A shocking percentage of Icelanders say they believe that it is “possible” elves inhabit the land. We had to know more. And when we dug in, what at first seemed like magical, even childish thinking was revealed to be something much deeper and more important. In fact, it made us wonder if elves — or specifically, the belief in them — might just be one of the keys to saving the entire planet.
These days, on almost any tour you take in Iceland, you’ll run into some mention of elves. There’s no shortage of elf-related excursions. There is the Elfschool in Reykjavík as well as elf walking tours all around the city. You can take a “Hidden Worlds” tour of Iceland that’ll take you to all the largest supposed settlements of elves around the island. Tourist shops abound with elven souvenirs. In Iceland, elves have become a cottage industry. And in a land as enchantingly ethereal and beautiful as Iceland, it seems perfectly fitting that there should be enchantingly ethereal and beautiful beings hidden all around it. It feels like it just fits. But in Iceland, elves are more than a feeling…
In successive surveys taken in Iceland in 1998, 2006, and 2007, it was found that more than half of the respondents believed in elves, or huldufólk (“hidden folk” in Icelandic). And that’s… kind of crazy. Well, crazy until you remember that even 10% of Americans think the Moon landing was faked — and we have actual video footage of that. From the moon. Anyway. In truth, for anyone who truly appreciates Björk or Sigur Rós, there was already something wonderfully elven about Iceland, survey or not, right?
But the idea that half of Iceland’s 364,000 inhabitants literally believe that there’s a strong chance that there are magical, invisible beings all around them did feel rather surprising. And it certainly sets them apart from their Scandinavian brethren, who seem to have long since abandoned their “hidden folk.” And whenever something is surprising, we want to know more.
So, first — what exactly are Icelandic elves?
ELVES, THEY’RE JUST LIKE US!
Historically speaking — all the Germanic and Norse cultures have a rich tradition of elves in their folklore. In Old Norse, they were called the álfar. And eventually, each culture developed their own unique traditions and stories about them. In Denmark, they’re called the nøkke, nisse, and fe. In Sweden, they’re called skogsrå. And in Iceland, they’re the huldufólk.
The first appearance of elves in writing can be traced back to the Viking Sagas and epic poems of the ninth century. But those writings didn’t go into much depth about what elves looked like or what they did or what magical powers they had. It was really in the 16th and 17th centuries that more descriptive tales about elves started to catch on across Scandinavia as well as Scotland. And catch on they did. By the 19th century, they were basically the Marvel-verse of their time. There were volumes and volumes of stories, poems, songs, and sagas about elves.
In Iceland, the huldufólk are far different from what most of us probably picture when we think of elves. They’re not diminutive creatures with Tinkerbell-like wings or long-eared, lithe Tolkien-esque archers. In fact, they look and behave just like humans. They live on the land in an agrarian-style society mirroring that of old Iceland and they exist in a parallel universe that us humans just can’t see. They have the power to make themselves visible to us at will. And they also have the power to influence things in our world — for good or ill — when they choose. And it’s not a stretch to say that plenty of people in Iceland really do think elves intervene in their affairs.
In 2010, a former member of the Icelandic Parliament — Árni Johnsen — crashed his SUV on an icy road. In the crash, his car torpedoed off the highway and then careened off a small cliff, completely destroying the vehicle, but miraculously leaving him without any major injuries. Two years later, in 2012, a new road was proposed in the area where he’d had his crash. But there was a problem — a massive 55 ton boulder was in the way and needed to be destroyed to keep going. That’s when Árni stepped in. He said that three generations of elves were living in the boulder and that those elves had saved his life in the crash.
But for any who doubt those surveys, just consider the outcome in this story: the road construction was delayed, an elf expert named Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir was brought in to survey the rock (she concluded that indeed there were elves in it), and the 55 ton boulder was then painstakingly uprooted and transported — after Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir consulted the elves (they said they were ok with the move) — to Árni Johnsen’s yard where the boulder sits today. I’d say that’s about 55 tons of evidence that Icelanders’ belief in the huldufólk is going pretty strong.
For those who do believe in them, it’s vitally important not to disturb the dwelling places of the huldufólk. And for those who do disturb or destroy them, there will be consequences. Broken bulldozers, sick family members, injuries, or worse.
