Saga Spots: Helgafell, The Holy Mountain

Saga Spots: Helgafell, The Holy Mountain

Eli Petzold
Photos by
Wikipedia Commons

Just off the road linking Stykkishólmur to the rest of Snæfellsnes, Helgafell (“Holy Mountain”) rises 73 metres above the flat, bucolic landscape of Þórsnes headland. Although unassuming against the backdrop of Snæfellsnes’s rugged spine, it stands out as the tallest and most distinctive geological feature on Þórsnes. Superstition has it that visitors to the mountain can make three wishes upon reaching its summit, provided that they ascend in silence, and without looking backwards. While the exact origins of this superstition remain murky, it seems to derive from taboos and traditions described in the semi-historical medieval Icelandic sagas.

Eyrbyggja Saga tells us that Þórolfur Mostrarskegg, the region’s first settler, gave the mountain its name when he arrived in the late ninth century. Transfixed by the mountain’s apparent sacredness, he forbade anyone to even look at it unwashed. He believed that he and his descendants would “die into the mountain,” a superstition confirmed when his son Þorsteinn drowned in Breiðafjörður: a local shepherd saw the mountain open, and heard Þórolfur welcoming Þorsteinn into a jolly, boozy feast within.

Later in the saga, Þórolfur’s great-grandson Snorri Goði, counselling a friend, suggests they hike up Helgafell because “plans devised there are least likely to come to nothing.” Substitute “plans” for “wishes” and it seems that Snorri’s superstition inspired the later tradition of wish-making on the mountaintop.

Interpersonal quandaries

A proper hike up Helgafell begins at the grave of Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir, the heroine of Laxdæla Saga, who exchanged estates with Snorri Goði to escape interpersonal quandaries across Breiðafjörður. Passionate, brash, and relentlessly independent, Guðrún is one of the most memorable characters in the Icelandic sagas. After four unsuccessful marriages, she turned to God in her old age and became Iceland’s first nun. A small tombstone near the present-day church at the foot of Helgafell purports to mark her grave, and according to some versions of the superstition, visitors are only afforded their wishes if they circle her burial before ascending the mountain.

“It’s thought that many manuscripts containing Icelandic sagas were compiled and copied in the monastery at Helgafell.”

Guðrún’s monastic inclination seems to prefigure the eventual founding of a monastery at Helgafell in the twelfth century. Although there are no extant remains of the original monastery, it was a major landholder in the region and an important centre of medieval learning and manuscript production; it’s thought that many manuscripts containing Icelandic sagas were compiled and copied in the monastery at Helgafell.

Today, there’s not much to commemorate the literary and historical significance of Helgafell—which, in a way, makes it all the more charming. A light fifteen-minute hike brings you to the summit, where, on a clear day, you can see the southern coast of the Westfjords across the countless islands of Breiðafjörður. For the superstitious and dreamy, it’s an excellent excuse for wishful thinking; for the skeptical, it’s a pleasant hike into Iceland’s medieval past.