Category Archives: Iceland

Arctic Legends behind the Northern Lights

The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, have baffled people for centuries, sending bright waves of red and green streaks of colour across the sky. From warring gods to shoals of fish the aurorae were seen as being both good and bad omens. Interestingly, mythology surrounding the phenomenon often aligned between people who were thousands of kilometres apart.

We have collected a few of our favourite explanations to share with you. However, it’s not until you’ve actually seen this natural light show that you can truly understand why so much mysticism arises around it! We offer a particularly special Northern Lights Astronomy Voyage for those who have dreamed of seeing this sight for themselves.

Legends have not only come about because of Aurora Borealis, but also the less viewed Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) that can be seen (sometimes) in southern Australia and New Zealand. Look out for an up-coming article World Mythology about Aurorae to learn more.

The Northern Lights in the Arctic

Greenland

In Greenland, children born during the Northern Lights are thought to be more intelligent. The Inuit of Greenland believed that the lights were spirits trying to communicate with the living, while another legend told of dead spirits playing a game across the sky with a walrus skull.

Alaska 

Flipping that last legend on its head, the Cup’it Eskimo of Nunivak Island believed that the game was played by walruses with a human skull. Other Alaskan tribes were very afraid of the lights and would throw dog faeces and urine in to the air to make them go away.

Canada 

Hudson Bay communities believed that the lights were a celestial farewell, being torches of dead spirits as they made their way up into the heavens.

Russia  

The Chukchi see the Lights as an area of Heaven rarely seen, the home of those who died a violent death. Russian texts as recent as the 15th century discuss the Northern Lights as heavenly armies fighting.

Iceland

The Lights are said to relieve the pain of childbirth as long as the mother does not look at them while giving birth. If she does, her child will be born cross-eyed.

Finland

Perhaps one of our favourite myths, the Lights were believed to be created by a celestial firefox, that runs so fast across the snow that his tail showers sparks into the night sky. The word for the Lights in Finnish is revontulet which means firefox. The Sami of Finnish Lapland believed the lights were spumes of water from whales.

Sweden 

The Lights were seen as heralding good news, indicating a good harvest or being the reflection of a large shoal of herring that would now fill the ocean. They were also said to be benevolent gods providing warmth and light through a distant volcano.

Norse Mythology

There are disputed claims as to whether the Vikings had any stories behind the Northern Lights, particularly because there is evidence to indicate there was very low solar activity at that time and so the Lights would have been weaker, rarer and mostly red. One of the most popular myths is that the lights were reflections off the armour of Valkyries, peering down at earth to decide who would leave a battle and who would die. This has been disputed for the lack of evidence within Viking texts, as it only comes into existence in more modern writings on the Vikings.

The more accepted myth is that the Lights were believed to be the Bivfrost Bridge, a glowing pulsating arch that led fallen soldiers to Valhalla (although some believe this was describing a rainbow and not the Lights).


Contact Bentours today to book in your Northern Lights adventure! We have many great itineraries to offer or perhaps better yet, relax and admire the view on a Hurtigruten Coastal Voyage with our Northern Lights Promise.

Mystical Hidden Folk of Iceland

In Iceland, human beings have always struggled to survive against the phenomenal power of nature. Volcanoes, geysers, glaciers, snow and wind among the lava fields, survival in Iceland has never been a walk in the park. But with the help of the huldufolk, or the hidden people, survival has been slightly easier.

Various studies show that one third to half of Icelanders believe, or at least refuse to deny, the existence of these supernatural beings. They are also believed to live on the Faroe Islands. Often called elves, these beings are more like mirror images of humans, just more beautiful, lucky, intelligent, powerful and spiteful. They can only be seen if they wish to be seen and they hold sway over human lives.

Whether or not they are actually believed in by your average Icelander, they form an important aspect of the cultural heritage of Iceland and are often best characterised as going hand in hand with the Icelanders strong connection to nature. In Iceland, humans have been reminded again and again over the centuries of the sheer power and randomness of nature – it makes sense to attribute these natural occurrences in part to another being. Or as Terry Gunnell, Professor of Folklore at Iceland University, says “there’s a sense of the landscape being very alive… a personification of the landscape”.

