From Iceland — So What're These Elves I Keep Hearing About?

So What’re These Elves I Keep Hearing About?

Published January 20, 2014

So What’re These Elves I Keep Hearing About?
Photo by
Megan Herbert

The long answer is that it has been reported by the Associated Press, and subsequently hundreds of media outlets around the world, that opposition to a proposed road in the Reykjavík suburb of Garðabær is driven by a belief that it will disturb areas Icelanders consider to be the elf homes. The short answer is: AAAAARGH! Oh hell no! Please no questions about goddamn elves!

Sorry, it’s in the contract. Anybody who writes about Iceland in English has to write about elves.
I thought I signed up to write hard-hitting political commentary, but alright then. The thing is that the amount of time Icelanders spend thinking about elves is dwarfed by the amount non-Icelanders spend thinking about it. In Iceland elves are a bit like Morris dancing is in England: Nearly everyone has heard of it, but only a hardcore few give it much thought, and most people think it is only a myth.

Now that you mention it, I’ve never known anyone who’s seen Morris dancing in person, only on TV.
It is true that belief in elves has a long history in Iceland, which is also the case in most of Northern Europe, with belief in fairies and other fey folk being common all over the British Isles, Germany and Scandinavia. But nobody has ever written an article about whether Autobahn construction has been halted in Schleswig-Holstein because someone thought they saw Der Erlkönig on the outskirts of Lübeck.

Don’t surveys show that a majority of Icelanders believe in elves?
Sort of yes, sort of no. Surveys consistently show that Icelanders, when asked repeatedly by strangers on the phone who could be anyone, even crazed elf-worshippers, if they would completely rule out the existence of elves, a little bit more than half of respondents will not discount the possibility outright. In a 2009 survey, only thirty-two percent felt comfortable discounting the idea that humanoid creatures lived inside rocks and were magic.

Which I suppose is much sillier than thinking that there’s a big bearded man in the sky.
Bringing religion into this only confuses the issue. As Professor Terry Gunnell of the University of Iceland, an expert on this subject, explained in a 2009 interview with Danish newspaper Berlingske, Icelanders who believe in elves consider it wholly distinct from any religious belief. The Icelandic term for superstition, “hjátrú,” is perhaps useful here as it literally means “side-belief.”

So half of Iceland is in a relationship with God, but bangs an elf on the side?
Your point went astray there. Icelandic belief in elves is similar to the belief in UFOs. According to a survey last fall that the polling firm YouGov did for Huffington post: “48 percent of adults in the United States are open to the idea that alien spacecraft are observing our planet—and just 35 percent outright reject the idea.”

Yeah, but only a small number of those Americans are true believers in UFOs.
And that is the case with Icelanders and elves too. According to a 2007 survey conducted by Professor Gunnell, only 8 percent of the population say they do believe in elves, so there are just a whole lot of fence-sitters who refuse to be pinned down on whether they do believe in elves or not. Though it is easy to suspect that the elf-agnostics are only a raised eyebrow away from saying they do not believe.

It’s hard to say you believe in something when someone raises an eyebrow at you, especially when it’s something you don’t think much about.
And there you have the crux of the matter. Icelanders do not really think much about elves. It is something you learn about in school, but Icelanders more often encounter elves of the Tolkien-kind than the well-dressed, rock-dwelling, baby-snatching Icelandic type.

Wait.. baby-snatching?
Yes, Icelandic folklore is full of tales about changelings. Elf-women steal babies and replace them with old, male elves who have been made to look like the stolen human baby by magical means. These kinds of stories exist all over northern Europe, from the British Isles to Scandinavia, even popping up as far south as Spain. Icelandic elves are not that different from other such mythological beings.

So, what about that road that’s being protested against… does that have anything to do with elves?
No. The area has cultural value because Jóhannes Kjarval, Iceland’s most important 20th Century visual artist, worked there a lot, painting lava rocks. And it has many beautiful areas and bird habitats, so it is also of natural value. The protests have nothing to do with elves. Please do not ask me about them again. Pretty please. With sugar on top.

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