One night in 1846, a trader named Sigtryggur Sigurðsson was walking his usual route home along the beach from Húsavík, when he saw something strange approaching. A large humanoid creature of a type he’d never seen was sprinting towards him from the sea. Sigtryggur took fright and ran to a nearby hillock, picking up a branch to fend off the creature, which was quickly upon him, attacking him viciously. After a long and bloody struggle that saw his clothes torn to tatters, he finally landed a heavy blow on its arm, breaking it at the elbow. The creature howled and relented, turning and running back into the surf. Sigtryggur escaped badly injured, but lived to tell the tale, naming the beast the Sea Troll. His tale was so vivid that it entered local legend, and was published decades later in a book of Icelandic folklore called ‘Þjóðtrú og þjóðsagnir’.
It might well have stayed there as a neglected historical curiosity but for the work of present-day painter and sometime cryptozoologist Arngrímur Sigurðsson. His recently released art book ‘Duldýrasafnið’—roughly translated: “The Hidden Being Museum”—compiles accounts of 32 such supernatural encounters, each one sitting alongside a painting of the subject. Taken from old books, folk stories, eyewitness accounts and modern-day sightings, the paintings and stories in Dúldýrasafnið offer a glimpse into a particularly rich and fascinating corner of Iceland’s literary history.
The idea came when Arngrímur was an exchange student in Vienna. Considering what subject an Icelandic painter might address, he decided to veer off the beaten path of landscapes and waterfalls into the murkier territory of his homeland’s folklore. “Iceland’s stories are a remarkable thing that this country has produced,” says the mild-mannered but enthusiastic Arngrímur, sipping coffee in a downtown cafe. “In fact, it was our biggest cultural output ever, until the music of the last few years.” The roots of Iceland’s modern-day literary culture lie in folk tales, spread through word of mouth and passed down through generations. “They’re often highly superstitious tales,” admits Arngrímur, “but as soon as you start reading them, you notice what a cool world it is—a complex fantasy world that people have created over centuries. New people are always adding on to the whole collection of creatures. And I wanted to add something to it, too.”
Inner thigh wart feeding
Iceland’s “duldýr” take a wide range of forms, from deadly seahorses to air creatures, weird reptiles to megafauna, deadly living sea-stacks to mythical islands. Arngrímur leafs through the book, settling on a particular favourite—a coiled, worm-like creature.
“This one is the ‘Tilberi,’” he says. “It kind of looks just like an earthworm, but it’s actually a milk fetcher. It can only be conjured by women. First they have to steal the rib of a man from a cemetery, then take it home, then wrap it up in wool and stuff, then take it to church. There, they take the wine that the priest gives them, and spit it on the rib. After that, the Tilberi comes and starts going through the fields stealing milk from sheep, bringing it back to its mother, and emptying it into a container. She grows a wart on her inner thigh that the creature would feed from.” He pauses, grimly. “There have actually been two women executed in Iceland for conjuring a milk fetcher.”
But from the brutal superstitions of 19th century Iceland through to the modern day, reports of mysterious encounters have been constant over the years. The most recent creature sighting in the book was reported in the 1980s, not far from Reykjavík, at a beautiful and somewhat eerie lake called Kleifarvatn on the Reykjanes peninsula.
Shell monsters and sad blimps
“This one is the ‘Skeljaskrímsli,’” says Arngrímur, pointing out a chunky-looking scaled beast. “He’s the shell monster, because he makes a sound like a bag full of shells—a crunching sound. Two guys were out hunting for grouse in 1987, and they reported seeing a pair of weird creatures swimming in the lake, then coming ashore and resting. They watched them for a while.”
Skeljaskrímsli isn’t the only creature seen in a modern context. One of the most striking images in Duldýrasafnið is the air spirit, also used as the book’s cover image. It’s interpreted by Arngrímur as a blimp-like creature with a sad, wizened human face, floating in a modern landscape dotted with electricity pylons. It’s a haunting scene somehow, with the spirit observing the human constructions as if confused by these man-made interventions in the natural landscape.
32 Creatures in the Duldýrasafnið book
100 Number of years the “phantom island” of Frisland appeared on maps
1000 Copies of the first edition printed
1846 The year of Sigtryggur Sigurðsson’s sea troll sighting
1987 Most recent creature sighting (the shell monster)
€3,000 Original target of Duldýrasafnið campaign
€9,956 Total funding
“The creatures’ place is not really in the same world that we live in,” says Arngrímur. “They are from their own place. It’s like the world of our dreams—we humans spend a lot of time in dreams. We have all these experiences there, sometimes waking up with the feeling that those events were as real as memories. These creatures might seem kind of far out— but our dreams are far out, too.”
A king’s guide to Iceland
In the distant past, the kind of word-of-mouth mythical creatures of the Duldýrasafnið circulated at the top of society, amongst academics, cartographers, merchants and royalty. In the 12th century, guidebooks for nobility mention humanfaced sea stacks—like the ones standing off the coast of Vík—that might grab sailors, or rain down rocks on passing ships. But perhaps the most persistent legend of the time was Frisland, a “phantom country” that was widely featured on maps for most of the 15th and 16th centuries before people seemingly realised it wasn’t actually there.
“Frisland was supposed to be just south of Iceland, and about the same size,” explains Arngrímur. “It had details like place names, and cities that featured on maps. Texts of the time reference people who live there, and ‘sailors from Frisland’ who visited this place or that place. And then suddenly it didn’t exist. It vanished from the maps.”
Some of the stories, like the Tilberi, even entered the laws of the time, showing just how deeply embedded in culture these ideas were. “In the early Icelandic law book Grágás,” notes Arngrímur, “it’s actually made illegal to summon some of these creatures. It was in the law of the land.”
Life is but a dream
The modern world is more sceptical. Many now consider such supernatural encounters to be irrational—improbable tales borne from superstition, misapprehension, a flair for drama, or even undiagnosed psychosis. But Arngrímur argues they reveal an important aspect of human psychology.
“I believe that imagination plays a huge part in our lives and our experience,” he says. “In our opinions and our feelings there’s always an element of the imagined—nothing is completely real. For example, souls— the idea of a soul is of something not connected to the body—it’s like a hidden being. But then, a lot of people believe in the afterlife. If you believe in God, you’ll see miracles everywhere; but if you believe in trolls and elves, you’ll see evidence of them everywhere instead. UFO sightings and alien abductions bear a lot of resemblance to the elf stories.”
As our long and engrossing conversation draws close to its end, I finally ask Arngrímur if he’s ever had a supernatural encounter himself. He hesitates, reluctant to answer. “I thought I saw a ghost once, in my apartment,” he says, finally. “I experienced it very clearly, but in honesty I now think my mind conjured it up. In fact, most people have had some experience that could be described as paranormal, whether a weird vision, a premonition, a ghost encounter, or an out of body experience. These are all very common paranormal experiences.”
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the project has captured the public imagination. With an English language version in the works for the summer, it seems the odd mystical creatures of the Duldýrasafnið have once more wriggled free from non-existence, living on in the minds of the book’s readers.
Find out more on Arngrímur’s website.