Admiration, Awe, And The Hidden Folk: The Hafnarfjörður Elf Walk

Admiration, Awe, And The Hidden Folk: The Hafnarfjörður Elf Walk

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photos by
Art Bicnick

For most of history, scientists indubitably believed that humankind resided in a geocentric solar system. This theory was so wholeheartedly accepted that when Copernicus and Galileo suggested otherwise, they were laughed out of town as loonies and heretics. The same reaction might be said of one who champions the supernatural in today’s empirical world. Stating your belief in ghosts or elves or fairies might well garner an eyebrow raise and an automatic categorization into the wacko bracket. In fact, it indubitably will.

I was worried such would be the case on Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir’s Hafnarfjörður Elf Walk. While I love cheesy things like themed restaurants, I didn’t really want to spend any time on an elf chase with someone who believed a supernatural queen blessed them last night. It’s just not my cup of tea. Bryndís, though, is an academic. A folklorist by trade, she is probably one of the most knowledgeable individuals in the world on the subject of elf lore. The tour was therefore historical. She presented elves as they are believed in with no agenda. This was not a lol-look-how-stupid-old-Icelanders-are tour, nor was it a hokey-pokey-spiritual one.

But don’t worry—this isn’t history class. Bryndís is not only extremely personable, but she’s also funny and outgoing. Her passion for the subject is infectious which made the tour pass by almost too quickly. Real talk: I could have gone on with her all day!

Stealing rocks and scaring hearts

The day starts with a little lecture—a short history of elves, with one thesis being that every country has its own endemic supernatural beings. The English are passionate about ghosts, Icelanders elves, while the Americans seem to be the only ones who get abducted by aliens. There isn’t anything weird about Icelanders experiencing their own flavor of supernatural—every culture has it.

Bryndís also concentrates on the fact that elf activity has changed with the ages, adapting itself to the intellectual consciousness of each generation. Old elves might be more physically active; they left gifts and sneakily stole objects. Nowadays their influence is increasingly ethereal, disrupting the construction of roads which impede on their dwellings or messing with the daily activities of farms they are not pleased with. Bryndís also dives into the attitude of the elves, which is difficult to articulate, but is perhaps best compared to those in Tolkien—neither good-principled nor bad-principled beings that command and require respect.

“It’s a bizarre sight, and one you’ll probably never see anywhere else.” 

After this talk, the walk around Hafnarfjörður begins. If you are unfamiliar with Iceland, Hafnarfjörður has a reputation as the elf-belief capital of Iceland. It is therefore the best place to get a taste of them. “Hafnarfjörður is built on a lava field, and it is quite young, only 7,000-8,000 years old,” Bryndís explains. So many rocks combined with so many humans means there is a plethora of examples of humans and the hidden people clashing—ground zero for this special relationship.

Take this example of elf-sabotaged road construction, as explained by our guide: “Look, it’s always the same story here. The machine starts to break down as it gets close to the rock but once it moves away it begins to work again. Then the workers start to have bad dreams or feel ill and then they don’t want to do this, risk their health. So in the end they leave the rock there and redesign to accommodate.” She walks us to a spot on a side road of Hafnarfjörður where a drill bit stands erect from a large rock, around human height. While the road is straight coming towards the boulder, it then abruptly—almost dangerously—curves around it. It’s a bizarre sight, and one you’ll probably never see anywhere else.

The creed of the capricious

The other locations reveal many more facets of elf lore: one lies behind an abandoned hospital, another next to a church, many more in backyards, but all have rich histories of their interference with humanity. “On elf dwellings you can’t cut the grass. Children can’t play there. And when walking by you have to be respectful. You don’t talk too loudly.” Bryndís pauses. “It’s like being in a church.” This is an accurate description, for even if you are a super-skeptic, these places naturally demand reverence. They are so beautiful and gripping that it’s easy to feel holiness.

The tour never demands the question of whether or not Bryndís believes in elves; it just seems irrelevant. Instead it is a fascinating insight into the elf lore of Iceland, so much so that if you are even remotely interested in the topic, the tour will not disappoint. I certainly left wanting more.

Bryndís’s next tour will be on June 6 at 19:00. Meet at Pallett coffee shop.