11 facts about Iceland's elusive elves
As if the landscape of fire and ice wasn’t wonderful enough, the stories of its magical creatures make it all the more wondrous.
Most cultures have their own breed of impish creatures invisible to human eyes. In the United States we have a fairy who takes our teeth, a rabbit that delivers chocolate, and a team of toy-building workers in the North Pole. But while our belief in magical creatures generally fades away with childhood, in Iceland, elves aren’t just for kids. As part of the county’s history, elves have played a part in the cultural fabric of the place for ages. Their lore is woven into the magic of the land, where they are as much a part of an unseen universe as they are a part of nature itself, even inspiring road and building developers to respect their habitats. If only we could be so considerate in the United States! So with no shortage of respect, we present the following facts:
1. While belief in the reality of these creatures may be a bit on the wane over the years, the last study to measure such things found that 54 percent of Iceland’s 300,000+ residents would not deny that elves exist.
2. References to the word alfar (elf) first appeared in Iceland in Viking-era poems that date back to around 1000 AD.
3. Depending on who you ask, elves and huldufólk are either one in the same, or two distinct types of beings. The word huldufólk means “hidden people.”
4. According to the headmaster of the Icelandic Elf School, Magnús Skarphéðinsson, there is one kind of huldufólk and 13 kinds of elves on the island. He says that the hidden people "are just the same size and look exactly like human beings, the only difference is that they are invisible to most of us. Elves, on the other hand, aren’t entirely human, they’re humanoid, starting at around eight centimetres."
5. By other accounts, the difference between huldufólk and elves is that huldufólk like to drink coffee, whereas the elves, not so much.
6. Elves, they’re just like us! Valdimar Hafstein, folklorist and professor writes that their “economy is of the same sort: like humans, the hidden people have livestock, cut hay, row boats, flense whales and pick berries.”
Rock piles for the hidden people. Photo: Jeroen/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
7. Elves generally live in the rocks, but may be found in houses as well. But wherever they are, it is believed best not to bother them. Professor Jacqueline Simpson says, “treat them with respect, do not upset their dwelling places, or try to steal their cattle, and they’ll be perfectly ... quite neutral, quite harmless.”
8. Locals believe that they are very territorial, and that disturbing their homes and special places can lead to mayhem for those creating the disturbance. Ryan Jacobs, quoting experts in field, writes in The Atlantic that disturbing their homes and churches can agitate their "fiercely" territorial side:
Machines break or stop operating without explanation … Then, perhaps, a worker sprains an ankle or breaks a leg. In older stories, sheep, cows, and people can fall ill, and even drop dead. As Jacqueline Simpson says, “If you damage their stones, you will pay for it.”
9. The elves have inspired an environmental movement, of sorts, made of protestors and activists who fight against development of areas in which they believe elves live. It’s a very beautiful idea; one that speaks to the value of nature, but also makes sense given the intensity of the landscape. Elves are kind of "a ritualistic attempt to protect something meaningful, respect something of importance, and acknowledge something of worth,” says writer and professor, Haukur Ingi Jónasson.
10. There is so much hoopla over construction projects potentially harming elf environs that the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration created a five-page standard reply for inquiries. Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, a chief spokesperson, wrote in an email to The Atlantic. “It will not answer the question of whether the [Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration] 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.”
Engraving by George Pearson of the Icelandic legend of Hildur, the Queen of the Elves./CC BY 2.0
11. During the holidays in Iceland, there is a custom to make sure the house is clean and to leave food for the elves on Christmas Eve so that they can feast and dance while the humans are at church. On New Year's Eve, some believe that elves relocate to new homes … for which people light candles to help them find their way.
And watch this trailer for a documentary focused upon the legends of Iceland's hidden people for more: