Iceland’s Folklore: 4 mythical creatures that make the scenery come alive

written by Liz Carr November 17, 2023

When you think of a trip to Iceland…

It’s most likely the untamed landscapes, enchanting Northern Lights or milky blue hot springs that jump to mind. But have you ever imagined that something lurking in the shadows could be what really makes Iceland… Iceland?

In a place where the beauty of the terrain seems somewhat supernatural, it’s only fitting for Iceland’s history to be full of rich and peculiar folklore to match. Stories woven by the earliest Norse settlers are mythical, colourful and, depending on who you ask… 100% true. Yes, they might be talking about invisible beings with a penchant for mischief and child-stealing ogres, but these fantastical fables are more than just twisted fairy tales: they’re tools for survival. 

Settling in such a harsh and challenging environment was no easy feat, even for the Vikings, and the isolation and long, dark winters fostered storytelling as a primary pastime. With something harmful around every corner, from towering seaside cliffs to active volcanoes and enchantingly beautiful but lethal beaches, locals crafted imaginative tales to teach children how to endure extreme conditions. Over centuries, a rich tapestry of folktales was born, creating a unique story for each characteristic of this unforgiving land.

Whether these legends are real, no one can say for sure (although denying the existence of elves is believed to bring some pretty lousy luck). If a trip to Iceland is in the cards, here are the top 4 Icelandic mythologies and where to look for them.

Top trips in Iceland


Also known as the Huldufólk, or hidden people, elves are the most well-known of all of the mythical beings in Iceland. Elves have been around since the dawn of time and don’t look and act so different than you and I… especially around the winter holidays when they like to party like humans. Although the elves aren’t inherently evil, it is believed that bad fortune will befall those who upset them, so it’s not uncommon to see construction projects and road developments halted and rerouted so as not to disturb their mythical homes.

Whether the majority of locals are believers is still up in the air, but when travelling around the country, you’ll most likely see álfhóls, or small wooden homes that people build and decorate for the elves. If you want the lowdown on Huldufólk before you set out to find them yourself, consider a trip to The Icelandic Elfschool in the quirky capital city of Reykjavik, an organization that teaches visitors about elves but also touches on all folklore and mythical beings in Iceland.

A group of 8 hikers walking through a bright green Icelandic landscape.
A landscape fit for elves


If you’re picturing the rainbow-coloured dancing trolls who thrive on friendship and hugging, you might want to think twice. Icelandic trolls are decidedly less… cute. Giant and greedy with a taste for human flesh, trolls have a reputation for stealing and eating misbehaving children, and tales of these gruesome creatures are meant to keep misbehaving kids in line.

Most trolls can only move around at night because they will petrify if they’re touched by sunlight. Across Iceland, the terrain is dotted with distinctive rock formations that are said to be the petrified remains of greedy trolls who dared stay out after dawn only to meet their stony fate. The most notable location of trolls is the towering sea stacks off the coast of the black sand Reynisfjara Beach, where a reckless threesome got caught in the sun trying to drag a ship to land. Legend has it you can still hear their wails from the water’s edge.

Visit the trolls of Reynisfjara beach on our 5-day Iceland Express trip

A solo traveler stands on one of Iceland's black sand beaches on a stormy day.
Fancy a visit to the petrified trolls?

Yule Lads

Sometimes known as Christmas Trolls, the 13 Yule Lad brothers hibernate in caves for most of the year, making an appearance 13 days before Christmas. The Yule Lads are notorious pranksters, descending on rural towns to harass locals, rob homes and steal food. If you keep misplacing your glasses or car keys during the Yuletide, you might not be crazy… you might just be the victim of a cheeky Yule Lad.

Although Yule Lads of the past were known for wreaking havoc, these days, they have taken on a more mainstream role in Icelandic culture, acting more as Santa Claus-esque figures. Leading up to Christmas, the brothers will deliver gifts to the good children and a rotten potato to the ones who misbehave, but the very worst ones will meet their fate with the Yule Lads’ mother, giantess Grýla, whose favourite food is human children.

Celebrate with the Yule Lads on our Premium Iceland in Winter trip

A view of snow covered trees with the sun setting in the distance.
Yule Lads make their appearance during the festive winter holidays


No Iceland trip is complete without a classic Icelandic horse sighting. But if you see one of these gorgeous beings in or near a lake, proceed with caution because the Nykur is one of the more terrifying Icelandic folklore creatures. Presenting itself either in or near a body of water, these enchanting horse-adjacent entities appear tame and approachable. Using its beauty, it lures humans closer, and if mounted, it will use backwards-facing hooves to run full speed into the water, drowning its unsuspecting victim.

The legend of the Nykur is mostly perpetuated by parents trying to keep children away from the water’s edge, but if you absolutely must get closer to a horse standing at the lakeshore, it’s probably a good idea to see which way its hooves are facing first.

A group of Icelandic horses running through a field.
Not a Nykur… hopefully.

While folklore and storytelling aren’t as relevant in modern-day society, imagining the incredible scenery full of well-hidden elves or a beach haunted by stone trolls on an Iceland road trip just makes the experience a little more mystical. And while you don’t have to worry about the boogeyman, if you’re walking at night and you hear a rustle in the shadows… it’s probably best to pick up the pace. Just in case.

Try your luck at spotting mythical creatures on one of Intrepid Travel’s Iceland tours.

You might also like

Back To Top