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The Elves of Iceland
While belief in elves has disappeared in most places, it’s hung on in Iceland where the sprites are known as huldufólk, or hidden people. These are not jolly little dwarfs with pointed ears and red hats, such as those that work for Santa or lurk near the petunias in gardens.
Huldufólk are the same size as humans, it’s just that most people can’t see them. Others say they range in height from a few centimetres to three metres.
They are said to have black hair, wear grey clothes a couple of centuries old in style, and to live in boulders. Apparently, they don’t like electricity but they do like farming and fishing. They are usually peaceful unless their habitat is disturbed – then watch out, they can get downright snarky.
Elves in Iceland
Iceland is a place of bleak volcanic landscapes often under lowering slate-grey skies. Dark hills are shrouded in mist.
Puddles of mud bubble, geysers shoot gouts of steam and water into the air, the earth shakes with seismic tremors, occasionally there are fiery rivers of lava, and the Northern Lights frequently throw curtains of colour across the night sky.
It’s the sort of place where you’d expect elves to hang out.
Icelanders engage elves in a circle of annual celebrations. At Christmas, 13 Yule Lads put rewards or punishments into the shoes of children. New Year’s Eve is the time when elves move so Icelanders leave candles alight to help them find their way.
Sitting at a crossroads on Midsummer Night will attract elves bearing gifts. Those who accept the presents will suffer badly; those who resist the temptations will receive great rewards.
Origins of Huldufólk
Many north European societies have believed in the existence of creatures from the spirit world. The word alfar, or elf, first appears in Viking poetry dating back more than a thousand years. Pagans treated elves as minor gods associated with fertility and nature.
Sceptics and killjoys suggest the earliest settlers in Iceland were incredibly lonely and created the huldufólk to keep them company.
Stories about them and their activities flourished about 500 years ago, and some of them get quite dark.
That brings us to the road building. The idea was to build a new road connecting the Alftanes peninsula to the capital, Reykjavik.
But elf watchers said the route would disturb an elf habitat. In particular danger was one of their chapels, which to the untutored in matters elfish looks like a four-metre high lump of lava rock.
Hundreds of people descended on the project to block the advancing bulldozers.
The problem was resolved by a local lady who is in contact with the elves. She negotiated a compromise that involves moving the 70-tonne rock to a new site. This would ensure that road-building machinery did not break down and that workers escaped injury.
The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration prefers to take a neutral position on elves and has created a standard five-page reply to media enquiries on the topic. In part, the organization says “It will not answer the question of whether employees do or do not believe in elves and ‘hidden people’ because opinion differs greatly on this and it tends to be a rather personal matter.”
Elves Save a Life
Árni Johnsen is a member of the Icelandic parliament who came to grief when his SUV hit a patch of ice. His car hurtled off a small cliff and came to rest near a large boulder. He escaped serious injury but his vehicle was a write off.
He called in elf expert Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir who said the boulder was inhabited by three generations of elves.
The MP credits the elves with saving his life and pushed to have the boulder moved closer to his home. The 30-tonne rock now stands in a grassy area (the elves wanted to keep sheep) with the window side facing a nice view.
Road-building, again, was also involved in the removal of the boulder.
Cashing in on Elves
There’s money to be made out of the spirit world.
Iceland’s official tourist organization offers a 14-day trip for $2,400 around the island entitled “Elves to Icebergs – Family Circle Tour.” It rather coyly refers to “stories of mythical beings” – mythical? Hmmm.
Tourists can visit Reykjavik’s Elf School, which is run by Magnus Skarphedinsson. There, visitors get a three-to-four hour lecture on elves. The $53-fee includes “The 80 pages studybook in English (or German or Swedish), - the coffee or tea, - the best bread in the country, - and pancakes with jam and wipped-cream for thouse that like that (belive us, everybody loves that ...).”
And, of course, a certificate of competence in elfish study is handed out; wouldn’t be right not getting a certificate.
There’s a museum in Stokkseyri (about an hour from Reykjavik) dedicated to elves, trolls and the Northern Lights. Then, of course, there are the souvenir shops. The ever-popular tea towels ($13) and aprons ($24) decorated with elves sell well.
Plastic elf critters ($5-$20) come in all shapes and sizes – none of them resembling the accepted description of Icelandic elves.
But, the must-have item for the sophisticated world traveller is the “I had sex with an elf in Iceland” T-shirt ($20).
According to the BBC “80% of the population of Iceland refuses to rule out the existence of elves.”
“Love is a perky elf dancing a merry jig and then he suddenly turns on you with a miniature machine gun.” – Matt Groening
“Why So Many Icelanders Still Believe in Invisible Elves.” Ryan Jacobs, The Atlantic, October 29, 2013.
“Why Icelanders Are Wary of Elves Living Beneath the Rocks.” Emma Jane Kirby, BBC Magazine, June 19, 2014.
“Iceland’s Elves Delay Massive Road Project: ‘Hidden Folk’ Advocates Say Construction Disturbs Elf Church.” Associated Press, December 23, 2013.