My guide was dead serious—or, at least, he seemed to be. He told me that there are elves in Iceland.
He made this surprising statement while we were in his van, driving to Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the only regions in the world where you can see the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates exposed. I had tacked a few extra days onto the end of my Natural Habitat Adventures’ East Greenland Arctic Adventure group tour so that I could spend a few days in Iceland on my own, before flying home to the United States. I had hired a local guide to show me around for the day.
In order to get to know each other, my guide asked me what kind of work I did in the U.S. I told him I was a nature-and-travel writer and environmental book author, and he told me that, coincidentally, he had a book in the works.
“What’s the subject?” I asked. He said he was writing a book on Iceland’s elves. The work would be illustrated with various photographs of Iceland’s stunning landscapes, over which transparent pages containing the images of elves could be layered. “Oh,” I replied. “I’ve never tried writing fiction.”
“It isn’t a fiction book,” he said quite seriously.
It turns out that my guide’s sentiments are not all that unique in Iceland. According to much-quoted surveys taken in 1998 and in 2006 to 2007, more than half of the nation believes in elves, or huldufolk (“hidden folk” in Icelandic). Some say the percentage is even higher.
In reality, however, as charming as that statistic is, the whole “story” is a bit more complicated than what it appears to be on the surface.
Historically, many cultures—such as those in Denmark, Norway and Sweden—have believed in elves. In Iceland, references to the word alfar (“elf” in Icelandic) first appeared in Viking-era poems that date back to the ninth century. These ancient verses, however, focus primarily on the activities of the gods and don’t reveal much about what elves do. But more elaborate stories do crop up in 16th-and 17th-century folklore. Iceland is unique, though, in that other nations haven’t taken elves seriously since the 19th century.
In a 1998 survey, which garnered a lot of attention in the press, it was found that 54.4 percent of the Icelanders who were queried believed in the existence of elves. Surveys since that time have showed similar results: a 2007 investigation conducted by the University of Iceland found that an estimated 62 percent of the 1,000 respondents stated that it is at least possible that elves live.
For example, in 2010, Arni Johnsen, a former member of the Icelandic Parliament, flipped his SUV on an icy road in southwest Iceland. He careened off a small cliff but luckily survived without any major injuries. Later, he credited a group of elves that were living in a 30-ton boulder near the wreck with saving his life. When a road was slated for construction over the rock, he insisted that the construction crews not disturb it.
He then called in an “elf seer” to determine whether his suspicions about the elves were correct. The visionary found three generations of elves living inside the boulder; and, in a meeting with the creatures, she inquired about whether they would like to be moved away to a safer location. She reported that the elves replied that they’d consent to a move “if you can promise that you put our home on grass, because we want to have sheep. And this [particular] side of the rock has to face the view over the ocean.”
The boulder was transported, and now, according to those who are able to communicate with the elves, they live happily in a field with horses and sheep.
Cultural researchers say that most Icelanders think that if you leave the elves alone, they’ll generally mind their own business. But if you fail to treat them with respect, upset their dwelling places or try to steal from them, you’ll pay for it—in broken machinery, broken legs or in sick family members, cows or sheep. You many even pay for it with your life.
Not every Icelander, though, buys into the reality of elves. Some say that widespread conviction is a recent myth, which arose in the 1970s in part because of the hippie culture.
Proponents of this theory state that elf credence dates back to a single story in 1971 about a bulldozer driver who 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 rocks. Because of his quirky comment, the story made newspaper headlines for a while.
Then, in 1986, the event got new life. That year, Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan had a summit meeting in Reykjavik. Hundreds of foreign journalists descended upon the city, hungry for stories. Very little news came out of the meeting, however. Some intrepid reporters dug up the older headlines about Icelandic elf certitude, and they ran with the idea.
Another consideration, say those who find elf acceptance to be too fanciful, is that the 1998 poll gave respondents only two options when asked whether or not they believed in elves: yes and no. For many people, the question is more complex. Some of those who answered “yes” would more likely fall into the “why not?” category, rather than being sincere adherents. It could also be that a large portion of the population is unwilling to deny elf perseverance because they respect their nation’s traditions and myths.
It’s also hard to extricate belief in elves from Iceland’s ever-expanding tourism market. Second only to puffins, elves are a popular subject for souvenirs, and seers willing to take tourists on walks to meet elves has become a cottage industry.
Respect for one’s national traditions and myths is another, more nuanced element to consider when talking about Icelanders’ fondness for elves. Today, it’s just as likely that the beings “inhabit” the nation not as physical presences but as reminders of a time before cities and other modern developments began leaving a permanent imprint on the island.
In this line of thinking, elves simply represent a connection with the natural landscape that is otherwise difficult to articulate. Iceland’s earthquakes, geothermal springs, glaciers, northern lights and underground sulfur constantly inform its citizens that their land is “alive.” If the stories of hidden people and the need to work carefully with them help verbalize the understanding that the environment demands respect, I know that I would be pro-elf, too.
And, personally, I like to experience magic in my travels. Fifty-four percent of Icelanders either believe in elves or say it’s possible they exist. And, isn’t that what great travels are all about: possibilities?
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,