Published January 10, 2014
Many Icelanders around me were pretty upset last month when the Associated Press ran a story about an “elf lobby” joining environmentalist in their struggle to block road construction across a lava field.
The story, which contained some factual errors, played up the idea that Icelanders (A) believe in elves and (B) take this belief so seriously that they might halt road construction for fear of retribution from the elves that supposedly have a church there somewhere. And thanks to this story or any of the elf stories that have run in the past, people all over the world now think Icelanders are a bunch of kooks.
The truth is though, Icelanders are a bit kooky and it seems to me that they don’t think anything is wrong with that until they’ve become the butt of an international joke.
Take for instance the peculiar tradition that local newspapers and magazines here have of reporting “the future.” As we round out each lap around the sun, Icelandic reporters reach out to their publication’s seer, also known as a völva, to gather her predictions for the coming year.
I’m talking magazine cover stories and articles on our most widely read news sites that recount predictions from a typically anonymous source, who may or may not have the ability to see the future. What’s more, media outlets, including Iceland’s national broadcaster RÚV, report on what the völvas at the other outlets are reporting.
At this point in an earlier draft of my editorial, our Editor-in-Chief Haukur S. Magnússon left me a comment suggesting that I was overstating the reality of the situation by writing that the media “reports” predictions from these völvas. “I mean, everyone basically knows it’s just a bunch of journalists having fun, using their purported insight to predict the future,” he wrote.
Feeling unsure about this, I called the editor of Vikan, one of Iceland’s oldest magazines, which has been printing völva’s predictions since the 1970s. She confirmed, Vikan has always worked with real seers and the one the magazine currently works with has been with them for the last 10 years.
Vikan was for a long time the only publication printing völva’s predictions and their völva issue is always one of their best selling ones, if not the best selling one of the year. This year, Vikan’s völva predicts shitty weather, two volcanic eruptions and another scandal on par with the Vodafone leak. And perhaps she’s worth taking seriously, as she correctly predicted the turmoil that we’ve seen at RÚV.
I have no idea what the other media outlets do, and perhaps the majority of people don’t really believe in the power of these völvas, but that doesn’t make the tradition any less kooky if you ask me. I highly doubt the Greeks and Italians are reading reports from sibyl in their local newspapers. Just imagine if the New York Times or LA Times were reporting this kind of stuff.
The best explanation I’ve heard for why these “beliefs” persist in Iceland came from Magnús Skarphéðinsson, the headmaster of Iceland’s Elf School. He believes it has to do with the fact that this nation was long an isolated island in the middle of the North Atlantic. Thus, the Enlightenment, which spread through Europe in the 18th Century, didn’t make it to Iceland, leaving Icelanders in the dark, unexposed to rationalism.
The real problem with the elf story, as I see it, is the fact that it’s been so hammed up. What was once a quirky and enjoyable part of our cultural heritage has now been overplayed. We’re sick of the elf story. We’re sick of having to explain it to people who read a few lines from some international wire service looking for traction.
At the same time, the Icelandic media can hardly be up in arms over the foreign media’s elf stories when it runs annual “reports” from seers. Isn’t that also a bit kooky?