When foreign media outlets report on Iceland and need to add a little local colour, they will invariably throw in a quick, ironical side note about the country’s pervasive belief in elves, or Hidden People. The tone is generally one of indulgence with just a dash of condescension, the written equivalent of patting a small child on the head when she introduces her invisible friend Mister Bob Big Jeans.
Although many academic studies and informal surveys alike have concluded that a not insignificant portion of the Icelandic population “will not deny the existence of elves,” as Terry Gunnell, a leading folklorist at the University of Iceland has put it, the question of whether or not Icelanders really, truly believe in Hidden People is sort of beside the point. In the same way that so many people in the world have grown up with Biblical stories, say, or with stories about Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, so have Icelanders grown up with tales about the Hidden People.
These stories are part of a shared history, a shared cultural memory and vocabulary that are, therefore, fundamentally important—regardless of whether anyone believes them or not. What follows, then, is a crash course in Iceland’s Hidden People mythology—common tropes and themes, the relationship represented between humans and elves, and a sampling of the tales themselves.
There are two stories that offer explanations on how the Hidden People came into being.
The first story finds Adam and Eve at home in their beautiful garden. One day, God comes to visit and asks to meet all the couple’s children. However, Eve had only finished bathing a few of her children, and was embarrassed to show her Creator the dirty ones. So she introduced the clean children and hid the others.
“Are there any children I haven’t met yet?” God asked. Eve said no.
Of course, being omniscient, God knew that he was being tricked and declared, “Those who you hide from me shall also be hidden from men.”
And so, the hidden children became invisible, taking to the hills and moors and rocks. It is from these children that the Hidden People are descended, while humankind is descended from the children whom Eve showed to God. Hidden People can only be seen by human eyes if they want to be.
In the second story, a traveller gets lost and stumbles onto a farm that he doesn’t recognize. He knocks on the door and is greeted by an old woman who invites him in. He is given food and drink and introduced to the woman’s two beautiful daughters. Shown to a bed later, he asks if one of the girls will keep him company for the evening and is told yes. But when they lie down together, the man is unable to touch his companion, even though she is right in front of him. Rather, his hand passes right through her when he tries to embrace her. He asks her why this is.
“I am a spirit without a body,” the girl replies. “Long ago, the devil and his army revolted in heaven. He and his supporters were driven out of heaven and into the darkness. But those of us who neither fought with him nor opposed him were driven to earth and forced to live in the rocks and hills. We are called the Hidden People.”
Hidden People can only live with those of their kind, the girl explained. “We can do both good and evil, and excel at whichever we choose. We have no physical bodies, but take human form when we want to be seen. I am one of these spirits,” she finished, “so you’ll never be able to embrace me.”
Resigned, the man went to sleep and lived to tell the story.
(Adapted by Larissa Kyzer, with reference to retellings by Jacqueline Simpson and J.M. Bedell)
Our mirror images—just prettier and more successful
In his introduction to J.M. Bedell’s folktale collection ‘Hildur, Queen of the Elves,’ Terry Gunnell notes that much like their counterparts in Norwegian mythology, Iceland’s Hidden People “represent a mixture of the early álfar (elves) and nátturuvættir (nature spirits) mentioned in the Icelandic sagas and ancient Eddic poems.” Nevertheless, Iceland’s Hidden People are unique in that by the time their stories began to be recorded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they had basically become “mirror-images of those humans who told stories about them—except that they were usually beautiful, powerful, alluring, and free from care, while the Icelanders were often starving and struggling for existence.”
Indeed, in their stories, Hidden People are fishermen and farmers, with their own superior, but indistinguishable breeds of livestock, and a far more attuned instinct for when and where the best catches can be had at sea. They get married and have children (often after difficult labours which can only be alleviated with the assistance of humans), sell their goods in marketplaces, move house (usually on New Year’s night), and host grand celebrations (often in co-opted human dwellings). They have their own bureaucrats and religious officials, and although their homes are often found in rocks and hillsides, they are generally described as being tidy and warm, with many of the trappings of a normal—if more comfortable—human home.
While humans and Hidden People started as relative contemporaries—wearing the same clothing and having the same occupations and lifestyles—it is interesting to note, per Terry Gunnell again, that “in the common view today, they live in turf houses, ride horses, and wear nineteenth-century national dress.” Terry attributes this to the fact that the first and formative legends were all printed around that time, “underlining in black and white what the Huldufólk were supposed to look like […] Had the legends never been published, perhaps the Huldufólk would have attained cell phones, cars, and internet connections by now,” rather than becoming representations of Iceland’s not-so-distant rural past.
