These images were captured this afternoon in the spectacular desolation that is the Berserkjahraun lava field on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in Iceland. Late Fall brings red blueberry flowers on the green of the moss-covered lava, lending a splash of colour to an otherwise bleak setting.
Meaning “Berserkers Lava Field,” the gloriously weird Berserkjahraun lies halfway between Grundarfjörður and Stykkishólmur. The lava flowed some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago and is young enough to retain all kinds of convoluted shapes, with fascinating color and textural contrasts in the rock and thick mosses.
The berserkers, from whom “gone berserk” originates, were a faction of Norse mercenaries known for their savage battle frenzy. In Old Icelandic, berserkr meant “bear-shirted,” so they may have worn bear pelts; but berr also meant “bare,” so the name may have only signified fighting without armor. Berserkers disappeared by the 1100s, leaving a wake of mystery for future scholars. Some maintain they were merely symbolic archetypes to be invoked in wartime and as literary figures in the sagas.
The Berserkjahraun was named after a famous incident in the Eyrbyggja Saga. In the late 10th century, Vermundur the Slender of Bjarnarhöfn — a farm located just beyond the northwest boundary of the lava field — returned from Norway with two berserkers. They were difficult to handle, so Vermundur gave them to his brother Víga-Styrr (Killer-Styrr) at Hraun, now Hraunháls farm, at the northeast end of the lava field. One of the berserkers fell in love with Víga-Styrr’s daughter Ásdís and demanded her hand. Víga-Styrr agreed, on the condition that the suitor clear a path through the lava field from Hraun to Bjarnarhöfn. The berserkers quickly finished this Herculean task, but Víga-Styrr reneged on the deal and killed them instead (by locking them inside a scalding hot sauna and spearing them as they tried to escape). In the saga, the berserkers are laid to rest in a hollow along the path.
The story could indeed have some basis in truth. A path through the lava field can still be found, and in a late-19th-century excavation alongside it, researchers uncovered the skeletons of two men — both of average height but powerfully built…