The Lure of the Lore: Icelandic Elves

GreetingsFromElvesFrom what I’ve read, it seems like most of the people of Iceland actually believe elves inhabit their island, or at the very least, they won’t deny that they do. Legislators have passed laws to protect the elves from harassment and harm. Can this be happening in the 21st Century?

While I would LOVE to believe that elves (and fairies) actually exist, I think the facts are stacked against them. Still, if there’s a chance they could be real, we should investigate that possibility. Let’s see what’s really happening in Iceland!

Please note all the landscape photos in this post are the work of the very talented photographer Tim Vollmer.  You can find him on Facebook, and I think he has a website too.

ScandinavianElvesWhere Anthropology Meets Fantasy

True Story:  Icelandic road workers were trying to create a new road near Ljarskogar, 3 hours north of Reykjavik, but their bulldozers kept failing. To solve the problem, they hired a psychic medium to determine if that area was populated by elves.

The medium reported that the elves didn’t live there anymore, but wanted the rock to be removed respectfully, and not blown up. So the road workers removed the big rock in a respectful manner and had no more problems with their equipment breaking down.

In an article by Rolf Soderlind, Elves in Modern Iceland, he states, “The supernatural never seems far away in Iceland, a wild moonscape of volcanoes, geysers and lava rocks looking like trolls petrified by the first rays of sunshine on a frosty morning. This is the land where Vikings, tired of serving Scandinavian kings, settled more than a thousand years ago.”

Iceland tourism destinations

Medium Erla Stefansdottir explains the phenomenon this way, “I believe the elves want people to preserve nature. Elves are nice and sweet, the other side of nature, they are like light on the trees and the flowers.” She further claims they live in the cities as well as the countryside, and that they look like little people. She adds that music is something they enjoy very much.

VikingsInTrainingElves are first mentioned in the Sagas of medieval Iceland, written in old Norse. According to Soderlind, “The Icelandic language, Old Norse, has helped the survival of folklore because it has been preserved virtually unscathed by the passing of time. Icelanders still read the old Sagas in their original version without trouble.”

According to the head of the Ethnological department of the National Museum of Iceland, Arni Bjoernsson, the belief in these small creatures stems from the tedious, boring lifestyles of the work-hardened farmers who dream of a better world, a better lifestyle than their own.

He says, “The ‘huldufolk,’ or the hidden people, live a better life than human beings. Their houses are nice and clean. They often possess gold and other valuables. This is the wishful thinking of the poor.”

An interesting aside, Bjoernsson interviewed his fellow Icelanders and based on their beliefs, he has compiled a list of over 500 supernatural beings that they claim exist in Iceland.

Even as a scientist, Bjoernsson hesitates to rule out the existence of these beings completely. He says, “Icelanders are skeptical people, but they are also humble and they do not want to rule anything out. I am a scientist. I am sorry to disappoint you but I have never seen an elf or a troll. But who am I to exclude their existence?”

IcelandStampIt’s hard to come to terms with what is happening here because it’s all so ethereal and unscientific.  After all, 500 supernatural beings inhabiting an island? That seems a bit much, at least until you realize another Icelandic native, Thorvaldur Fridriksson, wrote a book about Icelandic Loch-Ness-style monsters that is one thousand pages long!

Reykjavik Elf School

I’m not kidding, this does exist. On the East side of the city, on a street named Sidmuli, you’ll find the elf school. Mind you, it shares the building with another group who happen to be psychics.

The school hosts hundreds of books on the topics of elves and fairies and other “hidden folk,” as well as a selection of plaster elves. The head master is Magnus Skarphedinsson and he has spent 30 plus years researching the elves of Iceland. He is able to distinguish between 13 types of elf, four kinds of gnomes, two varieties of trolls, and three species of fairies.

BowLeggedElvesAccording to Skarphedinsson, elves have long, spindly legs and big ears and they work as farmers and fishermen. They supposedly en joy fortune telling. He adds, dwarves have pointed hats and turned-up shoes while gnomes are very round and smile a lot.

The headmaster also said that when their Icelandic ancestors met the elves for the first time, the elves taught them the difference between right and wrong. However, mankind didn’t listen, and their lies and cheating were repulsive to the elves.

When asked if he had ever seen an elf, he replied, “No.” Skarphedinsson asked a psychic friend  why this was so. She learned in a dream the reason was the elves felt he would ask too many questions, so they all decided to avoid him.

What Do They Look Like

The huldufolk come in 13 varieties, ranging from flower-fairy-type elves that stand a few inches tall, up to the tallest ones who are believed to be nearly as tall as a human. From what I’ve read, most people don’t seem to see them, instead they “sense” their presence and that of their homes, farms, and Churches. Some psychics claim to actually see them.

According to Jacqueline Simpson, who is a visiting professor at the University of Chichester’s Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales, and Fantasy, UK, when elves are seen, they appear in the “costume of a couple hundred years ago.” This coincides with the time, in the professor’s estimation, when the stories of the elves really came into the national consciousness.

Valdimar Hafstein, professor of folklore at the University of Iceland, adds, “Their economy is of the same sort: like humans, the hidden people have livestock, cut hay, row boats, flense whales and pick berries. Like humans, they too have priests and sheriffs and go to church on Sundays.” Tradition indicates that they live in homes, sometimes large enough to have multiple stories.

CreepyElfProfessor Simpson reports that in the Icelandic tradition people should, “Treat them [elves] with respect, do not upset their dwelling places, or try to steal their cattle, and they’ll be perfectly … quite neutral, quite harmless.” She adds, “Building or otherwise disturbing their homes and churches, on the other hand, can agitate their “fiercely” territorial side.”

