A visit to Reykjavík’s Elfschool
Reykjavík’s Elfschool is an institution of learning unlike anything you’ve experienced before. Nestled on the second floor of a nondescript building in the commercial neighbourhood Skeifan, this one-of-a-kind school purports to teach “everything that is known about elves and hidden people,” according to its founder and headmaster, Magnús Skarphéðinsson. For 26 years, Magnús has taught students about where elves live, what they think of humans, and told stories from those people—“witnesses,” as he calls them—who have seen, heard, or made contact with the invisible world.
Perhaps more reminiscent of the education you might receive from listening to a great-grandmother’s stories than a chalk-to-the-blackboard lecture, the Elfschool is a controversial choice for one’s education. At its best, the Elfschool is an oral history archival project meant to give a voice to those who have witnessed the invisible world and to spread this knowledge to those who will listen. But at its worst, Elfschool is a challenging afternoon spent eating pancakes (okay, that part is awesome) and listening to the ramblings of a headmaster who might make you feel more confused than enlightened.
One thing is sure though, Elfschool won’t bore you. And, if you really want to, you might just leave a believer.
Learning the ELFabet
I was the first to arrive to class and was shown to my seat by an inviting assistant. Shuffling past dusty books in old banana boxes stacked taller than I am (and I’m quite tall), I was given a study book to peruse while waiting for class to begin. More akin to a lived-in sitting room, our classroom was cosy and cluttered, with tchotchkes and old books bursting from every available space. To my left stood a colourful figurine of Grýla, the Icelandic giantess with a penchant for frightening children, and to my right a waist-high garden ornament in the style of one of Snow White’s seven dwarves. After a few minutes, I was greeted by the smiles of three more eager classmates, and then the headmaster himself. “I’ve never seen elves”, Magnús started, “but I’ve researched them for more than 30 years.” Ready or not, Elfschool is in session!
It’s important that I admit two things:
1) I am an elf sceptic. I started as an elf sceptic and I remain an elf sceptic. Magnús would be quick to point to my “imperialistic American upbringing” (his words, not mine) as cause of my scepticism; however, let’s not dwell on this too much.
2) I had a rather particular expectation of Elfschool going into class. Incorrectly, I anticipated kitsch in a context that might seem a caricature of a school—desks in a row facing a chalkboard, dunce cap in the corner (perhaps one for bad elves as well?), pop quizzes and groan-inducing homework, the whole shebang. But rather than making a mockery of itself for a few shits and giggles, Elfschool takes itself and its mission seriously.
I’m now of the opinion that no two sessions of Elfschool are alike, and this has much to do with its irregular student body. The number of students in any given class can’t be guaranteed and their motivations for being there are even more unpredictable. As a result, Magnús’s lectures are mutable to the interests of his audience. “We get two kinds of visitors to the Elfschool,” the headmaster explains. “The majority are those who are curious and want to hear some sort of logic behind the ‘elf issue.’ The second type is elf-enthusiasts.” Lucky for me, my classmates were of the second variety; in fact, they were enthusiasts of all things supernatural and had made one another’s acquaintance at a centre for Wiccan studies. Yes, folks, my classmates were witches! Their enthusiasm for elves then goes without question. As a result, our particular class format was more indulgent than instructional.
Elfschool wouldn’t be Elfschool without its quirky and selfassured headmaster. Magnús is a charismatic man with an unfaltering certainty when expounding some of his more dubious claims. Among those is the idea that the Vikings had a good relationship with elves upon first contact in Iceland, but human evolution has made them suspicious of us ever since. “Elves refer to humans as ‘jerks’ today,” Magnús tells us before taking some time to defend our species, citing the formation of the European Union and the end of Apartheid in South Africa as examples of human evolution that should inspire optimism. Though his opinions can sometimes be prickly and seemingly indisputable, he often follows them with the assertion “I may be the only one in the country who has this opinion—but, I’m convinced I’m right.”
Magnús is an unparalleled storyteller. It is at about the same time that he starts sharing stories that the stack of warm pancakes makes its entrance at our table. Through bites of gooey deliciousness, we hear elaborate tales of witnesses all over Iceland who have encountered hidden people: a boy in Skagafjörður taken in by hidden people in a winter storm in the ‘60s; a fishing community near Vík that decides whether or not it goes to sea each day by confirming that the neighbouring hidden fishermen have done the same (Magnús claims that this is the only fishing community in Iceland that has never lost a man at sea); a cow whose udders had run dry, only to be abducted by hidden people and then returned with its milk mojo back.
