Q: I'm going to apologize in advance if this question seems too silly but I would like to know how common it is for Icelanders to believe in fairies and do you believe in fairies? I had read an article years ago that suggested that many Icelanders hold an age-old belief in fairies or spirits.
Paul Redlich, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
A: According to the University of Iceland’s science web, daily newspaper DV reported in 1998 that the majority of participants in an opinion poll said they believed in fairies, or elves, around 50 percent of men and 60 percent of women. The poll only gave participants a chance to answer yes or no, while older polls show that the majority of Icelanders are uncertain whether elves exist or not.
In a more recent and detailed study from 2007 folklorist Terry Gunnell at the University of Iceland concluded that 37 percent of participants said elves possibly exist, 17 percent found their existence likely, 13 percent said elves could not possibly exist and five percent had no opinion on the existence of elves.
The Iceland Tourist Board however states that more than ten percent of the Icelandic population believes in elves, including singer-songwriter Björk. Another ten percent denies their existence while the remaining 80 percent are in doubt.
The Tourist Board goes on to describe how when new roads are constructed, the Public Roads Administration is careful not to disturb elf habitation. The Iceland Tourist Board quotes Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, author and civil engineer at the administration saying:
"When Native Americans protest roads being built over ancient burial grounds, the US listens. It's the same here. There are people who believe in elves and we don't make fun of them. We try to deal with them."
Elves are generally known as huldufólk or “hidden people” in Icelandic. Jón Jónsson, a folklorist who used to teach at the University of Iceland, told the Iceland Tourist Board that although he had never seen huldufólk himself, his grandmother had seen elves on many occasions and described them to him.
"They are well dressed in the styles of the early 1900s and don't take kindly to being disturbed. They'll often take revenge if you destroy their homes or otherwise bother them," Jónsson said.
If you want to learn more about elves, you could enroll in Álfaskólinn, the Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavík (Tel: +354-894-4014), or join a “Hidden Worlds Tour” in Hafnarfjördur, guided by local clairvoyant Erla Stefánsdóttir.
You could also read this article in the New York Times on the subject. Click here to read Daily Life guest contributor’s Ingibjörg Rósa Björnsdóttir’s take on the matter and here to read whether I believe in elves or not.
For more general information on Icelandic folk belief, read illustrator Brian Pilkington’s and folklorist Terry Gunnell’s 2008 book The Hidden People of Iceland. Email [email protected] for questions on availability.