Yesterday's Myths & Mysteries

The Hidden Folk: Do Icelanders Believe In Elves?

Huldufólk. The Hidden Folk. The elusive and magical residents of Iceland, who live inside rocks and sometimes play games with unsuspecting passers-by. Are they real? That’s a complicated question, if you ask Icelanders.

Also sometimes known as álfar (Icelandic for elves, though many believe álfar and huldufólk are actually two distinct groups), these mysterious people are not quick to make their presence known. But Icelandic folklore is full of strange tales of individuals crossing their paths. Sometimes, these encounters end well. with good luck. Other times, not so much.

In many stories, the huldufólk will visit people in their dreams.

Elves are most active this time of year, according to legend, and during Christmas and New Year’s, or Yule, they’re said to venture out to find new homes. They also partake in wild parties, which could be quite dangerous to any humans who get caught in their way.

Just make sure you don’t throw any rocks, lest you might hit an elf by accident, or so goes an old superstition.

Many polls and surveys have claimed that over half of Icelanders believe in the existence of these elves and huldufólk. Or, more accurately, they won’t deny the possibility that they exist.

In 2017, one such poll by the Reykjavík Grapevine showed that 67% of Icelanders believed in elves, or wouldn’t outright deny their existence. A previous poll way back in 2007 claimed the number to be at least 54%.

Iceland Magazine suggests, jokingly, that all these polls are skewed heavily by the Hidden Folk themselves. But do Icelanders really believe in them?

The Elves Are Out There

It’s a kind of “Pascal’s wager” for elves, in many ways – you’d might as well allow for the possibility that Hidden Folk exist. Otherwise, you might leave yourself open to all sorts of elvish mischief.

On the other hand, many Icelanders “believe” in elves in the same way others believe in Santa Claus. It’s a way of keeping their culture alive, and something fun to think about. And yet, there are also those who truly believe the álfar and huldufólk exist.

According to local folklore, the huldufólk live in a world parallel to our own. They dress in old-fashioned clothing, and are only seen when they want to be seen. They inhabit trees and boulders, and venture into our world through certain areas in hills and mountains and other natural formations.

Many claim to have had personal experiences with elves, or at least know someone who has. The elves’ capital is said to be located in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland where visitors can venture out on an “elf walk” to learn about their history. The elf king and queen live at a cliff there called Hamarinn.

Lessons from Another World

It’s all a part of Icelandic culture and folklore. The country even has its very own Elf School, where students learn about the huldufólk and other mythological creatures. Anyone can sign up. The school is led by headmaster Magnus Skarphedinsson, and it even has an official website:

“The Elfschool is open all year around in Reykjavik. The school is 32 years old this year. What students in the Elfschool gain and learn is everything that is known about elves and hidden people, as well as gnomes, dwarfs, fairies, trolls, mountain spirits as well as other nature spirits and mythical beings in Iceland and in other countries.”

In 2018, Max Mosher of the Globe and Mail visited Iceland’s Elf School and shared his experience. Classes typically last a few hours, and primarily focus on the retelling of tales involving huldufólk encounters and folklore. They also apparently end with “buttered bread and pancakes with whipped cream.” Sign me up.

Magnus Skarphedinsson is also notably the leader of the Paranormal Foundation of Iceland.

“Cultural Inheritance”

One of the major elf-related headlines over the past several years was the incident involving a boulder that had to be moved before the construction of a new road through the Gálgahraun lava field. The large stone was thought by some to be an elf church.

Peter Matthiasson, Head of Communication with the Icelandic Road Administration, told BBC Ideas that they agreed to move the rock not necessarily because they truly believe elves congregate there, but because they see it as “part of [their] cultural inheritance.”

Protecting these stones and other areas said to be claimed by elves is, perhaps, a way of preserving Iceland’s culture and natural wonder. In that case, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to believe in elves.

Iceland is a pretty amazing place, after all.


Rob Schwarz

Writer, blogger, and part-time peddler of mysterious tales. Editor-in-chief of Stranger Dimensions.

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