Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Everything You've Heard about Iceland is Wrong...Sort of...Part 4. Elves and Fairies

Brace yourself because I'm about to buzzkill all over your face.
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
As Þráinn so nicely summed it up, "people were pretty bored in the old days".

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.
So now that we've cleared up some misinformation about exactly what supernatural beings reside in Iceland, let's look into the actual Icelanders.

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...

Dear mr. Harkin 
Stories on road construction and elves in Iceland 
are exaggerated and not worth your time. 
Attached is a Word file with an essay on the matter. 
Foxes and reindeer have not been an issue in road planning in Iceland. 
All the best from Reykjavik 
Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson 
Chief of Publishing Unit

 (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.

The Icelandic Road Administration (ICERA) and the Belief in Elves
by Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, Chief of the Publishing Unit
The Icelandic Road Administration

In recent decades there have been a few alleged incidents of road construction intruding on elf settlements and cursed places. These problems have all been resolved in one way or another and can now be considered a thing of the past. The tales live on, however, both on the written page and orally and frequent questions on this topic come the way of the ICERA. Such queries may stem from journalists, students, professionals and scholars, both home and abroad. This essay is written is to explain this issue clearly since a lot of time goes into answering the same old questions.

It is hoped that this text will rectify the situation and it can be looked upon as the author's interpretation of the ICERA's view on the issue. It will not answer the question of whether the ICERA's employees do or do not believe in elves and "hidden people" because opinion differs greatly on this and it tends to be a rather personal matter. However, you may assume that the author severely doubts the existence of such phenomena.

Iceland's current road network extends some twelve thousand kilometres. Each year roadworks are carried out at a vast number of points and millions of cubic metres of solid and loose minerals are moved. Sometimes opinions differ on how something should be done, and the ICERA's employees try to reach an agreement with the locals on the best way to proceed. There may, however, be disagreements on the positioning of roads, bridge-crossings or gravel mines. It is often possible to reach some kind of agreement but sometimes the ICERA needs to take the bull by the horns and decide on a course of action which may not please certain people but in the end is in the best general interest. The environmental impact is assessed for many construction projects and everybody is given the opportunity to voice their opinions. It cannot be denied that belief in the supernatural is occasionally the reason for local concerns and these opinions are taken into account just as anybody else's would be. This is simply a case of good public relations.

We value the heritage of our ancestors and if oral tradition passed on from one generation to the other tells us that a certain location is cursed, or that supernatural beings inhabit a certain rock, then this must be considered a cultural treasure. In the days when the struggle with the forces of nature was harsher than it is now, conservation came to the fore in this folklore, and copses and beautiful natural features were even spared.

The reaction of the ICERA to these concerns has varied. Issues have been settled by delaying the construction project at a certain point whilst the elves living there have supposedly moved on. At other places the people in charge have seen no other solution than to continue the project against the wishes of certain individuals. There have been occasions when working arrangements have been changed slightly but at little extra expense. There is no denying that these stories of elves and cursed places have attracted the attention of the media. ICERA's employees have answered questions on this matter and have not ducked the issue. Nevertheless, the ICERA has never encouraged discussion on the matter nor brought it up since this could raise further ghosts.

Now it's time for the other side of the story. Rumours sometimes begin after something was originally said in jest but, as hearsay stories often do, they can go wildly out of control. Mishaps and accidents may occur in any construction project despite the measures taken to avoid them. It is a serious business when people try to pin the blame on evil curses and it's of no use to anyone, least of all to those involved in such accidents.

Even worse is when the curses are supposed to affect the relatives of those working on the project. The media should be careful of what they say here and not give such stories too much coverage. These kinds of unconfirmed rumours just aren't newsworthy. It's not unusual for people working at a place where such rumours started to begin attributing everything that goes wrong to an alleged curse. But everybody has their ups and downs in life and we all suffer blows, whether large or small, at some time or other. If we suffer some kind of loss and imagine we can link it to a cursed place or something similar, you should stop and ask when was the last time something equally bad happened and who was bothered that time.

There now follows a description of three events which took place in recent decades and which all received a certain amount of attention. They are short accounts gathered from written and oral sources. These sources are not named here as this is not being written as an actual history essay. It's mainly written for people interested in getting to know such stories so they can get to grips with the basic situation before delving deeper. The following examples are the only known cases involving the ICERA during this period.


At the end of the 1970s, preparations got under way for a new construction project, Road No.75, Saudárkróksbraut, over Hegranes in the Skagafjördur district of northern Iceland. The decision was made to build the road over Tröllaskard, The Trolls' Pass, and it was necessary to detonate some rocks in the pass in order to lower the level of the road.

The road was designed by an engineer from the ICERA and a team of local workers under the guidance of the service area supervisor was to complete the project. It so happened that the medium Hafsteinn Björnsson held a séance in Saudárkrókur during which the message appeared that the rocks in Tröllaskard must not be detonated as the site was cursed. This came as rather a surprise because the plans for the road were not known to many people and were not considered something that people would talk about. It's worth pointing out that Hafsteinn was renowned throughout the country as a medium and many people believed in his abilities and so his warning weighed rather heavily. There followed further warnings from seers and the area supervisor thought that it had all become a bit too much for him to solve. He then consulted his superiors in Reykjavík and the chartered engineers of the ICERA decided to call a meeting with Mr Björnsson to see what the problem was.

It's common for mediums, or those who talk through them, to pass on their messages to guests at a séance; the better the medium, the clearer the message. It seems as if Mr Björnsson managed to convince the people at the meeting of his talents because the engineers attempted to reach an understanding with the supernatural beings through the medium rather than disregard his warnings. However, the magic power did not belong to the same world as the one Mr Björnsson worked in, so no deal was reached. Before the year was out, and without having reached an understanding, Mr Björnsson was dead.

