The use and adaption of folklore is changing rapidly in a country flirting with mass tourism, and some of us worry that the highway to cliché is paved with quick fixes. No one blames a visitor thirsty to learn about Icelandic storytelling traditions. However, for witnesses of the tourism circus, it’s worth considering which stories are being told and how they resonate with Iceland’s cultural legacy.
Our generation is receptive to elusive and mystical elements, hence the rising interest in the study of folklore and old traditions. Perhaps this tendency is connected to a search for a new sense of truth and beauty. Fearing losing a sense of self, we aim to redefine it with the help of old ideas; some use religion, others animate nature and their surroundings with spirits and ghosts. In Iceland, we have Huldufólk, who have through the years played a big role in (re-)defining the national character and may continue to do so still.
Most of us can agree that the modern Icelander is prone to keep a door open for the Huldufólk phenomenon. This is not particularly surprising, considering the Icelandic traditions of storytelling, yet perhaps the most interesting factor is that what is actually believed in isn’t clear to anyone.
Be they visible or imagined, gnomish or elfin, the spirits of nature gain form in the Huldu-verse. This universe, however, may for hundreds of years have been heterogeneous to the point that its “products” will only reflect the state of affairs at one given time, and have little substance or form through its passage.
The aim is not to place them as spirits as such, substitutes for venerated icons in order to gain or ensure a peaceful blessing. Yet, a growing interest in defining what Huldufólk meant to common Icelanders back in the 18th and 19th centuries is on the rise, and has given us reasons to better understand what it is that they stand for. It also addresses the question of whether there is a significant difference between the Icelandic variant and the international idea of a hidden or ghostly race; the Germanic idea of elves or the Irish faeries.
Some say that our Huldufólk tradition is being imposed by generalisations where two related, yet distinct, variations, álfar (“elves”) and Huldufólk (“Hidden People”), are merged into one en-masse idea that has no basis in historical Huldufólk culture or legends.
The term “huldu” has a more vibrant resonance with the Greek word “kryptos” in my mind than with the simple “hidden” prefix. “Huldu” bears a meaning of mystis and sacramentum, their sites are sacred—en sacrum—leading to the secrecy chosen by the Huldufólk themselves. The mystical and colourful aura envisaged by clairvoyants expresses this Borean sacredness.
These folks are not a part of a pagan fantasy-ether, neither are they closely knit with the Æsir and Vanir’s arcana of heathen mythology or the LOTR fantasy world. Though the original use of the term “álfr” in Old Norse refers to a spirit of a burial ground, the Huldufólk are neither ghosts nor spirits.
For this reason, it is worth acknowledging the ideas espoused by scholars such as Terry Gunnell, who encourage the use of the term Huldufólk at all times while speaking of the Icelandic variation, so that in the mind of the visitor it does not get infused with the elves and faeries of Scandinavia and Ireland. The Icelandic form of hidden people clearly differ from the “little” or “good” people you might know from Italy, Ireland, Russia and beyond. The word “Huldufólk” encompasses what is exclusive to the Icelandic variant, despite all the complexity and ambiguity within the Icelandic understanding of it.
However, in my mind, these neighbours of ours are counterparts, our outsiders that represent the marginalised peoples of every culture in every era: the unseen, the nameless and faceless embodiments of our hopes and fears. And again, this may clarify the difference between the elfish (used to describe the eccentric Icelandic popular icons of the Krútt-generation) and the Huldufólk. The elfish are not hidden in the sense that they are close to our énfantes terriblés of the artworld: elusive but creative figures half out of this world. It may even be said that we had an Elf-mayor for some years here in Reykjavík, and are becoming elfin in that regard.
In this sense we do have the Huldufólk amongst us as well, and having met many of our city’s unseen in the last years, they are humble people and somewhat broken, yet bearing potential always in their eyes. I assure you that you will find them to be kind when treated with respect.
Arnaldur Elísabetar Finnsson is a candidatus theologiae who works as a a theological consultant to various cultural projects, ranging from strategy and development to fieldwork with Reykjavík’s homeless. He lives and works in the Westfjords of Iceland.