Learning about oursElves
“I was once said to be an irregular teacher,” Magnús chuckles as he admits to his frenetic ways as a lecturer. Irregular, however, may be putting it lightly. He jumps from one topic to another like a Whac-A-Mole and entertains diversions in a way that makes him a difficult man to follow. Perhaps it’s his fondness for the Socratic method—asking questions of his scholars and inspiring inquiry from them—that allows for class discussion to stray so far off topic. In between Magnús’s theories on elves, we delved into topics as contentious as Israeli-Palestinian relations and Nazi Germany, leaving me wondering if, in fact, we were learning about elves or about ourselves through an elfish perspective.
By the end of class, I took pause for reflection about the mission of Elfschool. Throughout my time there, I had learned to appreciate and respect Magnús’s commitment as an oral historian. “I’m not in this for business,” he asserts. “We’ve never advertised Elfschool beyond our website.” Magnús believes his purpose as a researcher is to collect as much data as possible, share it with others, and let them come to their own conclusions about elves and hidden people.
“It’s simply a privilege and an obligation to share this knowledge with the rest of the world,” he says. “Even though we’ve received more and more international attention about the elf issue in Iceland, our own beliefs are easily and slowly dying out. One of the things that could save this is to record these stories and put them on the web for everyone to access.”
And, perhaps, he’s right. My classmates were quick to cite the proliferation of magic displayed in our Western media (think ‘Harry Potter,’ ‘Lord Of The Rings’) as a sign that as our nations become more developed, we lack the imaginations to believe in the paranormal that was once so central to life everywhere. Once again, I found that studying hidden people was, in fact, a catalyst to better understanding our own shortcomings as human beings.
I walked away from Elfschool with a more open mind, a desire to stretch my imagination further, and the credentials to do so. Did I leave Elfschool a believer? Not completely, no. But, I did leave Elfschool with a few profound questions for our Western pedagogy (and let’s not forget the belly full of pancakes).
Who knew I would’ve reflected on my own life while researching hidden people? I sure didn’t. And while I’m still working on spotting my first hidden person in the lava around my home, I leave you with the words of one of my sage classmates: “You can only see what you believe in.”
Elfschool is unique in the world. According to Magnús, there is no other school that teaches about elves or hidden peoples.
The main goal of Magnús and his elf school is to “restore the friendship between humans and elves,” which Magnús believes once existed and could exist again in the future.
Elfschool has operated for 26 years, taught roughly 9,000 students, and averages anywhere from 500 to 600 students per year.
The majority of Elfschool scholars have been German, British and American; however, would-be elf scholars come from all over the world. Surprisingly, Magnús believes only TWO Icelanders have ever attended Elfschool (one happened to be there for my own session). Elfschool is conducted in English but can be held in any of the Scandinavian languages if the entire group so chooses.
The study book, ‘Icelandic Fairytales and Icelandic People’s Experience of Elfs [sic] in Modern Times’ is handed out upon enrolment in Elfschool. It is replete with information, stories and “some philosophical comments about life in general” from the headmaster. In addition, an “Elf and Hidden People Studies” degree is included in the tuition fee.
The term “álfar” is used in Icelandic and adopted by Elfschool as a blanket term to describe various species of paranormal beings. These include elves, hidden peoples, faeries, gnomes, dwarfs and mountain spirits, among others.
Magnús has met with and interviewed more than 700 Icelandic witnesses and over 500 international witnesses in roughly 40 countries around the world. His stories and theories are based on the archive he has built through those visits. Magnús explains that most stories are actually about hidden people, as other paranormal sightings are far more rare.
The most common question asked at Elfschool is: Why are there so many elves and elf-sightings in Iceland? To this, Magnús cites the late arrival of the Enlightenment to Iceland, which allowed for a certain preservation of belief in myth that was lost in other Western nations.
Class meets every Friday and usually lasts three hours though the duration can vary depending on the involvement of the students. The cost of Elfschool is 6,200 ISK. Please see the Elfschool website for more information.