“Elves Live Here.” On Modern Icelandic Elflore and the Shades of Belief
Nancy Marie Brown Considers the Stories Surrounding the Country’s “Hidden Folk”
On my first trip to Iceland, in 1986, my husband and I visited the families of three Icelandic graduate students we knew from Penn State University, where I worked: an economist, a seismologist, and a mathematician. Driving us to her house outside of Reykjavik, the mathematician’s mother, Thyri, pointed out a cluster of rocks in the middle of a small fenced lawn at a bend in the road. “Elves live there,” she said.
Thyri was a teacher, her English was excellent, but I was never quite sure when she was joking. One night she served us a formal dinner—white tablecloth, flowers—and out from the kitchen, with a flourish, she brought a platter of singed sheep’s heads. Whole heads—eyeballs, teeth in the jaws—blackened to burn off the fleece. The eyes and ears are the best parts, she said. She mimed plucking out an eyeball and popping it into her mouth, rolling it about, licking her lips. Seeing me barely pick at my head, she took pity on us and brought out a second platter of broiled lamb steaks. (The family, on the other hand, devoured the sheep’s heads.) Was she likewise teasing about the elves in the rocks?
Maybe, maybe not.
“Practically every summer,” wrote Icelandic ethnologist Valdimar Hafstein in the Journal of Folktale Studies in 2000, “a new legend is disseminated through newspapers, television, and radio, as well as word of mouth, about yet another construction project gone awry due to elven interference.” Unlike most urban legends, these are based on “the experience of real people involved in the events.”
That the news reports “are often mildly tongue-in-cheek” does not, in his opinion, “detract from the widespread concern they represent.” In August 2016, for example, an Icelandic newspaper printed the story “Elf Rock Restored after Its Removal Wreaks Havoc on Icelandic Town.” The previous summer a mudslide fell on a road in the town of Siglufjordur. While clearing the blockage, the road crew dumped four hundred cubic feet of dirt on top of a large rock known as the Elf Lady’s Stone.
The Elf Lady (illustrated on the paper’s English-language website as Cate Blanchett in the role of the elf queen Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings) was not happy, and a series of mishaps ensued. A road worker was hurt. A TV newscaster “sank into a pit of mud, right up to his waist and had to be rescued.” The river flooded the road, and the constant rain caused further mudslides. A bulldozer operator reported: “I had just gotten into the vehicle when I see a mudslide coming toward me, like a gigantic ball. When it hit the river flood it exploded and water and rocks went everywhere. We fled.” Then the bulldozer broke down. The Siglufjordur town council officially asked the Icelandic Road Administration to unearth the Elf Lady’s Stone. They complied. They also power hosed it clean.
Icelandic elf stories light up the internet: I found this one in the New York Times, Travel and Leisure, the Daily Telegraph, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the CBC, Yahoo.com, and as far afield as the Philippine Daily Inquirer, among others. Many media outlets justify their interest by citing a series of surveys proving that, in Valdimar’s words, “elves are alive and frisky in modern day Iceland.”
In 1974, Icelandic psychologist Erlendur Haraldsson conducted a fifty-four-question survey on spiritual matters. Of those who responded, 15 percent considered elves likely to exist, 7 percent were certain they existed, and 5 percent had seen an elf. “A third of the sample,” Valdimar points out, “entertained the possibility of their existence (33 percent), neither affirming nor denying it.” A church historian in 1995 sought out people “with an interest in mysticism”: 70 percent of this sample thought elves existed, while only 43 percent believed that space aliens visited Earth. An Icelandic newspaper polled its readers on politics and government in 1998, slipping in the sly yes-or-no question, “Do you believe in elves?” Nine out of ten respondents answered the question. Of them, 54.4 percent replied yes.
In 2006 and 2007 the University of Iceland’s Department of Folkloristics entered the debate, with technical help from the university’s Social Science Institute. Their fifty questions were based on those of Erlendur in 1974, adapted for “a modern society that had been in contact with New Age thought,” according to folklore professor Terry Gunnell.
Again, 5 percent of the one thousand respondents said they had seen an elf, while more than 50 percent “entertained the possibility of their existence.” While outnumbered by the percentage who had received an omen (55 percent), dreamed a prophetic dream (40 percent), or felt the presence of the dead (40 percent), the number of elf-seers (5 percent) was still higher than those who said they had seen a UFO (2 percent).
Let’s put those numbers into context: 2 percent of the Icelandic population is about 6,600 people. In July 2016, 6,500 people went to see the 1970s-era hard-rock band Kiss perform in the Taco Bell Arena in Boise, Idaho.
Compare that number to the 10 percent of Americans who said they had seen a UFO, when polled by Kenyon Research in 2012 at the request of National Geographic. Ten percent of the American population is over 30 million people, more than the entire population of the state of Texas (29 million). A 2013 poll by the Huffington Post and YouGov found that 48 percent of Americans “are open to the idea that alien spacecraft are observing our planet,” while a previous Huff Post/YouGov survey found that 25 percent of Americans “think alien visitors have come to Earth.” Now who looks silly?
For Gunnell, the most striking result of the Icelandic surveys is that “in spite of the radical changes in Icelandic society” between 1974 and 2006, the Icelanders’ traditional beliefs about elves had “remained near static.” They were, he concluded, “deeply rooted.” The 2016 accounts of the Elf Lady’s Stone, for example, match this story, first printed in 1862. According to a goldsmith named Vigfus Gislason, in 1808, when he was a boy of ten, the farm of Stadarfell, some ten miles from his own home, burned to the ground after an elf stone was tampered with. Vigfus explained:
Just below the farm, on a cliff jutting out to sea, there was a large rock in which it was said that an elf woman lived, but since the cliff was crumbling this rock half overhung the water; however, it was firm enough if no one interfered with it, and it might have stayed like that for a long time, because everyone was warned not to play the fool with this rock. But shortly before the fire, the farm workmen had sent the rock crashing into the sea, just for fun; and the next night old Benedikt Bogason dreamed of the elf woman, and she told him he would be the worse off because his men had had their fun with her house. And shortly afterwards the farm burned down, and so the prophecy was fulfilled.
