The Hidden People of Iceland
Even in Iceland’s modern society, more than half of its population have some belief in the existence of a hidden people living unnoticed with humans on the island: elves.
Fuelling the Imagination
Icelandic culture is inspired by a curious mixture of paganism, Irish lore, and Christian religion. Add this combination to a fantastical volcanic landscape full of geysers and rocks in twisted shapes and it’s not hard to guess why Icelandic folk tales are ripe with mysticism and supernatural beings.
Traditional tales of ghosts, elves, and trolls have been told to children from generation to generation, even as far back as the Vikings. Portrayed at times as friendly and other times as menacing, these eerie beings are featured in effective cautionary tales that warned the young against wandering off into the dangerous wilderness alone.
The most iconic creatures from Icelandic and Faroese folklore are probably Huldufólk, or “hidden people”. The term Huldufólk is a synonym to the word Álfar, which means “elf”. Some Icelanders say that elves and hidden people are actually two separate beings, while most think that they’re the same. According to Icelandic folklore, it was bad luck to call elves by their real name, so Huldufólk was created as a euphemism.
It’s difficult to trace the exact time at which the first elf stories originated, but they are described in the Prose Edda, an Old Norse textbook, compiled by Snorri Sturluson in 1220. The Prose Edda even distinguishes between Dökkálfar (dark elves) and Ljósálfar (light elves), representing a duality of good and evil.
Iceland’s Invisible Communities
Either way, they are thought to be very protective of their homes and prefer to stay invisible to humans, only showing themselves when they feel like it. When they do reveal themselves, descriptions of their appearance vary from looking almost identical to humans to usually being quite small in size.
It’s said that they lead a life similar to our own, or rather, to the typical lives of humans that lived in Iceland centuries ago, with families, houses, cattle and churches. In many tales, they’re said to have magical powers that can be used for both good and evil, and that the way they use these powers will depend on how you treat them. The general advice is to leave them well alone and let them go about their day, and they will do the same to you.
These stories and their unique characters are an intrinsic part of Icelandic culture, and centuries of imagination have brought them to life, making them real in the minds of many modern-day Icelanders. One example of this is that many are superstitious of throwing rocks, just in case they hit the hidden people or their dwellings and cause trouble.
There are also a number of urban legends about rumoured construction work that has had to be shut down after several strange accidents which occurred when trying to clear or build upon land that is said to belong to the elves. These unusual happenings are so common that the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration has created a five-page “standard reply” for press inquiries about elves.
Exploring the Land of the Elves
When hiking in the Icelandic countryside or visiting local communities, you’ll see tiny elf houses (‘álfhól’) in several places. Whether or not you’ll meet any elves, we can’t guarantee, but we can promise you a unique landscape that’ll certainly give you the feeling of magic and mystique. You may also visit several hot spots where elves are said to reside. Perhaps you’ll even catch a glimpse of one...