Amidst municipal election projections, heated whaling debates, and a run of contentious labour strikes, an altogether different kind of story made headlines last month when East Iceland’s solemnly titled ‘Truth Committee' announced that it needed more time to complete its target objective. Namely, to review submissions from people claiming proof of the existence of the Lagarfljót Worm—Iceland’s (slightly less formidable) answer to the Loch Ness Monster. But in mid-May, just over two years since its establishment, the committee announced that its work was not complete and officially requested that the governing town council grant it just a few more months to complete its investigation.
Although there are a number of variations on the legend, the basic story goes that ‘The Worm’—now an immense serpent-like beast—was once just a normal worm-size worm. A young girl who lived in the area received a gold ring from her mother, and was told to secret it away in a chest with a worm (sometimes a slug, sometimes a snake) for protection. Then, she was told, the worm and the gold would grow together. But the worm grew much too big, much too fast, and the frightened child pitched the chest, beastie and all, into Lake Lagarfljót. This apparently suited The Worm just fine, as it just kept on growing.
Now gigantic and quite hungry, The Worm quickly became a problem for locals, devouring anyone who tried to cross the water and occasionally even slinking ashore and spitting its horrible poison about. So several magicians (generally said to be Sami mystics) were called in to destroy the beast in exchange for the monster’s gold if they were successful. Unfortunately, the magicians were unable to kill The Worm, but they were able to restrain its head and tail on the bottom of the lake so that it would never rise again. But every now and then humps of the monster’s back can be seen undulating over the surface of the water, sightings of which are said to be bad omens.
The Worm Resurfaces
That’s the legend, and you’d be hardpressed to find many who would recite that tale as a strictly factual account. Nevertheless, sightings of The Worm date back as far as 1345 and, as a former Grapeviner/resident of the area once noted, “numerous sightings [have been] recorded since, many of them in the 20th century and mostly by people who have generally proven to be reliable. And sober.” In fact, sightings of The Worm have been so common that in 1997, the surrounding municipality of Fljótsdalshérað decided to host an open competition, offering 500,000 ISK (roughly 4,400 USD) to anyone who came forward with irrefutable evidence of the creature.
The competition generated a lot of interest and garnered a number of submissions—photographs and even several original paintings. But none of these passed muster as ‘irrefutable evidence’ and eventually the competition was all but forgotten and the prize was left unclaimed.
Fast forward then fifteen years to a February morning in 2012, when a farmer named Hjörtur Kjerúlf stood at his kitchen window and filmed (what appeared to be) The Worm slithering through ice floes along the surface of the lake. This thirty-second home video got two and a half million views within days of being posted to YouTube (nearly five million today), made international headlines from Japan to the UK, and brought news crews, monster hunters and mythdebunking types from Russia and The US among others.
It was around this time that a neighbour recalled the bygone competition and suggested that Hjörtur submit his video for consideration. “He sent an official letter to us,” recalls Stefán Bogi Sveinsson, the president of the Fljótsdalshérað town council. “Here is the video. So…I’d like to have my prize money now."
The Committee Assembles
This was a bit of an unexpected wrinkle for the town council—for one, that prize money hadn’t just been waiting patiently in a safe for 15 years. Moreover, after hearing that Hjörtur’s video had been submitted as evidence, two other people came forward with photographs that they wanted considered as well. But rather than try to deflect these claims, the council decided to embrace them—to reopen the competition but this time, to do it with a little more flair. “We decided to make it quite grand,” Stefán explains. “To set it up quite scientifically.”
Thus was born the Sannleiksnefnd um tilvist Lagarfljótsormsins, or the Truth Committee on the Existence of the Worm of Lagarfljót, a thirteen member board of illustrious volunteers including several town council members, an environmentalist and photographer, a tourism promoter, a landscape architect and forestry professional, a biologist, an ethnologist, a pastor, and a former member of parliament. There’s also a self-described “Worm enthusiast,” a specialist in “mysterious phenomena,” and the chairman of the Félags áhugmanna um skrímslasetur, or the Association of Amateur Monster Researchers.
There seem to have been more than enough willing volunteers to establish the Truth Committee, but all the same, many members—as locals who have grown up with this story—have had their doubts about the existence of the creature. “It’s difficult to live with this legend,” Stefán says. “It’s not really something you like to admit you believe in, but you don’t want to slam the door on it, either.”
Moreover, it was very important that the playful ceremony surrounding the committee not be misinterpreted as irony or mockery. “People around here have seen it,” Stefán says. “Quite a lot of people. So when we formed the committee, the resolution at the town council meeting had to state for the record that we had no reason to doubt the existence of The Worm. Officially, we don’t not believe.”
The committee was given the rest of the municipal term—until June 2014— to review the submissions and come to a conclusion about their validity. “Of course, time passes,” Stefán says, noting that suddenly their deadline was in sight, but no real “end game” had been established. But announcing their findings at a regular town meeting seemed a little anticlimactic, everyone agreed, so they decided to request an official extension on the life of the committee so that they might “end it properly” at the Ormsteiti, or aptly named “Worm Party”—the municipality’s summer festival, held annually in August.
The Truth Will Out
The Truth Committee didn’t have any trouble getting the town council to approve its three-month extension, although Stefán notes that one council member did go on record saying that she didn't think that a Truth Committee was really necessary. “Her father saw the worm, and she is convinced that it exists,” Stefán says. So she doesn’t understand why we needed to do this.”
Still, the question of how exactly the committee will go about verifying Hjörtur’s video, or the other two photos, remains. “To be quite frank,” Stefán says, “we don’t really know.” But however the evidence is assessed, the committee will put the matter to a vote and the winner (or winners, as the case may be) will be announced at the Worm Party in August. Stefán says that locals have gotten into the spirit of the competition and think of the final announcement as something to look forward to. All the same, many members of the community are of the mind that the competition results are a bit of a foregone conclusion. “Almost everyone has seen the video, although not as many know about the photographs,” Stefán says. “They say, ‘it’s obvious you have the evidence—just give him [Hjörtur] the cash prize.’ But as a committee, we have to be thorough.”