Huldufólk: Iceland's Belief in Elves
Religion in Medieval Iceland
Iceland was settled by the Norse in the 9th Century. When Viking settlers came from Scandinavia, they brought with them their Norse language, culture, and religion. Due to Iceland's location, being isolated at quite a distance from Europe, old Norse religion survived much later in Iceland than elsewhere. Even after Christianization, the cultural climate in Iceland was such that the old ways were allowed to survive alongside the new religion.
In fact, it was a Christian who recorded the Norse myths as we know them today. Snorri Sturluson recorded the Prose Edda, also called the Younger Edda, as well as Sagas of the Norwegian Kings in the 13th Century. Although Iceland became decidedly Christian long before Snorri's time, the people did not become detached from their roots to the extent that many other Europeans were cut off from their own.
Although the Roman Catholic Church was responsible for the (often forced) conversion of Northern Europe, Catholicism, in many cases, allowed regional folk practices to carry on as long as there was a Christian veneer polished over it. The cult of the saints is a good example. Local deities were often re-branded as local saints. In this way, locals could carry on venerating them. When the Renaissance picked up steam, however, reformers raged against the "pagan" aspects of Catholicism. Folk beliefs, seen as remnants of paganism, were stomped out with great fervor. Although there were witch hunts in Iceland, the populace was removed enough from the on-goings of Europe for their folk beliefs to survive comparatively intact.
Among the old beliefs that held on was a strong connection with the Landvættir and Huldufólk, the "Land Wights" and "Hidden People."
The Mystical Landscape
While Iceland's isolation may have insulated them to protect their culture, there may have been another reason their ancient folklore survived. Iceland's landscape is... well it is difficult to summarize in a word. The landscape drastic, powerful, dramatic, awe-inspiring, and you might even say that it is magical.
Despite Iceland's name, the land is quite fertile, with an abundance of green during parts of the year. Being an island nation, the sea was (and is) a source of income and sustenance. So, ties to the land and sea remained strong.
Even more poignant is Iceland's array of unusual geological phenomena. It is one of the most active volcanic regions on Earth. Geothermal activity such as geysers and hot springs are also abundant. What makes this region so unique is that the volcanoes and hot springs are juxtaposed beside snowy rock formations and glaciers.
Land of Fire and Ice
So what does Iceland's unique geology have to do with keeping Norse mythology alive? Well, it is almost as if the land is a living reminder of certain myths. Fire and Ice are a large part of the imagery involved in the Norse creation myth.
Muspelheim is the land of heat and flame. It is so hot that nothing can survive there except creatures indigenous to it, like the fire jötunn (giants).
Niflheim, meanwhile, is the opposite. It is a cold, misty, land of ice. Nine frozen rivers flow through this frosty realm.
Between these two lands was a great void called Ginnungagap. And it was in the void where fire and ice met, sparking the creation of the Nine Worlds.
Belief in Elves Today
A large minority of Iceland's population openly admit to believing in Elves and other Hidden People today. These beliefs survived the longest in rural areas, where farmers may still commune with the Land Wights. However, the belief is surprisingly prevalent in urban areas as well. Many residential homes will pay homage to their garden Elves by building homes for them. Elf houses can be seen dotting the countryside as well.
Although only a small percentage of people will admit to believing in them, a much larger percentage of the population still won't deny their existence. Many people won't openly say that the Elves are real, yet at the same time, they take precautions to avoid disturbing them. It's an approach that seems to say, "Elves probably don't exist. But I don't want to take any chances in case they do!"
Elves Reside in Large Rocks
Icelanders believe that Elves live within boulders and large rock formations. If a boulder is known as an Elf home, it is considered disrespectful to climb on it or disturb it in any way. Bad luck could befall someone who disturbs the Elves.
It is interesting that even though the number of people who will openly say "I believe in Elves" is a minority, the public will still speak out to stop building projects that will be trespassing on land believed to be Elf occupied.
Road and highway construction has been halted and diverted when the public became aware that Elf rocks were scheduled to be demolished.
United States military bases in Iceland have been scrutinized by locals for endangering the welfare of indigenous Elves. In 1982 150 people demonstrated at a U.S. naval base with concerns that the U.S. military activities were endangering native Elves.
Sometimes "elf doors" are made from wood and colorfully painted by locals to be placed in front of rocks known to populated by Elves. This serves as an identification marker so that others know not to disturb those rocks.
Communicating With Elves
Icelandic Elves communicate with humans in various ways. They can express dissatisfaction in ways that are non-verbal, but never the less blatantly communicative. For example, they may cause rockslides and other natural disasters to let it be known that human activity has angered them. They can also cause illness in humans, failure of crops, and disease in livestock.
When the Elves are pleased, however, they may bless a farmer with an abundant harvest, or grace their region with pleasant weather and smooth sailing seas.
Dreams are another mode of communication for Elf to human contact. One Icelandic builder reported that as he was making plans to have a boulder on his project site moved, the Elven resident who lived inside it came to him in a dream. She asked that he give her family some time to gather their belongings and find temporary lodgings until the boulder was relocated, at which point they could move back in. The builder stalled the relocation of the boulder for a few days, delaying construction. When questioned on this, the builder refused to change his mind. Treating the Elves with respect was only the right thing to do.
Elves can speak directly with humans on occasion. Most people are not capable of seeing them, but individuals blessed with psychic medium abilities may be able to see and communicate with Elves.
However, if you wander about in any Icelandic village, you are likely to encounter the odd housewife who says she can see and speak with the Elves residing in her garden.
"Icelandic town hopes angry elves have been soothed by songs" - article by IceNews
"Building in Iceland? Better Clear It With the Elves First" - article by NY Times
"Elves in Modern Iceland" - by Rolf Soderlind
"ICELAND'S ELVES ARE ENLISTED IN ANTI-NATO EFFORT" - article by NY Times
"Looking for elves in Iceland" - article by Reuters
"Snorri Sturluson — Viking Mythographer and Historian" - by Vésteinn Ólason
"The Norse Creation Myth" - by Professor D. L. Ashliman
"Huldufólk" - Wikipedia
"Norse Cosmology" - Wikipedia
"Geology of Iceland" - Iceland On The Web
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2013 Carolyn Emerick