The origins of Huldufolk

There are two prominent stories about how the hidden people came about. There is mention of elves as far back as 1000 CE but it was not until the 16th and 17th centuries that the stories really became prominent in the public consciousness. In the 18th and 19th centuries, sightings of the hidden folk were quite common and there were many seers who could communicate with them.

The first origin story combines the long history of Christian faith in Iceland with the supernatural. One day in Adam and Eve’s garden, God came to visit when Eve was halfway through cleaning her children.

She was embarrassed for her Creator to see her dirty children, so she hid them and presented only her clean children to him. God asked if they were all of their children and she replied yes. God, being omniscient, knew that she was lying and so in retaliation declared those hidden children would remain hidden for all time.

Their descendants are the hidden folk of today, while Adam and Eve’s other children are our human ancestors.

The second story tells of a traveller who stops at a farm for supper. The farm family have two beautiful daughters and he asks if one will join him in his bed. As he tries to embrace her, he finds his hands go straight through her body as though she is not there. She explains that she is only a spirit without a physical body.

When Lucifer was expelled from Heaven with his army of fallen angels, those angels who neither fought him nor joined him were cast to the earth, to live as spirits among the hills and rocks.

Significance in the battle to survive

Alaric Hall, a lecturer in Medieval English Literature and researcher into Icelandic folklore, speculates that part of the reason that hidden people emerged harks back to the Viking tradition of conquering during the Middle Ages. There is no evidence that anyone lived on Iceland before the Vikings arrived, making them the indigenous people of the land. However, Hall suggests that this idea of a hidden people, resisting through powerful acts of nature, emerged at this time for the Viking people to take pride in conquering Iceland over an ‘other’.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the hidden folk were similar to contemporary people –

they farmed or fished, they got married, had children, had pastors and had funerals. But everything they did, they did better than humans.

They were the source of human envy – when famine swept the land, many young shepherds claimed to have seen huldufolk in the hills feasting.

Today, the huldufolk are depicted in country settings, in 19th century rural dress. They stand for the old ways of Iceland, where mere survival was a struggle, and remind society at intermittent times that nature still rules with impressive shows of power (volcanoes, rockslides, etc.).

Hidden Folk in modern Iceland

Stories of hidden folk form an essential part of the social fabric of modern day Iceland. There is an elfschool in the capital and tours are regularly run in Hafnarfjorour, considered the elf capital of Iceland.

Not only are they a huge tourist draw to the newly booming tourism geyser icelandindustry, but they have an impact on urban planning. There are a number of instances where roads have had to be redirected or halted due to crossing the path of an elven church or dwelling! So much so that the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration (who manage these projects) have developed a standard five page reply to any press inquiries about such a matter.

Often the issues are resolved through a seer mediating and finding the hidden people a new home or the road even being redirected. Failure to pay attention to the concerns of the hidden folk have resulted in expensive machinery breaking and freak accidents befalling workmen.

So whether individuals believe in the hidden folk or not, the general approach is to respect their dwelling places.

To read some of the common hidden people legends, see the Reykjavik Grapevine’s collection.


Are you dreaming of visiting the land of Ice, Fire and ELVES? Experience your very own supernatural encounter on a Bentours ready-made or tailor-made itinerary of this incredible country. Contact one of our agents today!

11 reasons to visit Iceland

The Land of Ice and Fire, with its ghostly volcano formed structures and black beaches covered in icy diamonds, is emerging as one of the top travel destinations.

So what’s with all the hype? Here are just a handful of reasons why YOU should be visiting Iceland.

1. Wildlife:

The waters around Iceland are home to more than 20 species of whales, so it is not surprising that it is Europe’s capital of whale watching. On a boat trip from Reykjavik, you are almost guaranteed to see Minke whales, beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises, as well as adorable puffins. Better yet, take an expedition voyage around the island and spot various whales from onboard – you might even see a massive humpback.

