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Trolls A Guide to Spotting Them in the Land of Fire and Ice


Trolls in Iceland. A Guide to Spotting Trolls in the Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland is a place of great natural beauty and ancient culture. This includes the various creatures, beings, and monsters that supposedly share the land with humans. One of those is trolls. You probably won't see a troll on your trip, but it's fun to go troll hunting and, perhaps, use it as an excuse to see all kinds of cool things.

What Is a Troll?

We're not talking about somebody who leaves annoying anonymous insults in the comments section. Icelandic trolls also don't typically live under bridges. Trolls are sometimes, but not always, conflated with giants.

Trolls are basically large, dumb, and often angry beings that live in mountain caves and will do you a lot of harm if you annoy them. They can cast spells, and they are fond of eating human flesh. Especially children. In the past, Icelandic children would be told to behave, or the troll would get them. Likely, the legends were also used to discourage children from wandering too far or going into unsafe caves. Some troll stories, however, have trolls who are kind and wise, and doing a good deed for a troll may well earn you a fortune.

A female troll is called a skessa. Trolls are not portrayed as particularly physically attractive.

Finally, trolls can only travel at night. When dawn comes, they had better be back in their caves, or they turn to stone. This has historically been used to explain strange rock formations. They're all trolls who lost track of time and were caught out by the sun, typically while engaging in some nefarious activity.

If you're thinking this all sounds very Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's trolls were based on the Icelandic legend as, in many ways, were his elves.

Where Might You Go to See Trolls?

Trolls are mythical. But rock formations said to be petrified trolls are not. Here are some places you can go to to see these wonderful formations and find out about the stories behind them.


Reynisdrangar Cliffs

Panoramic view of the basalt trolls on one of the beaches of Iceland. The easiest way to see the stacks of rocks is from the shore at Reynisfjara.


If you are driving the ring road, Reynisdrangar is a stop worth making. These impressive formations rise out of the sea under imposing sea cliffs. And, yes, they are also petrified trolls. In this case, though, they weren't peaceful lovers. They waded to sea to capture a ship and eat the sailors (and likely their supplies). The same refrain here. They lost track of time and got turned to stone in the water. The ship, presumably, escaped. One has to wonder if this was a tale told by an embarrassed captain who nearly sailed into the rocks and explained his folly and the damage to his ship by saying trolls attacked him. Two alternate explanations exist...one in which a man killed the trolls after they kidnapped and murdered his wife, and the third is that they were trying to pull Iceland to join the Faroe Islands, apparently due to very similar formations there!

The easiest way to see the stacks is from the shore at Reynisfjara, but if you're fit, a road to the west of Vik allows you to walk up to the cliffs. This is also a great place to see puffins during their May to August breeding season. They have very little fear of people, and you can get pretty close to them. (Don't touch, though; those beaks could give you a nasty bite). Seabirds also nest on the stacks, so take a pair of binoculars.

The area is also famous for the Reynisfjara Black Beach. Walking along the beach is beautiful but also very dangerous. Bathing and swimming are prohibited; sneaky waves can come ashore without warning and sweep you off your feet. Follow the safety signs and stay on the backshore if possible. The view isn't worth unnecessary risk!

Hvitserkur Cliff

Hvitserkur, a basalt sea stack shaped like a three-legged creature This bizarre three-legged formation has been compared to an elephant, a rhino, or a dinosaur.

This is another beautiful basalt sea stack. It's in northwestern Iceland, not far from the ring road, so it is another potential stop on that classic route. This bizarre three-legged formation has been compared to an elephant, a rhino, or a dinosaur. It's also crawling with fulmar in the summer. The name "White Shirt" comes from the large amount of guano on it.

So, what was this troll doing when the sun caught him? Threatening to tear down the bell tower at a nearby convent because trolls, not being Christian, don't like church bells.

In addition to the formation itself, this is a great place to see seals. Swing by the Icelandic Seal Center in the nearby town of Hvammstangi to find out information and book a boat tour to the colony. Both of these things are well worth doing on your self-driving tour of the Icelandic Ring Road.

Lóndrangar

This pair of basalt towers on a cliff is in Western Iceland. You can access them from the visitors' center, or they are fantastic to view from the sea. Lóndrangar is a good distance away from any town, so your best option is a self-driving tour. The nearest town is the fishing village of Hellnar, which has a hotel and a magnificent cave. The area is a two to three-hour drive from Reykjavik.

The two pillars are said to be a troll and a skessa who were so deeply in love they lost track of time, and the sun came up, petrifying them as they stood staring into each other's eyes. Trolls losing track of time is a major theme in troll legends! Although I suspect the message of this one is to pay attention to things other than your lover every now and then.

A 1.6-mile walking trail from the visitors center will get you close to the towers and give you an opportunity for some great pictures. However, be careful to stay back from the edge of the cliffs, as they can be treacherous.


Drangey Island

Drangey island during sunset Apparently troll cows also get turned into stone


To get to Drangey Island, you will need to get on a boat. The rock fort-shaped island is off the northern coast of Iceland and is a haven for puffins and other sea birds. You can take a boat tour from Skagafjordur, a wonderful little coastal town. The tours land on the island and include a hike to the top with plenty of opportunities to see birds.

