Hellnahellir

Hellar í Landsveit - Hellarnir


Useful Information

Location: Landsveit farm, Hella. (63.83344, -20.399988)
Open: All year after appointment.
[2020]
Fee:
Classification: SubterraneaCellars
Light: electric
Dimension: L=50m
Guided tours:
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography:
Address: Hellar í Landsveit, Rangárvallasýslu, 851 Hella, Tel: +354-487-6583.
Reservations: Margrét Sigurjónsdóttir, Tel: +354-487-6583, Mobile: +354-861-1949.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
Please check rates and details directly with the companies in question if you need more recent info.

History

1332 Hellar farm first mentioned in written documents.
1950 cave cleaned and made accessible for farming use.
1982 cows abandoned, cellar was not needed any more.
2000 bishop of Iceland holds mass in the cellar.

Description

Hellnahellir (Cave at Caves) is a cellar which is said to be the largest man-made or artificial cave in Iceland. The hellir (cave) is located at the farm Hellar in Landsveit, and as Hellar is the plural of cave, the name is Cave at Caves. Obviously the farm was named after the cellars.

The cellar is almost 50 metres long, has two entrances, one at each end, and the walls are covered with engravings. Five chimneys in the ceiling were probably dug to provide daylight and to allow smoke from fireplaces to escape the cave. The cave was built into the soft volcanic tufa of the volcano Skarðsfjall. The cellar is deep enough to be independent from the outside temperature, it is the same all year.

When the cellars were dug is unknown, according to legends they were dug by Irish monks who reached Iceland before the Vikings. Those Papar were Christians and left cross marks on the walls and a somewhat large niche resembling an altar. However, the existence of those Irish visitors is still unclear, while St. Brendans voyage is documented, there is no archaeological evidence. The oldest Scandinavian source mentioning the existence of the Papar is the Íslendingabók (Book of the Icelanders) by Ari Þorgilsson. It was written some 250 years later, between 1122 and 1133, and was thus based on legends. The legendary Papar lived on Iceland when the first Norsemen began settling in 874, and they soon left Iceland because of their dislike of the 'heathen' Norse. According to this book they were leaving behind numerous books, bells and crosiers, but none survived. Archaeological research can never disprove the existence of the Papar but there is no tangible evidence to prove that they existed.

If the cellar was not built by Irish monks it was dug by the farmers settling in this area between the years 900 and 1332, the year the farm is first mentioned. As the name Hellar obviously derives from the existence of caves we know that at least two cellars have existed at that time. And they were impressive enough that the farm was named after them. No archaeologic remains were found inside the cave, so we actually do not know when they were built or why. Were they used for living, at least during the winter? The five chimneys make this a possibility.

The cellar has three parts, named Heyhellir, Gamlihellir and Göngin. Hayhellir was used by the farmer to store hay. Gamlihellir was filled with sand almost to the ceiling. It is probably a result of landslides caused by the frequent earthquakes, but there is no sign of a landslide nowadays, so it must have been long ago that the remains on the surface were destroyed. In historical references from 1702-1714 landslides which spoil fields at the Hellar farm were mentioned. But as the descriptions are not accurate this is just a speculation. Another guess is that landslides depositing material on top of the cave increased the insulation and made the caves less frost prone and also stopped dripping water from the surface. Göngin is filled with sand until today and When it was cleared of the sand in the 1950s new sand flowed inthrough the ceiling and as there was the danger of a collapse it was walled off with huge rocks.

When the cows were abandoned in 1982 the cellars were not needed any more. As the cellar has a good accoustics it was used for concerts and the bishop of Iceland even held mass in the cave. So the cellar became known as The Singing-Cave and locals and tourists started to ask for a visit.

Once upon a time a calf stumbled into the cave and got lost. To look for the poor calf a workman was sent in after it. He wandered around in the darkness for some time without any success in finding the calf. When he heard the humming of a river on top of his head he got scared and turned back. When he returned to the surface, quite embarrassed with no calf to show for his efforts, there was golden sand in his shoes which he had unwittingly picked up along the way.
The calf turned up several days later. The farmer at Stóri-Núpur, several kilometres away on the other side of Þjórsá-river, heard mooing coming out from under his bed. It turned out to be the calf that got lost in the cave, safe and sound except for its tail which it had somehow lost along the way.

This old legend about the cave actually tells the three most common exaggerations about an unknown cave: unrealistic length, a lost animal, and some kind of valuable which is discovered once but never found again. Those seem to be typical human thoughts about mysterious caves all over the world.

There are numerous cellars in the area, cellars are important to store goods and as shelter for livestock, so all farmers with the right rock were digging cellars. Lambahellir (Lamb Caves) and Hesthellir (Horse Caves) are quite similar in size and connected by narrow tunnels. If the names are a hint, they have long been used to house animals. Lambahellir has a well inside and a crib along the wall which is 5m long. The cave was used as a sheepfold well into the 20th century. Hesthellir was most likely never used for horses, because they might have had problems with the narrow staircase with 12 steps at the entrance. Either the land was lower before the landslides and there were no steps long ago, or the cave was named for some other reason. Two more caves, side by side below the hamlet are called Kirkjur (Churches). They are mostly collapsed and there is no hint why they we built.