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The Cultural Heritage of Reykjanes

The Reykjanes peninsula is well known for its dramatic landscapes but this part of Iceland also has a long history and a rich cultural heritage. Let’s take a deep dive into the region’s past and learn about its cultural heritage and its folklore.

Culture is as much about social history as it is art and music. Longstanding traditions and workplace practices shape a community as much as the things it relies on for entertainment. Reykjanes juts out into the Atlantic Ocean and as such its no surprise to learn that people have long earned their living from the sea.

Conditions in the past were far harsher than they are today and you’d have needed to be tough back then to survive. Fishermen would have lived for part of the year in basic accommodation that lacked electricity and running water. Others toiled on the land, harvesting sufficient hay to get their livestock through the challenges of an Icelandic winter.These hardy souls shaped the settlements that litter the peninsula.

Today, we look back on such times both to connect with our own ancestors but also to build a deeper connection with the places we visit. The best cultural museums provide a window onto the lives and livelihoods of those who played an active role in their hometowns, painting a picture of what they would have experienced through the pictures and exhibits we find ourselves in front of. Discovering more about them will add an extra dimension to your visit.

Duushús Cultural Center

If you have a keen interest in Icelandic culture and history, then a visit to the Duushús Cultural Center of Reykjanesbær is a must. It comprises a collection of historic buildings, the oldest of which is a timber structure that dates from 1877. You’ll also find a reconstructed turf house, Stekkjarkot, which is open by appointment; the original was in use until 1923.

The buildings in this cluster house a number of museums, including those devoted to maritime traditions, to art and to heritage. As well, you’ll find the main Reykjanes visitor centre here. It’s useful to remember that similar themes of history and heritage are covered at nearby Garðskagi Heritage Museum too.

At the Duushús Cultural Center, the local history museum covers settlement in the area across the centuries, illustrating how the fishing industry played a pivotal role in sustaining the population in this part of Iceland. Here, you can examine the connection between people and their landscape through photographs and other exhibits. The place offers visitors the chance to become acquainted with the area’s social history, learning how people made a living in the past from land and sea. You can also find out how they went about their daily routines at home – life was so much tougher back then and it’s a good opportunity to remind ourselves how lucky we are to be living in the 21st century.

Reykjanes: a UNESCO Global Geopark

The region of Reykjanes is designated as a UNESCO Global Geopark and its visitor centre is here at Duushús too. If you’ve visited the Bridge of Continents, you can ask them for a souvenir certificate which proves that you have stood where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are moving apart. This is also a good starting point if the recent volcanic eruptions at Mount Fagradalsfjall and near Grindavik have piqued your curiosity.

The Reykjanes peninsula’s unique geology is explained in an accessible way, so that when you get out and see it for yourself, you’ll have a better understanding about how the landscape has been shaped by geothermal and tectonic processes. You’ll get a better grasp onhow it might change in the future as well.

Reykjanes in Icelandic folklore

Science – particularly our grasp of plate tectonics – has evolved over the decades and as late as the 19th century everyday folk wouldn’t have known how volcanoes erupted or where and why severe storms developed. In the past, therefore, people sought to interpret what they couldn’t understand and turned to myths and legends to do so.

Many parts of the Reykjanes peninsula feature in folk stories. These tales have been passed down through the centuries and form an important part of Iceland’s oral history. Sometimes, the line between social history and plain old storytelling is blurred, and the stories we hear are a blend of the two. In some cases, multiple variations of the same story have evolved and their provenance is no longer clear.

As we now have a better understanding of science, superstitions that were once widely shared and treated as truths can be discredited and confined to the history books as sources ofamusement. Many of the processes that once gave rise to them are now more easily explained as geological or geographical phenomena.

Yet, we retain a fascination with these stories out of curiosity and nostalgia for the past, meaning the link between physical geography and culture is just as strong as it ever was. They’re often entertaining, or playfully frightening in a way that helps us educate our children about the dangers presented by the natural world. Let’s take a look at some of the folk tales and myths that are wrapped up with places in Reykjanes.