Drangey Island, at one point, had a pillar to the north and one to the south. Only the one to the south remains; she is supposedly a skessa. The one to the north was believed to be her husband. For once, these trolls were not engaged in nefarious activities when the sun caught them. They were taking their cow to be serviced by another troll's bull. Troll cows also turn to stone when touched by the sun. The cow is the entire island!


Kerlingarskarđ

Kerlingarskarđ means "Old woman pass." The rock at the top of the pass is supposedly a skessa heading to meet up with her boyfriend and, like so many unfortunate trolls, forgot the time. In this case, the sun awaited her on the other side. In another version, she was fishing in Baulárvallarvatn, stayed late because the fish were biting, and vanished. The shape of the rock looks like a trout slung over her shoulder.

Actually, getting there is a challenge. The pass is no longer open to traffic, and what remains of the road is in poor condition. It's possible to drive up far enough to see the rock, but don't go further.

Stóri Karl Cliff

Stóri Karl means "big man." It's another of those basalt sea stacks. The reason to come here is not because of the troll legend but because it is one of only a few places you can see nesting northern gannets. It's Iceland's second largest gannet colony, and these huge birds are well worth tracking down. A viewing platform has been built where you can watch the birds from above. You may want to bring binoculars or a long lens to get the best view.

How this particular troll got turned to stone is unclear, but the name makes the origin quite obvious.

Kerling Cliff

There's a legend that the trolls in the Westfjords wanted to turn it into an island. This appears to date from the Christianization of Iceland and, perhaps, indicates that Christianity took longer to reach that part. Perhaps the people living there wanted to be trolls and turn it into an island at one point. Three trolls tried to dig a ditch, making the fjords deeper, but then failed to find shelter before daylight. Supposedly, the skessa that turned into stone at Kerling Cliff used what strength she had left as the sun rose to create the island of Grimsey.

The other two trolls made a variety of islands on the other side, but needless to say, they couldn't dig all the way through.

Keep your eyes and ears open, and you may well find out about more stone trolls. Iceland has a lot of basalt pillars that often look like petrified humanoids or animals.

Karl og Kerling

Karl og Kerling rock or petrified Trolls

These two pillars are also supposedly a troll couple, although instead of being too much in love to notice the sun, they were too busy arguing. It's probably a lesson for married people in this one. Across the river is a large cave that was supposed to be their home.

You can find the quarreling couple in northern Iceland north of the ring road in Jökulsárglúfur canyon. You have to be fit, though. It's about a two-mile hike from the nearest parking lot, near the Vesturdalur camp. Of course, this does mean fewer people get to see it.


Trolls in the Name

Because trolls are so plentiful in Icelandic culture, there's also a variety of places that have troll or skessa in the name. These include:

The Tröllaskagi Peninsular

This is one of the central finger-like peninsulas that extends from northern Iceland, surrounded by deep fjords. It's also called just the Troll Peninsular. It's likely because it's extremely mountainous, and people figured it was a good place for trolls to live. International travelers often miss it, so it's quiet as well as dramatic. You need to allow an extra half day at least, if not a full day, onto a ring road trip.

Skessugarđur

This means Troll Woman Wall. Because it supposedly marked the border between troll territories. When two troll women met, they started arguing about the precise borders. They agreed they each owned half the land.

They settled it by walking towards each other and building a border wall where they met. (They managed this without being turned to stone). Skessugarđur is actually a glacial moraine line, but you can see why people might have thought it was a troll-sized version of a wall you might put up to keep your sheep from wandering onto your neighbor's land.

Trölladyngja

Trölladyngja is the biggest of Iceland's shield volcanoes and reaches a height of almost 5,000 feet, towering above surrounding desert and lava fields. Thankfully, it does not appear to be in danger of erupting. The name translates to either the Troll's Dunghill or, more likely, the Troll's Bower. Trolls were seen as liking to live on mountains.

Skessuhorn Mountain

Skessuhorn is sometimes called the Matterhorn of Iceland. It's a very triangular mountain. It's named after the legend that a female troll once used it as a place to sit to watch for prey. It's not climbable except by experts, but it's incredibly pretty from the right angle.

Tröllakrókar Canyon

This is a spectacular canyon full of hoodoos built by the wind. The name means "Cliffs of the Trolls," and supposedly, those hoodoos are the remains of...trolls who partied all night and lost track of time. You must be a fit hiker to visit or take a jeep tour, but it's worth the extra trip.

Tröllkonuhlaup

This waterfall is called the Troll's or Giantess' Run, supposedly because the waterfall was created when a troll put troll-sized stepping stones in the river. They do kind of look like that, too. As Icelandic waterfalls go, it's fairly shallow, but it's such a cool story.

The Troll at Hljóđaklettar rock formations Trölliđ or the Troll in Hljóđaklettar rock formations

Many other places in Iceland are associated with the trolls and their legend. For example, the tide pool at Brimketill is supposedly a spa used by a giantess named Oddny. And Naustahvilt, a bowl-like depression above Ísafjörđur is also called the troll seat because a troll apparently rested there after running quickly not to get caught by the sun. We did mention that trolls were not seen as all that smart.

If these places fascinate you, we can help you design a personalized itinerary for your self-driving tour that includes the things you most want to see, whether gannets or taking a hiking tour to Tröllakrókar. Contact Tour.is to find out more and let us help you with your dream troll hunting trip in Iceland.

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