Iceland’s Eastfjords are among the country’s most stunning, but least-visited areas. Steeped in history and folklore, and dotted with idyllic fishing villages, this mountainous coastline is home to herds of wild reindeer, enormous puffin colonies and, of course, the legendary wyrm monster Lagarfljótsormurinn.

Egilsstaðir town is East Iceland’s largest settlement. It sits on the banks of Lagarfljót, a deep and broad river that is fed by Eyjabakkajökull glacier. And because the river is murky, it allows mysterious creatures that like lurking in darkness to go undetected for centuries… or, well, mostly undetected.

The Lagarfljót wyrm was first mentioned in a 1345 annal, and reports of this serpentine monster have continued well into the 21st century. Sightings are said to foreshadow harsh winters or grave times; in fact, the monster was spotted right before a plague swept the nation in 1495, killing half the population, and before the smallpox epidemic of 1707.

The Lagarfljótsormur serpent monster

Two medieval depictions of the Lagarfljótsormur.

Though the Lagrfljót wyrm was first mentioned some 700 years ago, legend has it that the monster is much older, dating back to the settlement age, to a time when a young girl got tangled up in ancient Viking magic.

The legend begins with a simple gold ring that the girl’s mother gave her. The family was not wealthy, and hoping to provide for her own family one day, the girl asked her mother how she could best profit from the ring.

Her mother instructed her daughter to place a lindworm in a chest, along with the gold ring; according to Viking beliefs, both gold and worm will grow in size should one be placed under the other—but the longer they are left together, the bigger and angrier the worm will grow.

In her greed and ignorance, the girl left the worm and the gold ring in her linen chest for several days. When she finally checked on her treasure, the creature had grown so large that the chest had reached a breaking point. Frightened by this rapidly growing and ill-tempered beast, the girl grabbed the chest and hurled it into the Lagarfljót river.

Sheltered by the darkness of the murky water, the worm and gold continued to grow, and before long an enormous serpent monster was killing any man or beast that dared cross the river, and spitting black poison on those who ventured too close to its banks.

The people of the East travelled to all corners of the country in search of help, but no one dared approach the serpent monster. But at last, two Sami wizards from Finland stepped forward, agreeing to slay the beast in exchange for the golden treasure it guarded.

The two wizards dove into the dark river, but they quickly realised that the monster was too big and strong to be killed, and that capturing the gold was an impossible task. However, they managed to bind the serpent’s head and tail to the bottom of the river, where it has remained, along with its treasure, ever since.

And to this day, the monster can sometimes breach the water as it arches its back, fighting to break free from its chains.