From Iceland — To Be or Not to Be

To Be or Not to Be

Published May 27, 2009

To Be or Not to Be

For those of you who have just come to appreciate the rugged majesty of that which is Iceland, you will undoubtedly sense that there is no end to its geological wonders.

Not so hard to understand, once you are aware that Iceland is the second largest volcanic landmass in the world, and possibly the last to form into sizeable, arable land. What you may not realise is that the natural beauty is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There’s far more here than meets the eye. Scratch the surface, and you may just discover something entirely unexpected.
In a recent New York Magazine blog (in retaliation to the somewhat exaggerated, yet amusing Vanity Fair article by Michael Lewis), Iceland Review’s Jonas Moody states that in seven years living here, he has never come across an Icelander who believes in elves. Quite frankly, if you did indeed ask someone straight out (say over a glass of wine and peanuts), would they admit it? It’s probably unlikely to be a topic of conversation on a Friday night pub crawl. Or is it? Of course, there are surveys, but, well, who’s going to be honest when asked a question like that? Well, you’d be surprised. There are far more than you might think.

Take Magnús Skarphéðinsson (the Icelandic Elf School’s equivalent to Harry Potter’s Dumbledore). Magnús has accumulated reams of first-hand accounts of Icelanders that have talked to, had dinner – hell, supposedly had steamy sexual encounters – with elves. Then there’s Erla Stefánsdóttir, mystic and elf protector: Now seventy-two, she has been seeing invisible beings all her life. To her it’s just as natural to see elves working in their garden as birds fluttering in the sky. And there’s a whole host of others; and believe me, these are entirely normal people.

And aside from elves, there are the huldufólk (hidden people), another unseen race altogether. Magnús says, ‘Huldufólk are just the same size and look exactly like human beings, the only difference is that they are invisible to most of us. Elves, on the other hand, aren’t entirely human, they’re humanoid, starting at around eight centimetres [can’t imagine they would stand still to be measured by a ruler]. There are thirteen types of elves, but only one huldufólk.’

But are elves and huldufólk really different beings?

One Icelander told me that the difference between huldufólk and álfar is that huldufólk like to drink coffee, whereas the little guys don’t. (Surely this must mean that there are also huldufólk in Jamaica and Brazil who ship coffee beans over here for huldufólk consumption in Iceland. Perhaps there is even a huldufólk Kaffitár? The mind boggles).

Fey Fairies and their Partners in Crime
When asked about fairies, Magnús maintains these are basically elves with wings.
Later, I did a little digging into the history of elves and fairies, and found a problem right off: Fairies did not sprout wings in art and literature until the Victorian era. Shakespeare’s Oberon, Puck and Co. didn’t have any fluttery appendages—they hopped, they climbed trees, they could make themselves invisible (or hidden), but they couldn’t bloody fly.

Besides, what is the Icelandic word for fairies as opposed to the one for elves? There is no directly equivalent word. Fee Fie Fo Fum.
Terry Gunnell, renowned Icelandic folklorist, says, ‘Huldufólk and álfar undoubtedly arose from the same need. The Norse settlers had the álfar, the Irish slaves had the hill fairies or the Good People. Over time, they became two different beings, but really they are two different sets of folklore that mean the same thing.’

Folktales of the huldufólk are also present in the Faroe Islands. In John Wilde’s book on Faroese folklore, he quotes a 19th century source which says: ‘They are large in size, their clothes are all grey, their hair black; their dwelling place is in caves, [and get this:] they are also called elves…’ Think of Eivör with dark hair, and you’re there or thereabouts.

In Norway, you have the huldrefolk – certainly the origin of the Icelandic word. These are mostly enticingly beautiful female forest spirits (or elves) who lure unsuspecting male journeyers into illicit sexual encounters – often ending in death (a kind of Viking Kiss of the Spiderwoman). Norwegian huldras are human except for one definitive feature: a devilish tail, which they cleverly conceal under human clothes. Says Gunnell: ‘This was the Church demonising the pagan nature spirits. The Church did not have such influence over the distant Icelanders. As a result, huldufólk in Iceland did not develop tails.’

In the Ynglinga saga a witch named Huld is employed to kill the Swedish king Vanlade. In the Sturlunga saga Huld appears as Óðinn’s mistress. In German folklore, a Holda is also a witch or fairy of sorts, and features in the Brother’s Grimm fairy tales as Mother Hulda. Scholars have linked Hulda to Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt, woodland and nature. Intriguingly, the Romanian word for fairy, zânǎ, seems to originate in the name Diana.

So, you see, one thing leads to another, leads to another. Sooner or later you have something entirely new.

Dwarves Aren’t Really that Small
In the Norse mythology, dwarves are identified with svartálfar (black elves), and dökkálfar (dark elves). In the Eddas, both the vanir (Norse gods) and the álfar possess fertility powers; this suggests, of course, that the vanir were synonymous with elves as well.

Yet, the Icelandic word dvergar, although is now used to mean ‘little people’ in the modern sense, in old Norse, was often unlike the concept of dwarves in other cultures. Dvergar were originally described as being of human size. They are not described as small before the 13th century, when they started appearing in the sagas.

So are álfar, huldufólk, fairies, and even dvergar really one and the same? It appears at least they commenced their folkloric life in the same boat (so to speak). What they became later, and have become today, is an entirely different kettle of fish.

The Huldufólk-Álfar Pot Roast
Numerous scholars insist that historically speaking, they are essentially two sides of the same coin: álfar, being either a pejorative term for huldufólk and/or huldufólk being a euphemism for álfar. Like Gunnell says, ‘In Europe in the middle ages you didn’t dare use the satanic ‘D’ word for fear of calling up all manner of trouble—the Inquisition for one. Perhaps in Iceland, settlers avoided using the ‘A’ word: álfar. So, when you said, “the hidden people”, everyone still knew precisely who you meant.’

And yet another question remains: Are Icelandic ‘álfar’ and British ‘elves’ the same thing at all? To the British, elves and fairies were the same beings: little nature spirits. But to the early Icelanders, álfar were demi-gods, human in form. They weren’t little people. They were Odin’s subjects. So, aside from practical purposes, ‘elf’ and ‘álfur’ should not really be used as literal translations of one another. (Hope you’ll forgive me this time!)

Throw together a smattering of Viking myth, mixed in with a hint of Irish brogue and a dash of Celtic panache, a pinch of Anglo-Saxon, stir well with volcanic rock, starry skies, a couple of cubes of glacial ice and a hell of a lot of wind; let it simmer gently on a low heat, for many centuries, stir occasionally, then separate, and what do you get? That’s what I call a real melting pot: two for the price of one.

Ask any of those run-of-the-mill Icelanders who Jonas Moody has never had the fortune to encounter on a rainy Friday night somewhere downtown, if huldufólk and elves are the same thing. I assure you, many of them will give you an unequivocal No. But for Óðinn’s sake, don’t go asking them if they believe in elves; they might just turn round and give you a blow-by-blow of their last saucy encounter; or worse, they might just wallop you. I’ll leave it to you to find out for yourself.

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