Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Hidden People

Up until the 1900s most if not all Icelanders believed in the hidden people, also referred to as elves although these beings have little in common with those associated with the English term. Icelandic elves are invisible to most, only people with special powers can see them and occasionally regular people whom the elves permit a peek. These beings live inside rocks and small hills or mounds, never in lava as these formations have a connection to death and evil spirits. To those who still believe in their existence, elves are respected and feared.

The origin of elves supposedly dates back to the Garden of Eden. Eve was bathing her children when God dropped by unannounced. Now understandably Eve became flustered and hid the children that were un-bathed and still dirty so that God would not be offended. This would turn out to be a mistake because at the end of the visit God asked her and Adam if they had any other children than those before him to which they denied. Being all-knowing, God was not fooled and became livid, lecturing the couple with such fury that the bits of foliage that doubled as clothing trembled. His parting words served as the origin of the elves as he condemned the children hidden from him to remain hidden from men as well. Grumpy old goof, and not at all surprising that he would booby trap the Garden of Eden with forbidden apples. But a powerful grumpy goof at that, as the children who had been shoved behind a tree or into a hole, were no longer and never again visible to their siblings or Adam and Eve. This brings us to the third name they go by here or: Eve’s dirty children. Now the descendants of these hidden children were also cursed in this manner, and with the passing of time a whole elf civilization came to be and for some reason or the other they decided to immigrate to Iceland.

Another explanation to their origins is that the elves are descendants of angles who remained impartial when Lucifer (when still an angel) rebelled against God and were thus condemned to become invisible as well as their descendants. This does not bode well for the afterlife of the people of Switzerland. But back to the point, the third, probably most disturbing, account of where elves came from is that the elves are descendants of some form of virgin birth via a man, Adam. I have no idea how that is supposed to have worked.

Now one of the things that distinguishes Icelandic elves from elves in folklore elsewhere is that ours do not have pointed ears or wear green, they prefer shiny royal blue or white with gold embroidery. They look like us aside from a few oddities, like supposedly not having a bridge between their nose (like those who have taken recreational cocaine use to a professional level) and that the bit between the nose and the upper lip that dents inwards on a human, bulges slightly outward on elves. Their bone structure is slight, making them somewhat smaller than us and their flesh is soft to the touch. The term “álfakroppur” or “elf body” is commonly used to describe a small framed woman with a tiny waist and is meant as a compliment. Now as you can see God’s invisibility curse left something to be desired as elves can on occasion be seen and they often appear in people’s dreams. Everyone who has experiences such visions describes them as beautiful to behold, and it is said that they do not grow old and live much longer than humans. Now this last bit sort of takes the bite out of the curse does it not?

The behaviour of elves is similar to that of humans, they live in towns within rocks and small hills, go to work, to church (the good ones), use invisible boats for fishing and they even have a parliament like us, poor things. Their workmanship by far surpasses ours and they are capable of magic. But the elves are private “people”, they want to be left alone and it is unwise to disrupt them, even cutting the grass on top of the small mounds they live in can be dangerous. If you are lucky enough to be able to help them when they are in need you will be kindly rewarded, in particular if you help a female elf giving birth. Helping an invisible, small woman give birth to an even smaller invisible baby sounds tough but in fact it could not be simpler as a human needs only place his hands over the mother and the baby will be born. An explanation of this phenomenon is not provided.

In 1988 a nation survey showed that a majority of Icelanders believed in elves, a little over half of the men and over 60% of the women. This has probably decreased considerably as my generation has not been active enough in keeping this belief alive. You need to catch people as kids, much like my grandmother warned me and my sister not to play on a rock close to her home for fear that we would disturb the elves living within in. We were also not to throw rocks around as we might hit the hidden people we could not see. I have unfortunately not kept this up, not warning my children of any such thing; probably because I was too busy warning them about strangers and playing in the street. But I can still remember quite vividly the small facades that were commonly used to decorate gardens when I was growing up, placed up against natural rock formations to welcome elves if they wanted to move in. These are few and far between today, a sure sign that elves are slowly but surely being replaced by Pokemon or some other mythical looking cartoon that has no roots in our society. I do not think however that decorating one’s yard with Pokemon will catch on in the same way that the elf houses did. I hope not anyway.

My personal encounters with elves are few, only one to be exact. This was in 1997 and occurred while I was supervising a new pipeline being placed in Mosfellsbær, a suburb of Reykjavík. The contractor doing the worked mentioned in a progress meeting that his equipment kept breaking down while attempting to remove a large boulder smack in the middle of the pipeline’s planned route. He believed this to be the result of elves, that they were sabotaging his equipment to protect their home. This was noted in the minutes of meeting and the project owner, Reykjavík Energy, needed no further prompting – the pipeline layout was altered to avoid the rock. The equipment worked fine after that. There is also a road in Kópavogur, another Reykjavík suburb which narrows, from two lanes down to one for no apparent reason at one point. This is to avoid rocks in which elves reside and the name of the road bears this witness: Álfhólsvegur (Elfhill Road).

Finally, if elves really do exist then we must have upset them greatly as Iceland is still in the throes of the eruption that shows few signs of slowing down and there is not a big enough band-aid out there to hide our financial wounds following our banking debacle. Someone, somewhere must have moved a really, really big rock. It would so typical if it had been done to make way for a new bank.

Yrsa - Wednesday


  1. Love your post. I like the Iceland elves, they do have character.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Oh, this is just magic in the purest sense, Yrsa. Every single time you post I decide to go to Iceland.

  3. Yrsa - All your posts are wonderful and I am going to work on editing this a bit so I can tell it to my niece's daughters. They are 8, 6, and 3 and their backyard would be perfect for elf dwellings.

    I love all the stories about elves and the little people. Leprechauns in Ireland aren't nice creatures; they want to create mischief and play practical jokes.

    When Irish tourism really took off a few years ago, when the people arriving weren't coming to visit relatives but to learn about the country, the Irish Tourist Board tried to downplay leprechauns, considering them too cute or "twee".

    Native American folklore in the US has little creatures who live in holes near trees. According to James Doss in his Charlie Moon series, they can be pleased by a gift of pipe tobacco.

    There is something wonderful about a culture that moves pipes and roads to protect the elves. Perhaps if the children clap their hands and believe like they did for Tinkerbell, the elves will reveal how child birth can be accomplished by the movement of a hand.


  4. Yrsa - Very nice post. By the way The photograph of the statue of Lucifer (The Fallen Angel)is in Madrid (Retiro Park).
    Best regards