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Godafoss: Iceland's Waterfall of the Gods

Goðafoss waterfall sunrise on east side

When planning an Iceland road trip, there are certain places or activities that always make it to the top of any "things to do in Iceland" list. There are glaciers, naturally; plus, we can’t forget about volcanoes and hot springs. And of course, there are Iceland’s breathtaking waterfalls.

In a land known for its natural beauty and stunning landscapes, the country’s cascades particularly stand out as some of our top national treasures. Godafoss is Iceland’s pride and joy, as it holds the key to a major milestone in our history.

Waterfalls in Iceland

While many may know that Iceland’s nickname is the Land of Fire and Ice, I have another suggestion: The Land of Waterfalls. This may come as a surprise to many, but Iceland has over 10,000 waterfalls. Not bad for a little Nordic island around the size of Kentucky. The reason for this is twofold.

First, Iceland gets a lot of precipitation. When you decide to embark upon a spectacular Icelandic voyage, be sure to bring a sturdy, waterproof (not water-resistant) rain jacket. More often than not, our days have lots of drizzles, snowfall, or other types of moisture. The result is that we’ve got lots of rushing rivers that eventually end up careening over a cliff in the form of a waterfall.

The second reason is our spectacular glaciers. Every summer, these icy mammoths melt a bit, and all of that water needs somewhere to go. The river flows end of up filling watercourses like the River Skjálfandafljót, which is where Godafoss flows from. The river has its origin in the Vatnajökull glacier and is the fourth longest in Iceland.

One of the best things to do is to take a hike or an excursion to one of our many cascades. Iceland falls are well-known for their beauty and majesty, and after visiting our tiny island, I’m sure you’ll see why. Let’s discover one of my favorites that you absolutely can’t miss.

Godafoss Waterfall

Nestled in the heart of North Iceland, the natural wonder is easily reachable by car. It lays just off Iceland’s Ring Road (Route 1), so you’ve got no reason not to take this detour when circumnavigating the island. Believe me; it’s well worth it.

If you’re planning an Icelandic Highland excursion or intend to spend any time near Lake Mývatn, making a stop at this gorgeous waterfall could be a highlight of your trip. This wonderful cascade is one of the many stops on the larger Diamond Circle route. While not as famous as its western brother, the Golden Circle route, this 310 km (190 miles) circuit has about a dozen attractions and highlights.

Many travelers with a Europe rental car decide to hit the Ring Road and only travel along the South. This is understandable, given the short amount of time that some people have for their vacation. If you’re trying to fit everything into a 7-day itinerary, you’ll miss a lot. This includes gems like Godafoss waterfall and the Diamond Circle.

The Waterfall of the Gods

Godafoss is one of the most spectacular waterfalls in iceland. Seeing the hues in the sky magically change colors as the sun rises over its east side is a magical experience you won’t soon forget. This colorful changing of the guard from night to day is a must-do on your Iceland bucket list. Watching the sunset on the waterfall’s west side is also a sight to behold.

And it’s not just great for daytime activities. Head here when it’s dark for incredible views of the Northern Lights. This is a spectacular waterfall in Iceland from which to view the undulating waves of emerald and amethyst illuminating the nighttime sky. If you’re a photography buff, be sure to bring your tripod to capture every moment with those long exposure shots.

Iceland's Northern Lights over Godafoss waterfall on a snowy winter night

Historical Significance of Godafoss

Written as Goðafoss waterfall when using the Icelandic alphabet, this cascade holds a special place in our hearts. Thanks to its history, Godafoss waterfall’s name will forever remind us of when the destiny of our entire country changed forever. Its name means waterfall of the gods. While it’s nice to think that this is a Valhalla-like meeting place for Nordic deities, that’s not exactly the case.

It’s actually quite the opposite; this is the spot where Iceland experienced a key event in its conversion to Christianity. While the monotheistic belief system is now the official religion of Iceland, it wasn’t always like this. The story is quite an interesting one, so sit back, make yourself comfortable, and prepare to learn something new.

The Year 999 and a Man Named þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði

So, what exactly is the story of how this iconic Icelandic waterfall got its name? To understand it all, we’ll need to travel back to the year 999. I don’t mean actually travelling back in time like Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future, of course. But we do need to take a step into the past to understand a vital event that occurred in Iceland’s history.

Ok, so we’re back at the turn of the millennium (not to be confused with Y2K), and Iceland is a pagan nation. We worshipped the old Norse gods of our Viking predecessors, who settled in Iceland and believed in their polytheistic mythology. Figures like Thor, Odin, and Freyja made up our collective of gods. But there was one small problem: Norway. More specifically, Olaf Tryggvason, who was the king of Norway at the time.

King Olaf had recently embraced Christianity as the official religion of his country and expected others under his rule to follow suit. Although Iceland is now a sovereign nation, historically it has always had ties to both Denmark and Norway.

But Icelanders weren’t ready to give in so easily. After all, nobody likes being told what to do. Norway decided to play hardball and cut off all commercial routes to and from the island. Icelanders also couldn’t fish in Norwegian waters.

Viking ship and history of Godafoss waterfall

Reykjavík, We Have a Problem

People began to starve as food and provisions were limited. Tensions were running high, so the island’s leaders decided to do something about it. The country’s most powerful chieftains and tribal leaders gathered at Iceland’s Althingi (parliament) in Thingvellir National Park. One of the more prominent leaders was þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði þorkelsson, an Icelandic priest.

Sorry Thor, Party’s Over

Here’s a fun fact about Iceland: sometimes to entertain ourselves, we try to say þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði ten times fast. Ok, we don’t really do that; I just wanted to check to see if you’re still paying attention. I know sometimes history lessons can get a little boring. But not this one!

At any rate, this was an extremely difficult decision to make, as people’s religious beliefs are a very personal choice. At the same time, Iceland’s citizens were suffering, and they needed someone to intervene. The leaders of Iceland’s tribes weighed the pros and cons of Iceland embracing Christianity.

In the end, þorgeir decided Christianity was the easiest way to go, but with a few conditions. Icelanders could still practice paganism at home, they could eat horsemeat, and infanticide would still be allowed. Not a bad compromise, right?

Legend says that þorkelsson went to stand at the edge of the mighty waterfall and threw his pagan statues of the Norse gods over the cliff as a symbolic gesture of acceptance of the new religion. This dramatic display marked the official conversion to Christianity in Iceland and a new chapter in our country’s history.

And for our eagle-eyed readers, don’t worry. Infanticide is no longer allowed, as it was banned once the church was established. Whew!

How to Arrive

The waterfall is only about 34 km (21 miles) miles away from Iceland’s second-largest city, Akureyri. Just follow Route 1 east for about half an hour. You’ll find the turnoff which leads to a small parking lot, and then it's just a quick walk.

Godafoss: Iceland's Waterfall of the Gods

As you can see, there’s much more to this waterfall in Iceland than one would suspect at first glance. The elegant Iceland waterfall is intricately tied to our country’s history and conversion from paganism to Christianity.

This lovely cascade serves as a reminder of the transformation we made from being a polytheistic country to a monotheistic one. I hope you can appreciate the power, beauty, and splendor that go along with this locale’s historical weight. Come and visit and you won’t be disappointed.

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