Screengrab image supposedly showing the Lagarfljótsormurinn lake monster from the video filmed and posted to YouTube by Hjörtur E. Kjerúlf.

Geysers, volcanoes, hot springs… Iceland is well-known for its amazing natural phenomenona and also for its many legends about supernatural phenomenona. Many Icelanders will tell you that they enjoy believing or half-believing in these ancient stories. But what happens when a well known legend is caught on modern-day camera?

In 2012, the municipal council of Egilsstaðir, a village of 3,000 people in remote eastern Iceland, suddenly had an interesting situation on its hands. They had received a formal letter from a local farmer. It was an entry for a prize created 15 years earlier offering 500,000 Icelandic krona [Editor’s note: Roughly equivalent to 3,300 euros] to anyone who could prove that a monster called Lagarfljótsormurinn lived in the nearby lake, Lagarfljót.

Lagarfljótsormurinn, which means “the worm of Lagarfljót,” has been the subject of folklore around the region for hundreds of years (the first written record of the monster was in 1350). But it was quite a surprise when farmer Hjörtur E. Kjerúlf gave the council a homemade video, which purported to show the monster writhing around in the lake near his home in Hrafnkelsstaðir on two separate instances in February and March 2012.

Hjörtur E. Kjerúlf filmed this video supposedly showing the Lagarfljótsormurinn lake monster in February 2012 and posted to YouTube.

Hjörtur E. Kjerúlf filmed a second video of the 'lake monster' in March 2012-- a month after the original sighting. He posted the video to YouTube.

After establishing the investigative commission, the Egilsstaðir city council took two years to deliberate the authenticity of the video, only coming to a decision in 2014.

'It’s difficult for a reporter like me to know how to respond to something ‘magical’ like this'

Rúnar Snær Reynisson is Hjörtur E. Kjerúlf’s nephew. He is a reporter who works for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. He told FRANCE 24 about the day his uncle spotted the monster.

It was in February 2012 and he called me to say that he was looking at the lake out his window and he could see the monster. I told him that it was just some debris, but he asked me for directions to set his camera on video mode to film what he saw. Later that day, he drove to my town to show me. I work as a TV and radio news reporter and it’s difficult for a reporter like me to know how to respond to something ‘magical’ like this. Even my uncle doesn’t know. Sometimes, I talk to him and he believes it was the monster and next time, he says he doesn’t. But I decided to send the video to my news desk. They put it on the web. A few days later, my editor called to say the website was crashing because so many people were looking at the video. A month later, my uncle saw it—whatever it was— again.

Screengrab of the video filmed by Hjörtur E. Kjerúlf.

Screengrab of video filmed bu Hjörtur E. Kjerúlf.

'In a certain sense, the monster exists even if it only exists in the story'

Stefan Bogi is a lawyer and politician living in Egilsstaðir. He was president of the municipal council when they were first presented with Kjerúlf’s video in 2012. Bogi became the chairman of the video verification committee.

When we received the formal letter from Kjerúlf, we needed to respond in a formal way. We couldn’t just shake it off so we thought we’d gather a panel of experts. It was a mixture of official necessity and something fun and interesting. A few members were local and national politicians. We also brought in experts on filming, on folklore, on paranormal activities and on medieval monster stories. We tried to gather anyone who could pitch in something interesting to the debate. There was more than one member who had seen something in the lake that they couldn’t actually explain. The father of one of the panelists actually reported one of the most famous sightings of the monster in the 1960s.

We decided to go into this with an open mind. So we decided, from the beginning, that we were not in a position to say with complete certainty that there would never be anything in the lake.

On the panel, we had all different kinds of interpretations. Some people said, even if the monster only exists in the story, it is real for the people living in the area and that is a type of existence. Some people really believe there is an unknown animal species living in the lake. Others believe it is a magical beast or a spectre.

We never had a consensus about what the monster was but we eventually did reach a consensus that we had no reason to disbelieve that there was something in the lake.

All in all, it was great fun to go through this process. Yes, it was strange and different but that is who we are in East Iceland, we are a bit strange and a bit different and we like it like that.

'Local people don’t like the idea of the lake monster being ‘puffinized’'

A tweet from the town council tries to entice visitors to the region. Despite this, our Observer says that the town is hesitant to explore the marketing potential of the lake monster.

Bogi denied accusations in the media that this whole process was a ploy to bring tourists to rural Eastern Iceland. While the number of tourists has increased lately, he says it doesn't have to do with the monster.

I’m not going to play naïve, we were aware that this process would get attention, but to be honest, we haven’t at all marketed the idea of our monster, it’s not like Loch Ness. Perhaps we should be more active in sharing it. But one reason we don’t is that local people don’t want it to become a joke. For lack of a better word, we don’t want to see it puffinized. In the gift shops in Reykjavik, you see rows and rows of puffin souvenirs, it has become this kitsch tourist phenomenon.

I have to say that, when this video surfaced, it touched us all deeply. It’s an old story that everyone knows—and when you think about it, the heritage is incredible: the original stories come from the 14th century and people are still giving eyewitness accounts. We need to honor that history and folklore.

This post was written with FRANCE 24 journalist Brenna Daldorph (@brenna87)