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.

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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.