Exploring the past, present and future of Icelanders’ belief in the huldafólk
Hidden people, also known as elves or Huldufólk, are a part of Icelandic folklore and culture. They are believed to be supernatural beings who live in the natural environment, hidden from human sight. While some people might dismiss the idea of hidden people as fanciful or even absurd, the belief is deeply ingrained in Icelandic culture and has been for centuries.
The belief in hidden people is deeply rooted in the country’s history and culture. According to Icelandic folklore, the hidden people were the original inhabitants of Iceland, driven underground by the arrival of human settlers. The hidden people are said to have retreated to the mountains and remote areas of the country, where they live to this day.
The belief in hidden people is also linked to the idea of sacrifice. People used to believe that the hidden people had to be satisfied with offerings of food and drink – depriving them could lead to misfortune or even disaster befalling your farmstead.
Psychological impact of the belief in hidden people
To gain a better understanding of the psychology behind Icelanders’ belief in elves, we spoke to Terry Gunnell, professor of Folkloristics at the University of Iceland. Through our conversation, Terry shed light on the cultural significance of Huldufolk and the reasons why Icelanders still hold these beliefs today.
According to Terry, the belief in hidden people is not just a quirky and outdated tradition; it still holds psychological significance for many Icelanders. “For some, the belief in hidden people is a way of maintaining a connection to the past and their cultural heritage,” Terry explains. “For others, it is a way of coping with the stresses and uncertainties of modern life.”
So it is similar to the concept of an imaginary friend, in that it provides a sense of camaraderie and comfort. For children, for example, believing in hidden people can be a way to cope with loneliness and feel less isolated. For adults, it can be a way of feeling less alone in the world and believing that there are benevolent forces looking after them.
Belief in hidden people can also be a way of dealing with the unpredictability of life. For example, the weather in Iceland can change rapidly, and natural disasters like volcanic eruptions and earthquakes pose a constant threat. Believing in invisible people can actually provide a sense of control in a world that is often beyond human control. “For example, if a farmer believes that hidden men have blessed their crops, they may have more confidence in the future and be more resilient in times of adversity,” Terry explains.
The role of religion
Religion has played an important role in Icelandic culture, and the Christianisation of Iceland in the 11th century had a major impact on the belief in hidden people. According to Terry, Christianity did not completely eliminate Icelanders’ belief in hidden people, but rather transformed it. Instead of being seen as supernatural beings, hidden people were reinterpreted as fallen angels or demons.
Moreover, Terry noted that belief in hidden people is not a static or fixed belief, but one that evolves and adapts to changing times and social contexts. For example, the current popularity of belief in hidden people among tourists reflects a broader cultural trend of nostalgia and longing for a magical and mystical world, as evidenced by the popularity of fantasy literature and films such as Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones.
The future of belief in hidden people
As Iceland is now more connected to the rest of the world and younger generations are more exposed to Western culture, it remains to be seen how belief in hidden people will develop in the future. Will it remain a strong cultural force or will it fade over time? According to Terry, the future of belief in hidden people depends on several factors.
First, he believes that the belief in hidden people will persist as long as there are people who feel connected to the land and nature. As long as people feel the need to connect with something bigger than themselves, there will always be a place for belief in hidden people.
Secondly, it depends on whether the belief will continue to be passed down from generation to generation. If parents continue to tell their children stories about hidden people and teach them to respect the land and the natural world, then faith will continue to thrive. However, if younger generations become disconnected from their cultural heritage and lose interest in the stories and traditions of their ancestors, belief in hidden people may fade.
Finally, it also depends on the role of tourism. While the belief in hidden people has become a popular attraction for tourists in Iceland, there is a danger that it could be exploited and commercialised to the point where it loses cultural significance. “It is important for Icelanders to keep telling their own stories about hidden people and maintain their connection to the land and the natural world, rather than letting external forces determine the story,” Terry says.
The belief in hidden people is a fascinating aspect of Icelandic culture that captures the imagination of people around the world. While it may seem strange or even silly to some, it is a deeply rooted cultural tradition that has helped Icelanders connect with their natural environment and with each other. Whether it will continue to flourish remains to be seen, but for now it remains an important part of Icelandic identity and a reminder of the power of human imagination and connection to the natural world.
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