While traveling along Iceland’s South Coast, our group came upon a rocky outcrop on the side of the road. “Over there is where the elves live,” said our guide and driver Stefan Arngrímsson, pointing to the trio of large boulders. We all looked to where Arngrímsson had motioned but didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. “Most of you won’t be able to see them,” he continued, “because they’re what we call Huldufólk, or ‘Hidden People.’”Arngrímsson then told us a tale that dates all the way back to the creation story of Adam and Eve. According to Icelandic folklore, Eve was in the middle of bathing some of her children when God stopped by. Rather than having the Supreme Being see them while they were still dirty, Eve hid them. But being all-knowing, God said to her, “What man hides from God, God will hide from man.” That’s the moment when Iceland’s Hidden People originated
Although estimates differ, it’s said that at least a third of Icelanders believe in Huldufólk, while a large portion of others aren’t willing to deny their existence. It’s the age-old adage, better safe than sorry. You see, Iceland’s elves are intricately linked with the country’s natural landscape, and disturbing their supposed home could wreak havoc on the local surrounds. And they’re not Iceland’s only mythical creatures. Trolls, dwarves, Nykur (a water horse), and the Lagarfljót Worm, which is considered the country’s “very own Loch Ness Monster” are all a part of the local lexicon.
The reason is clear: as a Nordic island nation made up of deep fjords, gushing waterfalls, and spouting volcanoes; a place where the Northern Lights erupt in iridescent colors on a clear night’s sky and basalt columns butt up against black sand beaches; and a small and isolated country where the winters are long, dark and cold, a tradition of rich and fantasmical storytelling has emerged. These allegorical tales have been crafted over time with influences from their Norse and Celtic-speaking ancestors, as well as Christianity, becoming an essential part of their national identity. They’re as much a part of this Land of Fire and Ice as sheep and horses, and a staple of everyday life.
Here are some of Iceland’s most prominent mythical creatures, and the best places for spotting them countrywide.
Elves, or Huldufólk (hidden people), are supernatural beings that set up their homes in unassuming places, like Iceland’s many rocks and cliffs. They’re so much a part of Icelandic culture that there’s even an Elf School in Reykjavik, the country’s capital city. Here, visitors and locals alike can learn about elf behavior and hear related testimonies from the many Icelanders who’ve had personal contact with the elves, as well as embark on post-session walking tours to one of Reykjavik’s main elf hubs.
As Arngrímsson pointed out, elves are not seen by everyone, despite living lives that are very similar to that of local humans. They raise sheep, pick wild bilberries and crowberries, and sleep and eat. Keep an eye out for álfhól, the small wooden houses that Icelanders build for the elves, often along roadsides, tucked within gardens, or by the trunk of a tree. But despite these tiny digs, most of the country’s elves (there are thought to be at least 13 types of elves in Iceland) are human-size, like the ones appearing in Director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. They also tend to be more attractive than us regular folk.
Respecting the homes of elves is essential to the natural balance of Icelandic living—otherwise, bad things can happen. For example, in 2013 the Reykjavík suburb of Gálgahraun, construction workers had to halt work on a road through a local lava field because Ófeigskirkja, a large rock believed to be an “elf church,” stood right in its pathway. The years-long dispute resulted in a settlement that appeased both the elves and the humans alike. Then there’s the town of Kópavogur, south of Reykjavík, where a rock known as Elfhill led to so many equipment breakdowns and accidents, laborers were forced to build their road around it.
To indulge in the notion of Elfin life, hassle-free, swing by Hafnarfjördur, a port town nested in a lava field about six miles south of Reykjavik. Many Icelanders consider Hafnarfjördur to be the country’s unofficial elf capital. You can even pick up a map at the local tourist office of the places in town that elves are thought to live. One such spot is Hellisgerði Lava Park, a public park in Hafnarfjördur’s center that’s known for its moss-blanketed lava formations—a haven for both elves and dwarfs.
In the country’s northeast, you’ll find Ásbyrgi, a horseshoe-shaped canyon that’s home to streams, caves, and the small Botnstjörn Lake. It also happens to be the capital city of Iceland’s elves, along with a stop on North Iceland’s 155-mile Diamond Circle driving tour.
Your best chance for spotting elves in Iceland is on one of four annual holidays: New Year’s Eve, Twelfth Night (January 6), Midsummer in June or Christmas night. It’s said that the Hidden People like to change locations on New Year’s Eve, so Icelanders put out candles to help guide their way. On January 6, which in Iceland is called Þrettándinn or “The Thirteenth,” local residents light álfabrennur, or elf bonfires. Even if you don’t see the Huldufólk themselves, you’re sure to see some humans dressed as them and taking part in the accompanying merriment, which typically includes singing, dancing, and even folktales.
They’re massive, moody, and not the brightest of the bunch. Trolls rule over Icelandic folklore, coming out at night to lure humans into their caves and eat them. Turns out they’re especially partial to misbehaving kids. But don’t worry too much. Once an Icelandic troll encounters sunlight, it will turn to stone. In Iceland’s gift shops and storefronts, troll dolls often feature big ears, bulbous noses, and droopy shoulders, but the trolls you’ll see in nature are the ones that have already been petrified.
These include triangular-shaped Skessuhorn (Troll Woman’s Peak) in West Iceland, which the story goes was once a female troll who used to sit upon what’s now this quite impressive 3,173ft tall peak—nicknamed the “Matterhorn of Iceland”—sussing out people to catch and devour. There’s also Tröllaskarð (Troll’s Pass) in the north, where a troll would sit watch and survey those who passed by; and Hvítserkur, a nearly-50-foot-tall sea stack in northwest Iceland which is believed to be a troll that was busy tearing down the bells of the old Þingeyraklaustur monastery when he turned to stone.
On Iceland’s South Coast stand the trolls of Reynisfjara Beach, three ocean rocks that are the petrified remains of a trio of trolls who were trying to drag a three-masted ship to land, before getting hit by the morning sun. The beach itself is renowned for its sneaker waves (don’t turn your back on them!) and black sands, as well as its mountain of hexagonal basalt columns.
No discussion of Iceland’s mythical creatures would be complete without the 13 Yule Lads, a baker’s dozen of mischievous brothers who mark the Christmas holidays with their arrival. These pranksters-turned-holiday helpers are said to reside at Dimmuborgir, a series of huge lava pillars scattered across an area in north Iceland, with their ogre parents, the giantess Grýla and her second or third husband, Leppalúði. Their pet, Yule Cat, likes to roam the countryside looking for children that haven’t gotten any new clothes that holiday season, and then in true mythical creature form, eating them.
The Yule Lads arrive individually over the holiday season, delivering a small gift at a time over 13 days. Rotten potatoes are par for the course for those who’ve misbehaved. The lads include Skyrgámur, the 8th Yule Lad who is obsessed with the Icelandic yogurt, Skyr, and Ketkrókur, the 12th Yule Lad who uses a hook to steal meat.
To truly delve into this magical world of creatures, don’t miss Nat Hab Adventures’ 11-day Iceland: Circling the Land of Fire & Ice.