2. Horses:

Although the Icelandic horses are kept in semi-wild conditions, they don’t really classify as wildlife. Descended from stock that the Vikings originally brought to the island, the small sturdy horses are known for their spirit, endurance and unusual fifth gait. At one time, the Icelandic horse was one of the main tourist attractions of Iceland!

3. Glaciers:

11% of Iceland’s landmass is covered in glaciers, the largest of which is the Vatnajokull covering the greater part of the south and central highlands. Discover the glaciers for yourself on an excursion by snow mobile or by foot. Perhaps the most visually impressive, the Jokulsarlon glacial lake is full of looming icebergs and is genuinely otherworldly.

4. Light and Darkness:

Whatever time of year you decide to visit Iceland there is always something magical in the air and a lot of that has to do with the light. In the wintertime, experience the incredible Northern Lights as they dance their way across the sky, while in summer the Midnight Sun allows for hours of activities well into the evening.

5. Reykjavik:

Although small for a capital city with only 200,000 people, Reykjavik oozes cool, in a laid back way. For such a small population, Iceland produces a huge amount of music and theatre, both of which you can experience in abundance in the city. Plus, with an emphasis on the freshest produce, Icelandic chefs are at the forefront of modern Nordic cuisine, combining traditional smoking and preparation methods with inventive twists.

6. Scenery:

In Iceland you can sometimes feel as though you have been transported to another world. From volcanic fjords to eerie treeless stretches of land, it’s not hard to understand why fairytales and legends of monsters, goblins, elves and fairy folk dominate the particularly deserted stretches of land.

7. Beaches:

Not exactly somewhere you think of going for a beach holiday, the beaches of Iceland may be too cold to swim in but they are still well worth a visit. The black pebble beach of Reynisfjara is particularly impressive near Vik village but by far the mot impressive black beach is Breidamerkursandur, in the south east. Visit this beach at dusk or dawn and it will appear to be sparkling with diamonds of all shapes – due to a nearby fjord, icebergs break up and ice diamonds adorn the shore year round.

8. Lake Myvatn:

The nearby hell-fire furnace of Krafla heats up the water in this area, creating many natural hot springs and interesting shapes and colours in surrounding rock formations. One such formation, Dimmuborgir (meaning Black Forts) resembles the ruins of what has been dubbed a demon city.

The Golden Circle:

The three most popular natural destinations in Iceland are an easy loop drive from Reykavik and are known as the Golden Circle. You can do it in one day, or extend it on one of our great itineraries to really make the most of the big three and the incredible sights in between.

9. Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park:

Only a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik for those on a self drive holiday, this national park is not only incredibly beautiful but also of supreme historical and geological significance. Site of the first meeting of Iceland’s parliament in 930 CE, it contains Iceland’s largest lake, and the meeting of the American and European tectonic plates. In fact, adventurous souls can scuba dive through the glacial waters of the Silfra fissures, where the two plates have rent apart.

10. Gullfoss Waterfall:

Here, the water thunders down a wide curved three step stair case then plunges into a crevice 32m in depth. Not only is the sound deafening but there is an interesting story to learn about how it earned its protected status… Make sure you investigate when you are there!

11. Haukadalur Geothermal Area:

Home to the geyser that gives us the name, Geysir, this impressive area is well worth your time. Although Geysir no longer erupts due to a past earthquake, the Strokkur geyser nearby erupts every five to ten minutes, shooting water 30m up into the air!


This list is by no means exhaustive. There’s no mention of the astonishingly beautiful glacial lake of Landmannalaugar surrounded by rhyolite cliffs; the incredible chance to find yourself inside a volcano’s magma chamber, angry red swirls in the rock evidence of a fiery past; or, the adventure sports capital of Akureyri where skiing, hiking, kayaking, mountaineering and more are all within reach.

But we don’t want to give it all away. In fact, you can discover the true beauty of this country yourself and add a few reasons to this list. Call us to book your holiday with Bentours today!

Windswept Vigur Island

Known for its avian population far out numbering the human residence, Vigur Island is a true slice of Icelandic resourcefulness. In the face of harsh winds and a trying environment, 200 years ago three families established farms on Vigur, only a half hour boat ride from the mainland. One family remains, descended from the original inhabitants and welcomes visitors with open arms to this picturesque Icelandic settlement.

