Why So Many Icelanders Still Believe in Invisible Elves

How the country’s history and geography created the perfect setting for magical creatures, whose perceived existence sparks environmental protests to this day. 
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A painted "elf door" leans against rocks near the Icelandic town of Selfos. (Bob Strong/Reuters)

At the edge of the ancient Gálgahraun lava field, about a 10-minute drive outside Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík, a small group of local environmentalists has made camp among the gnarled volcanic rock, wild moss, and browning grass to protest a new road development that will slice the bucolic landscape into four sections and place a traffic circle in its core. The project, led by the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration and the nearby municipality of Garðabær, will provide a more direct route to and from the tip of the Álftanes peninsula, where the rustic, red-tiled compound of the country’s president and an eponymous hamlet of 2,600 people stand.

The Hraunavinir, or “Friends of the Lava,” believe that any benefits from a project that snakes through Gálgahraun are cancelled out by its cultural and environmental costs. According to protester Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, the thoroughfares would destroy some of the “amazingly beautiful lava formations” and spoil a habitat where birds flock and small plants flourish. One of Iceland’s most famous painters, Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval, once worked on his canvases there, perhaps magnetized by the charm of the terrain’s craggy natural relics.

If a road is completely necessary, the elves will generally move out of the way, but if it is deemed superfluous, a possibility at Gálgahraun, “very bad things” might happen.

Not all of the arguments against the development are so straightforward. At least a few believe it will displace certain supernatural forces that dwell within the hallowed volcanic rubble, and fear the potentially dark consequences that come with such a disturbance. Jónsdóttir, a greying and spectacled seer who also operates an “elf garden” in nearby Hafnarfjörður, believes the field is highly populated by elves, huldufolk (hidden people), and dwarves, many of whom, she says, have recently fled the area while the matter is settled.

One of the many oddly shaped rocks at the lava field houses “a very important elf church,” which lies directly in the path of one of the roads, according to Jónsdóttir. Both she and another seer visited the field separately and came to the same conclusion about the spot. “I mean, there are thousands or millions of rocks in this lava field,” she said, “but we both went to the same rock or cliff and talked about an elf church.” She knows about the elf church because she can see it, she says, and also sense its energy, a sensation many Icelanders are familiar with. 

If a road is completely necessary, the elves will generally move out of the way, but if it is deemed superfluous, a possibility at Gálgahraun, “very bad things” might happen. “This elf church is connected by light energy to other churches, other places,” Jónsdóttir said. “So, if one of them is destroyed, it’s, uh, well, it’s not a good thing.”

***

A view from Gálgahraun lava field in autumn (Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir)

Though Jónsdóttir’s belief in elves may sound extreme, it is fairly common for Icelanders to at least entertain the possibility of their existence. In one 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. That poll is fairly consistent with other findings and with qualitative fieldwork, according to an academic paper published in 2000 titled “The Elves’ Point of View" by Valdimar Hafstein, who now is a folkloristics professor at the University of Iceland. “If this was just one crazy lady talking about invisible friends, it's really easy to laugh about that,” Jónsdóttir said. “But to have people through hundreds of years talking about the same things, it’s beyond one or two crazy ladies. It is part of the nation.”

Jacqueline Simpson, a visiting professor at the University of Chichester’s Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales, and Fantasy in England, said references to the word alfar, or elf, first appeared in the Icelandic record in Viking-era poems that date back to around 1000 AD. The older texts do not divulge much about what the elves do; they mainly focus on the activities of the gods. The more elaborate stories cropped up in the folklore of the 16th and 17th centuries and have ripened with age.  

“‘Oh heavens! The elves have stolen the real baby and left this thing instead.’”

The elves differ from the extremely tiny figures that are typically depicted as assistants to Santa Claus in popular American mythology. And unlike the fairies of Britain and other parts of Europe, Icelandic elves live and look very much like humans, according to Simpson and other experts. “You’ve got to get right up close before you can be sure it is an elf and not a human,” said Simpson, who began studying Old Icelandic in her undergraduate days and later compiled a book full of Icelandic legend translations. When elves are spotted, they are typically donning “the costume of a couple of hundred years ago,” when many of the stories really came alive.

Their behavior is also similar to that of people: “[T]heir economy is of the same sort: like humans, the hidden people have livestock, cut hay, row boats, flense whales and pick berries,” Hafstein writes. “Like humans, they too have priests and sheriffs and go to church on Sundays.” This would explain the elf church in the lava field. According to Jónsdóttir, elves can range wildly in size, from a few centimeters to three meters in height. But Icelanders typically come into contact with the smaller ones: one “around one foot tall” and “the other...is perhaps similar to a 7-year-old child.” They may live in houses, sometimes with multiple floors, and, if you leave them alone, they’ll generally mind their own business. According to Simpson, “treat them with respect, do not upset their dwelling places, or try to steal their cattle, and they’ll be perfectly ... quite neutral, quite harmless.”