Now, I personally don’t know where I fall on the “skepticism” to “sorcery” continuum. I think magic is cool. I think questions and the unknown are also cool. I also enjoy science and the process of finding answers. But I’d be lying if I said I believed in elves. I don’t. My rationality as a Capricorn prevents me from believing in them. (And, for the record, I also don’t subscribe to astrology, which is SUCH a Capricorn thing to say.) The point is — if the important question is whether or not elves truly exist, I’d be inclined to say no. But what if that’s the wrong question?
What if the better question is what that belief in elves actually means — what practical effect it has on the people who do believe it and, therefore, on Iceland? And when I asked that question, that’s where things got more interesting… for a Capricorn.
FIRE AND ICE
There are a lot of dramatic places and vistas on planet Earth. Craggy mountains, pummeling seas, wild landscapes, extreme temperatures. But in Iceland, they’re all packed into one island that’s about the size of Ohio. Boiling geysers, grinding glaciers the size of skyscrapers, pounding oceans, two tectonic plates being actively ripped apart, erupting volcanoes, and lava fields for miles. In Iceland, the geologic processes that typically happen over millions of years in other places, unfold before your very eyes, in real time. The land itself is alive. So maybe it’s no surprise that the first settlers of Iceland came to believe that there were actually living beings sharing the land with them.
Many scholars think that this particularly strong belief in elves in Iceland was born out of the need to deal with the severe conditions, extreme scarcity, and isolation of the place. Faced with such a difficult and often lonely landscape, perhaps the first Icelanders took comfort in feeling like they weren’t really alone and that there just might be some benevolent beings out there willing to help them in their times of need. Some scholars also attribute it to the Vikings’ sense of voyage and colonization. When the Vikings landed, for the first time they encountered an island completely uninhabited. And so, they simply invented a people who’d once inhabited the land.
Those early conditions helped cement elves as an important part of Icelandic beliefs. The land is harsh and unforgiving — and the elves became the embodiment (even if invisible) of the connection between the land and the settlers. In a place with limited resources, limited arable land, and constant, violent geologic forces underfoot — being a good steward of the land often meant the difference between life and death, feast and famine. When the Vikings first arrived, Iceland experienced nearly catastrophic deforestation and soil erosion. It’s estimated that Iceland lost up to 90% of its forests to Viking ships and housing and 40% of its soil to the voracious grazing sheep the Vikings imported. The Icelanders needed to learn how to cooperate with the land quickly, or perish.
And eventually they did, seeing any disruption of the natural environment as something that needed to be weighed carefully — extremely carefully — lest the elves punish them for their transgressions.
THE FUTURE: POWERED BY ELVES
It’s been a thousand years since those early settlers landed on Iceland and staked out a hard scrabble existence there, alongside the elves they saw in everything. Today, Iceland is one of the greenest countries on Earth. The Environmental Performance Index put it at #2 as of 2019 (it’s been #1 in previous years). Nearly the entire country’s energy comes from renewable sources, with 73% of electricity provided by hydropower plants and 26.8% from geothermal energy; that’s 99% renewable. The 2nd largest political party in Iceland is the Left-Green party, which is exactly what it sounds like. And Iceland’s current, badass female Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, is a member of it. You can even take a “Green Tour” of Iceland to explore the many hydro-power plants, sustainable farms, geothermal vents, and greenhouses that abound there.
Iceland is a place that takes its land seriously. It has always had to.
And while plenty of people might be skeptical about the idea of actual elves inhabiting the land and demanding it be treated with respect — you have to admit that as a powerful — and useful — metaphor, it’s working.
Iceland is far from perfect, of course. In fact, as Iceland’s natural environment has spurred its absolutely booming tourism industry, it’s that industry that is now one of the biggest threats to its natural environment. As flights and cruise ships increase year over year and as tourists trample over its moss covered lava fields, Iceland is facing a new challenge to overcome.
But if the past is any indication, Iceland will move 55-ton boulders to stay on the right side of things.
As climate change accelerates, worrying studies accumulate, and dire predictions pile up but seem to fall on a world that seems incapable or uninterested in doing much about it – it’s worth wondering how things might be different if more people saw the land as filled with magic (that will severely punish you if you mess with it).
In other words, maybe we’d all do well to remember this simple maxim…
DON’T F**K WITH ELVES
Banner image: Seljalandsfoss, Iceland, by Andrey Andreyev on Unsplash
Stakkholtsgja canyon, Iceland: by Jonatan Pie on Unsplash
Jökulsárlón, Iceland: by Tom Vining on Unsplash
Icelandic Ponies: by Red Charlie on Unsplasplash
Idyllic landscape with a waterfall: by Robert Lukeman on Unsplash
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