This is Lómagnúpur, home of the giant called Járngrímur.
With its proud and dramatic cliff faces and flat surroundings, it is one of Iceland’s most recognizable mountains. Naturally, when I first saw it and pulled over, I was in awe of the power it exuded. It is surrounded by flat, garden-like land and an open blue fjord at its base. This was all covered in snow and ice which, to me, adds to the drama and might of Lómagnúpur.
Only later would I learn why the mountain almost glowed with strength, but we’ll get to that.
The mountain was formed over one million years and is primarily made of palagonite, formed from the interaction of water with volcanic glass (similar to basalt). Lava beds (pillow lava and lava columns) and sediment form the base of Lómagnúpur. The lowest layers are about 2.5 million years old and the highest ones about 1.5 million years old. The sea has left its mark on Lómagnúpur as well. Immediately after the last ice age 10,000 years ago, the mountain was on the coast.
“The giant stands iron staff in hand by Lómagnúpur mountain. He calls to me and he call to you in a deep and sombre voice."
So wrote the Icelandic poet Jón Helgason in his poem Áfangar. In this verse, he is alluding to an event in the famous thirteenth century Icelandic saga Njálssaga (Njáls Saga or The Story of Burnt Njál) that describes events between the years 960 and 1020.
Although there remains extensive speculation on the topic, the author of Njálssaga remains anonymous. The major events described in the saga are likely historical. However, the material was shaped by the author, drawing on oral tradition, according to his artistic needs. Often considered the peak of the saga tradition, Njálssaga is the longest and most developed of the Icelandic sagas.
The principal characters are Njáll Þorgeirsson, a lawyer and sage, and Gunnar Hámundarson, a formidable warrior. Blood feuds are at the center of the saga, showing how the requirements of maintaining honor could lead to minor slights spiraling out of control into destructive and prolonged blood feuds.
In the saga, he chieftain Flosi Þorgeirson once slept on the slopes of Lómagnúpur. Þorgeirson is on his way to a farm on the south coast where Njáll lives. He is intent on exacting his revenge for the killing of one of his kinsmen. While asleep on the slope, Þorgeirson dreamt that the great giant Járngrímur emerged from Lómagnúpur. In the dream, the giant, who is both a seer and immeasurably wise, called out the names of men. Those men whose names Járngrímur called out were doomed to die. While those that he did not name would survive the imminent battle.
Apart from his role in the sagas, Járngrímur is an important cultural symbol for the people of Iceland. He is particularly meaningful for those that live along the southern coast of the island.
In the earliest days of the country’s settlement, and perhaps still to this day, four landvættir (sprits of the land) have served as the guardians of Iceland. Along with Dreki, a great dragon in the east; Gammur, a giant eagle in the north; and Gri∂ungur, a monstrous bull in the west; Járngrímur has stood vigilant to protect Iceland from threat, such as invasion from foreign kings.
According to the Saga of King Olaf Tryggvason in the Heimskringla, Harald Bluetooth Gormsson, King of Denmark, intending to invade Iceland, had a wizard send his spirit out to scout for points of vulnerability.
King Harald [Gormsson of Denmark] told a man versed in magic to travel to Iceland in a different shape and found out what he could learn there to tell him. The man set out in the shape of a whale. And when he approached land he headed west along the north coast. He saw that all the mountains and hills were full of landvættir, some large and some small. Off Vopnafjörður he entered the fjord, intending to go ashore. Then a huge dragon came down along the valley with a train of serpents, insects and toads breathing poison over him.
He fled and went westward off the coast as far as Eyjafjörður and went into the fjord there. Then an eagle flew towards [him] that was so great that its wings spread over the mountains and touched the hillsides on either side of the fjord. Many other birds flew with it, both large and small.
He left there and continued westwards, then turned south into Breiðafjörður, and headed for the fjord. A monstrous bull came towards him there. It waded into the sea and began to bellow horribly. Along with him came a band of landvættir.
He headed south form there around Reykjanes and tried to go ashore at Vikarsskeið. A great mountain giant, Járngrímur, came towards him there with an iron staff in his hands. His head was higher than the mountains and many other jötnar (giants) were with him.
From there he went eastwards the length of the land, but “there was nothing but sand and deserts, and surf off the shore, with such a vast sea between the parts of the land,” he said, “that a longship could not cross it.”
Iron staff in hand, Járngrímur has stood watch here from Lómagnúpur since the arrival of men to Iceland. Throughout time, he has observed as men settled the land. He has watched as they have had to contend with various misfortunes. He can see over the entire countryside and far out to see. Nothing misses his watchful gaze.
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