I thought it might be helpful at this point to post a map of the island. Iceland is about the size of the state of Kentucky. You can see Reykjavik, the capital, on the lower left. The road we were driving runs all the way around the edge of the island. We traveled east, through Selfoss, along the southern coast below the big glaciers of Myrdalsjokull and Vatnajokull, not quite as far as Hofn, which you can see on the coast at lower right. Kirkjubæjarklaustur is a little village between those two glaciers (the name is below the word SUDERLAND in the lower center of the map.)
I woke early at our simple guesthouse (above, beneath a gorgeous double waterfall), and went for a walk by myself along the river. As had been true the day before, I realized I was seeing strange formations, but didn't know what they were. I've since learned that the region surrounding Kirkjubæjarklaustur has been devastated repeatedly by volcanic events, throughout recorded history since the settlement of Iceland (around 900) and long before that.
"Kirk" is the root that means church, and "klauster" ("cloister") refers to two religious foundations - a monastery and a cloister of nuns - that were there long ago. There are stories about impropriety between the monks and nuns, and of good nuns and bad nuns who are buried near significant rocks (above) or swam in the lake above these cliffs.
The Systrastapi (sister's rock) is where two of the convent's nuns were buried after being burned at the stake. One of the nuns was accused of selling her soul to the Devil, carrying Communion bread outside the church, and having carnal knowledge with men; the other was charged with speaking blasphemously of the Pope. After the Reformation, the second sister was vindicated, and flowers are said to bloom on her grave, but not that of the first nun. (Wikipedia)
As was true in many places where Christianity was introduced, pagan religion and folklore became interwoven with the new faith. This persists even now. In one area of strange volcanic cones, the interpretive sign (below) carefully explained the geology, and then went on to caution visitors to show respect because "the hidden people" had been seen near these formations. (You can see the volcanic cones behind the sheep in the last photo of the previous post.)
It all makes sense to me: in such a strange landscape animated by inexplicable and sudden, life-altering events, and where the rocks take human-like forms, I too could believe in elves, trolls, and magic.
This sparsely-populated region has a name, Öræfi, that means "wilderness." For many years it was cut off from the rest of the island; this was the last part of the ring road to be completed. The reason is that this area contains two volcanic sand deserts: huge expanses of black sand that is subject to sandstorms in the summer, and to "glacial bursts": flash floods that arise when water that has built up under the glaciers (melted through the heat of the volcanoes that lie beneath them) reaches a critical mass. When that happens, the glacier actually lifts up, the water spills out, and rushes down across the sands, taking out roads, bridges, and anything in its path. There was a glacial burst a few days after we returned to Reykjavik, making front page headlines, and undermining one of the bridges we had just crossed. As we drove across these vast plains, I thought about the early settlers, crossing on horseback or even on foot: it seems incredible. But it must have been even worse to have to cross a lava field.
Öræfi has been a no-man's land because of its history of catastrophic volcanic activity; the most active volcanoes in Iceland are located beneath these glaciers. To the west of Kirkjubæjarklaustur is a huge lava field that was laid down during the 1783 -1784 eruption of Laki, or more correctly, the Lakagigar, a volcanic fissure that's part of the Grimsvotn volcanic system. This eruption was absolutely devastating: it released clouds of poisonous hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide that killed 50% of the island's livestock, and the resulting famine killed a quarter of the population. Basalt lava flowed over a huge area, 14 cubic kilometres. The eruption caused a drop in global temperatures that caused crop failures in the Northern Hemisphere and possibly as far away as India; it changed the monsoon patterns and caused a famine in Egypt that killed 1/6 of the population there. It's estimated that six million people died as direct result of the Laki eruption, making it the most deadly eruption in recorded history. I only learned this after we traveled through that lava field, now covered with thick moss that makes it, ironically, very beautiful.