At Brimketill, the force of the waves has eroded the lava rock into a natural pool. Powerful swells churn the sea to create a swirling cauldron of white water. The waves smash into the rock, breaking on its flanks and sucking out not only the water inside the hollow but anything that happens to be within it at the time. No sane human would contemplate jumping in. Nevertheless there’s a folk tale of a giantess who frequents the pool. Her name is Oddný and she first came here to wash her clothes and bathe. It’s from her that we get the pool’s historical name: Oddnýjarlaug, which means “Oddný’s pool”. Trolls like Oddný don’t like the sunlight, so locals used to avoid the area at night because they feared they might encounter her. Today, we realise that such a tale was a way of ensuring people took the violent sea’s danger seriously, though it’s said that Oddný still loves to soak here – just don’t try to follow her lead or you’ll be knocked off your feet.

Gunnuhver geothermal area

Gunnuhver geothermal area gets its name from Gunna, a ghost that reputedly haunts the place to this day. A woman named Gudrun – Gunna for short – lived here around 400 years ago. Inside her house, she kept a pot constantly on the boil and that led some people to believe that she was a witch. Vilhjalmur Jonsson was a lawyer who was also her landlord. When he found out she couldn’t make the rent, he confiscated the pot. Gunna flew into a rage and vowed to go on hunger strike. Sadly, she later died. During her burial, the grave diggers got a shock when allegedly they heard a voice shout “No need deep dig, no plans long to lie”. The following day, the lawyer was found dead; he’d been savagely beaten up and had numerous broken bones. The locals were scared and enlisted the help of a priest. He trapped Gunna’s ghost, enticing her to grab a piece of string which was then used to pull her into the hot spring at what we now call Gunnuhver. She’s been trapped there ever since.


The distinction between real historical events and folklore gets a little fuzzy at Krýsuvíkurberg. In 1627, Iceland came under attack from pirates from Algiers and Salé in North Africa. At the time, that region was part of the Ottoman Empire, so these marauders are often referred to as Turks. They landed first in the Westman Islands and then moved west to the south coast of Reykjanes, capturing Icelanders and Danes to be sold as slaves. At Krýsuvíkurberg, three pirates attacked, killing at least one woman. But they made a fateful mistake and chased a shepherd to where he lived in Krýsuvík. There, they wound up dead. Some say they were murdered, others that a priest’s spell cursed the intruders, leading themto turn on each other and they didn’t live to tell the tale. To this day, the trail that the pirates followed is known as Ræningjastígur, which translates as the Bandits Path. In a field near Krýsuvík, you might notice three small mounds which are said to be the pirates' graves.


A sheepfold called Staðarborg is located about 8km from Vogar on the north coast of the Reykjanes peninsula. It uses lava rocks in its construction to form a circular pen that’s about two metres tall and eight metres across. It has been there for a few hundred years and there’s a legend involving how it came to be open to the elements. So the story goes, a talented stonemason called Guðmundur built it for a local priest who lived at the parsonage at Kálfatjörn. He took great pride in his work, selecting only the stones that fitted together most closely. He intended to top it with a roof of stacked stones. However, the reverend refused to allow it, arguing that the finished building couldn’t be grander than his church. Its steeple, he said, had to be the most magnificent thing in the area. Guðmundur was disappointed, but knew that he was beaten. That’s why there’s no roof on the pen and it’s only fit for corralling livestock.


You’ll hear people refer to Þorbjarnarfell as Þorbjörn. Some people will tell you that the name of this 243 metre high hill refers to a giant. If you look at the shape of the landscape you might be able to see the outline of a man’s head as if he was using the flank of the fell as a pillow. The place is also home to Þjófagjá (known as Thieves’ Gap in English). Why thieves? Legend has it that fifteen robbers operated in the area. Nearby villagers were fed up with being the victims of their crime spree and hatched a plan to put an end to it. The son of a local farmer infiltrated the group and discovered that every Saturday they liked to go to Baðsvällir pool to bathe. One Saturday, it was the turn of the farmer’s son to look after their clothes, but while they weren’t looking, he folded in the arms and legs of their clothes making it hard for them to pull them on. As they staggered around, they cut their feet on the rocks. Angry, they chased him back to the village. It was an ambush; the thieves were caught and later hanged at Gallows Cliff.