The Icelandic stereotype that bothers me the absolute most is the one about how most Icelanders believe in fairies and elves.
It bothers me because there are two things majorly wrong with it.
1. Icelanders have never believed in "fairies" or "elves". They are called Huldufólk, which means "Hidden People", but for some reason was lazily translated into "elves", which people associated with fairies.
2. Most Icelanders do not believe in anything supernatural at all.
The stereotype most commonly thrown around to sum up the entire population of Iceland is this one, and it's probably the one that is furthest from the truth. Oh, how cute they all are, leaving out plates of food for elves and building them little villages. They must be such a simple and sweet people, they just don't know any better!
First, I will clear up the definition of Huldufólk. Since these stories are very old, there's a lot of discrepancy about where they came from, how many kinds there are, and what they look like. The most common and widely distributed tale comes from the story of Adam and Eve. You see, one day, God wanted to pay a visit to Adam and Eve and their many children (yes, in this version, Adam and Eve had tons of kids in the Garden of Eden, which makes sense...) but Eve simply did not have time to gather them all up and give them proper baths. So some of them remained dirty. To avoid the shame of having God see her filthy little ragamuffins, she simply hid them somewhere so he wouldn't think she was a neglectful mother. Apparently she didn't do a background check on her visitor, because she would have figured out that he was All-Knowing. Maybe it just slipped her mind. At any rate, God showed up and asked Eve to line up her children so he could have a look. She brought out the clean kids, and when God asked her if there were more, she lied. As punishment for lying, God forever banished the dirty children to a place between Heaven and Hell, where they could only be seen to humans if they wished to be. And they were called the Hidden People. They were exactly like humans in appearance, only mostly invisible.
Huldufólk can be roughly translated as "elf" in English, and there is more confusion when you take in account that Álfar is a synonym that started being used in 19th century stories. My theory as to why tourists have never heard of Hidden People, but are anxious to see fairy stones is that Westerners think that fairies are girls, and elves are boys. It's difficult to sort through the whole taxonomic mess because the tourism industry seems to encourage the notion that Icelanders really do believe in fantasy creatures because it makes them seem quaint and non-threatening. It also seems to do a good job selling wool sweaters and lava rock jewelry.
Iceland also has many folk tales about trolls, which are more consistent. Trolls are large, rude, stupid, and turn to stone when they are caught in daylight. Hence all of the oddly-shaped rocks that scatter the country. These stories most likely originate from old Scandinavian myths that explain interesting rock formations.
For example, the hauntingly beautiful formations, Reynisdrangur, in Vík í Mýrdal are said to be two trolls who were bringing in their ship, but were too slow and turned to stone when the sun came up.
|Real, live trolls|
So that's why there are no fairies or gnomes, or tiny elves in Iceland.
However, I won't completely ruin your fun. Here's a freebie:
Iceland enjoys (or suffers, depending on how you look at it) the longest Christmas celebration in the world, starting on December 12 and officially ending on January 6. In this time, thirteen Yule Lads (pronounce it like Yoo-Lee) come out of the countryside and cause mayhem. The Yule Lads are an endearing, if not terrifying bunch of creatures. They are said to be the sons of Grýla, who is a mountain ogress with a big black cat who eats children who do not receive clothes for Christmas (is that clever, or what?) With the introduction of Santa Claus, the Yule Lads have become more modernized, often adopting red and white cloaks and softening their demeanor, but Christmas time is still a dangerous time.
The Yule Lads commit crimes ranging from slamming doors to harassing sheep, but most of them just steal food. For example, you might be surprised to find your skyr missing thanks to Skyrgámur (Skyr Gobbler), or Gluggagægir might startle you as he peeps in your window, casing the joint. His name means Window-Peeper. Ketkrókur (Meat Hook) will sneak around and use his hook hands and steal meat.
Of course, these are all stories made up for children, and it's comparable to how adults tell their children stories about Santa Claus, but none in their right mind would ever believe such a story. It's probably accurate that adults are the ones stealing leftovers and blaming it on poor Pottasleikir in the same way that American parents nibble on cookies and milk on Christmas Eve.
During Christmas time, images of the Yule Lads are everywhere. Their popularity remains strong, but they are gradually being replaced by the Jolly St. Nick as time goes by.
It's most likely that when these stories first originated, they were just stories, and no one believed them. But there was a surge in their popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries because Iceland was suffering particularly bad times and probably found some comfort in fantasy as a form of escapism.
Here's a quote from a 2006 survey done by a folklorist named Terry Gunnell:
"According to the preliminary results of this survey, 8.0% of 650 persons who answered this question were certain about the existence of huldufólk and álfar, 16.5% thought it was likely they existed, 31.0% assumed it was possible, 21.5% thought it was unlikely, 13.5% thought it was impossible and 8.5% did not have an opinion on this."
I don't know how the survey was conducted. If it was random or not is unknown. But the numbers conclude that the majority of people do not believe in fantasy creatures. The large number of people who answered that they didn't believe, but also would not deny their existence is probably due to nationalistic and nostalgic feelings.
The interesting thing about these numbers, to me, is that I've talked about this to a lot of Icelanders, and not even once has one of them told me that they believe these stories. Most of them are just as cynical and jaded as the rest of the world, and think it's a load of garbage.
This is particularly telling to me because it's common fact that Icelanders are not a religious people. Although church and state is not separated in the country, only 10% of Icelanders attend church once a month or more. Of the religious people, less believe in God than in a "spiritual force". It may be unfair (or unwise) to link the belief of one supernatural to another, but it seems unlikely to me that it wouldn't be so divided.
The truth is, Icelanders are a modern people, and 75% of them live in a modern city. The idea that most of them build shrines to tiny people in the mountains is a bit demeaning for a country that is surpassing many other developed countries in modernization.
As for the famous adage about the re-routing of the main road to avoid sacred elf homes, or because of the mischievous interference of the Hidden People, I offer you this letter from the Chief of Publishing of the Icelandic Road Administration. It starts...
(Full letter after the break)
I believe that this letter will properly reinforce the points I've made here that these stories are greatly exaggerated for the benefit of tourism.
Join me next time for the very last "Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of..." where I tackle the mighty Viking and ruin one more thing for everybody.