Why So Many Icelanders Still Believe in Invisible Elves

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How the country’s history and geography created the perfect setting for magical creatures, whose perceived existence sparks environmental protests to this day. 

At the edge of the ancient Gálgahraun lava field, about a 10-minute drive outside Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavík, a small group of local environmentalists has made camp among the gnarled volcanic rock, wild moss, and browning grass to protest a new road development that will slice the bucolic landscape into four sections and place a traffic circle in its core. The project, led by the Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration and the nearby municipality of Garðabær, will provide a more direct route to and from the tip of the Álftanes peninsula, where the rustic, red-tiled compound of the country’s president and an eponymous hamlet of 2,600 people stand.

The Hraunavinir, or “Friends of the Lava,” believe that any benefits from a project that snakes through Gálgahraun are cancelled out by its cultural and environmental costs. According to protester Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, the thoroughfares would destroy some of the “amazingly beautiful lava formations” and spoil a habitat where birds flock and small plants flourish. One of Iceland’s most famous painters, Jóhannes Sveinsson Kjarval, once worked on his canvases there, perhaps magnetized by the charm of the terrain’s craggy natural relics.

Not all of the arguments against the development are so straightforward. At least a few believe it will displace certain supernatural forces that dwell within the hallowed volcanic rubble, and fear the potentially dark consequences that come with such a disturbance. Jónsdóttir, a greying and spectacled seer who also operates an “elf garden” in nearby Hafnarfjörður, believes the field is highly populated by elves, huldufolk (hidden people), and dwarves, many of whom, she says, have recently fled the area while the matter is settled.

Written By: Ryan Jacobs
continue to source article at theatlantic.com

23 COMMENTS

  1. Not that it has much to do with the subject matter, but I would like to challenge anybody reading this article to try saying this out loud: “Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir operates an elf garden in Hafnarfjörður.” This immediately reminded me of THESE SCENES from the 1983 film, “The Man With Two Brains.”

  2. It seems quite convenient that the elves etc. (and I note the use of Tolkien’s spelling “dwarves” instead of the usual “dwarfs”, perhaps to distinguish from humans of short stature) have decamped at precisely the time when they are most likely to have been detected by a wider audience.

    These elves sound exactly like the widespread Islamic concept of djinn, which are also believed to have complex societies in parallel to humans. This would make excellent material for a book or film, but without evidence it’s just superstition.

    • In reply to #3 by Jabarkis:
      I may be wrong in this, but I believe that the “djinns” had a factual basis in that they were an attempt to explain what we know now to be natural gas flaring in the oil soaked desert. At least, unlike the elves, they were highly visible.

      It seems quite convenient that the elves etc. (and I note the use of Tolkien’s spelling “dwarves” instead of the usual “dwa.rfs”, perhaps to distinguish from humans of short stature) have decamped at precisely the time when they are most likely to have been detected by a wider audience.

      These elves…

  3. We value the heritage of our ancestors and if oral tradition passed on from one generation to the other tells us that a certain location is cursed, or that supernatural beings inhabit a certain rock, then this must be considered a cultural treasure. In the days when the struggle with the forces of nature was harsher than it is now, conservation came to the fore in this folklore, and copses and beautiful natural features were even spared. (Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration).

    Cultural treasure: that seems to be the answer to the question why. I’ll be going back to Iceland this February and have always meant to politely bring it up in discussion but I can’t figure out a way to do it without bursting into laughter.

    Though these claims of hidden-folk may seem to be different at first than say, towns showcasing the world’s biggest ball of string or largest glass pickle, I think pretty much the same thing is going on in Iceland with their elves. Is it really anything more than tradition for the sake of tradition? I doubt it.

    Mike

    • In reply to #5 by Sample:

      Is it really anything more than tradition for the sake of tradition?

      Well, I’d guess it’s becoming more “tradition for the sake of avoiding the embarrassing question of how our ancestors could be so foolish as to believe in such nonsense”.

  4. The Hraunavinir, or “Friends of the Lava,” believe that any benefits from a project that snakes through Gálgahraun are cancelled out by its cultural and environmental costs. According to protester Ragnhildur Jónsdóttir, the thoroughfares would destroy some of the “amazingly beautiful lava formations” and spoil a habitat where birds flock and small plants flourish.

