Vatnaormur

Variations: Water Serpent, Lake Serpent; Lagarfljotsormurinn, Lagarfljot Worm; Lyngorm, Slug

The lakes of Iceland are home to a wide variety of Vatnaormar, “water serpents”. These serve as the Icelandic equivalent of lindorms, water-horses, and other malignant freshwater monsters.

Most famous of these is the Lagarfljot serpent. This creature originated in a farm in the Herad, near Lagarfljot Lake. A woman gave her daughter a golden ring, and suggested she put it under a lyngorm – a slug, literally “heath snake”. In a few days the snake was so big it was bursting through the linen-box where the ring was kept. The terrified girl tossed box, snake, and ring into the Lagarfljot.

With the passing of years the snake grew big enough to prey on people and livestock. It would also spew venom onto the land. In the end it met its match in either Bishop Gudmundur Arason, two Lapp sorcerers, or a magically-empowered poet. Regardless of who it was, they were brought in to kill the serpent, but found the creature too powerful to kill. So instead it was bound, with a rope tied around its neck and another around its tail. The beast now lies bound at the bottom of Lagarfljot for all time; occasionally it arches its back over the water, and that is an ill omen. It has been sighted multiple times in 1479, 1555, 1594, 1749-1750 and 1819, appearing as a great snake with humps or spikes on its back, or a monstrous horse. Sometimes it stretches itself onto the riverbanks while spewing massive amounts of poison. It is referred to in a 1590 geographical map of Iceland, with the ominous text “A huge monster has its lair in this lake, constituting a danger to the inhabitants and appearing ahead of significant events”.

The serpent that grows along with the treasure it guards is a recurring motif, first appearing in the saga of Ragnar Lodbrok where the serpent eventually has to be slain by the titular hero.

The story of the serpent of Skorradalsvatn is identical to and older than that of the Lagarfljot serpent; it appears that its account was transposed to Lagarfljot over time.

Other Icelandic water serpents include the Hvalvatn serpent (striped with a cat-like head), the huge Hvita River serpents (gaudy in Arnessysla, striped in Borgarfjordur), the Kleifarvatn serpent (30-40 meters long and black in color), the large Skafta River serpent (multi-colored), and the mysterious dry-land serpent of Surtshellir.

References

Boucher, A. (1994) Elves and Stories of Trolls and Elemental Beings. Iceland Review, Reykjavik.

Hlidberg, J. B. and Aegisson, S.; McQueen, F. J. M. and Kjartansson, R., trans. (2011) Meeting with Monsters. JPV utgafa, Reykjavik.

Simpson, J. (1972) Icelandic Folktales and Legends. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.

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