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Chasing Monsters in East-Iceland

Words by Sveinn Birkir Björnsson
Like most small towns in Iceland, Fellabær (pop. 350) seems to be little more than a random collection of houses surrounding a gas station. The village lies on the banks of lake Lagarfljót in East-Iceland and, with the neighbouring town Egilsstaðir, it was built primarily as a retail and service centre for the farms in the area, back when farming was still considered a viable career choice. I lived there for the better part of my childhood, and when I was seven-years old I encountered the local monster, a terrifying serpent-like beast that lives in the lake. I was scared shitless, but I escaped unharmed. Last month, I returned for some serious journalistic research on the beast, and preferably to get a photo. I partially succeeded.
The Lagarfljót Worm
The first sighting of the monster, or The Worm as the locals know it, was reported in 1345. There are numerous sightings recorded since, many of them in the 20th century and mostly by people who have generally proven to be reliable. And sober. In 1963, Sigurður Blöndal, head of the National Forrest Service, witnessed a long streak that moved along the water, rising and falling above the water level. As a man of science, he has never been able to fully explain what it was he saw. In 1998, a group of students and a teacher in Hallormsstaðir School, located along the river, witnessed a similar mysterious stationery long snake-like streak in the river. The sighting lasted for over ten minutes. According to most accounts, the monster resembles other known lake monsters, such as the Ogopogo in Canada, and the Champ in Lake Champlain, NY. It is described as a long, wormlike creature. As a cryptid 1, it would likely be classified as a lake monster of the ‘many humps’ variety, rather than a ‘long neck’ type like the Loch Ness monster, which more resembles a swimming brachiosaurus. The ‘many hump’ characteristically arches its body in a series of humps above the water level, hence the name. Some stories claim The Worm is capable of blowing poisonous fumes and wrecking death and havoc at a whim. Other stories claim that the beast stretches from one end of the lake to the other, full 30 km in length. The monster appears in annals regularly, and is usually considered to foreshadow great misfortunes or natural disasters, such as earthquakes, or volcanic eruptions. Some truly bad stuff. But how did it all start?
The Myth
Lagarfljót is glacial river that runs 140 km from Eyjabakkajökull – one of surging outlet glaciers of Vatnajökull – to the Atlantic Ocean towards the northeast. The river water used to be opaque whitish-green resulting from the glacial flour the river carries, but recent damming developments at the river’s base have resulted in a more brownish hue. On its way to the ocean, the river becomes placid and forms a 53 squarekilometres lake 2, also known as Lögurinn. This is where the beast is believed to live.
The legend of the Lagarfljót monster is a common one, known around the world in various versions. In its essence, it is the old fairytale about the dragon protecting the gold. As the story goes, a young girl living at a farm by the lake received a gold ring as a gift from her mother. She asked what she should do with the ring, and her mother told her to place it in a chest underneath a worm (in some versions it is a slug), and then the gold would grow with the worm. When she checked on the gold a few days later, the worm had grown so much that the chest could barely contain it anymore. Frightened by the sight of the giant worm, she grabbed the chest and hurled it into the lake, where the worm kept on growing.
The Worm soon became a menace that terrorized the region. Helpless against the beast, the farmers in the area called on the help of two Finns (Saami shamans) to contain the beast with spells and witchcraft. The Finns battled the Worm in the lake for a long time. When they emerged, they said they could not overpower the beast, but that they had managed to tie its head and its tail to the bottom, where the worm would stay bound to the end of days, incapable of harming anyone. Both of these legends are common urban myths that have been retold in different versions around the world at different times. It is easy to trace the origin of these stories to mythological figures, whether it is Sigurd the Volsung fighting the dragon Fáfnir, retold in Wagner’s Niebelungen Ring; the mighty Thor fighting the Midgard Serpent; or Beowulf fighting the sea monster.
22 – The Number of the Beast
In 1983, contractor Valdimar Benediktsson led a group of men assigned to furrow telephone cables in the ground in East-Iceland. When the farms on one side of Lagarfljót were done, the cable had to cross the river to continue on the other side.
A specially strengthened cable had been ordered for this task, wrapped in a thick hose made of steel wire and engineered so that it wouldn’t wind or kink, but lie straight on the bottom of the lake from one bank to the other.
“When we initially went out on the lake to perform depth measurements, we noticed a mysterious mass that was lying under a hollow bank at considerable depth on the eastern side of the lake. The mass seemed to be organic and moved around as we performed the measurements,” Benediktsson explains when we meet him in his giant machine shop in Egilsstaðir.
“That fall we started the project. I had a very capable group of men working on this, and we had been working on furrowing cables all summer around East-Iceland. We used boats and prams with special cable trestles to do the job. When the job was done and we tested the connection through the cable, it turned out it was broken. We had the instruments to locate the failure, and it turned out to be where we had witnessed the mysterious mass earlier.”
When the cable was pulled up, it became clear that something was out of the ordinary. “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,” Bendiktsson says. “I believe we dragged the cable directly over the belly of the beast. Unless it was through its mouth.”
