I came to Iceland half a year ago and yet, there are certain phenomena that can always make me wonder. You hear about them, but no one wants to talk about them. Who are Icelandic 'hidden people' and what should you know about their existence?
On the first weekend of February I took a part of a typical Icelandic festival called Thorrablót. Thorrablót comes from an ancient Nordic tradition which celebrates Thor – the God of Thunder in the old Nordic religion. Nowadays, Thorrablót is closely connected with eating the strangest Icelandic food you can hardly imagine; from ram's testicles to rotten shark’s meat and boiled sheep’s head. If you want to know more, check out the article on Thorrablót and traditional Icelandic food here .
However, my participation on Thorrablót had a deeper impact on me; it made me think to what extent Icelanders still follow their traditions and cultural heritage, and more specifically their folk beliefs.
Iceland, just like other Nordic countries, is known for its strong folk belief. There are many sagas and tales which describe huldufólk (= elves or 'hidden people' from Icelandic language). These mysterious creatures are thought to be hardly visible for humans; hidden in rocks, hills and lava fields. According to one tale, the origins of huldufólk goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. When Eve had her dirty, unwashed child, she was hiding it from God who then declared: “What man hides from God, God will hide from man.” The huldufólk seem to represent an image of a more ideal and happier existence, although still very close to the human one. In my opinion, Icelanders, as a very atheist population, try to find a more perfect version of human's society in supernatural creatures such as hidden people.
When visiting Iceland, you can see painted doors on rocks, or álfhól (small wooden houses) that were built for hidden people all around the country. Icelandic people even celebrate certain holidays that are related to huldufólk. On New Year's Eve, it is believed that hidden people move to new locations, therefore, Icelanders may leave candles in their houses to help elves finding their way. The 6th of January is also known as Þrettándinn (Thirteenth Night) for bonfires called álfabrennur (elf fires) that are commonly lit. Folklore also says that standing at a crossroad on Christmas Eve may attract wandering elves who will offer gifts and money, which bring misfortune to those who take them!
You might be asking what makes Icelanders persist in their belief in huldufólk over the years. Closeness to nature, love for traditions and simple curiosity are the clearest explanations for this phenomenon. Many Icelanders were growing up at isolated places, surrounded by spectacular nature which, however, has enormous power.
When it comes to nature, it is something Icelanders consider to be much alive. Once you experience the wind that blows you away or an earthquake that can destroy your home, you get lost in a lava field or get stuck in snow storm, you truly understand why people in Iceland take nature seriously. Tales about elves, trolls and ghosts were, therefore, very useful to explain various natural wonders or strange events that might have occurred in the past.
Even though today not even a majority of Icelanders think that hidden people can truly exist, belief in huldufólk is still alive and sometimes reaches such an extent that it can easily influence everyday life in Iceland.
The news in most of the countries have been overwhelmed by the fact that roadwork projects in Iceland have to be consulted to prevent damaging areas where local elves are believed to live. It has been very common to see machines breaking down or tools getting lost when trying to remove certain rock from a planned road, which oblige the constructors to build a new road around the rock. Icelanders tend to believe that if they disturb hidden people, there is a possibility that very bad things happen.
According to folklore, people should never throw rocks because they could accidentally hit an elf. Also, there are several tales that describe misfortune that happened to people who tried to kick a stone or in any way destroy the elves sites. It is thought that in addition to crosses and churches, hidden people also dislike electricity! If you have always been wondering why Icelanders keep their lights on even when leaving the house, this might be a reason for doing so.
If you still dare to look for hidden people while visiting Iceland, here's an interactive map that shows the elves sites all over the country was developed by Iceland's Saga Foundation. This amazing map was created to share the exact locations on which Icelanders have come into contact with hidden people. The map also includes sites related to trolls, ghosts and the devil. The map description is available only in Icelandic, so either you ask your Icelandic guides/friends to help you with translation or you can take it as an opportunity to learn some useful Icelandic phrases! For extra elf lovers, several tour companies and the Icelandic Elf School in Reykjavík organize excursions which will take you deep into elves' lives.
I have not had a chance to meet any supernatural creatures during my stay in Iceland, although, there is never too late. Nature in Iceland is unpredictable. Do not underestimate its power and beware of the risks Icelandic wilderness brings. You do not have to believe in sagas and tales, the only thing that is required in Iceland is respect for nature.
If you want to get more into Icelandic folk beliefs, there is a number of sagas and tales which focus on huldufólk. Elf-stories are more closely discussed in a book called Íslensk þjóðfræði (Iceland Ethnology) written by Þórður Tómasson. For those interested in general Icelandic folklore, I would definitely recommend to read Þjóðsögur Jóns Árnasonar (Folklore of Jón Árnason). After all, who would not like to see an elf while visiting Iceland, huh?