The situation deteriorated from this point on because although people had tried to keep the meetings in Reykjavík quiet, stories about the curse began to circulate amongst the roadworkers in Skagafjördur and many had become rather nervous. Amongst them was the site foreman who thought he had portentous dreams. He dreamed twice that he was visited by supernatural beings and he warned against disturbing anything in the pass. Then something started to go wrong with the bulldozer which was to move rocks at the bottom of the slope. At first its engine inexplicably broke down and then started to make the most peculiar noises even though there was nothing wrong with it. The bulldozer was removed from the job and another took its place and later completed the job without any further problems. People thought that the "hidden people" had had the chance to move away from the site.

To cut a long story short, the road was completed without any of the rocks being detonated. If you drive over the pass, it is rather obvious that the lie of the road is unnatural, the road being a testimony to the incident in which the ICERA's workers did their utmost to comply with the wishes of the seers. There have been no serious accidents on the road since it was laid and some people believe that the elves protect road-users as a reward for the consideration shown them.

Grásteinn in Grafarholt

In 1971 a new road was being built on the way north out of Reykjavík. The road is a part of the ring road, State Road No. 1. Previously, the road had been unsurfaced and followed the contours of the land but the new road was to be a modern, surfaced highway and would become a conspicuous landmark. Along the route of the new road there was a large, prominent rock known as Grásteinn (Grey Rock). The rock needed to be moved out of the road and whilst this was being done, stories began to circulate at the site that the rock was inhabited by elves and that accidents would befall anyone trying to remove it. An attempt was made to try and get to the bottom of these rumours but elderly people who had lived there for a time had never heard such stories. These stories had apparently been made up at the time of the construction project, probably by someone who was opposed to the work or just out of a sense of mischief. The rock was removed and left where it can still be seen in two parts, probably turned upside down from its original position. A newspaper article at the time reported some accidents for which the rock was blamed by some of the workers. The nature of the accidents was not revealed and other sources indicate that most of the mishaps occurred before the rock was removed.
One event from that period is, however, well documented. A machine operator who helped to move the rock had the misfortune of dismantling a water pipe leading to a fish farm. As a result 90,000 smolt were killed due to lack of oxygen and the financial loss was devastating. This came as a great shock to the operator involved and he later tried to find some reason for his misfortune. This is a natural reaction and something that most of us would probably have done in the same situation.
In 1999, two new lanes where added to this road and the rock was again in the way of the construction workers. The elf story is thirty years old and has become rather rooted in local folklore. Every so often the media bring it up and tour guides point the rock out on the way out of the city. The rock has, rightly or wrongly, been defined as an archaeological site and has been marked as such. However, permission was granted to move it and october 18 th. 1999 it was moved to a nice spot not far from its former location.

Klofasteinar (Cloven Rocks) at Ljárskógar

During the summer of 1995 a new stretch of Road No. 60, the Westfjords highway, was being laid around the property Ljárskógar, just north of the village of Búdardalur. It so happened that there was a large rock jutting out over the route of the new road and there was no option but to move the rock. The rock was a third of the Klofasteinar which in the old days had been a single huge slab of rock. The construction work on this road went very badly and machines broke down and there were a few minor accidents. Some local people knew the stories about elves inhabiting these rocks and considered it likely that they were to blame for all the troubles. The contractor then announced that he did not want to be responsible for moving the rock. As a result of press coverage of the issue, a woman got in touch with the ICERA's technical staff in the West Iceland Region. She had been born and raised in the area and was said to have the powers of a medium and she offered to resolve the issue. The woman went to the site and investigated the rock by laying her hands upon it. She announced that there weren't any elves in the rock which needed to be moved but there were some in the other Klofasteinar rocks whom she knew from her younger days. She then got permission from the elves to move the rock near to the other rocks if great care was taken. ICERA's workers moved the rock under the close supervision of the woman. According to the woman she wasn't the only supervisor as the rather worried elves were by her side the whole time. The move went well and there have been no further problems at the site. 


  1. So even children probably don't believe in any of this fairy-talk, or in Santa? What about the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy? Are they all a bunch of jaded little post-modernists?

  2. Don't you find it interesting at all though that authorities are working, in any measure, with people who do believe? In Canada's history there was a similar incident in Saskatchewan regarding a rock considered Sacred by the Cree peoples that was in a spot that would soon be flooded for a dam. The BEST solution activists could come up with was to blow the thing up. Government authorities and the corporation in charge of building the dam didn't so much as bat an eye at the spiritual desires of local people; spirituality isn't considered a justifiable reason to stop development, even today, unless a place is deemed a national heritage site (which would never happen if the government wanted to develop there).

    Maybe it's because you have grown up within Iceland that you do not see how significant it is that your government will take into consideration local beliefs and spiritual/ culturally significant places before building; in Canada we don't get that privileged.

    I guess I can't speak for everybody; but I don't look at the situation as backwards or quaint or cute. I don't see why 'contemporary' or 'modern people' must only consider organized religions, or no religion, legitimate, or why it isn't okay that people may want to preserve land that is significant to local folklore traditions. In fact I think it is absolutely a step in the right direction that authorities in Iceland are willing to respect spiritual ideas even if they don't agree with them, and come to civil agreements about land development with local people rather than scoff them off as being uneducated.

    Maybe this will give you a fresh perspective on why some people are so interested in these happenstances and why we want to know more. We are not all so privileged as to have our beliefs treated with any such amount of respect.