Published August 29, 2019
Your Friend In Reykjavik is a small, family-run tour company, organising walking tours, pub crawls, and food tours. The Grapevine recently embarked on the Icelandic Mythical Walk, a haunted tour to see Reykjavik’s spookiest sites and hear folk tales, ghost stories, and Icelandic lullabies.
Our tour began at Ingólfstorg, where our guide, Stefán, asked the group if we had ever seen any ghosts. Some said they had. I certainly hadn’t. What’s more, I have been a life-long skeptic when it comes to the supernatural, and a walking tour wouldn’t change that for me.
Our group’s first destination was the site of the oldest graveyard in Reykjavik. Today, it is a lovely square, where patrons sip lattes or pints and sidle up to a food truck for a quick bite. But, before a larger graveyard was built in 1838, Fógetagarður was a dismal and dank burial ground where necromancers would congregate and summon the dead back to life. That’s right, there are zombies in Icelandic folklore.
These zombies, also known as ‘afturgöngur,’ cannot be seen or heard except by either the necromancer who summoned them or the poor soul whom the necromancer chose to be haunted. The necromancer used a complicated ritual involving, among other things, writing the Lord’s Prayer backwards with a feather pen dipped in their own blood, a cursed rolling pin, a glyph of resurrection, and wrestling with the dead. In case there are any would-be necromancers reading, I won’t spoil any further details. (The Grapevine is not responsible for any reanimated corpses haunting the residents of Iceland.)
We ventured forth on the haunted Reykjavik walk and learned about elf stones, which, as the name implies, are inhabited by elves and cannot be moved except through gaining permission of the elves which inhabit them, which can only be done by consulting an elf specialist. These specialists are very rare, which would explain why so few of Iceland’s roads are straight lines, but I digress.
We also learned about Icelandic lullabies, which are often very dark, even compared to such childhood hits as “Ring Around the Rosie” and “Rock-a-Bye Baby.” One of the darkest ones is called “Sofðu Unga Ástin Mín” (“Sleep My Young Darling,” in English) which, according to legend, was sung to a baby just before the baby’s mother put him in an icy crag to sleep forever and escape the fate that otherwise would have befallen him should the outlaws pursuing her have caught her. Stefán told it much better.
Among the other legends and lore, he told of was that of Iceland’s 13 Yule Lads with their ogress mother, Grýla, and their pet cat who hunts and eats children. He also told us about the Lake Monster of Lagarfljót and shared the terrifying tale of the Deacon of Dark River.
Stefán saved his last tale—that of the terrifying Deacon of Dark River—for Hólavallagarður, the second oldest graveyard in Reykjavik. There we also learned that this now crowded burial site stood empty for six years before the first grave was dug. According to Icelandic folklore, the first person to be buried in a new graveyard is destined to spend eternity as its groundskeeper. Who wants all that responsibility?
As we listened to our knowledgeable guide share his final story, I felt like someone was standing too close to me. Thinking one of the other members of the group, I turned to politely ask them to back off. (What can I say, I like my personal space.) But when I turned around, no one was behind me. Everyone else was standing nearby, listening intently, seemingly unaware of the presence I felt.
Was I losing my mind, or did I actually sense the presence of a spirit? Maybe it was the eternal groundskeeper. Or maybe it was the spirit of the first dog buried there. Animals do like me.
Between elves, lake monsters, trolls, ghosts, and zombies, this tour had everything an enthusiast—or skeptic—of the mystical could want. Book your own haunted Reykjavik walk tour online at www.yourfriendinreykjavik.com. As for me, I will be spending some time examining how I feel about ghosts.