The Hidden Worm
Helgi Hallgrímsson is 73 years old. He is a biologist, educated at the University of Göttingen in Germany and in Edinburgh, Scotland. As an expert on Lagarfljót, he is a reliable as they come. He has spent years researching and studying the lake and the river and recently published a book on the subject. We met with Hallgrímsson in his home to learn the basics of Lagarfljót wormology. He talks slowly, and occasionally pauses to smoke his pipe. “Centuries ago, when people first started referring to the Worm, the word had a wider definition. It was used in much the same way as we use the word ‘monster’ today,” he explains. “There are different descriptions of the thing. It is usually depicted as being long and narrow, but sometimes it is described more like a dragon.” Hallgrímsson says that the Worm often draws comparison to the Loch Ness monster, which is obviously the most famous lake monster of them all. “There are some similarities between Lake Lagarfljót and Loch Ness. Both lakes are long and narrow, about equal in size, and both are very turbid, so visibility is very limited.”
In Hallgrímsson’s opinion, we should draw a distinction between the urban legends surrounding the Worm, and actual accounts of Worm sightings. “We should be careful not to confuse the two. The legends are just that, legends. The sightings however, are actual occurrences that need explanation. People see a lot of things in the lake, and when there is no obvious explanation for what it is, people will use the Worm as an explanation.”
As it happens, Lagarfljót is full of natural phenomena that might require explanation. The bottom is a rich source of methane gas, which is formed when plants and biodegradable matters rot in the oxygen deprived conditions. The gas is trapped under thick layers of silt on the bottom and when the silt breaks, the gas rises from the bottom in large quantities and when it does, it can blow columns of water up in the air, raise giant bubbles, thrust up a lot of material from the bottom, and even break the light in a different way than the air around it, forming optical illusions.
Ice from the surrounding mountains, tree trunks and vegetation from the neighbouring forest, Hallomrsstaðarskógur, and other physical objects are also known to find their way into the river and gather in big tangles where the currents shift and where the river meets the lake. These tangles can easily take a mysterious shape or the form of a mythical creature. Hallgrímsson says these phenomena could explain many of the reported sightings. But not all. He believes that the myth of the Worm can be divided into three categories. 1) Legends drawn from urban myths of dragons and witchcraft. 2) Natural phenomena such as gas and vegetation, which are facts. 3) Paranormal phenomena, sightings that are beyond the scope of scientific understanding.
“There are sightings that cannot fully be explained by reason,” Hallgrímsson contends. “My opinion is that these are paranormal activities, much like people who claim to see ghosts, elves and hidden people. That is why some sightings can’t be explained, and why only some people can see the Worm. As a scientist, I have at least not been able to fully explain this” I ask how this opinion adheres to his scientific training, if this is something he believes as a biologist. “I think there are a lot of things that we can not explain by science. I’ve not found any conclusive explanation for life for example. I don’t believe this to be all just a big coincidence.”
After some consideration, and a few puffs of the pipe, he adds: “If I am right, and this is a paranormal activity, I think we would be better off by forming a good relationship with it. I think we need to treat it with proper respect and we should certainly not use its legacy to make a profit.”
The Brotherhood of the Worm
Skúli Björn Gunnarsson heads the Gunnar Gunnarsson Institution in Skriðuklaustur, a cultural institution that preserves the legacy of author Gunnar Gunnarsson. He does not share Hallgrímsson’s concerns. He has led a group of stakeholders in the area that have formed an unofficial companionship called The Worm’s Shrine. The group mostly consists of people who work in tourism or related fields. Gunnarsson explains that historical and cultural tourism is a growing industry, and every area must capitalize on its particular distinction.
“This is a company of people who want to maintain testimony and preserve the heritage of the Worm,” he says. “We want to market it with dignity. It would be easy order a container full of cheap artefacts and pass it on as Worm memorabilia. That’s not what we want to do. We want to approach this with respect and create a unique experience for visitors.”
Gunnarsson admits that many inhabitants in the area feel that this should be approached with caution. “They feel that we need to be careful,” he explains. “There is a certain fearful respect for the Worm here. Why do people believe that there is little fish in the lake? You could operate a trawler here; there is so much fish. Why do people believe that the waves and the currents on the lake are stronger than anywhere else? Why do people here believe that fish caught in the lake are inedible? People’s belief in the Worm is still quite tangible. Many have seen mysterious objects on the lake. Not all of them have been fully explained,” he points out.
Worms: a User’s Manual
It is easy to imagine how seemingly inexplicable natural phenomena could have been attributed to a mystical being or a monster in more primitive times. Superstition can be a powerful force and easily maintained when there is something unexplained to support it. But there is still a mystical character surrounding Lake Lagarfljót. Whether it is superstition or a serpent-like monster, all has not been laid to rest. As Valdimar Benediktsson stated, “I would like to see if there is ever going to be full explanation of what people have been seeing all this time. I find it hard to believe that people would lie about witnessing something in Lagarfljót for centuries.” I not sure I fully agree with him. Perhaps some things should not be fully explained away. There is added value in travelling through East-Iceland in the off chance of witnessing the monster. 1 Cryptozoology is the scientific study of, and search for, cryptids – animals that fall outside of contemporary zoological catalogs. This also includes animals that fall outside of the taxonomic records due to a lack of empirical evidence, but for which anecdotal evidence exists in the form of myths, legends, or undocumented sightings, such as the Loch Ness monster and the Bigfoot. Some people believe it to be a pseudo-science.
2 Which, coincidence or not, is almost exactly the same area that the Loch Ness lake covers, at 56.4 km2. Due to their depth, the bottom of both lakes are also considerably below sea level.
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