Question: Where on earth did geysers turn into castles populated with flesh-eating trolls?
Answer: Dimmuborgir, Iceland
What’s in a name? Some say that the word “borgir” means “castles” (which is romantic) and others say it means “citadels” (which is more warrior-like), but everyone agrees that the word “dimmu” means dark. No matter which side you take, Dimmuborgir, one of Iceland’s most visited natural wonders, has a foreboding ring to its moniker.
Before this millennium was underway, a massive eruption of the Prengslaborgir and Lúdentsborgir range sent a wall of lava hurtling toward Lake Mývatn. As the lava reached the marshy wetlands, it began to slow down and spread into a thick pool, some 30 feet deep, that extended into the lake itself. The water, heated to boiling by the lava, began shooting vapor upward, lifting the molten liquid atop it into the air like geysers. The result was an array of thick lava towers, which looked like melting candles cemented in stone. Many remained hollow inside and some were the size of houses big enough for human habitation.
When the lava pool around the borgir began to cool, it formed a crust which eventually collapsed and receded. But those craggy towers remained behind, all that charcoal-colored volcanic stone giving the scene a mysterious and singular air. There is only one other example of this phenomenon on earth, and that one isn’t even visible: it lies beneath sea level off the coast of Mexico.
The unusual blend of whimsical shape and brooding atmosphere has not only made this a setting for film and TV (including Game of Thrones) but a favorite destination for outdoor enthusiasts from around Iceland. Ask them and they’re happy to recount the well-known folktale of Dimmuborgir, a legend which—like the landscape itself—is both playful and a little disturbing.
Why Dimmuborgir is Iceland’s Dark Winter Playground
- In Icelandic folklore, Dimmuborgir is home to a terrible family: the murderous troll Grýla, her husband, and their boys, “The Yule Lads.”
- Grýla is famously hungry … for children. She descends from the hills, swinging her tail, and clomping her hooved feet, to find unlucky boys and girls who have misbehaved. She cooks them in her boiling cauldron and eats them, unless they truly repent for bad behavior, in which case she releases them and starts the hunt again.
- Over time, her 13 sons, more capricious and less bloodthirsty, became part of the story. They only come down to Dimmuborgir for Yuletide, rating children’s deeds for each of the 13 days before Christmas. Children wake each morning to find a treat (like candy) or a cold potato in their room—like report cards for their behavior.
- The names and personalities of the Yule Lads vary from hilarious (like Spoon Licker) to ominous (like Meat Hook). Door Slammer likes to startle sleeping people by loudly doing just what his name says, while Window Peeper is downright creepy. They aren’t murderous but they aren’t exactly sweet, either.
- Early Icelandic Christians disapproved of the story of the Yule Lads and their mother, finding it not charming at all. Instead, church officials declared that Dimmuborgir was where Satan fell to earth when cast from heaven, and the steaming vents here are portals to “the Catacombs of Hell.”
- That dour take has been eclipsed over time. Every December, visitors come from all over Iceland to see the “real life” Yule Lads, white-bearded men cavorting among the snow-covered lava towers at Dimmuborgir, resembling a baker’s dozen of Santas. Children no longer fear that Grýla will get them, but instead take photos with the very merry band of trolls.
Witness the “dark” beauty of Dimmuborgir and some of the world’s most stunning landscapes on Untamed Iceland.