Folklore from the 19th century added a more sinister twist to the happy elf legends. They were accused of kidnapping people and holding them hostage. At other times, they were accused of stealing babies or toddlers and replacing them with a “changeling”, that is, an elf that appears in the disguise of a baby but is never “quite right.”  In modern times, these types of stories are almost non-existent.

Skeptics Make Their Case

The former director of the ethnological department of the national Museum of Iceland, Arni Bjoernsson, believes that the prevailing belief among his people regarding elves began in the 1970s. He claims the “myth” arose then and “flourished in part because of the hippie culture.” He adds, “[Despite our long folkloric tradition concerning elves, this doesn’t prove] that people really believe in them, no more than they believe in the real existence of Tarzan or Harry Potter.”

icelandic_elvesSIGNBjoernsson further claims the phenomenon first began in 1971 when a somewhat unskilled bulldozer operator wrecked his machine as well as some pipelines that he was working near.  The inept driver tried to blame the accident on elves living in a nearby rock.  “No one had ever heard about elves in this rock before, but his comment made [the] headline in a newspaper, and the ball began to roll.”

Despite Bjoernsson’s more rational and academic view of the subject of elves, even he hedges his bets at the end of the day. “I do not dare to maintain that usual human sense organs are perfect,” he wrote, “so there might be a possibility that something exists which normal people cannot perceive.”

I want to share an excerpt with you from an article by Ryan Jacobs for The Atlantic magazine. I think it summarizes the situation very well.

Theories about why Icelanders in particular seem prone to such superstitions center on the earliest settlers’ struggle to endure their isolated existence in such a majestic but unpredictable landscape.

TimVollmerAuroraAlaric Hall, a lecturer in medieval English literature at the University of Leeds who also researches Icelandic medieval beliefs, argues that the elves served as a kind of invented “other” for its earliest Viking settlers, who did not have any natives or indigenous people to “conquer.” “The Vikings who arrived in Iceland in the 870s really were probably the first human settlers on the island,” Hall, who did his dissertation about elves in England, said. “So they are actually indigenous people. But they don’t want to be. Like everyone else in Western Europe in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period, they really wanted to be invaders. So, what elves did is they provide … this kind of earlier indigenous population that can allow you to feel like a conqueror.”

Simpson believes the extremely poor and isolated life of the 17th and 18th century settlers only enriched the detail of the initial stories. Icelanders naturally imagined the elves living the comfortable and extravagant existence that everyday people longed for. Commonly, boys would encounter elves in the hills “feasting” at a time in the country’s history when having a decent meal was uncommon. The modern stories have changed course though, according to Simpson, and now elves serve as a kind of reminder of an older existence, before cities, industry, and other developments began leaving a permanent imprint on the island. “They stand now, maybe, for the good simple, old ways.”

TimVollmerFrozenWaterfallBjoernsson speculated that the stories are used to express “a sort of primitive environmentalism.” In a way, they represent a special connection with the natural landscape that is otherwise difficult to articulate. Haukur Ingi Jonasson, a professor in project management at Reykjavik University who wrote about elves during his graduate studies in theology and psychoanalysis at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, says Iceland’s many mountains, hills, and rivers are loaded with significance for the people who live near them. “[Elves are] kind of a ritualistic attempt to protect something meaningful, respect something of importance, and acknowledge something of worth,” he said. In other words, the elves honor a balance of power that has always leaned clearly in the direction of nature and the whimsy of its erupting volcanoes, shifting glaciers, and quivering ground. “We are kind of always at the disposal of something that is not us,” he said. “It’s it. It’s nature. It’s out there. I cannot control it, it’s it that I have to comply with.”

Cars Line Up In The Path Of Volcanic EruptionLured to the Lore

There are many self-proclaimed psychics in Iceland who claim they can sense and communicate with these legendary elves. Maybe they are sensing something, but I think it’s probably more along the lines of the Earth’s electromagnetic energy, which we humans can sense. Iceland has so much Earth energy in the form of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, Northern Lights overhead, that it seems reasonable to think it might influence some people, particularly those of a caring, sensitive nature. (Photo to the left is by an unknown photographer.)

Relying on psychics to prove anything is an iffy business. Whatever proof is offered must be able to stand the rigors of scientific analysis.

BigfootTotemAnd yet I can’t help but consider the fact that locals know their countryside better than anyone else who just breezes in with all sorts of degrees and credentials. I’m put in mind of all the Bigfoot sightings around the US and how many ordinary, down to earth, sober people have seen this creature. Just as importantly, almost all the American native tribes have stories of this creature, particularly in the Northwest area of the country. They can’t all be wrong. (Bigfoot Totem art by Randy Capoeman.)

I’m also reminded of a similar account reported by the original Ghost Hunters troop, when they visited Ireland. In the dead of night they saw three small bi-pedal creatures on their thermal imager who were following their colleagues further along in a big wide field. These diminutive creatures seemed to just appear out of the trees and then disappear into them.

Jason and Grant had no explanation for it, but the entire company was mystified by the results caught on their thermal imager. I have to wonder, could the Icelandic Elves be related to these “fairies”, as the Irish call them. Honestly, if it wasn’t for this incident caught by the Ghost Hunter’s team, I would completely and utterly dismiss the notion of Icelandic elves.


william_shakespeare_will_power_sweatshirtAt the end of the day, it probably comes back to this, the wisdom of William Shakespeare when he wrote, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”  Hamlet (1.5.167-8)







Do you believe in elves?



  1. Great site, articles well researched nd well written. Author not on a Soap box, this is truly fair and balanced reporting. Interesting fun reads.

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