There’s a well-known (to everyone but me, apparently, until recently) stereotype about the people of Iceland believing in elves. I knew that Bjork, Iceland’s chief export, is often compared to an elf, but I assumed it was just because she’s magical, kind of small and elven-featured. It turns out, there are deeper roots.
In 1998, a survey showed that 54% of people in Iceland believed in the existence of elves. That’s pretty high, like higher than a whole bunch of elves stacked on top of each other.
So where does this come from?
The first reference to elves, which Icelanders called “huldufolk,” which means “hidden people” (and which rules) was in a 1000 AD viking poem. Some folklorists and experts take this to be why the belief feels baked into Nordic culture — it was there from the beginning. It’s speculated that it could have to do with Vikings coming to the land and both expecting and wanting to be conquerers when really, they were the first to arrive, making them the indigenous people. The idea of elves, someone they were dominating and taking the land from, may have allowed them to feel like conquerers. (Whatever you need, Magnus.)
On the kinder side, it’s thought that belief in elves could have been a form of primitive environmentalism, a way of communing with the land in a beautiful place with all kinds of powerful nature. Iceland’s landscape is awe-inspiring, but also has a capacity for destruction (with mountains, volcanoes, and rivers). Believing in the presence of sentient beings with an inclination toward mutual respect may have been both an act of reverence for their surroundings and a comfort.
That reverence continues to this day. Icelanders and elves were in the news in 2014 because of protests by an environmental group called Friends of the Lava, rallying against a new road development that would cut the landscape, destroying beautiful lava formations and natural habitats.
As well as supernatural habitats.
At least some members also believed the construction will displace elves living within the volcanic rubble — that many elves that live there, and they’ve already left the area until matter is settled. And if the matter isn’t settled to their liking? It could have dark consequences.
The Icelandic idea of elves is less Santa’s helper, and more like small humans simply inhabiting another realm that has overlap with theirs. They have their own communities, agriculture, jobs, and churches, and live a simple, old-timey life, complete with old-timey clothes. They’re chill! If you treat them with respect and don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. They’re harmless, charming roommates.
Unless you touch their cheese in the fridge, metaphorically speaking. Elves are territorial, and if you mess with their land, they’ll mess with you. Machines will break, freak accidents will occur, workers or those pulling the strings have reported dream warnings, and sheep or cows on their stolen land will fall ill. You mess with the tiny bull, you get the tiny horns.
Those road-makers constructing at the site that the Friends of the Lava were protesting decided to take their chances and go ahead with the project, untouched natural landscape be damned. No public reports of elven dream warnings yet, but, if 54% of the population 20 years ago are to be believed, they may be on their way.
Like this post? Then you might like to hear us talk about it on Guide to the Unknown episode 38!