ABOARD THE OCEAN DIAMOND – Stopping to take photos of elves in a flower garden in Siglufjördur, I heard a man’s voice behind me, “You must be an American.”
Sure am, I replied. He nodded at my Indiana University cap as a hint that I was from the States. Then the man named Viktor began regaling me with tales of trolls and elves and how important they are in Icelandic culture.
The lady who owns the flower garden I am photographing has never seen one of the “Hidden People,” he said, but she is a fervent believer and has even more ceramic elves inside her home.
From a religious point of view, Icelanders are mainly Lutheran. However, despite the lovely churches I have seen throughout the country, Icelanders are not churchgoers. On average, more than half of the 325,700 population attends church only about twice a year. The largest non-Christian denomination is Ásatrú, a revival of faith in the Old Norse gods and goddesses.
On the other hand, a surprisingly high percentage of Icelanders believe in the Hidden People – elves and trolls. And even those who don’t believe usually take care not to insult the mystical creatures.
Magnus, the tour guide on my first day in Reykjavík, pointed out a big rock in the middle of a road. The roadway was built around the rock, Magnus said, because the boulder was believed to be the home of some elves and no one wanted to risk incurring the little people’s wrath.
Trolls can only travel during the dark, Magnus added. “If sunlight hits them, they turn to stone,” he said, which might account for so many rocks and stones on the Icelandic landscape.
Did he believe, I had asked Magnus. “I do believe in tolls and elves,” he answered. “They protect nature and you have to respect them.”
Elves and trolls take revenge
To prove his point, Magnus told me about a project to build a golf course on the outskirts of Reykjavík in 2004. Construction crews moved a rock believed to the dwelling of elves. Calamity resulted. Construction equipment broke down. Workers became sick and injured. After too many bad things happened to be considered just bad luck, the chief engineer issued a public apology to the elves and promised never to do it again. The weird happenings ceased and the golf course was completed on schedule.
Strange occurrences abound when folks don’t respect the supernatural, Viktor agreed. Cell phones disappear. Eyeglasses are never seen again. A finger gets broken. A tooth starts aching. Cars won’t start. Houses burn down.
“One woman I know lost a watch,” Viktor said. “It was on her nightstand where she always kept it. It had belonged to her grandmother and was one of those old-fashioned windup kind.”
Looking back over her day, the woman remembered that she had cleaned an unsightly pile of stones out of her flowerbed, cursing the mess. Could she have unwittingly insulted a family of elves? Not wanting to take a chance, the woman went to the flowerbed and said she was sorry for her earlier words.
“Two days later she found the watch on her porch,” Viktor said. “It was still ticking so someone must have wound it. An elf? Whatever you believe. She believed.”
For nonbelievers, Viktor related the tale of how the Hidden People came to be. It goes clear back to the story of Adam and Eve. One day God came to see how his creations were doing. Adam and Even greeted him and showed him around their garden and introduced him to their children. However, Eve had been washing her children and wasn’t finished. She was ashamed to let God see the still-dirty ones so she hid them away. When he asked if there were others, she lied and said no.
You can’t fool God, though. “That which has been hidden from me shall be hidden from men,” God said. The invisible children went to live in rocks and hills, which might help explain why Icelanders are believers as they, too, live close to nature and to the dangers it can bring – volcanoes, glaciers, days without night and nights without day.
According to Icelandic lore, hidden beings inhabit a parallel world that is invisible to human eyes. Unless the special creatures willingly reveal themselves to people, the only ones who can see them are children and spirit-minded physics.
Such “fairy tales” have been handed down for generations in the isolated island, Viktor said. During long endless nights of winter, early Icelanders would huddle in the dark and tell old legends.
So great is Iceland’s love of the unseen beings that the world’s first Elf School is located in Reykjavík. It is not a school to teach you how to be an elf, as a friend thought. It is a four-hour class for about $50 concerning elves, trolls and other nature spirits.
Yule Lads bring holiday cheer, rotten potatoes or mischief
Then Viktor told me about the Yule Lads. “Instead of Santa Claus, we have 13 bearded men in red known as the Yule Lads.”
The frightening looking men are the children of a mean troll couple named Grýla and Leppaludi. Part troll and part animal, Grýla searches for naughty children to boil in her cauldron. She can only capture children who misbehave and those who repent must be released.
The Yule Lads are named for the mischievous tricks they play on those who are naughty. Names like Door Slammer, Sausage Pilferer, Window Peeper, Spoon Licker and Pot Scraper. The Yule Lads come down from the mountains in December and lurk around villages at night.
Starting on Dec. 12, children leave a shoe in the window of their home and if they have been good that day they will find a small gift in the morning from the Yule Lads. If they have been naughty, the shoe will hold a rotten potato. So it goes until Dec. 24 when with great festivities, the holiday is celebrated and gifts are opened
For as long as he can remember, Viktor said, he has been a believer. “Most certainly. I have never seen the trolls or elves but I am not dead yet,” he said with a smile. “There is still hope.”
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch