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Iceland's Elves

Barbara Gruber (June 2007)

The belief in elves, dead spirits and other supernatural phenomena are an inherent part of Icelandic culture. Many say this is linked to Iceland's Celtic traditions, as well as the harsh nature and climate.

Elves can be found all over Iceland, even in ReykjavikImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Most people probably don't think elves exist -- but not in Iceland. The majority of the population on this remote North Atlantic island either believes in elves or at least refuses to rule out their existence.

Sigubjörg Karlsdottir, or Sippa as she's called, is a small chubby woman with sparkling blue eyes, wearing a bright red hat and looking somewhat elf-like herself. Twice a week, she takes tourists on an elf tour of Hafnarfjördur. This small town just south of Reykjavik is believed to lie at the crossroads of several mystical energy lines. It's also Iceland's capital of elves and so-called hidden people.

"Different creatures have different appearances," Sippa says. "Hidden people, or hülte volk as we call them, are like humans: tall and handsome. Elves are a little stranger looking with big ears and long skinny legs."

Hidden creatures can put a spell on you
Sippa, a guide for elf tours in Hafnarfjördur, Iceland.
This rock is an elf's home, says SippaImage: Barbara Gruber

A big rock just up the hill from the town's old center is the first stop of Sippa's tour. The rock sits right in the middle of the front yard of a house. Sippa says a man once wanted to build a house on this very spot and he asked the builders to get rid of the rock.

"They were just going to break down the rock the old fashioned way, but they couldn't move it," Sippa says. She says an old man from the neighborhood told the builders: 'You have a problem because the elf that lives here does not want to move.'

"They told the owner, he thought about it and decided to build his house somewhere else," Sippa says.

These hidden creatures are for the most part good-natured, Sippa says. But they can also get very upset and put a spell on you, she adds.

The mythology of elves contrasts with Iceland's history

Elves and hidden people are a serious business in Iceland, says Terry Gunnell, the head of the folkloristic department at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik. Though he hasn't seen any himself, he sounds fairly convinced of their existence.

Terra Incognita Island
Elves and humans live side-by-side in IcelandImage: DW

"They look like us and they live like us," says Gunnell, who's British, but has lived in Iceland since 1979. "They are just more powerful."

Gunnell says that this historically rich mythology of elves contrasts sharply with the difficulties Icelanders have faced in the past: volcanoes erupted all over the island, the country was surrounded by pack ice, crops and animals died.

So, Icelanders needed something to dream of and look forward to.

"Icelanders live in a world where invisible forces around them shape their lives," says Gunnell.

Elves are a part of road construction planning

History and mythology is one thing. However, elves are very much part of everyday life in modern Iceland, too.

Terra Incognita Island
Road planners also have to take elves into considerationImage: DW

Building roads around the homes of elves is nothing unusual in Iceland, says Victor Ingolfsson, the spokesperson for Iceland's Road Authority. He says he doesn't believe in elves -- but they are taken into serious consideration when it comes to road construction.

"We consider this talk about elves and hidden people as a kind of public relations issue," Ingolfsson says. The authority has repeatedly had to deal with people having trouble with certain road plans, thinking that elves or hidden people lived at the sites.

"Because Iceland is such a small community, we have to listen to everyone," Ingolfsson says. "We can't just say you're crazy."

"Everyone can see elves."

Someone who has always listened to people's sighting of elves is Magnus Skarphedinsson, an historian and headmaster of the Icelandic elf school "Álfaskólinn" in Reykjavik. The school has been around for 14 years and attracts both foreign and Icelandic students.

Skarphedinsson's main job is to collect stories of elf sightings and other hidden creatures. He says he has descriptions of all sorts of different types of elves, trolls, gnomes, fairies and dwarfs.

"But nearly 70 percent of our stories are about hidden people, because they are most seen here," Skarphedinsson says. Though he's probably the only person on the planet who knows so much about this phenomenon, Skarphedinsson admits there is so much more to be discovered. Unfortunately for him, despite devoting his life to elves, he himself has never seen an elf or hidden person.

Karte Hafnarfjördur Island
Hafnarfjördur is Iceland's capital of elvesImage: AP Graphics/DW

Someone who has is 40-year-old Icelander Jenny. In fact, she says she sees them quite often when she walks in the forest near her home.

"Usually what I see are elf children playing, they may not be so careful," Jenny says. "When they realize that I see them, they say 'whoops, she can see us' and they disappear."

But is seeing elves just a question of luck -- or a power only given to a few? Apparently not, says Hermundur Rosenkranz, a numerologist and psychic.

"Everyone can see elves," Rosenkranz says. "You just have to be neutral and listen, control your mind, don't think, just feel, be patient and try."

According to Rosenkranz, everyone in the world has his or her own house elf. So either there's a little bit of Iceland all over the world or we all have an elfish side to us.

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