Building or otherwise disturbing their homes and churches, on the other hand, can agitate their "fiercely" territorial side, Simpson said. Machines break or stop operating without explanation, according to Hafstein’s research. Then, perhaps, a worker sprains an ankle or breaks a leg. In older stories, sheep, cows, and people can fall ill, and even drop dead. According to Simpson, “If you damage their stones, you will pay for it.”

Perhaps the darkest threads in the 19th century folklore involve elves kidnapping people and holding them hostage in the mountains, or replacing babies or small toddlers with a “changeling,” or an “elf that looks like a baby but isn’t,” according to Simpson. These acts are completely spontaneous and malicious. “There you are you see a happy young mother, got your nice baby, and then mysteriously,” she says, “it stops growing or it becomes very fretful and ill-tempered. And then you realize, ‘Oh heavens! The elves have stolen the real baby and left this thing instead.’”

***

Though the baby-snatching stories have certainly dropped out of the mainstream Icelandic consciousness, tales of elves meddling with construction projects that encroach on their territory, usually in rocks or hills, abound. “They tell of mechanical breakdowns with no apparent cause, freak accidents, and dream warnings, or a series of these, interpreted as the work of elves,” Hafstein writes. “The invisible inhabitants of the construction site are supposed to want to deter from, delay or retaliate for the ongoing construction on their property.”
 

A map of the road plans at the Gálgahraun lava field. The white dotted lines on the left represent the four new roads that will meet at its center. (Garðabær/screenshot)

In fact, beliefs in misfortune befalling those who dare to build in elf territory is so widespread and frequent that the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has created a five-page “standard reply” for press inquiries about elves, which Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson, a chief spokesperson, emailed in response to questions from The Atlantic. “It will not answer the question of whether the [Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration] 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,” the statement reads.

The agency goes on:

...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 [administration] 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. [The administration]'s employees have answered questions on this matter and have not ducked the issue.

In the late 1970s, the agency heeded seers’ advice about “supernatural beings” that resided in rocks beneath “The Trolls’ Pass” in northern Iceland and decided against detonating them. It calls the uneven road “a testimony” to its efforts to comply with local beliefs. No accidents have since occurred near the pass; some say elves have protected the drivers. “It’s good to make deals with elves,” Jónsdóttir said. “They always keep their bargain.”

The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has created a five-page “standard reply” for press inquiries about elves.

There are also more recent stories of benevolence. In 2010, Árni Johnsen, a former member of the Icelandic Parliament, flipped his SUV on an icy road in southwest Iceland, careened off a small cliff, and survived without any major injuries. Later, he credited a group of elves living in a boulder near the wreck with saving his life. When a road was slated for construction over the rock, he insisted the roadmakers “save it,” according to Jónsdóttir. He then called in Jónsdóttir to determine whether his suspicions about the elves were correct, according to an Icelandic Review article at the time. She found “three generations” of elves living inside it, and, in a meeting with the creatures, inquired about whether they wanted to be moved away to a safer location near Johnsen’s home. “The elves thought about it and talked about it a whole lot,” she told The Atlantic. “They said, 'If you can promise that you put our home on grass, because we want to have sheep. And this side of the rock has to face the view over the ocean and the small island.'”

The 30-ton boulder was transported, and now the elves live happily in a field with “sheep and horses” near his home, according to Jónsdóttir. 

Ingolfsson, the road agency’s spokesperson, explained that the project at the Gálgahraun lava field will continue as planned, because the authorities view it as a “necessary improvement.” “A settlement with the protesters is not plausible,” he wrote in an email. “The elves have not been conspicuous … in this argument.”

***

It's important to note that not everyone in Iceland believes in these tales. It's certainly a sensitive subject that some don't feel comfortable discussing with outsiders.

Icelandic music phenom Bjork once cautioned the New Yorker: “You have to watch out for the Nordic cliche,” she said. "A friend of mine says that when record-company executives come to Iceland, they ask the bands if they believe in elves, and whoever says yes gets signed up."

Under his theory, most of the “gossip” about people believing that elves interfere with construction projects dates back to a single story about “a clumsy but merry bulldozer driver.” 

In 2005, the New York Times reported that Hafstein, the researcher who penned the widely cited paper mentioned earlier in this piece, had “grown weary of the subject,” after having been identified as “a national elf expert” by the Icelandic Tourist Board. In an email, Hafstein helpfully referred The Atlantic to his paper, but declined an interview, writing: “I’m out of the ‘elf business’ since a long time ago—did some research back in the mid-90s, but have long since moved on to other things.”

Then, there are the full-blown skeptics. According to Árni Björnsson, the former director of the ethnological department of the National Museum of Iceland, widespread belief in elves is “a rather recent myth” which arose in the 1970s, and flourished in part because of “the hippie culture.” While he acknowledges his country's rich history of folktales, it doesn’t prove “that people really believe in them, no more than they believe in the real existence of Tarzan or Harry Potter.”

