From Iceland — Elves in Cultural Vocabulary

Elves in Cultural Vocabulary

Elves in Cultural Vocabulary

Published October 6, 2007

Terry Gunnel is a professor of Folkloristics at the Unicersity of Iceland. He recently initiated a survey to explore how Icelands’ attitude towards elves and other supernatural phenomena have have changed since a similar survey was conducted over thirty years ago.
Perhaps you could start by describing the study?
Over thirty years ago, in 1974, there was a survey done by Professor Erlendur Haraldsson at the psychology department here. What Erlendur was doing at this time was essentially taking a look at people’s experiences of the supernatural and their belief attitudes. The figure that came out of this survey attracted quite a lot of attention from abroad, especially figures to do with belief in elves and suchlike figures. 10% of people said that the existence of such figures was out of the question, 7% said they were certain they existed, 17% said they had no opinion, but then you have 33% in the middle who said it was possible that they existed.
This is what started the attention. Every year, I tend to get people to this country from Italy and France and other places, who believe that here they are going to find a country full of people who see elves dancing around every rock, wearing national costumes. You even have an artist here who believes people still have sex with elves. The key thing it is not so much that Icelanders’ believe in these figures, but they are open to them.
But, this was 30 years ago. I was getting a little tired of answering questions about a study that was done so long ago, and I felt that in view of the way Iceland has changed in that time we should do a new survey to see if the same attitudes existed, this time doing it on behalf of the Folkloristics department. We are growing and developing into new areas and underlining the fact that folklore is not just a thing of the past, but still lives a very good life amongst the people of the country.
We got the Social Sciences Institute to send out a survey to 1500 individuals in the autumn of 2006, asking basically the same questions as those asked by Erlendur in 1974 and some new ones. We got back about 660 answers. It was thus questionable what these answers said about the nation as a whole. It could very well be that it was just people who are very interested in the subject that answered. So, we asked all the students in folkloristics here at the university to pick ten random individuals of varying ages and place of residence to do the survey and make sure they answered. This meant that we also heard from people who might not have answered first time around. What we got from these new 325 answers was exactly the same figures as in the random study. This suggests to us, although you can never be certain, that the first survey should be trustworthy as an overview .
So what were the general conclusions of the survey?
What comes out of the survey largely is first of all that belief has changed very little. There is a little bit more doubt than there used to be, but generally the figures were much the same as they were. When we get to elves, the figures were very similar. People are more doubtful, but a large percent of the country are open to them and they certainly won’t deny that they exist.
How does Iceland compare to other countries in these matters?
I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d find similar numbers in Ireland, especially West-Ireland. There I know there are places in the hillsides [so-called raths] that people would never go to in the dark because of connections with the fairies. You might find other parallels in the Scottish Islands. Maybe Northern Norway, but the Scandinavian countries, except for Finland, tend to be very doubtful. There is a long history of pietism and strong Lutheran influences that have tried to kill these beliefs off in the past. But I think you would find similar sorts of beliefs there maybe twenty or thirty years back in the countryside. But what is different here is this openness to the supernatural world. We have to be wary, though, about using the word “believe”, because it could be picked up by foreign papers who will then certainly say that all Icelanders “believe” in elves. The title of my lecture that I will give in December is “There Is More Things in the Heaven and Earth, Horatio”, which is what Hamlet says to Horatio after seeing his father’s ghost in the play Hamlet. I think this is very much the Icelandic attitude. And it is not very surprising really, when you think about how your house here can be hit by something you can’t see, even destroyed by something you can’t see, because of earthquakes. You turn the tap and boiling hot water comes from it from the earth beneath that looks on the surface pretty placid. You look at the sky and you see incredible Northern Lights, created from nothing. You have pitch darkness in the countryside still; you have people pretty close to the old tradition. In some senses, Iceland only came out of the Middle Ages in around 1940.
These numbers are often used by Icelandic companies in marketing, they push this image of Iceland as a place of great mysticism where everybody believes in elves. Foreign journalists talk about what a large percentage of the people believe in elves and so on, so there exists this stereotype of Icelanders as people who are in touch with the nature and the supernatural. And this bothers me because I don’t know anyone who claims to believe in elves.
Of course not. Very few will say immediately that they “believe” in such, but they won´t deny it either… As regards national image, certainly, they find the “elf image” quite attractive nowadays. It wasn´t so in the past. Icelanders got very upset in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when foreign writers seemed to consider them as country bumpkins who believed in elves and spirits. They wanted to underline that they were a modern, enlightened European country like everyone else.
Now, in the last few years, after having pushed the sagas and pushed the nature for tourists, the image that is sold has changed, from Björk onwards; it seems that nowadays weirdness is attractive.
Yes, I would claim that Björk and Sigur Rós are responsible for this image, at least up to a point.
Yes, and the Sugarcubes of course. Einar Örn told foreign journalists about mating festivals in Iceland. It is probably because people like Einar realised that this made the nation look different. People are attracted to weird. You stand out in crowd when you are weird; you are allowed to do what ever you like if you are weird. Coming back to the elves, of course, this image sells. Folklorist Árni Björnsson has stated that this is nothing but a tourist belief. That is, that this apparent Icelandic belief in spirits is just a way of selling the country to tourists. But the figures from the survey don’t suggest that. Really, we are dealing with a kind of cultural vocabulary; a way of talking about experiences that happen to all of us. We are not surprised today when children talk of having imaginary friends, all children have imaginary friends, but the vocabulary that was used back then was that these were elves. Certainly, as I say, you won’t find Icelanders saying ‘I believe in elves”, but here is a test I often tell foreign journalists to try when they come here. Ask an Icelander this question: ‘imagine you are going to build a hot tub in your garden. The problem is that there is a big rock where you want to put the hot tub and you need to blow it up to put in the tub. Then some one tells you, ‘don’t, that is an elf rock’, will you blow it up?’ And this is where people hesitate. It is not so much that they won’t say they do believe, it is that they won’t say they don’t believe.
I see what you are getting at, but then you are referring to some instinct that is imprinted into you from childhood.
Of course, it is cultural. This has also been argued that rather than belief that it is something in your culture that affects your behaviour. This is what belief is all about, be it Christian attitudes or wearing trousers rather than skirts. This is a part of inherited culture that we follow. We use the vocabulary that is given.
Text by Sveinn Birkir Björnsson

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