Vigur Island is situated northwest off the coast of Iceland and is a fascinating stop on a Hurtigruten voyage around the Land of Ice and Fire. Vigur means spear and it is on this small spear shaped island that visitors can see a huge variety of birds, including the adorable puffin.

Bird watchers paradise

As well as the comical puffins, Vigur is also home to eider ducks, guillemots, Arctic terns, snow buntings, pied wagtails, meadow pipits and (although rarely seen on a short stay) white tailed eagles and gyrfalcons. Arctic terns are notoriously aggressive and territorial so all visitors are recommended to carry a large stick. When the terns undoubtedly spot you, they are attracted to the highest point, so holding a stick above your head will keep you in good stead.

The territoriality of the terns actually works the the advantage of the residents, as the terns protect the eider ducks, from which the expensive eiderdown can then be harvested. There is even a 200 year old wall built from when the families first arrived to protect the breeding ground of the ducks from predators.

Quaint buildings

Although the buildings are few and far between, the original homes of the three farming families have been beautifully restored and can be visited now. Viktoria House in particular shows a great insight into traditional Icelandic decorations. A circa 1840 windmill, the only one in Iceland at one stage and now the only old mill surviving, is a must see and was in use to grind Danish grain until 1917.

Perhaps most impressive is the eight oar row boat that is 200 years old and is still used on occasion to transport sheep to and from the mainland, or for fishing!


Vigur Island gives visitors a chance to see wonderful birdlife, hike among the green knolls and admire the mainland’s stunning coast from afar.

 

Iceland Quick Facts

Gearing up for your Iceland trip? Whether you are going on a tailor-made Self Drive itinerary,  a Hurtigruten Expedition Voyage or a ready-made Coach tour there are a few universal things you should know about the Land of Ice and Fire.

Iceland Essentials:

Money: the króna, or the kronur in the plural form. Prices may seem high as $1 is equal to about 85 kronur at the time of writing. Even if you are doing a tour where many of your expenses are paid for, exchange some cash before arriving so you have some money to hand if you’d like to take a side trip or purchase souvenirs.

Language:  Icelandic. Many people will speak a smattering of English, particularly young people, and Danish as both are compulsory in school.

Halló (Ha-low) = Hello

Gjörðu svo vel (Gyur-thuh svo vel) = Please

Takk (Tahk) = Thanks

Skál! = Cheers!

Government: constitutional republic – possibly one of the oldest parliamentary democracies in the world, with parliament established in the early 10th century in Thingvellir National Park.

Visas: Iceland is part of the Schengen Agreement but is not part of the European Union. The Schengen Agreement means that if you are arriving from another Schengen country there is no border control. Australians are generally allowed to spend 90 days within the Schengen area without a visa but double check your specific case.

Getting around: Flying is the most common form of transportation between different towns, although we can happily arrange car hire for you. Car is the best way to see the deserted but beautiful ‘Heart of Iceland’, the Highlands, and many of the natural wonders. Driving is on the right side of the road and is reasonably easy, as the roads are well maintained and there is little traffic. In winter months be aware of ice on the road.

The dramatic cliffs of Iceland are wonderfully seen by sea, and Hurtigruten’s Land of Ice and Fire itinerary takes you all around the coast.

Customs: folklore forms a part of Icelandic identity, particularly the sometimes held belief in huldufólk (hidden people, analogous to elves) and should be respected, not scoffed at. Tipping is not expected and when entering a private home, generally you remove your shoes. Icelanders are sometimes portrayed as gruff people by other Europeans, but are friendly and helpful once you make the effort to speak with them.

Avoid: if you would like to talk about the Global Financial Crisis, do so with care and tact as it hit Iceland hard and affected many individuals hugely so can be an upsetting topic. Whaling is still a large industry in Iceland, so although you can discuss any anti-whaling sentiments you may have, expect to be met with fierce opposition.


We hope these few facts will help you on your Icelandic adventure!

