Huffpost UK Lifestyle
Viki Imrie Headshot

Elves and Other Folk

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

Some important things to remember when visiting Iceland: never throw a stone in case you hit an elf, don't knit on the doorstep or you might lengthen the winter and don't be seduced by a small man trying to teach you magic.

Icelandic folklore is absolutely fascinating and what's even more fascinating is that 53% of the population either believe in or won't deny the existence of spirits. And really it only makes sense what with the almost supernatural beauty of the lava fields, midnight sun and endless twilights acting as the perfect backdrop for sharing tales. In fact here's an interesting little nugget of information for you; J.R.R Tolkien was a keen scholar of Icelandic folklore and took it as his inspiration for Lord of the Rings. It must be pretty good then.

Folklore rests right at the heart of the country, in fact even its coat of arms depicts not one but four guardian spirits of Iceland. The story concerns a magician (as all good stories do) who was sent to Iceland by King Harold Gormsson of Denmark to investigate the lye of the land before a possible Danish invasion. The magician turned into a whale to swim to Iceland but on every coast was met by a different spirit protecting the land, thereby thwarting the Danish invasion. Good work from the spirits.

The huldufólk or hidden people are the largest manifestation of the spirit world in Iceland who are considered to be elves and are believed to be living underground. Icelanders often have tiny houses and even churches at the end of their gardens for the elves to reside and worship in.

There are disagreements over their origin but most believe the little critters are the disgraced children of Eve. Let me elaborate: Eve had many children and she didn't have time to clean them all before God wanted to inspect them. So, as anyone would, she hid them and denied their existence to God, meaning the children were destined to remain forever hidden, except when they want to be seen that is.

It seems the occasions they most want to be seen are New Year's Eve, Twelfth Night, Midsummer night and Christmas. Midsummer folklore states that if you sit at a crossroads, elves will attempt to seduce you with food and gifts which you will be rewarded for resisting. At Christmas elves are known to take over any farmer's barn that happens to tickle their fancy and hold wild parties in them. Well, I suppose it is Christmas after all.

But it's not all unexpected gifts and crazy barn dances with the huldufólk; those who disturb or destroy their dwellings should beware. There are many reports associated with a boulder outside of Reyjavik which is the former home of a group of elves. Fascinatingly, attempts to build a new connecting road repeatedly failed with construction equipment breaking down each time it attempted to approach the boulder and move it. A local women known for her ability to communicate with huldufólk was asked to assist and said that the spirits were preparing to move but needed more time. A little time was allowed to pass and the woman reported the spirits were now ready and the boulder was successfully moved. There have been many similar circumstances where cables or building work have been changed or re routed so as not to disturb the little fellows.

But enough of the huldufólk; I'd hate to leave out the other spirits. The Yule Lads or jólasveinar are exclusively festive spirits that plague the Scandinavian countries during the Christmas season. These pesky lads are the 13 sons of the terrifying ogress Gryla who kidnaps naughty children and eats them (obviously she cooks them first). So really I don't think we can blame her 13 sons for scuttling down the mountain to escape for the 13 days before Christmas. During this time 'Window Peeper', 'Bowl Licker', 'Door Slammer' and their 10 other friends do just what their names suggest. They have become a little kinder recently though, choosing to leave small gifts in children's shoes rather than stealing things. Christmas spirit and all that.

But it's not all jolly japes where folklore is concerned. This is mainly due to the presence of a herd of giants ambling angrily over the Icelandic mountains, better known as trolls. They do have one serious flaw though; they turn to stone if caught in the sunlight so have to lurk in the shadows. There are even formations in the lava scattered over the country which are said to be the bodies of petrified trolls, trapped for all of time in stone. Folklore is pretty exciting stuff you know.