Dimmuborgir: Iceland’s ‘Dark Cities’

The rugged beauty of Iceland includes roughly 130 volcanoes and the savage geology that results after the active ones erupt. One in particular is swathed in ominous legends and creepy folklore: Dimmuborgir.

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Located near Mývatn Lake in the island’s northern region, Dimmuborgir’s name translates to “Dark Cities” or “Dark Castles.” It’s a tribute to the sheer spookiness of the volcanic field, which is covered in serrated black lava formations. One of the best-known shapes is “The Church,” a rock arch big enough to hold dozens of worshippers.
Historians estimate that Dimmuborgir resulted after a massive volcano eruption around 2,300 years ago. When flowing lava coursed over the wet, marshy soil surrounding a small lake, the boiling water sent vapor sputtering skyward, creating hollow lava pillars. Once the lava cooled and its top crust collapsed, an assortment of unique shapes were left behind: pillars, cones, and keyhole rocks as big as a church.

The ChurchFilip Fuxa / Shutterstock.com

Satan and the Yule Lads

It sounds like the name of a bad band or worse horror movie, but they are supposedly residents of this bizarre landscape.
According to Icelandic folklore, Dimmuborgir is the site where the earth opens into hell’s fiery nether realms. Nordic Christian legends elaborate by asserting that Satan landed there when he was cast from the heavens, and made himself at home by creating the “Helvetes katakomber,” or “Catacombs of Hell.” It’s a story that inspired a Norwegian black metal band to call themselves Dimmu Borgir.

The Yule Lads are folklore figures who have gradually been transformed into Iceland’s version of Santa Claus. Thirteen in number and bearing weird names like Window-Peeper and Spoon-Licker, these mischievous trolls place gifts or rotten potatoes (depending on that year’s behavior) into shoes that children place on their window sills during the thirteen nights before Christmas Eve.

KeyholeFilip Fuxa / Shutterstock.com

In the old days, parents used to scare their kids into behaving by warning that the Yule Lads would emerge from their Dimmuborgir lair and get them. The result must have been a lot of traumatized boys and girls, because in 1746 the authorities issued a public decree forbidding parents from threatening them with monsters like the Yule Lads.

Dimmuborgir: What you see is what you get

Legends aside, the scores of locals and tourists who visit Dimmuborgir every year all agree that the rock formations scattered over the ancient lava field are both intimidating and beautiful. One visitor called it “a remarkable place where the rocks speak to you in a clearer language than anywhere else.”

Imaginative visitors behold the sea of columns, arches, and caves and see a shape or spirit in practically every rock. Naturalists and environmental historians come to study the intriguing geology and marvel at the violent natural forces that created them.

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Getting there

To get to Dimmuborgir, take the road by Geiteyjarströnd farm, which is approximately 5 miles south of the village of Reykjahlíð. There is a service center complete with restaurant, souvenir store, and parking lot overlooking the lava fields.

The region has many walking trails of different lengths and levels of difficulty. One, the Little Circle, takes 20 minutes at most to travel, while the Big Circle consumes around half an hour. Krókastígur, or the Crooked Path, takes around 40 minutes for those in reasonable shape and requires a bit of agility.

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The Church, or Kirkjan as it is called in Icelandic, has its own own walking path: Kirkjuhringurinn, or “the Church route.” It travels through spectacular lava formations until the traveler encounters the Church, a massive open-ended cave with a domed roof.

The majority of visitors come to Dimmuborgir during the summer, as the longer days and warmer weather are more conducive to walking the trails and getting close to the shapes. But visiting the site at Christmastime is apparently even more unforgettable. Everything is blanketed in white and the Yule Lads make an appearance for young visitors. Anyone who brings their children is certain to have a good time — unless they try to use the sight of these costumed trolls to scare the kids. The law of 1746 is still on the books, so beware!

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