When I lived in Germany (2001-2004), people often asked me whether it was true that Icelanders believed in the existence of elves. Apparently they had gotten the idea from a slightly exaggerated German-produced documentary about Iceland.
The question annoyed me because I felt it implied that my people were extremely naïve and backwards thinking, which I considered not to be true. “Of course we don’t believe in elves,” I snorted.
Later I read about a poll on the subject, stating that 40 percent of Icelanders did indeed believe in the existence of elves and that no other western nation was as superstitious as my people. Not even Ireland with its leprechauns.
I started wondering whether the Germans had been right after all and whether the results of the poll could really be true.
Elves or huldufólk (“hidden people”) are featured in innumerous Icelandic folk tales. They live inside rocks and hillocks in a world alongside ours and they are hardly ever visible to humans. They look like us and they lead similar lives as we do and all they want is to be left in peace (although a few mean-spirited elves sometimes try to lure humans into their world by having them accept delicious food or shiny bracelets made of gold). The hidden people don’t harm humans unless they disturb their habitats or interrupt their way of life.
A few years back a road was being constructed and a big rock was in the way. Every time attempts were made to move it, the machines that were being used broke down. Finally a medium was called to the scene who could determine what the problem was. The rock was inhabited by hidden people and they were not happy about having their home moved. The road constructors agreed to leaving the rock alone and constructing the road around it. The machines worked fine after that.
Come to think of it spiritualism is quite widespread in Iceland, and along with it, belief in elves. I don’t think 40 percent of Icelanders firmly believe in the existence of elves, but not many would firmly deny their existence either. Is that an indication that Icelanders are naïve and backwards thinking?
I’d rather be inclined to say that the belief in elves bears witness to our closeness to nature, our cultural heritage and our need to explain things we can’t understand.
Iceland went through a rapid process of modernization after World War II and some of my countrymen who were born in the mid-century lived on turf farms without electricity or running water during their early childhood. Their parents told them stories about elves, trolls and ghosts to explain peculiar rock formations or strange events – which had often passed from generation to generation – and stories like that stick.
I like hearing such stories too as they echo the past – of what life was like in Iceland before my time – and are often entertaining as well.
When I was a lovesick teenager I could vividly imagine what the poor farmer’s girl felt when she had to choose between the hidden world and the world of humans after falling in love with the beautiful elf prince who visited her where she was guarding sheep in the mountains.
The thought of a dead lover returning in the form if a scary ghost to take me to his grave on a dark and cold Christmas night sent shivers down my spine, like the thought of having to fight a vicious troll for my parents’ only cow.
So, do I believe in elves…? Of course I don’t. But I wouldn’t firmly deny their existence either.
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