Wednesday, May 2, 2012

A Troll’s Tale from Iceland

A few years ago, I rode a marvelous blue-dun horse across Iceland. Nearing the end of our six-day trek, we stopped for lunch at the church of Haukadalur, near the famous geysers. To entertain us while we ate, our trekking guide, Svandis, told the story of the church and its resident troll.

Bergthor of Blafell was unlike other trolls: He liked the sound of church bells. He was further unusual, in Icelandic folklore, for having a human best friend. One day Bergthor (whose name means Mountain Thor, or God of the Mountain), asked his friend to do him a favor. “When I die, will you bury me beside the church?”

His friend agreed. “But how will I know you are dead?”

“I will prop my walking stick outside my cave the night I die, and I will leave a chest of gold beside my bed to pay for the funeral.”

All happened as the troll said. The friend saw the walking stick propped against the cave door. He got a party together to fetch the huge corpse. He found a little chest—but it was full of dry, yellow leaves.

Heaving a sigh (What do you expect from a troll?), he fulfilled his side of the bargain and brought the corpse to church. They dug a grave just outside the churchyard and buried Bergthor beneath a red stone. It’s still there—“You can go see it,” Svandis said.

We dutifully traipsed through the churchyard, peeking into the windows of the little wooden church with its four pews and blue-painted ceiling. There was the stone, “Bergthor” carved in a suspiciously modern font.

“But that’s not the end of the story,” Svandis said.

One of the gravediggers suddenly felt his pants slipping down. He had filled his pockets with dead leaves from the chest, and the leaves had turned to solid gold.

The troll’s friend hurried back to the cave to fetch the forgotten chest of gold—but it was too late. It was gone.

“He should have trusted Bergthor’s word,” Svandis said, “even if he was a troll.” He should have trusted the God of the Mountain.

You can read another version of this story in the book A Traveller's Guide to Icelandic Folk Tales by Jón R. Hjálmarsson. For a review of the book from the newspaper, The Reykjavík Grapevine, click here.

If you're inspired to ride across Iceland like I did, I recommend Íshestar's Highland tour named Kjölur. The photo above comes from their website, which has many other inspiring shots of Iceland's interior highlands, the haunt of trolls.

Join me again next Wednesday for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world at

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.