Discover Game of Thrones in Iceland

The icy plains of one of the world’s largest glaciers, the ruins of a demon city of volcanic rock and rolling green pastures interspersed with jagged rock – Westeros or Iceland?

Since 2011, millions of people around the world have regularly watched the wilds of Iceland flash across their screens. The scenery of Iceland has always been that of almost another world in its untouched perfection and the makers of the hit TV series Game of Thrones obviously thought the same thing. Although much in the series is created through CGI, the landscapes are genuine, even when they appear so breathtaking you’d be forgiven for believing they aren’t.

For those fans among us, add on some of the real life locations to your expedition cruise or follow our Beyond the Wall five day itinerary. This itinerary takes you to the filming locations of Game of Thrones with local guide Jon Thor Benediktsson, the guide of the crew on set in the third season.

Hverfjall Volcano = Beyond the Wall

Situated in the Lake Myvatn region, it is at the foot of the Hverfjall volcano that many of the scenes beyond the Wall are filmed. This half collapsed mountain got its slope shape 2000 years ago when the volcano erupting caused a landslide.

The crater of Hverfjall is 999m wide and can be hiked up to. This is, however, a walk for experienced hikers as there is loose rocky terrain and a steep ascent to conquer. From the top of the enormous crater, steam plumes of the nearby Namafjall geothermal area can be seen.

Grjótagjá = Jon & Ygritte’s cave

The gorgeous lava cave of Grjótagjá is where Jon and Ygritte have their first intimate encounter and although showed only briefly in the show, it is a beautiful spot to visit. The cave shelters a thermal spring of a turquoise blue and was used for bathing until the mid 1970s when a nearby volcano eruption sent the temperature of the springs soaring. In the 1700s, an outlaw Jón Markússon evaded the authorities by living here.

Today, the temperatures are slowly coming back down sitting around 50 degrees.

Dimmuborgir = Wildling camp

Dimmuborgir (i.e. Black Forts) is a volcano rock formation shaped like a disintegrating fortress where Mance Rayder etsablishes his community beyond the Wall. In Icelandic legend, this structure is thought to be a hell city where murdering trolls run rampant, proving a lot more scary than even a few Wildlings.

In some legends, these trolls are the parents of the 13 Yuletide Lads, mischievous lads who put rewards or punishments in children’s shoes every evening for the 13 days leading up to Christmas eve.

To fully appreciate the desolately beautiful volcano fields and other interesting rock formations, take a hike through the area towards Hverfjall. If you are up to it, this can be incorporated into the walk mentioned earlier up to the edge of the crater.

Vatnajökull = North of the Wall

Vatnajökull or the Vatna Glacier in English is one of Europe’s largest glaciers. Panorama shots of this land are shown as North of the Wall. Like many glaciers in Iceland, under the icecap there are several volcanoes, creating a number of lakes across the landscape. Vatna glacier is said to have the world’s longest sight line, according to the Guiness World Records, of 550km. This stretches from Slættaratindur, the highest mountain in the Faroe Islands.

The glacier was also the setting for the opening scene of James Bond film ‘A View to Kill’ where Bond kills a number of mercenaries before escaping to a submarine.

Höfðabrekka = Frostfang Mountains

Höfðabrekka near Vík is shown in sweeping panorama shots as Jon makes his way beyond the Wall and towards the Frostfang Mountains. Höfðabrekka is at the foot of the Myrdalsjokull glacier which is on the Katla Volcano.

Vík is the southernmost city of Iceland and has famous black sand beaches, including the beautiful ‘Diamond Beach’ where fragments of icebergs litter the shore year round. According to legend, trolls stole the beloved wife of a husband and froze her. The husband threatened the two trolls and made them swear never to kill anyone again, so now the wife’s free spirit is at home among the rocks, sea and ice diamonds.

Thingvellir National Park = mid-Westeros

Part of the Golden Circle, Thingvellir is the only place in Iceland where shooting occurred during the summer. This national park is an important spot historically, being the place where the first Icelandic Parliament was held in 930 and continued to be held there until 1798. It is also where the European and North American tectonic plates are ever so slowly pulling apart, creating a deep rent in the earth.

