Don’t look, there’s a face in the window behind you …
Lining the road that leads from Keflavík International Airport to Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík are a number of silhouettes, impossible to perceive as anything but humanoid. Stoic, gray stacks of rock, they loom on the edge of fields suggesting shoulders, torsos, and heads. They are, of course, cairns—towers of stones that have been arranged to show the way to travelers. They were sometimes called by the eerie name of “bone crone,” though this is, in actuality, a reference to beinakerling literature, which is the tradition of leaving, ah, ribald notes and lewd poems in cairns.
The stone greeting is perhaps an appropriate one. It seems as if there’s an eerie tale to be told no matter what corner of this North Atlantic island you visit. From the shores where Vikings first settled to the remote valleys where outlawed criminals once roamed, you’re sure to encounter a story that’ll send a chill down your spine.
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Bíum Bíum Bambaló
As a place where daylight hours extend deep into the night (during the summer solstice, the sun is visible in Reykjavík for nearly 24 straight hours), you might employ a lullaby or two to help you nod off. Whether or not the popular “Bíum Bíum Bambaló” (and yes, Sigur Rós does play a version of it) is the right choice for you depends on how you feel about the visage of disembodied faces staring back at you. The lyrics provide expected if somewhat melancholy imagery for a lullaby (“I shall light five candles/to drive away the winter”) but one decidedly unsettling image is sure to leave listeners wide awake and on guard. “My little friend I lull to rest/But outside, a face looms at the window.” Oh good, nothing to help you nod off like the idea of a spectral face staring in at you in the middle of a snowstorm.
As far as the island’s musical heritage, this folk favorite is just the tip of the, ahem, iceberg. You can explore Iceland’s traditional and contemporary music scene at the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavík.
The Ghost in the Sod House
One glance at the open Árbær Open Air Museum in Reykjavík has you feeling reassured. As you walk the grounds, you’re surrounded by historically interesting or otherwise notable houses. Everything has an air of family-friendly wholesomeness about it. And yet you may find that not every house is as unoccupied as they appear.
One of the houses reportedly still serves as the home of its original owner (her sepia-toned visage can be seen in the front room). If you visit her home, she may appear in the kitchen, a small room with a packed-dirty floor and a small window near the ceiling which serves as its only source of light.
Considering that one in 10 people in Iceland will publish a book, it should come as no surprise that even the Vikings here had literary aspirations. Such is the case with the titular figure of Egil’s Saga, the story of a 10th-century warrior, farmer, and poet. Egil took to both ax-murder and poetry at an early age, composing his first skaldic poem and committing his first murder before he was even eight years old. From there on out, Egil alternated his time writing poems praising various kings and lords and just killing up a storm (sometimes on behalf of those kings and lords, but sometimes just for the love of the game).
During one such episode, Egil was (understandably) made an outlaw by the Norwegian king. But just when it seemed as if Egil has left the country, he happened to find himself in the same spot as one of his rivals. Never one to pass up some good old-fashioned vengeance, Egil committed a massacre, killing his rival as well as the young son of the Norwegian king. And, as a final “eff you” to the king, Egil assembled a Nithing pole—a severed horse head on top of a pole, cursing the King and Queen.
Perhaps the most unique way to experience Egil’s Saga is with a visit to
With no prisons for much of Iceland’s history, those charged with grievous crimes were rendered outlaws. Outlawed criminals would flee to the remote parts of the island, often making use of the many caves for shelter and stealing sheep to get by.
The most famous outlaw is Fjalla-Eyvindur (“Eyvindur of the Mountains) and his wife, Halla. Though they were real people, much of what’s known about this 18th-century Bonnie and Clyde has been told so many ways that it’s near-impossible to separate fact from fiction. Some say Eyvindur was once caught in the act of stealing by an old woman who cursed him to never stop stealing — though he would never be caught. Halla is said to have been more murderous, killing their offspring so that they wouldn’t be slowed down while escaping the authorities. What remains consistent is that Eyvindur and Halla spent decades on the lam. You can even visit their former hideout in Herðubreiðarlindir Springs which, as far as hideouts go, is about as pretty as they come.
And just in case you’d like another creepy Icelandic lullaby you’re in luck! The haunting “Sofðu unga ástin mín” (“Sleep my young darling”) is taken from a scene in a famous play about the husband-wife outlaw duo. In the scene, Halla sings the haunting song to put her daughter to sleep before throwing her off a waterfall.