Behold the elven mystery that’s nestled deep in Iceland’s landscape
Iceland is a country renowned for its awe-inspiring geographic prowess, but is there a hidden folklore to be discovered on the isle? Dubbed ‘the land of fire and ice’, it also stakes claim to being the land of elves. “Huldufólk” as they’re known in Icelandic, which translates to ‘hidden people’, are rife throughout the nation’s tradition of storytelling, and still hold great standing in today’s society. Here, we examine what makes elves so enchanting, and how you can harness elf power for yourself.
History of Huldufólk
We delve deep into the background and folklore of Iceland’s hidden people
Like many Nordic nations, folklore and tales in Iceland have been passed down throughout the ages to help islanders cope with the harsh winters and bring about a sense of community and togetherness. Icelandic culture expert Alda Sigmundsdóttir notes how, through
this tradition, “not only did they feed their bodies, but they managed to feed their minds and spirits as well.”
With there being little wood to build houses from, the Icelandic people sourced rocks from the landscape, and born out of that were the tales of elves during kvöldvaka. A compound of ‘kvöld’ (evening) and ‘vaka’ (staying awake), Icelanders would gather round together indoors and exchange tales, epic poems and sagas. “In some of the stories, the hero took on formidable adversaries and emerged victorious. This was the world of the hidden people.”
But what made the elves so attractive in folklore? Alda explains: “Their homes were furnished with fine, sumptuous objects. Their clothes were luxurious, the adornments beautiful. Their livestock were better and fatter. Their crops were more bounteous than those of humans. They even had supernatural powers. Elves could make themselves visible or invisible at will, and they could see into the future.”
Iceland’s beloved huldufólk are rife with tales and superstitions galore that many believers still follow to this day. Here are just a few of them:
• According to folklore, the hidden women experience distressing childbirth, and mortal women are called upon to help them in their time of need. If generous enough to lend a helping hand, the elves grant the mortals with a reward – such as having the field that yields the best hay, or catching the largest fish from the river. If, on the other hand, you do not come to the aid of an elf, you will soon come to feel their wrath and experience great misfortune.
• ‘Keep off the grass’ is not just for park signs, but a warning in elf folklore. As enchanting as the elf knoll may be, the grassy hillock plays host to the hidden people and therefore is not to be touched or cut.
• In some instances, the elves will try to tempt you into their homes, – which are often veiled in glamour and mystery, but if you’re courageous enough to resist, you’re revered as a hero.
• There have been stories of children who have been brought up amongst the hidden people and, after returning to mortal society, go on to lead prosperous and rich lives.
How to spot Huldufólk
Learn what to look out for when on the quest for Icelandic elves…
Surprisingly, the álfar (elves), bear no resemblance to their counterparts from around the globe and what we envisage when we typically think of elves. Huldufólk are in fact tall, and somewhat more beautiful than your conventional Christmas elf. Dressed in opulent silken garments, their homes also reflect their status − lavishly decked in the finest gold and silver. They’re found to reside nestled inside boulders and hillocks, scattered throughout the Icelandic landscape.
But how do you spot one for yourself? The truth is, you can’t. As huldufólk are invisible, they only choose to make themselves known when they want to. But they can appear to you in your night visions if they want something from you. However, you can spot an elf residence with ease – people in Iceland have been known to paint ‘elf doors’ on rocks, as an identity marker so it is known not to disturb them.
A few of our favourite places in Iceland to pay the hidden people a visit…
• Hafnarfjordu plays host to the Hellisgerdi Park, an enchanting area filled with old trees, moss-covered lava rocks and paths that guide you to hidden elf waterfalls and ponds
• Selfoss is home to many elf doors that can be spotted in the nooks and crannies of the rocky terrain
• If you head to the city of Kópavogur, you’ll notice that the roads get narrower, as it’s believed elves inhabit Álfhólsvegur (Elf Hill Road)
To see a full map detailing possible sightings, visit sagnagrunnur.com
Want to read more?
Icelandic Folk Legends: Tales Of Apparations, Outlaws And Things Unseen and The Little Book Of The Hidden People: Twenty Stories Of Elves From Icelandic Folklore by Alda Sigmundsdóttir are out now (£8.40 and £6.70, amazon.co.uk)
About the author
Danielle A. Lett is the deputy editor for Soul & Spirit Magazine.