The Ásbyrgi canyon is truly a magical place. Year after year it’s one of the most popular destinations in Iceland, especially because the surrounding mythology that claims that this is the true capital of the elves. Visitors should hope that they will be lucky enough to meet here with one of the Huldufólk – “Hidden people”, or the elves so often mentioned in Norse culture, next to fairies, gnomes and trolls.
About elves (hidden people)
It’s said that elves can be good or bad and live in rocks, mounds and hills. One of the Icelandic legends about their origin says that when God came to see Adam and Eve, they welcomed Him in their home and showed Him everything they had around the house. They also brought forward their children and God found them promising and full of hope. When asked whether they have any other children, Eve was ashamed that she did not manage to have all of them cleaned up before the Almighty came to visit, so she said “None”. God of course knew the truth and said “What man hides from God, God will hide from man.”, so he made all of her other children invisible. The legend goes on to say that these children are the ancestors of elves.
Other legends say that the hidden people hesitated to choose between heaven and hell, and thus they became invisible.
It’s assumed that they are present in our every day life, close to people and their dwellings. For example, our Reykjavik guide was telling us that his grandma, who lived in the northern part of the island, had a big boulder in the yard and she was convinced elves lived there. She was a kind person, so every evening she placed some food on a little plate for them to eat (pretty much like we do on Christmas Eve to bribe Santa Claus 😉 ) and in the morning the plate was empty.
Elves are very loved in Iceland, but their not without flaws. Some of them have the bad habit of stealing so every time an object goes missing you shouldn’t be surprised if an Icelander would say that an elf might have “borrowed” it.
The same stories say that elves like to cause chaos and panic and they are known to be vengeful. In 2011, there was an explosion in a mine in the Tradarhyrna mountains in the Westfjords and nearby houses were pelted with stones from the blast. It was said that probably the local elves caused this because they were annoyed with the construction of a tunnel nearby because they weren’t asked nicely to move.
Numerous infrastructure projects were stopped or delayed because people thought that the elven habitat was at risk. Our Reykjavik guid was telling us that not so long ago, a road was being built and it was planned to go over the hill in Kópavogur straight over some random boulder which we now come to know as Álfhóll. Whatever machinery they brought to break or remove the boulder, it would just break down. It was clear to everyone that they were dealing with an elf rock so they asked the help of an elf expert to negotiate with them. Unfortunately, the elves refused to leave their home so now the road goes around that boulder!
According to popular belief, throwing rocks is not encouraged as you might hit an invisible elf somewhere. Therefore, an Elf School exists with the purpose of helping the young and the tourists alike to recognize the existence of these creatures, to understand how some natural phenomena are closely related to the hidden people and then to meet people who claim they have met elves and were invited in their hidden homes.
Tradition says that during Christmas and New Year’s Eve the people can have a really strong connection with the elves. It’s appropriate to wait for them with a clean house and food. During New Year’s Eve, when it’s said that they move their homes, people decorate their windows with lights so the elves can find their way through the night. Even though we visited Iceland in August, a lot of the houses had light decorations in their window, including the house we stayed in. The cold outside helped create a magical ambiance and you felt like you stepped in this country during Christmas.
Tourists visiting iceland can take part in all kinds of tours called Elf Walks, in regions known to have strong communities of elves.
About Ásbyrgi canyon
The Ásbyrgi canyon is a quiet place, so quiet that you feel like when you take a corner you’re gonna stumble into an elf. The information panels at the entrance in the canyon advise you to keep quiet and respect the nature, so you won’t annoy the hidden people.
The canyon is also known as “The shelter of the gods”, further increasing its magical aura. It is part of the Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, and it’s 3.5 kilometers long, 1.1 kilometers wide and the cliffs around it soar to 100 meters. According to Norse mythology, the god Óðinn was riding his eight-legged horse named Sleipnir and when it placed one of its hooves on the ground, Ásbyrgi, the hoof-looking canyon was created. The geological explanation couldn’t be further from the vikings’ story, but the latter is cuter and more mysterious.
Geologically speaking, Ásbyrgi was created after a catastrophic flooding caused by the eruption of one of the subglacial volcanoes below the Vatnajokull ice cap. The heat generated by the volcanoes melted the ice and the flood washed away the earth downstream, leaving only the rocks. Scientists say that his happened at least twice in the recent history, once 3000 years ago and once 8000-10000 years ago. The danger of catastrophic flooding caused by subglacial eruptions is present nowadays as well. The Icelandic Met Office regularly tracks volcano activity and goes into full alert every time there’s a risk of them happening. During the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, a huge amount of water was released by the ice cap above the volcano causing massive damages.
Getting back to Ásbyrgi, the canyon is full of life, there’s plenty of flora and fauna to observe, and if you have good weather you can trek along the entire route which can take you up to 7-8 hours. You can also camp here (and we were told it’s worth it) as you might be able to see a rare hawk species, gyrfalcon , and maybe the polar fox.
If you have some time on your hands, a marked route will take you all the way up on the central cliff called Eyjan.
How to get to Ásbyrgi canyon
On the Ring Road, coming from Dettifoss, drive on road 862 and take a right on road 85 all the way up to the parking lot in the entrance to the canyon.