In 2012 a video of what was claimed to be Iceland’s most famous lake monster went viral. The home video, claiming to depict a legendary monster named Lagarfljótsormurinn, showed a long, serpentine form apparently swimming in a glacial river in eastern Iceland.

Icelandic folktales have long told of a serpent in that lake. In their book “Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales,” folklorists May and Hallberg Hallmundsson describe one origin tale of the beast: “At one time, long, long ago, there was a woman living on a farm in the Lagarfljót district, close by the stream where it broadens into a lake. She had a grown daughter. Once, she gave her daughter a gold ring.” The woman instructed her daughter to catch a snake and keep the gold ring underneath it in her linen chest (as, apparently, one did long ago in rural Iceland). She did so, “but when the girl went to look at her ring again, the snake had grown so large that the chest was beginning to come apart. Then the girl was frightened and she picked up the chest with everything in it and threw it into the lake. A long time passed, and gradually people became aware that there was a serpent in the lake, for it was beginning to kill both people and animals crossing the waters.”

Two brave Finnish monster hunters were summoned; they were unable to kill the lake serpent, though they were able to chain it to the bottom of the lake. “The serpent, therefore, can no longer kill man or beast, but sometimes it will arch its back, and when this is seen it is always taken to augur disaster.”

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This legend nicely explains why the lake monster no longer eats people or animals, and why only glimpses of its back can be seen in the waters. It was widely considered a myth, which is why much was made of the 2012 video when it first circulated. It was widely reported and analyzed, including by me here at Discovery News:

There are a few things that it pretty much could not be, starting with what it appears to be: a snake. Snakes are exothermic; they can’t regulate their body temperature and must depend on the environment to do so. That’s why snakes in the wild can sometimes be seen basking in the sun early in the morning—they’re trying to warm up. While some species of snakes are aquatic, they typically live in much warmer climes; the last place a snake would want be is an ice-filled stream. Because of the poor quality, shakiness, and brevity of the footage, it’s not even clear that the would-be monster is actually moving. It seems to be heading upstream, but that could just be an illusion created by the water moving past it. It could be making progress toward the shore — or its head might be simply sitting there, more or less stationary in the water while the ‘body” contorts with the current.

Miisa McKeown, a Finnish researcher (leave it to the Finns to solve monster problems), analyzed the video and took screen captures at different times and compared the location of the animal’s “head” to static reference points to see if the swimming creature was actually moving, or the result of an optical illusion. She found that the object is stationary in the water; it appears to be moving up the stream but is not. Instead it’s some flexible object caught on a branch, likely a fishing net or rope.

Undeterred by skeptical explanations, the local government established a commission to determine whether the video was authentic, and whether the cameraman was entitled to a cash prize for proof of the beast. The inquiry is now complete, and according to a recent article for “Iceland Review Online,”

Lagarfljótsormurinn, the giant serpent rumored to inhabit the lake Lagarfljót near Egilsstaðir in East Iceland truly exists, as announced on Saturday by the majority of a 13-person truth commission established in 2012 by the Fljótsdalshérað municipal council. The commission was given the task of determining whether a video of the alleged monster shot by Hjörtur E. Kjerúlf, which went viral, was authentic and whether he was entitled to a prize of ISK 500,000 (USD $4,300). Hjörtur shot the footage through his kitchen window at farm Hrafnkelsstaðir in Fljótsdalur early one morning in February 2012. The video was originally posted on the website of national broadcaster

So there you have it: according to at least seven people (out of 13 on the panel) the monster officially exists, based upon a shaky video of what is almost certainly a fishing net caught in a stream. The quasi-official endorsement of the Lagarfljot monster marks a break from the past when the existence of the beast was generally dismissed.

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The 1980 book “Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious World” notes that “an enquiry addressed to the Icelandic Museum of Natural History about the Lagarfljot monster… produced a very vinegary response to the effect that Lagarfljotsormur has never been anything but a legend. According to the museum, this monster was just leaves, tree branches, and other vegetative remains brought together by the strong currents in the Lagarfljót river.”

Indeed that description very closely matches the most likely explanation for the 2012 video. The announcement is sure to spur even more “cryptotourism,” and the area has already had hundreds of visitors coming from around the world to look for the monster.

It’s not clear whether the “truth commission” was originally a serious study or a tongue-in-cheek stunt, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The local government paid out about $4,000, but it’s a tiny fraction of the money that monster tourism will bring — just ask the people of Inverness, on the shore of Ness, Scotland’s most famous loch.

Photo Credit: YouTube screengrab