In a village in Eyjafjörður there once lived a rich couple. One day, they built a pantry, constructing one of the walls around a large, half-buried stone.
Shortly after the start of winter, the wife went out to fetch the day’s rations. She noticed that there was a wooden dinner bowl sitting on the stone that she didn’t recognize. She asked her maidservant about the bowl, but the woman didn’t know anything about it. So the wife poured some milk into the bowl, set it back on top of the stone, took the key with her, and went back into her home. The next morning, she came out to the pantry, looked in the bowl and found it empty. So it went all winter: the wife filled the bowl with milk every night, no matter what, and every morning the milk had disappeared.
Then, on the eve of the first night of summer, the wife dreamt that a strange woman came to her and said: “You’ve done very well to give me milk all this winter when I’ve depended on you. Tomorrow morning, you’ll find something I’ve left for you.” And with that, she disappeared. The next morning, the wife went out to the pantry and found a splendid dapple-grey calf that she’d never seen before. The wife was now sure that it had been a Hidden Woman who had given her the calf as thanks for the milk. The calf remained at the farm and grew into a fantastic milk cow.
(Translated and adapted by Larissa Kyzer from the collection of Jón Árnason)
A natural religion
Christianity became the predominant religion in Iceland as early as the year 1000, and to this day, Iceland has a state-sponsored church, to which the vast majority of Icelanders belong. And yet, as a rule, Icelanders have no particular difficulty reconciling folk beliefs with modern religious beliefs, allowing Biblical scripture and folktales to coexist in the national imagination.
In his memoir ‘Faðir og móðir og dulmagn bernskunnar’ (“Father And Mother And The Mysteries Of Childhood”), author Guðberger Bergsson writes that in his family, a belief in Hidden People was in no way at odds with a belief in a Christian god. For instance, “In [my grandmother’s] eyes, god was distant and impersonal, but supernatural beings were everywhere; it was the Hidden Women who played various little tricks on her and did her great favours, rather than god.”
This passage is quoted by author Unnur Jökulsdóttir in her own 2007 book, ‘Hefurðu séð Huldufólk?’ (‘Have you seen Hidden People?’), in which she sets out around Iceland collecting real-life anecdotes from people who claim to have seen and interacted with Hidden People. She notes that Guðbergur’s grandmother is “just like my grandmother, and maybe many of our grandmothers.” Because, as she explained to me later in an interview, “Icelanders take belief in their own way—many don’t goto church very often. They are not ‘extreme’ Christians.” And so, one belief need not negate another.
It seems, however, that there is easily more to it than that, particularly given that increasingly, Hidden People and their stories have—as Terry Gunnell wri-tes—“come to represent the old rural world, with its values and close connections to nature.” A respect of nature verging on awe is easily a religion in and of itself in Iceland, where surviving the elements was, for centuries, basically a matter of luck. And then here are these beings who literally live in nature, who dwell and flourish in the rocks and hillsides and barren landscapes where, to this day, people get lost and die. It makes a lot of sense that the mythology behind them still resonates.
“I have become very aware of the landscape,” Unnur confirmed, when discussing this. She told a story of a woman she met who had tried, unsuccessfully, to help her see Hidden People. Although she never was able to see Hidden People herself, Unnur explains that she now “looks at the land in a different way. The woman told me that Hidden People don’t like new lava, just old lava. I went recently to the country around Mývatn and I thought, ‘Oh, they won’t like this lava—this isn’t a Hidden People place.’”
There once lived a pastor named Einar at the rectory at Síða in the district of Skaftafell. He was very rich and had many children. He did not believe that Hidden People existed, and spoke very ill of them. He said that elves had never existed or else dared them to show themselves if they could. He often bragged that the Hidden People wouldn’t dare to attack him.
One night, he dreamed of a man who came to him and said: “Here you can see a Hidden Man, as you have long desired to. You have often spoken badly of we elves and dared us to find you. You fool, you pretend to know about things that you do not possess faculties to fathom, and you deny the existence of elves. Now you shall never deny us hereafter, because here you are seeing a Hidden Man, and as proof, I have taken your oldest daughter far away and you shall never see her from this day forward.”
When the man finished saying this, he disappeared. The pastor awoke, feeling as though the Hidden Man was fading from above his bed. He jumped out of bed and found that his twelve-year-old daughter had disappeared. He searched for her for a very long time, but she couldn’t be found.
Time passed, and until the next New Year’s night the pastor often lamented his ignorance and the events that followed. But, that night, he dreamed that his daughter came to him. She seemed happy and satisfied, and said she was faring well. She told him that she would be allowed to come to him every New Year’s night in a dream, although she couldn’t tell him anything further of her circumstances. She said that everything she had seen and heard was mysterious and strange.