Another striking result of the Icelandic folklore surveys, Gunnell says, is that he can now tell the coming of summer by the arrival of two things: gnats and foreign journalists who want to ask him about Iceland’s Hidden Folk.
Icelanders believe in elves! If you’ve read anything about Iceland in the last twenty years, you’ve read this. It was already a cliché in 2004, before Gunnell’s survey came out. Speaking with Alex Ross of the New Yorker, the singer Bjork joked, “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.”
The Icelandic Tourist Board was trading on elves in 2000: An advertisement in that same magazine claims that “In such a mystical lunar environment, one begins to understand why 41 per cent of Iceland’s population”—I’m not sure where that number came from—“believes in gnomes, fairies, and elves. The rocks and hills, where these fantastic beings are reputed to make their homes, are carefully preserved, with public roads going around, rather than through, the haunts of the Hidden People.”
Brad Leithauser, writing about Iceland in the Atlantic Monthly in 1987, casually linked the elves to light (or darkness): “Perhaps because the island lies just south of the Arctic Circle, where it endures some twenty hours of unbroken darkness during the shortest days of winter, the pull of the supernatural remains strong. Farmers still routinely leave patches of hay unmown where ‘hidden folk’ are thought to live, and a few years ago a road was rerouted in order to leave an elf colony undisturbed.”
In Smithsonian, too, the elf meme crops up. Robert Wernick remarks there in 1986 on the Icelanders’ “matter-of-fact acceptance of supernatural presences,” which he ascribes not to the lunar landscape or the lack of light but to the wind: “Iceland is virtually a treeless land and the wind blows freely—in the long winter nights it blows perpetually. This makes a good breeding ground for ghosts, elves, trolls.”
After the economic crash of 2008, Iceland’s elves made the big time, thanks to Michael Lewis. Writing in Vanity Fair about “What led a tiny fishing nation, population 300,000, to decide, around 2003, to re-invent itself as a global financial power”—accruing debt approaching 900 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product—Lewis blames the male bankers’ Viking-like love of risk and their unwillingness to listen to the (few) female bankers who tried to rein them in. He comes to this conclusion after visiting the waxworks Saga Museum in Reykjavik, “in which a blood-drenched Viking plunges his sword toward the heart of a prone enemy.”
Lewis writes: “This is the past Icelanders supposedly cherish: a history of conflict and heroism. Of seeing who is willing to bump into whom with the most force. There are plenty of women, but this is a men’s history.” There’s much Lewis missed about the Icelandic sagas. But he may have a point: Icelanders themselves compared their bankers to Viking raiders. What’s pertinent here, however, is that his ten-thousand-word piece held three sentences about elves.
Three, in general, respectful sentences told in the context of two problems Alcoa had establishing an aluminum-smelting plant in Iceland. “The first was the so-called ‘hidden people’—or, to put it more plainly, elves—in whom some large number of Icelanders, steeped long and thoroughly in their rich folkloric culture, sincerely believe,” Lewis writes. He cites an anonymous Alcoa spokesman who said they had to “pay hard cash to declare the site elf-free.” The second problem was that the Icelandic male “took more safety risks than aluminum workers in other nations did.”
The elves, for Lewis, were a throwaway line, a little bit of local color, a way to work up to his main point about men and risk. They were also, according to the New York Times, the part of his article that “may have drawn the most attention on the Internet” (not to mention among my own friends, one of whom emailed me to ask if there really was a “Department of Elf and Human Services” in Iceland). Commenting for New York Magazine, Jonas Moody, an American living in Iceland, writes, “I’ve heard the elf thing mentioned in tired travel articles (normally wedged between paragraphs on the beauty of waterfalls and tips for eating ram testicles), but I personally know no one on this island who believes in elves. Not one.”
The Alcoa spokesman was referring to the Icelandic environmental-impact assessment, Moody explains. “The assessment includes an archaeological survey to ensure no important artifacts or ruins are destroyed, and the site’s history is surveyed to see if it was ever named in any Icelandic folklore. And yes, some of that folklore involves elves.” Which would seem to make Lewis’s point, that Alcoa did have to certify the site was “elf-free,” except for one caveat: The only folklore that counts toward the assessment are written tales at least a hundred years old.
Matt Eliason, an American writing for Iceland Magazine in 2014, thinks “the Icelandic people continue to acknowledge the existence of the nonexistent elves to drum up business for their growing tourist industry.” And it’s true that you can pay $64 to go to Elf School to learn, as writer Jessica Pan put it in 2015, that “elves fuck, and dress, better than you.”
Arni Bjornsson, long the head of the ethnology department at the National Museum of Iceland, reached the same conclusion as Eliason in 1996. He “finds that contemporary elf-tradition in general reeks of money,” reports Valdimar Hafstein in his Journal of Folktale Studies paper. “If I have understood him correctly, he claims that modern elflore is to a great extent fabricated to defraud tourists.” Yet when asked point-blank by Sarah Lyall of the New York Times in 2005, Arni refused to deny the existence of elves. Instead he reframed her question: “If you were to ask me, ‘Are you sure there are no supernatural beings?’ I would say I don’t believe there are. But I wouldn’t rule it out.”
Excerpted from Looking for the Hidden Folk by Nancy Marie Brown. Published by Pegasus Books, 2022.