Iceland’s Elves: As Real as You Want Them to Be
Elves and faerie-folk might seem to us here in the States like something you would see in a quirky gift shop, but in Iceland, belief in the supernatural is no laughing matter. In one 1998 survey, over half of Icelanders said they believed in elves, and according to a 2007 study by Terry Gunnell, associate folklore professor at the University of Iceland, those numbers haven’t changed much. Gunnell’s poll indicates that 32 percent of Icelanders believe that the existence of elves is possible, and 25 percent believe that it’s probable or definite. We in North America can dismiss the widespread Nordic acceptance of the possibility of the supernatural as just a quirky element of a foreign culture, but there’s a lot more to it than that. The elves in Iceland have come about through a historical combination of cultural, geographical, and political elements, and the elf tradition influences Icelanders even to this day.
Iceland’s culture of the supernatural didn’t just pop into existence. It developed over time from several different components, ranging from the working class’ desire for a higher status in life to the harshness of the Icelandic landscape. In 2013, Ryan Jacobs wrote an article exploring several possible roots. In it, he points out that the tendency towards superstition may have been caused by early Viking settlers’ desire to conquer other peoples. Belief in the faerie-folk gave the Vikings a group of people to defeat, allowing them to feel like conquerors over an indigenous “other.” Moreover, the settlers may have been cultivated and sweetened the stories about the elves’ lifestyle because of the poverty they were suffering. To clarify, the early settlers in Iceland may have used stories of wealthy elves living in the hills to provide some form of mental escape from their day-to-day lives. It may also have allowed the people to hope that they might get kidnapped by the elves and taken away, to live an easier life. Creating a culture of wealthy faerie-folk would have given the Viking settlers a reason for optimism in their impoverished lifestyles.
The development of the idea of elves may also have been influenced by the severity of the landscape and climate in Iceland. In order to deal with the volcanic eruptions, unforgiving soil, and harsh winters, the Vikings may have had to create a cause that they could understand and try to placate. Elves may have also embodied an environmental respect for the land, and a recognition that the forces of nature were beyond Viking control. In recent times, the continued popularity of elves may also involve the environment. With the dawn of the digital age, the elves may serve as a tool for remembering the simple lives of Icelandic ancestors and preserving the Iceland landscape from the destruction that accompanies Industrialization.
The Icelander’s belief in elves has been influenced by their cultural and geographical history, and also by their political history. In her article “How Icelandic Legends Reflect the Prohibition on Dancing,” Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir explores the possibility that a clergy-enforced dancing ban in Iceland, caused by the prevalence of drinking and sexual misdemeanors at dances, may have contributed to the widespread belief in elves. Instead of dancing at gatherings in the 18th century, which in Iceland were often small in size due to the lack of urban settings, people would tell stories. The villagers retold memories of dancing parties and attributed them to the elves as a way to keep the past alive, as well as maintain an atmosphere of celebration without engaging in drinking and other amoral conduct often associated with dance. Guðmundsdóttir states that “it is tempting to look at [the elves] as sort of collective national memory, and an expression of the nostalgic need to keep that memory alive in the face of oppression.” After the story developed, it’s no surprise that it remained popular as global communication became the norm and challenged that collective nationalism. The elves gave the Icelanders something from the past to hold onto.
It’s difficult to draw a suitable comparison to that mindset because in North America we tend to lean more on individuality than on national identity. By approaching the concept from a more personal perspective, however, it’s possible to illustrate the general idea. Many families get together for holidays to have dinner and talk, and that talk often includes reminiscing over memories of past experiences. That kind of discussion serves to remind the family members of the bond that has grown between them over time and to strengthen familial ties. While by no means a perfect comparison, the sharing of memories in both cases allows families and Icelanders to strengthen their ties with their kin and create a common identity.
The belief in the supernatural in Iceland has effects as well. The popularity of elves can lead to environmental protests against construction that cuts into the natural landscape. The townspeople often attribute any problems that crop up during construction to elves who have been angered by the destruction of their sacred space. Sometimes the local government cooperates with the belief in the supernatural, moving the road or slowing construction while a seer negotiates with the elves. In late 1999, rather than blast right through a large boulder said to be owned by dwarves, road authority contractors took the time to move it out of the way. In defense of this costly procedure, a spokesman for the agency said, “When Native Americans protest roads being built over ancient burial grounds, the U.S. listens. It’s the same here. There are people who believe in elves and we don’t make fun of them. We try to deal with them.” He later added that in addition to satisfying the townspeople, saving elf stones has probably also preserved several beautiful locations that might otherwise have gotten destroyed because of construction. Governmental cooperation, while it does happen, isn’t based on any serious belief in the supernatural, but rather on a desire to keep the local people happy.
The local government isn’t always willing to cater to protesters, however. For example, a 2011 article from Ice News, a Nordic news service, talks about a town in the northwest of Iceland called Bolungarvik where such an incident occurred. During dynamite work into the side of the mountain in the area, something went wrong and rocks and soil fell down the mountainside into the town. Seers claimed this was the work of elves angered by multiple construction projects undertaken without their blessing, and the seers asked Bolungarvik’s municipal government to make a formal apology. The government refused, and the people had to take matters into their own hands. They made a peace offering to the elves in the form of song and prayer. A local musician, pre-school children, and other interested natives all gathered around for the ceremony, while the workers stopped all operation of heavy machinery for the proceedings. Even without government involvement, the people of Iceland refuse to overlook the elves.
The supernatural atmosphere in Iceland might seem fanciful and childish at first glance, but a closer inspection reveals that it’s rooted in Icelandic history and culture, and other cultures shouldn’t lightly sweep that history aside. While tiny, mysterious people most likely aren’t living in the Nordic hills, there’s a prevailing sense of a greater force that’s an integral part of how the Icelanders view and cope with the world around them. The magic of the elves has been in Iceland at the dances and feasts and in the songs and pranks for many centuries, and it looks like it’s there to stay as Iceland moves into the future.