to 17th century
The map of Iceland attributed to Bishop Guðbrandur Þorláksson, engraved in 1585 by cartographer Abraham Ortelius is another attestation. The map bears inscription next to Lagarfljót stating that “In this lake appears a large serpent (In hoc lacu est anguis insolitæ magnitudinis)” which are a menace to the inhabitants and appear when some memorable event is imminent”. A briefer inscription noting only a serpent of great size is found on a Mercator map of 1595.
Bishop Oddur Einarsson [is]’s Qualiscunque descriptio Islandiae (ca. 1589) also contains an account of a Lagarfljót monster, probably the serpent.
A description of a supposed river-serpent that dwelled in Lagarfljót river occurs in De mirabilibus Islandiae (Chapter VI), written by the Bishop Gísli Oddsson [is] of Skálholt (d. 1638). The serpent was referred to as a strandvorm in the Norwegian language. Opinions differed on how many humps (or “curvatures”) it had, varyingly given as one, two, or three. It was blamed for making the river overflow and causing the ground and houses to shake.
Serpent, skate and seal
Accounts of a serpent sitting on gold, the poisonous skate, and a strange giant seal localized at Lagarfljót are told of in the poem “Rönkufótsríma” by Stefán Ólafsson [is] (d. 1688).
The gold-hoarding serpent according to the poem measured one-half Þingmannleið in length or approximately 20 km, and had its head and tail pinned to the ground (lakebed).
Jón Árnason also touched upon the skate and seal (Selurinn og skatan í Lagarfljóti) in his 1862 book. It was poisonous enough to kill anyone who touched it with one finger, and was bound by magic poetry by “power poets” so it could do no harm. Other sources say the skate had nine tails.
The seal had strange hair like branches growing out of its head, and it too was bound with poetry at the waterfall where it dwelled.
A folktale published by Jón Árnason in 1862, collected from a schoolgirl of Múlasýsla in 1845 tells the story of the great serpent in Lagarfljót which grew out of a small “lingworm” or heath-dragon. The 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 in 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 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. Appearance of the creature was considered to portend a harsh season or a failure of grass to grow.
There has been a suggestion that this is a corruption of the lore surrounding creatures from Norse mythology, namely the Miðgarð Serpent and Fenriswolf, with some elements of Fáfnir, the gold-hoarding dragon of Gnitaheiði [is] from the Völsung Cycle. Similarity to the overgrown dragon in Ragnars saga Loðbrókar has also been noted; that dragon also grew large along with its gold.
Skrýmsli of Lagarfljót
A one-humped “monster” (skrýmsli) of Lagarfljót was allegedly spotted in 1749–1750. This has been treated as the creature of the same ilk as the humped creature of the annals by Sabine Baring-Gould, and in more modern times, equated with “The Water-Snake of Lagarfljot” by Jacqueline Simpson, an authority on dragon legends in the British Isles.
Skrýmsli of Skorradalsvatn
Baring-Gould (1863) had obtained from informants a report about a 46 feet long monster (which he referred to as a “skrýmsli”) allegedly seen surfacing in Skorradalsvatn by at least three farmers. It had a head like a seal’s, and subsequently one hump then another hump appeared in view. A sketch was produced by one of the witnesses, and Baring-Gould printed a replica of it. The author considered the description to bear an uncanny resemblance to the creature reported in the annals.
The term skrimsl is Old Norse, equivalent to modern Icelandic skrýmsli and refers to “monster”, however it was specifically used in the sense of “sea or lake monster” (German: Meer-ungeheuer) in Konrad Maurer’s book on Icelandic folk legends (1860).
Jón Árnason remarked that there were non-believers of the worm in his time in the 19th century who offered the rational explanation that clumps of foam drifting past could be have been mistaken by false witnesses.
Various other rational explanations have also been advanced. Gas rise from the lakebed here, even creating openings in the ice; such bubbles of methane, which can be quite large, could be the identity of reported sightings of the worm. Or, these gas can also lift debris from the lake bottom to the surface, or the bubbles could refract the light differently than in surrounding air and create optical illusions. Flotsam from the mountain sides and forests also collects in tangles that can look like some sort of monster. According to Helgi Hallgrímsson, an Icelandic biologist who has extensively studied the lake, both of these could explain some but not all of the sightings, while traditional legendary material could explain some of the stories.