Under his theory, most of the “gossip” about people believing that elves interfere with construction projects dates back to a single story about “a clumsy but merry bulldozer driver,” who, in the summer of 1971, broke his machine and some pipelines while moving rocks on the outskirts of Reykjavik. He attempted to explain the accident by arguing that there were elves living in the rock. “No one had ever heard about elves in this rock before, but his comment made headline in a newspaper, and the ball began to roll,” he said in an email. The story gained traction in the 1980s, partly due to his assistance. He wrote: 

This story got a new international swing at the summit meeting of [Mikhail Gorbachev] and Ronald Reagan in Reykjavík 1986. The poor hundreds of foreign journalists got for the first days very sparse news from the meeting. They tried to use their time on something else. Some of them had heard about the impressive landscape, others about ancient literature, and quite a few had heard that Icelanders believed in elves. In my capacity at the National Museum, I was overwhelmed with questions. They wanted a confirmation from an official! I tried to be flexible and diplomatic, but the stories went around the world.

Despite his doubts, even Björnsson admits that his own family had a story about elves. No one on his boyhood farm was supposed to cut the grass on a slope near the hayfield because hidden people lived in the rocks. A farm hand who disobeyed his great-grandfather's orders was allegedly struck with tuberculosis. And while he outright claims he doesn't believe, he hedges a bit.  “I do not dare to maintain that usual human sense organs are perfect," he wrote, "so there might be a possibility that something exists which normal people cannot perceive." 

****

The Northern Lights above the ash plume of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Theories about why Icelanders in particular seem prone to such superstitions center on the earliest settlers’ struggle to endure their isolated existence in such a majestic but unpredictable landscape. 

Alaric Hall, a lecturer in medieval English literature at the University of Leeds who also researches Icelandic medieval beliefs, argues that the elves served as a kind of invented “other” for its earliest Viking settlers, who did not have any natives or indigenous people to “conquer.” “The Vikings who arrived in Iceland in the 870s really were probably the first human settlers on the island,” Hall, who did his dissertation about elves in England, said. “So they are actually indigenous people. But they don’t want to be. Like everyone else in Western Europe in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period, they really wanted to be invaders. So, what elves did is they provide...this kind of earlier indigenous population that can allow you to feel like a conqueror.”

Simpson believes the extremely poor and isolated life of the 17th and 18th century settlers only enriched the detail of the initial stories. Icelanders naturally imagined the elves living the comfortable and extravagant existence that everyday people longed for. Commonly, boys would encounter elves in the hills “feasting” at a time in the country’s history when having a decent meal was uncommon.

The modern stories have changed course though,according to Simpson, and now elves serve as a kind of reminder of an older existence, before cities, industry, and other developments began leaving a permanent imprint on the island. “They stand now, maybe, for the good simple old ways.”

Björnsson speculated that the stories are used to express “a sort of primitive environmentalism.” In a way, they represent a special connection with the natural landscape that is otherwise difficult to articulate. Haukur Ingi Jónasson, a professor in project management at Reykjavík University who wrote about elves during his graduate studies in theology and psychoanalysis at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, says Iceland’s many mountains, hills, and rivers are loaded with significance for the people who live near them. “[Elves are] kind of a ritualistic attempt to protect something meaningful, respect something of importance, and acknowledge something of worth,” he said. In other words, the elves honor a balance of power that has always leaned clearly in the direction of nature and the whimsy of its erupting volcanoes, shifting glaciers, and quivering ground.  "We are kind of always at the disposal of something that is not us," he said. "It’s it. It’s nature. It’s out there. I cannot control it, it’s it that I have to comply with."  

As industry has encroached, Jónsdóttir insists, many humans have forgotten about “the inner life of the earth" as they bend it to their will. When elves act out, they are doing more than just protecting their own homes, they are reminding people of a lost relationship. “[T]hey’re …protectors of nature, like we humans should be,” she said. “We have just forgotten.” 

Though a case is pending about the legality of the construction at the lava field, Jónsdóttir told The Atlantic the contractors were planning to ignore it and continue working into the field anyway. She said she and the other members of the group would be there waiting for the bulldozers. Last week, she and several of the environmental protesters were arrested for standing in front of the machines. “I am out of jail,” she wrote in the email to The Atlantic after she was released. “The people in Iceland are in shock after this day. Not only Nature lost, but the [belief] in democracy in Iceland."

The next day, the protesters returned, but this time, the police simply carried people out of the construction zone and did not make any arrests. The bulldozers are currently razing the lava, and now the elves may need to step in. "It is up to the elves, but also up to us humans," she wrote in another email. "We really need to work together on this one." 

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Ryan Jacobs is the news editor at Pacific Standard. He previously wrote for and produced The Atlantic’s Global channel.

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