Scenes were shot here when Arya and Sandor Clegane were making their way through mid-Westeros between villages. It is also where you will find the treasured resource in the GoT universe, dragonglass, represented by obsidian (cooled lava).


If that doesn’t get you excited about mystical Iceland, then we don’t know what will! Call us today to map out your Game of Thrones itinerary, although these are breathtaking sights to see whether you are a fan or not.

In the meantime, GoT calls…

Wild Scandinavia: Puffin facts

 

Did you know that this cute Atlantic bird is also known as a ‘clown of the sea’ or a ‘sea parrot’? With their almost comically large beak and head, striped in a distinctive red and orange fashion, seeing a puffin in the wild is a quintessential Arctic and sub-Arctic experience.

On a Hurtigruten voyage to Norway, Iceland or Greenland you’ll have the opportunity to spot these beautiful birds and even join one of our bird watching safaris. Some 60% of puffins nest on Iceland, so on a visit to Reykjavik, make sure you check out the not to distant nesting grounds. Before you head off on your Arctic adventure, here are a few interesting facts about these cute little critters:

12 Puffin Facts:

1. Puffins get their name from their puffed-up appearance. Puffins are only about 25cm tall and have thick down to withstand the freezing waters. Their thick black and white feathers give them the appearance of roundness, like they have a little belly. When puffins fight they raise their feathers in an attempt to look more intimidating to the other puffin. To the human eye though, in combat these birds look perhaps even cuter.

2. Puffins are extremely effective flyers and by flapping their wings at about 350–400 beats per minute, they can reach speeds of up to 88 km/h!

3. Puffins don’t always mate for life exclusively, but they do rarely change mates, prompting many people to describe them as monogamous. When a puffin is 3 to 5 years old, they will choose a life mate. Every year, they return to the same nesting grounds with their mate and perform a mating dance, where they rub their beaks together. This is known as billing and will often draw an excited crowd of puffins to watch. They then make a nest in a burrow and lay just one egg, for which they share responsibility, including when the chick hatches out of the egg.

4. The puffin’s Latin name, Fratercula means ‘little brother’. The name refers to the sea bird’s black and white plumage, because it was said to resemble the robes that friars (or brothers) once wore.

puffins_fish_600x4505. A puffins main diet is fish and sometimes crustaceans. Similar to penguins, they are incredibly skilled divers and hunt for prey by diving. They can stay underwater for up to a minute at up to 60m of depth searching for fish, but usually only spend 20–30 seconds in the water at a time. Puffins are able to carry an impressive number of fish in their beaks at once – they usually catch around 10 or so per hunt, but have been known to carry more. According to Project Puffin, the record for fish held at once was 62.

6. Puffins spend most of their lives at sea, resting on the waves when they are not swimming. They will drink seawater to maintain energy between hunting prey.

7. A puffin’s beak changes colour during the year. In winter, the beak has a dull grey colour, but in the springtime, in time for mating season, it becomes bright red or orange. The vibrancy of the colour is thought to indicate the puffin’s health and therefore attractiveness as a mate.

puffins_chick1_600x4508. Puffins have waterproof feathers specifically effective for open sea. It is extremely important that they keep their feathers clean to maintain the waterproofing so learning how to do this is essential for young chicks, or pufflings. Although a puffling will not leave the burrow until they are able to fly, at the mouth of the burrow will be a toilet area, away from the nest to maintain cleanliness.

9. In the wild, puffins live up to 20 years and their main predator is the great black-backed gull, which will catch the puffins while they are in flight or swoop in on them when they are on the ground.

10. There are a few collective nouns for puffins, but our favourite has got to be a Circus of Puffins (because they’re also known as “clowns of the sea”)

11. Ever wondered what sound a puffin makes? When they’re flying they make a high screeching noise, and when they’re in their burrows they make a muted sound a bit like a cat purring.

12. Puffins are not classified as endangered but they are threatened by over-fishing in some areas, as this is their main food source. Climate change also poses a threat to puffins as they are ideally built for 0–20°C  waters and cool water fish.

 

See these incredible sea parrots for yourself with us on one of our expedition cruises or excursions!