    I have not seen the local details, but Iceland is not short of lava fields, or lava field habitats.

    http://www.extremeiceland.is/en/ten-largest-lava-fields-in-iceland

    Explosive type lava fields are however extremely heavy going to walk on or traverse with any sort of vehicle, and are usually dangerous and deeply pitted with razor sharp jagged edges on rocks.
    The route could avoid any features of special interest (such as vents or collapsed lava tubes). Roads really are important in this sort of impassable terrain, and can be fairly easily built by adding a layer of (abundantly available) volcanic cinders to the lava surface, thus filling in the holes and covering the jagged surface. This leaves the underlying rocks largely unaltered, except where any blasting of terraces into any larger rock-formations is required.

    This lava field seems quite old and has considerable plant cover, so much of the jagged nature of the underlying rocks is hidden.

    25 – Swiss company destroying famous lavafield in Iceland according to protesters (Foreign Media only) – http://www.pressphotos.biz/thumbnails.php?album=2016

    • In reply to #8 by Alan4discussion:

      “Explosive type lava fields are however extremely heavy going to walk on or traverse with any sort of vehicle, and are usually dangerous and deeply pitted with razor sharp jagged edges on rocks.”

      So basically it’s an elfin safety issue?

  5. “the field is highly populated by elves, huldufolk (hidden people), and dwarves, many of whom, she says, have recently fled the area while the matter is settled.”

    Obviously they hold a similar view to most of us about the presence of paparazzi.

    Still, if this scale of development is required to serve a little village of 2,600 people (just because the President lives there), I’d question its value. Can’t the President move to the Capital along with any villagers who do not value the peace and quiet they now enjoy?

    • In reply to #10 by esmith4102:

      Despite antiquated superstition, I find the notion of elves quite charming and compared with modern religious motifs – magnitudes more acceptable.

      Except for the invisibility, there is not much reason they could not exist.

    • In reply to #10 by esmith4102:

      Despite antiquated superstition, I find the notion of elves quite charming and compared with modern religious motifs – magnitudes more acceptable.

      Yes, as an American, I find the idea uniquely European. The city of Ann Arbor has fairy doors hidden around the city. It’s quite charming and very fun trying to locate one. Usually children leave coins and tiny flowers; it sparks the imagination. I’ve often wanted to build a fairy castle at the base of a tree complete with moss, toadstools, etc. or even add a door to the base of a tree. I can’t help but wonder if the people in Iceland really don’t believe in elves, but continue the tradition because of the playful nature of the story.

  6. I forget the exact percentage, but a majority of Icelanders claim to believe in these creatures. They are invisible to most. A few claim to see them (like spirits of the dead in the West). The beings allegedly are Christian. They have homes and churches. If you build a road too close, they get angry and bad things happen. They sound almost as though they could originally have been a colony of dwarfs, ostracised from their villages.

    There are some people in Scotland at Findhorn who have similar beliefs and commune with the “devas” of flowers.

    Perhaps the key to the widespread belief is the group of people who claim to see them. That is seen as evidence hard to refute, much like the Ogopogo lake monster in BC whose existence is primarily to promote tourism, or the Loch Ness monster.

    It could just be a quirky Icelandic way of saying, please don’t despoil natural beauty, much like fairies are an “excuse” for leaving part of a garden wild.

    1. Most Icelanders do not believe in the hidden folk (although it appeals to the Icelandic sense of humour to encourage foreigners to think they do). They are a fun folk tradition, but those who actually think they’re real are viewed with the same degree of mirth as people in other countries who believe in fairies.
    2. The protest about Gálgahraun is not really about elves. Too much of the Greater Reykjavík area is already ugly with roads and careless development, and the lava field is of cultural and environmental importance. It doesn’t matter that there are lots of lava fields in Iceland, people are sick of the authorities treating Iceland’s natural assets with casual disregard – the mosses are part of a very delicate ecosystem and it takes decades for a habitat like Gálgahraun to develop. There is also no need for another road, it’s not a long journey to Álftanes and traffic congestion is all but unheard of here. A new road would shave a few minutes off the journey between Álftanes and Reykjavík – what people are saying is that it isn’t worth it.
    3. Stevehill: No, the president can’t move to Reykjavík… Where would he live? The presidential residence is Bessastaðir. It’s like suggesting the president of the USA move out of the White House. The proposed road has nothing to do with convenience for the president in any case. Álftanes is not really a village, it’s a suburb of Reykjavík. There’s a seamless link of development from Reykjavík to Kópavogur to Garðabær to Álftanes – in any other country this would all be categorised as the same city.

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