On my way from Germany to Canada I stayed in Iceland for a few days. I wanted to get a glimpse of the country with the most likeable soccer fans and stunning nature. The global fascination for the small island grew in the past years which is reflected in the increased number of tourists: In 2017, more than 2 million tourists came while Iceland’s population is about 350.000 now. I wanted to be one of them for a few days. When preparing for my stopover I heard about the Elfschool. Ask a German about what they associate with Iceland and they will probably tell you about volcanoes and elves. That was my image too, so I was excited to learn more about elves and I was excited about that chance. At first I was worried the school would be another tourist attraction like the artificially built Blue Lagoon pleasing the needs of foreigners while it didn’t have much to do with the local culture. But I decided to give it a shot. And it was worth it! Let me share what I learned there with you.
Impressions from the Elfschool – the only one of its kind
The Elfschool is run by Magnús Skarphedinsson who founded the school more than 30 years ago. He studied History, Folklore and Anthropology at the University of Iceland and surely is the heart and soul of the school. For many years he interviews eyewitnesses of encounters with elves and hidden people and has lots of stories to tell. At the Elfschool you can learn:
everything that is known about elves and hidden people, as well as gnomes, dwarfs, fairies, trolls, mountain spirits as well as other nature spirits and mythical beings in Iceland and other countries. You learn where they live, how they live, what they look like and what’s their relationship with humans. These encounters are illustrated with personal stories from Icelanders (paraphrased from www.theelfschool.com)
It was a regular Friday afternoon at the beginning of May 2018 when we met at the Elfschool, a small apartment stuffed with hundreds of books and statues of elves, trolls and all kind of other creatures. This already made the place interesting and created a mystic atmosphere. We were a small group of eight people attending class. Everyone got a study book with additional knowledge and stories. Then, Magnús introduced himself and jumped right into the topic. He told us many fascinating stories and folktales about the friendship between elves and humans while the weather outside was quite Icelandic meaning it was sunny in one moment, the other it was snowing. We listened to his words while drinking tea and having some bread and pancakes with whipped cream. The recipe for those comes from some hidden people. This helped me to dive deep into the stories and picture them. Throughout the session Magnús encouraged us to ask questions, what we did so extensively that we spent much more time at class than planned. Magnús enjoyed that a lot and I am sure he could have continued talking for many more hours. At the end all students got a diploma and we left with many exciting stories to tell.
Different kinds of nature spirits
The first thing you will learn as a student is to differentiate the different types of nature spirits. There are not only elves but also hidden people (Huldufólk), gnoms, light fairies, trolls and dwarfs to name a few of these groups. All of them have different ways of living and are embedded in a complex belief system. Most of the stories at the Elfschool are about elves and hidden people. In order to understand a bit better what exactly hidden people are (I guess the other nature spirits are well-known), here is one story about how they became hidden people:
The genesis of the hidden people
One day God Almighty came to see Adam and Eve. They greeted him well and showed him all over the house. They showed him their children, too, and God thought highly of them. He asked Eve whether she had any more children beside these she had shown him, and she replied, no.
But the truth of the matter was that Eve had not finished washing some of the children and had been ashamed to let God see these. And for this reason she had hidden them away.
God knew this, however, and he said to her: “That which has been hidden from me shall be hidden from men.”
These children now became invisible to mankind, and they lived in rocks and hills, stones and hummocks. From these hidden-children the hidden people descend, while mankind is descended from the children Eve showed to God.
Men can never see the elves, unless they themselves wish it, for they can both see men and let themselves be seen by them.
Do Icelandic people still believe in elves and hidden people?
About 54% of Icelanders believe that elves exist. The numbers vary in different sources. When mentioning elves and hidden people in Iceland you’re likely to get a variety of reactions. Only few will openly admit believing in the existence of them but if you dig a little deeper, almost everyone will have a story to tell about an encounter with elves or hidden people, often involving a close friend or family member. Magnus went to places all over the country to collect these stories, preserving them for the posterity because fewer and fewer people believe in these creatures.
How authentic are the stories?
I cannot judge that. What I can say is that Magnús Skarphedinsson has a strategy of how to make sure that people do not only tell him made-up stuff. He records all interviews and makes notes about all details. After a few years, he contacts the interview partner again, asking him or her to retell the story and inquiring details. He compares what they said the first time with what they retold. Since people tend to forget details when they make stuff up, he can easily spot liars. After another few years, he does the same procedure again. Many Icelandic people grow up with the stories of personal encounters by their beloved ones. They usually trust these people so they believe their stories. Of course, in the end it is a matter of belief.
Can everyone see and meet elves?
According to Magnús, only psychic people can see them because they are able to perceive different dimensions. Some of them can even interact with elves and hidden people. They can become friends, visit their homes, help each other and be in contact for many years. The elves and hidden people are the ones who can decide whether they want to be seen or not. Magnús may be the person in Iceland who is most interested in their stories but he himself has never had any personal encounters. When a psychic friend of him asked the elves why they didn’t appear to Magnús even if he was very interested in them and promotes them, they answered: ‘He has too many questions and wants to know everything – we would never get rid of him again.’
Elves shaping national politics
Even if not everyone in Iceland believes in elves and hidden people, they sometimes shape political decisions. This especially appeals to construction. If you want to lay a road, build a house, or construct a dam, you always have to consider the possibility of destroying the homes of elves or hidden people who often live in rocks. Some small and big construction projects had to be replanned after protests. There are many stories of accidents and bad luck when people ignored the warnings so people try to avoid conflicts with the otherwise peaceful creatures.
Speak to Icelandic construction workers and they’ll repeat the history of mishaps that have befallen those who failed to heed elven warnings. These are so numerous that even non-believers would rather play it safe than risk incurring the wrath of the huldufólk.
In the 1970s, plans to move a rock out of the way of one major road went awry when a bulldozer inadvertently crushed a waterpipe feeding a fish farm. Some 70,000 trout perished overnight and there were so many other freakish accidents in the following days that the project was abandoned. One workman claims to have been stricken with bad luck ever since.
“There are many stories of machines breaking down and workers becoming ill when they interfere with elf rocks,” says Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, a writer and folklorist who teaches at the Iceland Academy of Arts in Reykjavik. “The elves are seen as friendly, beautiful creatures, but you have to respect them, or they will take their revenge.” (theguardian.com)
Read the whole article and more stories here: ‘In Iceland, ‘respect the elves – or else’’ by Oliver Wainwright, www.theguardian.com
Whether elves, hidden people and all the other creatures exist or not we may never know. But they help people in Iceland to respect nature and think twice of how you treat the environment. And that is a great thing to do.
Do you want to read more about Iceland, elves and hidden people? Here is a selection for further reading:
- ‘Iceland: Huldufólk’, Andy Jarosz, National Geographic Traveller
- ‘Iceland’s elves are enlisted in anti-NATO effort’, James M. Markham, New York Times
- ‘The elves point of view – cultural identity in contemporary Icelandic elf tradition’, Valdimar Tr. Hafstein