Experience close encounters of the third kind
“A little elf stares at me
runs towards me but doesn’t move
from his place – himself
a staring elf”
Beings such as fairies, elves, trolls, and goblins appear as early as Snorre Sturlasson’s Prose Edda, which is said to have been written around the year 1220 and which serves as both a textbook on poetry and an introduction to Nordic mythology. But while only a small percentage of the population in other Nordic countries say they believe in supernatural beings, surveys in Iceland show that 54% of the population openly believe in “Huldufólk”.
Perhaps this strong folklore is down to the geographic position of this island nation. Its remote location far out into the Atlantic meant that the Enlightenment arrived much later here than in neighboring countries and its isolation has also preserved a language that even today is similar to that spoken by the Vikings.
Iceland’s third-largest city, Hafnarfjordur, is a center of pilgrimage for travelers from all over the world, who come here in the hope of a close encounter of the third kind. It has been so ever since the city on the southwest coast was named the fairy capital of Iceland by Erla Stéfansdóttir, an Icelandic clairvoyant who mapped the country’s elves, dwarfs, trolls, and other invisible creatures. Today, curious visitors can take a guided tour around Hafnarfjordur that is based on Stéfansdóttir’s maps as well as folk tales and the eyewitness testimonies of those who say they have met the hidden folk.
If you really want to be on the safe side in your interaction with Iceland’s invisible residents, there’s always the option of attending a course in the subject. Magnús Skarphéðinsson has a background in history and anthropology and has been carrying out research into elves and folk tales for decades. For 25 years, as the head of the only elf school in Iceland – and perhaps even the world – he has taught tourists and residents alike about elves and folklore. Álfaskólinn’s study materials consist mainly of eyewitness testimonies from Icelanders and visitors and the school’s archive contains over 700 reports of close encounters with supernatural beings. Testimonies that to skeptics may sometimes seem to provide suspiciously convenient explanations for an unexpected pregnancy, for example, or for objects turning up in places where they don’t belong.
The fact that around half of Icelanders believe in supernatural beings may sound extreme to outsiders. But in fact, with the modernization of island society, this figure has dropped sharply, from a previously consistent 80%. Despite this official weakening in belief in folklore, however, most Icelanders think it’s better to be safe than sorry. Nobody, whether openly superstitious or not, would ever dream of moving a suspected elf home or of building a house on top of a magic stone.
It’s not only in private that decisions are made based on what could be dismissed as superstition. There’s no official recognition of the presence of elves on Iceland, although as recently as a couple of years ago an Icelandic highway project that would have passed straight through an alleged elf community was halted. The Supreme Court had its say and ultimately issued the judgment that with the postponement of the construction project it was assumed that the elves had had time to move on, therefore the problem was resolved – without risking the wrath of the hidden folk.
Text: Eva Paulsen
Published: February 15, 2017