After this dream, the pastor saw his daughter every New Year’s night. Once, she told him that her foster-father had died. Later, she told her father that she was to be married in the morning, wedding the son of the elves’ pastor. After this, Einar never saw his daughter again.
(Translated and adapted by Larissa Kyzer from the collection of Jón Árnason)
Don’t piss off the Joneses
When Icelandic sceptics—or “elf-agnostics,” as Kári Tulinius has characterized them in this magazine—are questioned by foreigners about Icelandic society’s willingness to humour believers’ demands that roads be rerouted or construction projects halted, the answer generally comes down to the fact that Iceland is a small place, and it’s better to make peace where you can.
Take for example when Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, who is chief of Iceland’s Public Roads Administration (and also a successful crime novelist), was put on the spot about the Public Roads Administration’s “concessions” to Hidden People believers. He told the American radio program ‘This American Life’ that in Iceland, “You really have to listen to everyone because you are probably going to meet them at a party after awhile. You know, when you scream at someone in traffic in New York, you know you’re probably not going to meet them again, so you do it. But not so much here.”
As it turns out, the necessity to make peace, to coexist with neighbours with whom you don’t always get on or agree, is also quite prevalent in folktales about the Hidden People themselves. “[T]here is need for cooperation,” Terry Gunnell writes. “As the legends demonstrate, such cooperation (generally following conditions set by the Huldufólk) can bring great reward […] Failure to cooperate or help, however, can bring about tragedy.”
And, yes, throughout the Hidden People tales, there are plenty of instances where people’s kindnesses—especially those of children—are repaid with great gifts. Interestingly, on more than one occasion, the Hidden People say that they are “too poor” to pay a monetary reward, but offer valuable talents and skills, instead. For instance, in “The Hidden Fisherman,” a man helps a Hidden Person pull his horse out of a bog. In exchange, his neighbour shows him the best and safest times to go out and fish. In “Dr. Skapti Sæmundsson,” a young boy helps a Hidden Woman who is experiencing a painful and difficult labour by simply laying his hands on her stomach. He is blessed by the Hidden Woman’s mother to “have good luck as a healer,” and grows up to be a talented doctor “who never failed to find a way to help” a woman in childbirth.
And yet, it is difficult to really feel a kinship with these beings, as they are frequently mischievous, often violent and regularly bring harm to people for no discernible reason. They steal children and replace them with changelings or senile old Hidden Men whom they’ve disguised as babies (See ”Father of 18 in Elfland,”). People who show themselves to be too curious about the Hidden People, or who can’t resist the temptation of offered gifts (such as a “slab of fat”—hey, it was a different time!) are often struck with madness and lose their minds.
Stay at home on Christmas or New Year’s night and if you’re not careful, you’ll be killed just for hanging about where the Hidden People want to hold their party. (A particularly depressing instance of this can be found in ”The Elves’ Dance on New Year’s Eve,” in which a man, hidden behind a wall, observes as his dog is “picked up and flung down so hard that every bone in its body is broken,” after which the Hidden People proceed to set their table for a feast.)
All things considered, it doesn’t seem strange at all that Icelanders familiar with these tales would have “ambiguous” attitudes toward their Hidden neighbours, as Jacqueline Simpson remarks. They can be changeable and petty, ill tempered and vengeful.
Just like people, come to think of it.
Once it happened that three children—two boys and a little girl who was younger than them—went to play by a knoll near their farm. They saw a little hole there and so the girl, as a joke, decided to put her hand inside and recite a lyric from a game the children liked to play:
”Put a gift in the old man’s hand, the old man’s hand. The old man can’t see a thing!”
All of a sudden, a golden apron button was placed in the girl’s hand. The boys saw this happen and were jealous, so the older boy put his hand in the hole as well and recited the same rhyme. But rather than receive a fine gift of his own, the boy got nothing at all. Moreover, when he took his hand out of the hole, it had withered and so it remained for the rest of his life.
(Translated and adapted by Larissa Kyzer from the collection of Jón Árnason)
Although Jón Árnason’s six-volume “Íslenzkar þjóðsögur og ævintýri” (“Icelandic folktales and fairy tales”) collection has yet to be translated into English in its entirety, a number of good excerpted works are available. For further Huldufólk reading, see ‘Icelandic Folktales and Legends,’ by Jacqueline Simpson, ‘Hildur, Queen of the Elves, and Other Icelandic Legends,’ by J.M. Bedell, and ‘Icelandic Folktales,’ by Alan Boucher, all of which are referenced in the accompanying article.