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How Elves and Serpents are Saving Iceland for Future Generations

Most Iceland residents believe in magic to some degree, and it’s helping to preserve the environment, foster community … and rake in tourism dollars

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Last month, the mayor of the 2,200-person town of Egilsstaðir in eastern Iceland matter-of-factly announced that his government had verified video proving the existence of the Lagarfljótsormur, the Iceland Worm Monster. A fixture of Icelandic myth since 1345, the Worm is supposedly a 300-foot sea serpent, which thrashes about and slithers up onto the surface from within the glacier-fed Lagarfljót Lake. Some say the Lagarfljótsormur was put there by men, some say it was tied to the bottom by Finns to keep its bloody appetites in check, and some say its lashing and churning portends disaster. But rather than go the way of most wyrms—into myth, history, and crackpot theories—a casual, possibly coy half-belief in the Lagarfljótsormur and many more magical creatures still persists in Iceland, with modern-day sightings by government officials, entire classrooms of children, and as in the case of the 2012 film that supposedly confirmed the serpent’s existence, men casually observing a roiling river demon over a cup of coffee. Many suspect these “beliefs” are just opportunistic bids for attention or tourism dollars. But no matter the motive, the Lagarfljótsormur and its mythic kin now play a significant role in shaping Iceland’s relationship with and preservation of its own culture and the natural world it’s tied to.

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